One week on, an afterword: the Architecture Foundation debate on architectural education

On Wednesday, 26 November 2014, the Architecture Foundation and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios hosted a debate on architectural education in their central London offices. Chaired by Robert Mull of the Cass at London Metropolitan University, the panel consisted of Peter Clegg of FCB, Gemma Barton, editor Edge Condition and Senior Lecturer of Interior Architecture at Brighton, and Neil Spiller of Greenwich. A week on from the event, and having since then attended part of the Architecture Students’ Network (ASN) 2014 conference at Kent University on behalf of the aae, here are some of my own thoughts about the debate. Feel free to disagree, comment or complain. Phil Pawlett Jackson of Building Design was also in attendance, and his report is here.

These thoughts on the debate have been drawn up from a few pages of notes which tried to capture much (and which probably missed even more) of the evening. Thanks to Raymond Quek at the Leicester School of Architecture who facilitated my attendance. This account and the opinions expressed therein are my own, and are not necessarily representative of the LSA or any other organisation I am associated with.

I was joined in the audience by Harriet Harriss, who with Daisy Froud has edited a new book called Radical Pedagogies which was plugged a few times during the evening. In one of that books chapters, I write describe architectural education as a kind of inverted duck: one that is paddling furiously above the water line but proceeding calmly in the same direction below it. This debate did not change my opinion about our discipline’s need for debate and argument, nor its tendency to generally carry on in the same old fashion until forced to change direction.

Mull urged us to disregard the usual debates about the duration and structure of architectural education, describing them as a big distraction and which will be determined by the implementation of the European Union’s 2014 Professional Qualifications Directive (PQD). Mull was more concerned with the entanglement of architectural education to higher education, it’s and interlinked agendas of privatisation, fees and its ever narrowing social accessibility. Despite briefly forgetting his own caveat (by asking whether Part I should be a generalist degree and Part II a specialist, or vice versa), Mull turned the debate over the panel with a prompt: is there an underlying value that unites all architectural education?

Peter Clegg set out six points. Firstly, he believes that architectural education is alive and well, and across the country has a wide philosophical approach. It has captured more of academia than he experienced in his own education. Secondly, the architectural profession has changed beyond recognition in the course of Clegg’s lifetime, and he does not believe that education has not kept up. Looking ahead, if the duration of formal study shortens, then architectural practice needs to be more involved. The profession is currently failing those students who spend their early years of practice locked into monotonous CAD work. Thirdly, the public perception of architecture has also changed. Whereas in the nineteen sixties and seventies production was focused on quantity, now there is a focus on speed, sculpture, and superficiality. Fourth, architects hold an expanded brief, considering both wider urban design and a truly global context. Regeneration will become a more important element of our work, simply because of the wastefulness of losing the embodied energy of existing buildings. Fifth, Clegg believes passionately that we must integrate making in architecture, and tries to continue to have a hand in making in his own practice. Finally, Clegg reminded us that we are complicit in the problems of global warming, and that sustainability is not a fad that is going away.

Gemma Barton spoke next, starting by observing that if we need to overhaul architectural education, it’s not because it’s anyone’s fault. The world has changed and we need to catch up. Barton explained how, in spite of our fascination with radicality, it tends to go one of two ways: either having a large impact in a small location and then fizzling out, or becomes a big success, becomes the norm, then loses its radicality.

Regarding the delivery of architectural education, Barton identified two principal routes into architectural teaching. You either do a little as a teaching assistant, and someone gives you a break with a unit master, or you go down the path of research, usually via a PHD. Barton believes we need a new route for people who don’t fit those two categories, a kind of tutor school. Acknowledging that a change is required, Barton finished by saying that there not going to be one solution, but we won’t be able to decide on the route until we agree want we want from architectural education.

As Barton finished, Mull posed a question to Neil Spiller: can you teach radicalism? Spiller argued that yes you can, and that architectural education is well suited to teaching students to “think outside the box.” Mull was aware that a number of a Barton’s former students were in the audience, and asked them “can you tell us how she teaches?” This was, frankly, an odd question, given that none of the other panellists were thus interrogated via their former students.

Mull asked Barton from what sort of platform can one become radical? She suggested that one requires a certain amount of intelligence. One needs to teach you how to think, not what to think. Barton is not in favour of the architectural maestro model in which the students are given the diving board off which to leap.

A question came from the floor defending “the textbook” approach to architectural learning, i.e. providing students with a solid body of architectural knowledge from which to learn and then argue with. In the questioners words, “the textbooks are where you put the knowledge.” Students seem to be arriving into the learning environment without knowing that the architectural education system is being overthrown (again).

Neil Spiller spoke next, referring to his new book with Nic Clear Educating Architects (“the first book to consider comprehensively the role of architectural education in the 21st century”), a collection of essays on architectural education which Spiller described as having just “squatted down and squeezed out.” [sic]

In short, Spiller made an impassioned defence of the orthodoxy, arguing that before we consider and debate what architectural education doesn’t do we should celebrate what it does do. Technology, materials and digital fabrication are all changing, and that change is being led by innovative architectural education and research through teaching. In Spiller’s words, “the best architecture schools are agile, but universities are not.” It is vital that we recognise and value the research and models of teaching in the independent and diverse (and presumably unit-ised) studio.

Spiller, who acknowledged his dual role as both Head of School and Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor at Greenwich, derided universities for being “huge conurbations of teaching methodologies and learning outcomes,” arguing simply that “the best teaching is 1:1, but universities see this as uneconomic.”

Dismissing the passing fad of parametricism, Spiller observed that schools of architecture blossom and then stagnate, although these may have been cross-town jibes that were lost on me, a inhabitant of the uncharted territories beyond the M25.

Spiller witnesses and recognises a wide diversity of media, techniques and agenda in student work today, and celebrates the absence of an over riding global dogma as influential as modernism once was. In Spiller’s eyes, architectural education is far from dead.

The debate over ran slightly, so questions from the floor were limited. Toby Carr, of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and part time lecturer at Greenwich posed a further question about radicalism, noting that it is very hard to assess: is one reviewing the product or the process? Has there been a learning process or is this just the pretty graphical exercise of the unit tutor?

Another question (I believe from Fiona McDonald – apologies, as I couldn’t catch or confirm her name) observed that despite the very best efforts of architectural education, the profession is becoming less and less diverse. Saddened that no non-architects or prospective students were in the audience, she asked what can be done? Spiller responded, simply observing that the populations of schools of architecture are currently very diverse, and that diversity will inevitably filter through to the profession.

Vinesh Pomal, architect, responded from the floor, noting that the Architecture Students Network (ASN) was holding it’s annual conference at Kent University the following weekend, but that only thirty students had registered, and that letters addressed to heads of schools invited the network to be promoted had largely gone unanswered.

The evening ended with panelists being asked for five verbs about the future, which they mostly and probably wisely ignored.

One thought on “One week on, an afterword: the Architecture Foundation debate on architectural education

  1. With respect the problem with architectural education is the inbreeding. The outcomes are similar technically and metaphorically as the outcomes that happen to aristocrats and royal families. The current debate as far as I can see is akin to ‘should we just have fun on our country estates or should we fulfil our natural abilities to rule and civilise others’. We write about this in detail in the opening of Critical Cities Vol 2; ‘The Urban Industry and its Post Critical Condition’. It is no surprise to us whatsoever that none of the core issues are being discussed. Why would they be?

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