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Education should encourage innovative office design rather than cliff-top museums

The shortlist for Britain’s biggest student prize reveals that today’s students are fixated by ‘spatial gymnastics’, says Richard Waite

We saw a crematorium, a monastery-cum-brewery, a ‘cidery’ in a tower, a bench, a theatre and an exploration of the caverns of Naples. We did not see a house, an office, a warehouse, a hospital or a supermarket.

This isn’t a criticism of the six projects shortlisted for the annual 3DReid prize, awarded to the ‘best of the best’ Part 2 student in the UK – some of which the judges agreed were exceptional (the prize was rightly won by Alan Keane of the University of Dundee - see images above). But it is an issue for the universities who nominated their starlets.

Where were the schemes pushing everyday architecture down exciting new paths? As one academic told me, examiners and employers are getting tired of seeing book depositories in disused bunkers and underground mausoleums to playwrights. Admittedly, education is about learning how to ‘drive the car’, not which brand of car you eventually drive, and students should be allowed to experiment at university before they start detailing shadow gaps.

It is also tricky to perform the same tutor-pleasing spatial gymnastics with a semi-detached house rather than a museum on a cliff. Perhaps the architectural press and the wider profession have to shoulder some of the blame for this trend towards the arcane and extraordinary.

And what example is the Stirling Prize setting our emerging talent? Of the 90 or so projects shortlisted for Britain’s biggest architecture prize over the years, there has been one public housing scheme, one retail scheme, and not a single hotel. However, there have been 15 museums. So, in the case of submitting to the 3DReid prize, weren’t the schools simply putting forward what they thought might win another beauty pageant?

It would have been refreshing if one of the finalists focused on an apartment scheme. It may be hard to create the same poetry with a block of flats, but isn’t architecture about doing something wonderful while straitjacketed? What’s more, a collection of innovative, well-researched housing projects, sparkling with creative ideas and challenging the ordinary, might be more useful to society and the industry than another gallery.

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