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The President's Medals: rarefied or relevant?

[THIS WEEK] James Pallister asks whether the President’s Medals really encourage practical expertise

Part of me has come to dread the President’s Medals’ crits, the annual litmus test of what is ‘successful’ in architectural education. I foresee a caricature developing, a projection of the polarized educational landscape that awaits us: on one side, upper-middle class students present worthy projects leaden with ambitious social programmes; on the other, the international offspring of global capital present ever more rarefied obscurities. RIBA director of education David Gloster’s celebration of the ‘diversity of debate unimaginable in other professions’ didn’t help. Perhaps this breadth is a good thing for architecture schools, but surely not for training useful professionals – I doubt the British Medical Association or The Law Society would see such wild disparity on what constitutes the best training for its initiates as a Good Thing.

Mathew Leung

Mathew Leung

Still, another part of me loves it. I can’t wait to see the Bronze and Silver Medal-winning Part 1 and Part 2 students’ work: there are always some gems, and well-researched, cleverly programmed and intelligently displayed projects always thrill. Such was the case with Mathew Leung’s Dissertation Prize-winning work, a revelaing study into how nationality is articulated and experienced in Yokohama’s Chinatown, a Chinese enclave in Japan. Guest critic Peter Zumthor gave it fulsome praise: ‘It’s a clear concept, beautifully illustrated and an interesting story.’

Bronze Medal-winning 'The Depository of Forgotten Monuments'

Bronze Medal-winning ‘The Depository of Forgotten Monuments’

The Bronze Medal – The Depository of Forgotten Monuments (pictured), a scaffolding structure that ‘will eventually consume the city of Moscow to generate the urban renewal Muscovites desire’ – was harder to digest. Zumthor was enthusiastic: ‘You should get a Piranese Medal! It’s marvellous to listen to you, and to see this excellent drawing. ’ Earnest nods from everyone else left me feeling like the boy who sees a naked emperor but can’t speak up. Isn’t it a bit heavy-handed to go to such an extent to make the point that Muscovite developers may build too much? And wouldn’t a building like this in Russia be a little, well, cold?

SIlver2

The Silver Medal winner, Sunbloc was the opposite – a coherent, practical and built proposal for a rooftop house; great stuff. (Sunand Prasad: ‘If there was a Silver Medal of Silver Medals over the years I think this would get it.’).The Met are currenlty working with students in China in building a version which will be shipped back to London, to be assembled on the Met’s Aldgate rooftop.

It may be that I’m just not in on the joke. Admittedly, the new funding environment means there’s a danger of higher education becoming grindingly utilitarian. Not so, with the project-as-polemic. But its existence in an uncanny valley between reality and fantasy makes its internal logic difficult to engage with, and the kernel of research of use to society unlikely to emerge. Clearly this is less of a preoccupation with undergraduate education, but undergraduates contribute to ‘real’ research in the natural sciences, why prevent this from happening in architecture?.

The work rate of these students is prodigious, making it all the more tragic when they start off with seemingly absurd propositions. Design can solve problems – so why not dish out ones which could benefit from the man-hours students lavish their work with? And why does the professional body further cannibalise its use to society by commending obscurity? As Zumthor added: ‘The tendency to become a little too abstract and theoretical leads to a situation where no one can use these guys to build buildings.’

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