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The Winter School and its discontents

[THIS WEEK] A radical student debate with its roots in the 1970s is making a comeback, writes James Pallister

In 1979 architect and activist Brian Anson helped set up the first Winter School, entitled ‘Whose Education is it Anyway?’. Conceived as a form of alternative architectural education, independent from what some deemed a corrupt and moribund academic system, the annual event tailed off in the mid-90s.

Now the Winter School is back. ManTownHuman is in charge, the group whose 2008 manifesto complained that ‘architecture has never been more vacuous, pliant, parochial and insular’. Writing to promote this year’s Winter School, the group’s front man and former AJ technical editor, Austin Williams, said: ‘There is nothing radical about current architectural education. It is now so mainstream that it sounds like the environmental industry’s PR machine.’

This year’s two-day event in Clerkenwell, London, aimed to counter this with sessions such as ‘How to think critically’ and ‘Integrity’. AJ deputy editor Rory Olcayto was a panellist on the environmental seminar ‘Is Less More?’. At 8pm, the students were given a brief to build housing on a slice of Brighton’s seafront. They were to present at 9.30am the next day.

I visited the morning after the night before. The 20 or so students – heavy bags under their eyes and ashen of face – were draped over chairs waiting for their turn to present. Mary Denman of Liverpool and Francis Field of Nottingham won best in class for their vision of a city birthed from a giant 3D printer, spewing out custom-printed houses.

Though dazed from lack of sleep, the students seemed invigorated by the lectures and discussions. Rory Stott, a third-year from Newcastle University, said: ‘It’s been hugely challenging and massively stimulating. It’s not often we get a chance to explore this number and variety of ideas.’

Now more than ever, with education threatened by the cold wind of utilitarianism, is a time to fiercely protect these types of debates.

- Towards a New Humanism in Architecture – manifesto and Winter School details at: www.mantownhuman.org/winter_school_details.html

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