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A radical education

While Sir Colin Stansfield Smith was chairing the riba deliberations on education of architects, about 100 (mostly foreign) delegates at this year's European Association for Architectural Education conference* were hearing about some of the more radical uk experiments, and particularly about a number of highly imaginative continental experiments, mainly from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. There, what it means to be an architect can be very different from the uk tradition, writes Bill Addis.

In the Netherlands for example, becoming an architect does not mean that you have acquired the entry requirements for an exclusive professional club. It does not mean that you have studied on a course which has been accredited by that professional club (when this process was described to several foreign delegates their jaws dropped in disbelief). It does mean that you have studied most of the subjects covered in a uk architecture school, though the technical subjects related to building engineering would have been taken to a much higher level and studied alongside other students who might later go on to practise as professional engineers. In other countries the words architect and engineer are not mutually exclusive, they describe different specialisms within the same broad field of activity.

Courses embracing architecture and engineering do run in several uk universities. But these are mainly based in engineering departments and aim to address a different uk problem - student engineers with little or no understanding of design or architecture. Longest established of these is the building design engineering course at the University of Strathclyde which, depending on options taken in years three and four, can gain its graduates exemption from the riba Part I, or from requirements of the institutions of civil or structural engineers or the Institution of Building Services Engineers. The greatest achievement of this course is not the qualities of the graduates (who are in very great demand) but the political achievement in persuading the professional bodies to accredit the course. This is the course riba ex-president Max Hutchinson said 'could not and should not exist'.

Compare this with the 'virtual design studio' at the University of Karlsruhe where architects study in the Institute for Industrial Building Production. To develop their communication skills, they have to build their own design teams from other universities via the internet, universities in Germany and further afield including the us, and work jointly to develop their projects.

Compare the uk with the Grands Ateliers de l'Isle d'Abreau in France - 12 schools which are uniting in a common project to develop teaching and research in building design and construction. These 12 comprise six schools of architecture, three schools of art, two schools of engineering and one research institute.

Compare again the French government's response to over-specialism among engineers and other designers. A new course is starting in 1999 at the University of Compiegne, near Paris, focusing on the special needs of the cultural industries linked to art, town and architecture-heritage industries, performing and visual arts, music and multi-media shows, etc. Although called an engineering department, it will embrace much that is found in uk schools of architecture and art.

I wonder what Stansfield Smith and his colleagues would make of all this? The impression I gained at the conference was simple and clear. British educational and professional institutions, both architectural and engineering, need to change more radically and rapidly than they have in the last quarter century if we are to hold our own in the new millennium.

Bill Addis lectures on building engineering design at Reading University and writes on education.

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