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Archaos theory

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Alex MacLaren of pressure group Archaos represents architectural students at a time when finances are tighter than ever before. What can Archaos do?

It's a tough time to be a student. Especially in architecture, where the length of course, vexed issues of validation and prescription, and money - always money - are enough to make anyone consider they've chosen the wrong career path.

Not Alex MacLaren. The feisty co-chair of Archaos has always wanted to be an architect. Now she wants to match those desires by facilitating change through dealing with the architectural acronyms: RIBA, SCHOSA and ARB. And MacLaren aims to get heard.

Students, she says, need to get active, but not necessarily join the RIBA; practices must stop offering unpaid work placements; and the structure of all architecture courses must undergo root-and-branch change.

A mixture of Cockney and Scots, MacLaren went to school in Edinburgh, but her profession seemed predetermined. She comes from a long line of architects, including a mother who died when Alex was just six, a 'probably' proud father who teaches and is a partner at Hackney-based Wyatt MacLaren, and a stepmother who is also an architect. Surrounded.

'They were telling me to go and be a lawyer and support them in old age but that didn't work, ' she smiles.

Even MacLaren's girlfriend, Rachel Sandbrook, is a structural engineering student - they hope to establish a multi-disciplinary firm together called Deuce after they qualify. But that's where the building bloodline ends: MacLaren's 14-year-old sister swears she will 'never, ever, ever become an architect, ' Alex laughs.

MacLaren studied at Cambridge, then took an internship in government relations at CABE, labelling herself one of those 'annoying' people who want to get involved and be 'political'.

'I wanted to find out what that was like - combining politics and architecture. It was fascinating in a way which told me that I didn't want to do that anymore, and frustrating collating information for a pamphlet on hospitals, then not designing it. That was absolutely everything against what I was taught. It made me realise: I want to design things, I want to be an architect - I don't want to talk about architecture.'

She is interested in 'community buildings' - places 'where people can communicate', and admires Peter Zumthor, while her friends at the AA cite Rem Koolhaas, MVRDV and West 8 as the flavours of the month. But issues facing students are her main concern.

She runs Archaos with Mark Physsas, in his fourth year at Westminster, and Ben Stone, just graduated from De Montfort.

'The structure of education will have to change quite drastically, 'MacLaren declares.

Why? 'Partly top-up fees, which I believe will be the catalyst for it. The minimum that would happen then would be that the diploma would become a postgraduate degree because it would be cheaper.'

But, she says, 'disturbing' attitudes prevailed at a recent Archaos forum, with many students feeling it was better to avoid the full architectural course.

'If you think it's better to go off and get experience with a geography degree and then go and work somewhere else, or do a Daniel Libeskind and be a poet and then turn into an architect or whatever, then there's something wrong with the course.'

Archaos is also caught up in the De Montfort 'debacle', helping students who are anxious about whether their courses will still be prescribed when they start.

But MacLaren is in danger of biting the hand that feeds in her views on RIBA (she is not a member), which contributes to its £2,000 annual subsistence - most goes on surveys and transporting students to meetings.

'At the moment the perks are the library, which is great if you're in London, but if you're not, you can't go.You get 10 per cent off RIBA bookshops - well, that's great, but with your NUS card you can get 10 per cent off any bookshop you could name.And there are a lot of slightly intangible things they offer, such as a mentoring scheme, more links with practice and careers advice which I don't think is getting across to students that well.'

She also despairs about RIBA's noninvolvement with EUROPAN and the 'bickering' between it and the ARB, but feels change cannot come from within.

'Archaos can only be useful to the profession as a whole if we act as a pressure group, lobbying the RIBA, and you can't really do that when you're sat on council - because you know all the fibutsfl. If heads of Archaos have been very closely involved with the RIBA, we can't say: fiArchaos calls on the RIBA to do thisfl, because we're part of it as well. It would be slightly more useful to disassociate us from them.'

Archaos was set up in 1999 by two students, one of whom, Nick Hayhurst, MacLaren calls its 'grandfather'. 'Nick realised that he could be paid more working in a bar job than he could with an architecture degree, working for architects - he said: fiThis is wrongfl.'

That bar gave Archaos its name, and due to its work the RIBA recommended minimum wages for Part 1 students two years ago, now updated.

But cash will still be tight: a recent survey found that 10 per cent of architecture students take out loans in their working years and the average student will be £30,000 in debt on qualification.

'Partly it's because of the star culture.

People want to work for Zaha Hadid or Rem Koolhaas, and they don't pay you. They have enough applications saying, fiI want to work for you; I don't need to be paidfl.And the culture spreads downwards.'

Archaos can ask students 'please don't work for free', but that sounds toothless.More encouraging is its dialogue with the RIBA to highlight firms in the Practices Directory that agree to pay the minimum wage.

'That would really help. We need to get a move on with it.'

Next, to keep proving its worth, Archaos will produce a manifesto, work more internationally and shout louder with the press.

MacLaren laughs again, self-effacingly:

'We're going to change the world.'

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