Does the heavy hand of the ARB give 'architects' a bad name?
Last week I wrote somewhat obliquely of 'freeing up facades'. We are all in some way paid to think about the environment, which raises the question of whether 'architecture' is now too limited a term for what we do. If I was the inquisitor general of the ARB, I would of course stoke up the fires for heretics who suggested this, but most fortunately I am not and I think this is a question worth pursuing.
Everyone else uses the term 'architect' - film, media and politicians - without fear of a call from 'our' registration body. I use the term 'our' lightly: we pay for the ARB for no good reason; it doesn't protect the public from bad architecture but looks to flex its muscles by taking to court the odd registered incompetent and our sometimes competent counterparts operating on the dark unregistered fringes. The ARB links itself to what, for me, is the dread idea of consumer protection, when in fact all it does is seek to reprimand, offering the consumer 'evidence' for a future case, which is why we all carry significant PII.
The ARB is a very expensive watchdog that picks on the weak. Its remit is not to understand why, when faced with the already painful and difficult business of collaborating in constructing the new, we also bother to raise levels of ambition. To the ARB we sell a service that is best standardised and homogenised, so that it hits the lowest possible common denominator.
This is a commercially attractive idea: no risk, no comeback. However, it is not - thankfully - an idea of architecture that is promoted in our schools. In academe, architecture is a world of opportunity, creativity, expression and exploration; a world distinct and different from much of professional activity.
Nevertheless, the vision offered by academe is vital; it questions practice and engenders a spirit and optimism that helps students cope with the inevitable culture shock of exposure to construction.
In trying to eradicate this difference - this resistance to homogeneity - the ARB has involved itself in education. As a selfdefined consumer body, it talks in the jargon of 'learning outcomes'. Many academics, rightly appalled by this intrusion, have started fighting what I fear will be, unless allies are found, a losing battle.
However, interestingly, the RIBA seems to be prepared for a fight, and has been for some time. So practice and academe may be re-engaging in a way that will open up new opportunities.
In a world of 'vocational' learning, architecture (somewhat ironically) is a good general degree. Let's encourage that idea.
Let's send out graduates who have been exposed to our too-private world into the much greater 'other' world of nonarchitectural discussion, where they can inherit a part of it, become intelligent clients and commission us.
The profession could then become involved in and informed by the second degree, and two currently very different worlds could feed off the best of each other. This is not a plea for a new model, it simply recognises the best current practice of this day and indeed any other, where cash-strapped students and their tutors from practice, often suffering similar financial hardships, engage daily in the discussion of architecture on paper (or screen) and on site.
Then, with more good clients and more skilled architects in position, we could raise the quality of the bottom line of architecture produced in this country, without hindering the emergence of the undoubted talents at the top. The bottom line is, after all, the problem - which is why we tend to ignore it.
Regulating the title 'architect' is not going to stop talent emerging, but it does nothing to raise standards. It is an Orwellian idea that you regulate a word - we all know that some architects, be it for reasons of competence or skill, are more equal than others.
In taking over from Michael Foster as secretary of SCHOSA, Christopher Cross aims to continue its expansion and keep the volume turned up Michael Foster and Christopher Cross represent, respectively, the past and immediate future of the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture (SCHOSA).
It is a mouthful of a name for an institution, which has until now been relatively low-key, but will shortly consider joining a bigger league in education, armed with more funds from the schools it has served since 1980.
Cross (left of the picture), charged as secretary with expanding SCHOSA's role, is a thoughtful, quietly spoken, slim figure, and a former head of school at Oxford Brookes.
He remains well-connected in academia, but still practices from London as well as near the delightfully named village of Blissland near Bodmin Moor. Oddly, given his desire not to 'grow old' at one school without the flexibility to do other things, Cross replaces a man two years his junior.
'You see people who get into their mid60s in higher education who look such pale figures, ' says Cross. 'I didn't want to get like that. I wanted to re-engage with practice.' As partner of Hamilton & Cross Architects since 1983, this is exactly what he did; but now, at 64, he will also attempt to guide SCHOSA through what new president Kit Allsopp brands a 'transitional period'.
Education, though, in this era of top-up and tuition fees, is 'less and less well-funded'.
And, with demanding programmes like architecture, it becomes, says Cross, increasingly difficult to 'square the circle'. But since architecture programmes have become more attractive to students, partly because of media discussion, Cross argues that this gives departments stronger leverage right across SCHOSA's 36 registered full members, serving more than 10,000 students.
'That's a serious group of people, ' says Cross.
'And they need good support.'
Cross taught part-time at the AA, UCL, University College Dublin, and RCA, and in 1986-89 at Oxford Brookes, then the biggest of all the schools. 'It managed to get on a kind of wave and had very good connections with students, ' he says. 'That rippled into the world of practice and education in quite a number of other institutions. I find what's interesting about the schools is that there is a kind of community, a fellowship, a sort of spirit which comes through people who may teach in more than one school or move between schools - there's some kind of overall, bigger fischoolfl in the UK.'