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Split the difference

ajenda - The Annie Spink Award, a biennial prize for outstanding contributions to architectural education, has been split once again - this time between Peter Salter and Wolf Prix. Murray Fraser puts the winners under the spotlight

Both Peter Salter and Wolf Prix are inspired choices for the Annie Spink Award, and amazingly different in temperament and educational approach. Salter is easily the quieter and more reflective figure, pursuing an intense interest in architectural construction that is continually mixed with the analysis of landscape and natural phenomena. He became well known for a series of architectural projects in the 1980s with Chris Macdonald and won a competition, never to be built, for a retreat settlement on the western Scottish island of Iona.

One could not think of a more apt Salter project, and the Iona scheme was also typical of his dark and brooding drawings that, perhaps more than any others, convey a sense of the sheer earthiness of architecture. Projects that were built included the rammed-earth pavilion at the Osaka Expo in 1990, an almost mythical object helped by the fact that few British architects got to go to Japan at that time, and by stories that the temporary pavilion was made even more temporary by being washed away in a flash flood a few days after opening. Though never entirely sure if this was true, we don't want to know that it wasn't, since the tale works better that way.

Salter began his teaching at the Architectural Association (AA), developing a popular and intellectually demanding diploma unit that owed a strong debt to Alison and Peter Smithson, with whom he worked in the early 1980s. He was initially a technical tutor who moved on to teach this subject in parallel with design studio, a linkage that the Smithsons clearly approved of. The connection with his mentors proved to be an ongoing one, as can be seen by Salter's students, who went on to prosper either by working briefly for, or becoming strong admirers of, the Smithsons. They include Louisa Hutton, Peter St John, and Steve Christer and MargrÚt Hardard¾ttir of Studio Granda.

Although he was not a natural educational manager, Salter took over from Ron Herron at the University of East London (UEL) in 1995 after the latter's untimely death, also succeeding Herron as a professor there. Salter continued the direction of what was seen as a strong and independently minded school, and was fortunate to be able, at least for a while, to call on the abilities of respected tutors like David Porter.

The work of the UEL school has continued since to mix experimental design and architectural theory with a strong grounding in the realities of building construction. It is an approach typified by the recent 'Material Matters' conference held there, organised by Katie Lloyd-Thomas and Andrew Higgott.

It was no surprise that Salter gave a talk at the 'Material Matters' symposium, for its spirit was very much his own. The work of his students remains challenging and distinctive in its efforts to weld theory to materiality, relying on lots of 1:1 scale models and site-specific installations. Salter is no longer so heavily immersed in the educational world, having left the headship at UEL a few years back, but his current involvement in teaching at the AA and Bath (where he is apparently also taking a master's in historic building conservation), and the many students of his spread across the world, keep his influence alive. Glowing testimonials from admirers such as Ted Cullinan, Tony Fretton and Mark Dorrian, or Diane Lewis in New York, also talk about his profound influence on their ways of thinking about architecture.

Grand Prix Much more visible, and a born showman, Wolf Prix is best known in the architectural world for being the energy behind Coop Himmelb(l)au in Vienna. He came to notice early on as a wild child of the 1960s revolution, and indeed Prix's personality is in essence that of a lead singer in a hard rock band. 'Architecture must burn' was one of the practice's opening mantras, and a celebrated early project did precisely that, torching a suspended model in a mood of defiance and spectacle.

Prix and Coop Himmelb(l)au have since become established characters on the international architectural scene, lecturing here and there, exhibiting everywhere, and slowly winning bigger commissions. Famed for schemes such as the crystalline UFA cinema complex in Dresden, they now have many more in the pipeline, including a museum in Ohio and a music venue in Denmark. But as well as being the designer of striking structures, Prix has acted as a stimulating tutor at a number of institutions, such as SciArc and various schools in the US, but most of all at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where he is currently a professor and head of department.

Students continue to be amazed by his commitment to the cause of inventive and unsettling architecture, now heavily reliant on digital technologies. Prix encourages his students to have as much international contact as possible, hoping to counterpoint the solidity of the Austrian scene with edgier ideas taken from further afield. Supporters such as Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn, both of whom he has brought in as visiting professors, argue that this challenging and visionary approach is what characterises and sustains his educational impact.

Opposites attract The selection for the Annie Spink Award of two such different but inspirational figures - one thoughtful and reticent, the other a gunslinger leading from the front - comes at a useful point. Architectural education is currently bearing too much of the brunt of mad consumer-protection legislative controls, which, of course, provides no guarantee of quality at all. Likewise, architectural practices in the UK that used to be more explicit about their role in training are currently so hamstrung by low profit margins that all they can do is complain about the quality of those coming through architectural schools. It is a defensive strategy to ward off guilty feelings about not being able to contribute more.

For the reality is that, in terms of ideas and energy, architectural education in the UK, Europe and elsewhere has never been so good or so broad - things are certainly a quantum leap on from how they stood a generation ago.

The judges for this year's Annie Spink Award have cleverly managed at a stroke to demonstrate the diversity and strength in depth of architectural teaching. The hope would be that this recognition might signal a less hostile and more creative interchange between education and practice.

Murray Fraser is a professor at the University of Westminster

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