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University in strife

ajenda - With Cambridge University's school of architecture under threat of closure, former head of school Peter Carolin describes the achievements of the school and looks at the losses that closure would entail

There are more applicants per place to read architecture at Cambridge than in any other subject - twice the university's average. Recent graduates can be found in large numbers in distinguished practices such as Allies and Morrison, Eric Parry Architects and Penoyre & Prasad - and, not so long ago, every single member of Tony Fretton's office, apart from the principal himself, was Cambridge-trained.

Many are in demand as teachers, take leading positions in policy-making bodies and lead creative ventures in the worlds of film and galleries. A significant number are deeply involved in humanitarian work: one graduate went straight from the fifth year to the lead role in project-managing a vast European Commission-funded reconstruction project in war-torn Bosnia; a year-out student constructed a small hospital in the middle of the civil war in the Congo; and another rehoused Serbian refugees in the back of an armoured truck until they were kicked out of Kosovo.

But architecture schools the world over are often rather hermetic - fostering a vocabulary understood only by architects, developing their own philosophy and not exposing themselves to debate with the wider world. Countering this tendency and aware of the benefit of being the only architecture school in a collegiate university, the department has in recent years deliberately engaged more closely with the university, its host region and the profession.

Within the university, the department played the leading role in proposing, establishing and teaching the university's first part-time Master's course. This new venture in interdisciplinary design, offered jointly with the department of engineering, has seen 10 cohorts of young architects, engineers, surveyors, builders and even lawyers. The course - originally funded by the Arup Foundation - became a model for others and benefits from contributions from many faculties including philosophy, English and law. The link with engineering was further strengthened by the initiation of a third-year and fourth-year architectural engineering module to which major contributions have been made by architecture staff and graduate students.

Another initiative was that taken by the department when the university decided to close its audiovisual unit. Supported by a number of other disciplines, architecture took over the video section and reinvented it as the Moving Image Studio (CUMIS for short). In its very first year, it interacted with 48 other institutions within the university - a number that only computing and counselling services could beat. Here, students from many other disciplines can be found working alongside the architects in a studio that, unusually, emphasises narrative as much as technique.

Outside the university, the department foresaw the regional planning and economic logjam of the late 1990s and played the leading role in setting up, managing and undertaking all the research for Cambridge Futures.

This was a group formed of members of the academic, business and local-government communities to evolve and evaluate a series of options for the future development of the Cambridge sub-region. A total of £200,000 in cash and kind was raised to enable 18 months of research. The results were presented in a Senate House packed by members of all three communities. More than 4,000 people visited the exhibition in the largest local shopping centre, each of the county, city and district councils greeted the presentations with applause, and there is no question that the recently approved Structure Plan owes almost everything to this work. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) awarded the group its annual innovation award and the project has attracted huge interest internationally. This work was allegedly only awarded a '3' in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

The Cambridge Futures project so impressed the planning and architecture staff at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that the Cambridge department was pressed to run a joint studio, developing this work and then undertaking a similar study in the very different conditions around MIT. This was a highly successful two-year programme in which architecture, planning and landeconomy students from both institutions worked together. Many of the architecture students regarded it as the highlight of their five years. It is recorded in the book Cities of Innovation: Shaping Places for High-Tech.

Also overseas, the department developed its long-standing interest in humanitarian work. A diploma studio's work in Gujarat last year led to a .300,000 grant for joint research with the University of Paris and universities in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and, supervised by a graduate student, a third-year student developed the prototype for a shelter now used by Oxfam Emergencies and others for disaster relief. This and other work has blossomed into www. shelterproject. org, with its formidable record of work in the Balkans, Africa and Afghanistan. This work, in its turn, has inspired Architecture sans Frontieres - a new group of undergraduates and graduates already engaged in work in Central America.

For more than a decade, the department has also supported the profession, providing office space, services and steering support for the university/RIBA Eastern Region CPD Office. With about 1,000 attendances a year, this is possibly the most successful of the regional CPD units, but this support has not just been regional. In 2000 the department coorganised, hosted and made major contributions to the RIBA Annual Conference, held that year in Salford on the topical subject of 'Cities for the New Millennium'. How many other schools have contributed in this way to the profession?

And there are two other unique contributions made by Cambridge to the wider world of education, research and practice: Scroope and ARQ (Architectural Research Quarterly).

The first is the student magazine - produced non-stop for 15 years by the students. They raise the money, commission the copy, lay it out and sell the result. Incredibly, although produced by students in their final year, it is always available on time for sale at the annual exhibition. No other student body anywhere in the world can match that achievement for quality of content and continuity of production - and regular subscriptions from overseas libraries.

The second, ARQ - now based at Cardiff - was initiated and edited for eight years from Cambridge. Broad in its content, highly designed and heavily illustrated, it was awarded the Learned Journal Award in 2002. Editing it was an onerous task done almost entirely for the benefit of contributors from other universities (including all those awarded a '5' or 'flagged' in the RAE) - only a tiny proportion of papers from Cambridge were ever included.

There were many other contributions, including several international conferences, during the '90s. All this was achieved by a small school with 17 full-time staff and firstyear and fourth-year intakes of about 38 and 20 respectively. These ventures were undertaken by staff, all but three of whom were also college fellows. Two of these fellows were vice-heads of their colleges - a remarkable distinction - and three were tutors for large groups of students from other disciplines.

And, within the university and colleges, architecture students contribute heavily, providing set designs, arts events and exhibition organisation, life-drawing classes and so on - not to mention their appearances on stages, in choirs and in orchestras.

So why was the department described as 'isolationist' in a recent university report? If it had a fault, it might well be that it tried to do too much and that it didn't blow its own trumpet enough. It strove to teach well (as its long-standing presence at the top of yet another set of grisly tables - The Good University Guides - suggests); to research on a broad front as befitting the discipline (but not the particular 2001 RAE assessors); and to fulfil its responsibilities to the wider world.

True to the spirit of its founder, the Arts and Crafts architect and scholar Edward Schroder Prior, its staff are not 'merely drill-sergeants for the recruits of knowledge' but have sought 'to enrich social life with the results of investigation and experiment' - and to do so quietly and generously, with energy and elan.

Peter Carolin was professor of architecture and head of department from 1989-2000. A website has been set up with information on the future of the school, where alumni are encouraged to register, at www. scroope. co. uk

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