The Royal College of Art’s incoming head of architecture Charles Walker has been criticised for a proposed shake-up of the School of Architecture. The AJ speaks to the Canadian-born engineering whizz, who starts his role in September, about his plans
Your presentation with RCA dean Alex de Rijke received negative feedback from students. Did it go how you planned?
To be honest, it could have gone better; it came across as if we wanted to dismantle the school, which isn’t the case. We both think that due to major global cultural paradigm shifts, architectural education is undergoing serious self-examination, which the RCA needs to be part of. The RCA has a great legacy that we hope to build on – expand, not replace.
Many prospective students are worried about the new direction of the school. How would you define its key characteristics?
Before I do that, it’s really important to stress that change will be incremental. Now that the senior team is in place, we can begin a consultative process with staff and students. The idea is to enhance and evolve the school, not impose immediate wholesale change. We want to retain the RCA’s best characteristics while adding a new layer of the ‘culture of construction’: what you propose to build with and why, not just how. There will be an added emphasis on collaborative working, and a holistic approach to the process of making architecture.
How many of the existing staff are you hoping to replace?
That’s a mischievous question. I have no plans to replace staff.
You said that ‘you hadn’t read a good book in 15-20 years’. What did you mean by that?
That was a quip – a provocation. There is a reciprocal relationship between practice and theory. However in the past 15 years, developments and experimentation in avant-garde design practice have led the way. There have been many great texts written in this period, but in my view practice has developed in advance of the critical theory. This may shift.
Some students may be worried that you are mainly an engineer. Do you have a record designing buildings? Which ones?
As both architect and engineer, my ability is to help distil and crystallise ideas within a team environment, and enable complex, challenging projects to come to fruition. While at Atelier One I was project director designing the dome roofs at the Singapore Arts Centre. Later, after founding the Advanced Geometry Unit at Arup with Cecil Balmond, we were consultant architect/engineer for the Battersea Power Station masterplan with Parkview International.
You currently work at ZHA – why are you making the move now back into architectural education?
I’ve been working with Zaha and Patrik as a consultant for six years but I’ve been teaching pretty much consistently for many years. From 2003 to 2010, while at ARUP leading the Advanced Geometry Unit and then at ZHA I taught Intermediate Unit 2 at the AA. Last year I was visiting Professor at TUM in Munich and ran a postgraduate studio. I’ve done postgraduate thesis reviews at Princeton and TU Delft. I’ve also given lectures all over the world.
How many days a week are going to do and how will you balance that with your other commitments?
The RCA position is 2.5 studio days per week and I will reduce my time consulting at ZHA. I accepted the RCA position because I have a real desire to contribute to contemporary architectural education and help empower students with a greater range of skills.
You’ve previously taught an intermediate unit at the AA, which focused on making pavilions. How will you develop this approach for a master level?
The AA pavilion unit was developed for intermediate level students. It had a deliberately controlled narrow focus to enable students to move directly to the process of designing and making an architectural artefact within one year. We jettisoned some fundamental architectural concerns, so that we could ‘travel light’ and actually produce/build a pavilion within one year. This reduced brief isn’t appropriate for postgraduate level work. A design and build project at diploma level would demand both site and program as a minimum.
Both you and Alex said that you are unsatisfied with the unit system as an outdated pedagogical model – what will you replace it with? How will this better prepare students to be architects?
The RCA is a postgraduate programme. If you establish a broader different agenda for fourth year students you can avoid what I call the ‘vertical silos’ of architectural education that limit a student’s exposure to the fullest range of architectural educational experiences that are possible. The very successful thematic architectural design studios should remain for the fifth year thesis work, but we intend to offer fourth year work that will be more collaborative.
What did you leave out? What message would you like to give the students now?
Under the new dean there is a desire to broaden the agenda of the school and introduce more collaborative working and additional skills concerning the making of architecture. An individually guided speculative thesis project in the 5th year forms a central part of an architectural education and this won’t change. But there is opportunity in the 4th year to offer new educational experiences to students.