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Manchester school head Dernie moves to Leicester – interview

David Dernie gives the AJ his first interview since announcing he will leave his role as head of school at Manchester School of Architecture to take up the same post at De Montford University, Leicester, in January.

What interested you about moving to Leicester?

Leicester School of Architecture (LSA) is one of the country’s oldest. It enjoys strong support from De Montfort’s faculty of art and design, its alumni and Leicester Society of Architects.

It is a relatively small school where I think I can make a real difference.

The challenge is an interesting one: I’m looking forward to developing learning experiences that push boundaries of drawing and making, to integrate the school with the faculty of art and design, thereby broadening the creative dimension to the school.

I’m particularly keen to work with students from a range of cultural backgrounds.

Leicester is a city facing a range of social challenges and I’m interested to explore how the school of architecture can contribute to these issues.

How do you think the school is currently perceived (both nationally and locally) – and how do you want to change this?

LSA is well embedded locally. Over the next few years the challenge is to bring a fresh clarity to the direction of the school. I will work to strengthen the integration of the school at a local and regional level, but also stress international tie-ups – research and teaching institutions in Europe and beyond – a process of ‘grounding and bridging’ if you like.

Do you think the problems with the LSA’s accreditation history still hang over the school and are there any lessons to be learnt from that?

Schools can turn on a sixpence – I’ve experienced that several times. LSA has received a positive RIBA visiting report and is now fully ARB accredited. What is vital for a school of architecture is institutional support, resource and a sense of shared ambition. LSA has all three and is in a great position to move forward with confidence.

Do you think there is too much focus (from the media/RIBA/practices) on the London schools of architecture?

Naturally! I have taught and examined all over the UK and have a great deal respect for the best schools in London – but I’m also aware that there is excellent work in many schools elsewhere.

Schools outside of London face different challenges – not least of all the lack of media interest.

What do you think Leicester can offer that Manchester couldn’t?

Manchester School of Architecture (MSA) has the potential to be a great school of architecture and over the past three-and-a-half years we have made significant changes.

LSA is a new and different challenge. It is a much smaller school that I believe we can move forward swiftly. In today’s higher education environment, excellence can perhaps only be attained with a small school.

I look forward to extending my design research, practice and writing in a supportive environment.

What will you be introducing to Leicester School of Architecture that it doesn't already have?

I need to first listen and get to understand LSA better.

I will foster research and enterprise together with forward-looking teaching practice. On the one hand I’d like to develop post-graduate activity; on the other flexible programmes that are adaptive to new learner profiles.

Collaboration with programmes within De Montfort’s faculty of art and design would augment LSA’s profile. Drawing will be important, as will making and craft.

Will you be carrying out any major changes within your first term/year as head?

I’ll probably start to put together a new website, as a way of getting to know the school. We’ll also start to build new international relationships.

I’ll undertake a thorough review of things and formulate change agendas in discussion with staff.

Do you intend to carry on your non-academic work?

I will develop my work as an architect. I’m completing a book on drawing, which is also about thinking.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing architects over the next three years?

There are, of course, the ongoing but massive challenges of a social and environmental nature. Of all the layers of the sustainability issue, perhaps the least understood concerns social cohesion and diversity – we have yet to fully understand how architecture can contribute at this critical level.

Do you fear that the students you are training will be turned out into a world that is unable to employ them?

No, but we do have to make sure that we are educating architects who are properly skilled to compete in today’s construction industry.

Who is your favourite architect, and are they/will they be heavily featured on your course?

Francesco Borromini. He worked with light and geometry and immaterial metaphors that symbolised an entire culture.

Young architects would do well to simply understand the extraordinary possibilities of architectural language.

Name one thing not many people know about you.

I wanted to do engineering. I was a mathematician.

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