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Architectural education and global difference – lessons from South Africa

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Last week this column discussed UK and European perspectives on architectural education delivered at the RIBA in the last of three debates in memory of Peter and Muriel Melvin. This week we turn to comments from South Africa and South America, and the view from the RIBA itself.

Jo Noero, a committed opponent of the apartheid regime, applauded the idea of uniting teaching and practice. He himself had managed to be both a full-time teacher while running a practice for more than three decades, though he is the ‘last man standing’ to do both in South Africa.

Unlike the speakers from Europe, Noero did not believe in the design studio, criticising it as a 250-year-old idea, which at worst resulted in students’ tears, promoted novelty and ‘bourgeois individualism’, and ended up linked to a system of starchitecture that produced ‘crap that has little to do with society’. He wanted to see collaborative approaches to teaching with a core understanding based on knowledge; and the promotion of ethical practice.

Noero was honest about the current condition of schools in his country: most students were middle class and privately educated – both black and white – and were politically disengaged. Plus points were the 55 per cent female head count, and that certain types of completed buildings now count as research. He saw useful links being promoted by the increased possibility of getting a PhD quickly, going into practice, but still being accepted as a potential academic.

He hoped that this trace of fresh air would become stronger, but it might take as long as 20 years. There are still problems about what is taught in post-liberation South Africa. He was sceptical about the way cultural theory had, to some extent, displaced traditional history and was highly critical of the idea posited by some black professionals that only they can produce truly African architecture.

Two shorter presentations by Colombian professionals emphasised the potential role for architects in transforming the lives of people living in ‘informal’ housing. Julio Davila, a civil engineer now at UCL, cited the case of Bogotá as a good example of ‘housing without architects’ and wondered how architects were supposed to engage both with the informality of the physical result, favelas, and their communities.

He saw architects as agents for progressive change; their key contribution lay in the creation of public space and transport infrastructure. ‘Architecture must place society at the heart of its activities’, he declared, citing good work carried out in revitalising the Colombian city Medellín.

Adriana Cobo from Greenwich University outlined some of the structure of education in Columbia, where a first degree was the equivalent of professional registration. She was critical of educational programmes where disciplined teaching might suppress individual self-realisation. But in a society where 48 per cent of the population is below the official poverty level, the vital thing was to understand that architecture was political, saying, ‘I still believe it can promote a better future.’

David Gloster, the RIBA’s education director, ran through issues that arise in validating 47 courses in the UK and no less than 94 overseas schools, making the institute a ‘peripatetic bringer of perspective’. The critical thing in working overseas was to support benchmarking, to act as a catalyst, to provide a critique, and to make judgements not based on inputs (what the school says) but outputs (what the students produce). The programme was absolutely not about accreditation on the basis of a London model, nor an aggrandising neo-colonialist territory grabber.

A summary by Kate Heron from the University of Westminster was followed by questions, one of which prompted Gloster to speculate on the way education has changed since 1958 and the Oxford Conference, which set the pattern for education in the UK until the present day. He referred to the myriad things people in 1958 didn’t know about. Had Gloster been around in 1958, he could of course have run through a list of things people didn’t know in 1908.  But then what we really want, beyond information and knowledge, is wisdom.

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