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Dogma, design or technical details: How should architecture be taught?

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Global differences in architectural education

Architectural education was the subject of the last of three RIBA events commemorating the life and work of Peter and Muriel Melvin, funded by their family. Each explored an aspect of the profession which had interested them. Earlier this year we reported on the first two, which dealt with the relationship between new and old, and between design innovation and risk in the legal context within which architects work.

Each of those had history and precedent as sub-texts, and to an extent this was true of last week’s event, entitled Education in Architecture: Global Difference? Speakers from Europe, Africa and South America shared thoughts and criticisms, beginning with Neil Spiller, the new head of the school of architecture and construction at the University of Greenwich.

His ‘clarion call for variety’ was based on an admiration for the ‘naïveté and bravado of youth, the lifeblood of the architecture school’. Yet this was centred on the school being a meritocracy; that self-realisation on the part of the students could not be achieved through spoon-feeding; and that there needed to be a combination of the empirical and the poetic if a productive sensibility were to be achieved. Though repulsed by the idea of students as ‘oven-ready turkeys’, he insisted schools should deliver a sound technical education. Dogma, for example parametricism, was out.

Vittorio Lampugnani from the ETH Zurich Faculty of Architecture demonstrated why he is so highly regarded as a historian and a critic with a deft examination of what kind of architect we think education should be helping to create. The Vitruvian definition, covering a wide variety of subjects as well as mastery of building, was cited.

His conclusion was that the architect had to be an intellectual, that is to say someone who could be reflective about their own time and their own activity. He agreed on the need for technical mastery, but suggested that you achieved this by learning method, not recipes, so that you were mentally equipped to deal with inevitable change. For him history was critical, because that was the discipline which facilitated an understanding of the changing relationships between architects, architecture and society.

He believed in the design studio both as a ‘didactic reconstruction of professional practice’, and as the occasion of the synthesis of the technical and the intellectual, where the logical evolution of design could be progressed.

Concluding the first half of the event, University of Liverpool professor David Dunster reminded us about Lord Llewelyn-Davies, who ran the Bartlett in the 1960s on the basis (a) teaching was about imparting knowledge; (b) there were no facts about design and therefore (c) design could not be taught. That view of the world was rejected by Bob Maxwell, who received generous praise from Dunster. Maxwell had argued that what you needed was a ‘coherent didactic structure’ for education to take place, not denial.

Whether that is what you get these days was open to question, on the basis of Dunster’s review of architecture school websites. He thought Yale, Oxford Brookes and Greenwich were pretty good in nailing their intellectual colours to the mast. However, of 25 he looked at, not one showed an inaugural lecture by a head of school. Many claimed that they were good on the basis of their research record rather than their success in teaching.

He wittily ridiculed the use of ‘weasel words’ such as ‘sustainable’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘consistent’, though he did not mention whether specific teaching about energy, climate or carbon was a good idea. A bad idea, in his view, was the unit system because it suppressed discourse and disagreement in favour of the single (teacher’s) voice. As provocative as ever, Dunster claimed it was impossible to teach technology, prompting Sam Webb to make the opposite argument.

There will be more about this subject next week, with perspectives from other continents.

Readers' comments (1)

  • If the construction industry in the UK has progessively reorganised itself to cope without architects, does it not follow that UK architectural education, in general, has failed?

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