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Next year's President's Medals should reward real life briefs

[THIS WEEK] The President’s Medal winners ‘seem to think ordinary life processes of contemporary society are too boring to merit attention’.

That was Patrik Schumacher writing in the Architectural Review. His piece on the ‘Waste of Young Talent’ bemoaned entries’ reliance on ‘improbable narratives with intended symbolic message’. The prize is characterised not by ‘designs of spaces intended to frame social life’ but ‘narratives [and] evocative imagery’.

I couldn’t agree more. The Gold Medal crit presentations failed to convince that a giant ‘acoustic lyrical mechanism’ would be much use to Indian quarry workers turned deaf by brutal working conditions, or that the now-notorious Brixton Robots video – in which riot scenes are reprised – had much to say about urbanism in south London. It’s unhealthy to let talented students believe they can pursue an illogical premise or intangible proposition.

These briefs may develop skills, but what do they offer architectural practice – apart from yet more disillusioned melancholics brought down to earth by the reality of practice? More importantly, how can they improve the lives of the public or of our cities? An old-fashioned conceit perhaps, but for a discipline held in such low regard, it may be an expedient one to think about.

‘They’ve got to have their fun’ is a familiar but defeatist refrain. It widens the gap between research and practice, to the detriment of both. Like magistrates tolerating carousing sailors on shore leave, Part 1s and 2s can be indulged in outlandish briefs. They’ll get all that unbridled creativity out of their systems, before settling into a lifetime of drudgery.

Perhaps we should take up Hertzberger’s advice to ‘stop making new monsters’ and turn towards more practical briefs. The transition from architecture school to practice would be less traumatic and, once there, students would have a lot more to offer clients, employers and the public.

Readers' comments (3)

  • FLOW

    Agreed.

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  • adcrawford

    You are hinting at the real problem here which is the direction of the institutions, the staff and their curriculums and not the students who just essentially do as they are guided.

    In my experience of teaching the uppermost concern of the staff is how their student's work reflects on the staff and not the student's actual developing skillsets. There is a terrible vanity at the heart of architectural education that is reflective of the rather towering vanity out in practice where we still marvel at archiporn images of totally empty buildings, agonise over detailing just because it’ll “look good in the journals” and generally sacrifice societal usefulness at the unforgiving altar of aesthetics…It seems somewhat hypocritical to criticize students for doing the same – i.e. sacrificing all in the pursuit rich imagery as the work must by definition remain theoretical.

    I’m not actually sure what I learned in the interminable five years at university – because I know I learned 10 times as much in two years of practice with an inspiring mentor. Something most of my contemporaries readily agree to. Which is bad news for 100s of very well paid, low pressure architectural teaching jobs around the country.

    However Turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas and the architectural education establishment and the RIBA will keep on rearranging the chairs on the deck of the sinking ship but with the perfect storm of a prolonged construction downturn, massive university fees and an increasingly devalued profession the water is lapping over the bows…

    My ten pence worth of a suggestion: A 2 year, high intensity, theoretical, creative course followed by 3 years of internships, apprenticeships and learning how the industry works by first hand working. No debt, no time wasting and young architects being both creative AND useful…Plenty of issues to thrash out bvut increasing seems like the only workable solution.

    I’ll not hold my breath for this to be adopted but trust me – it’ll be forced upon us at some point through necessity and admissions dropping off a cliff.

    @linearchitect .

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  • My ten pence worth..
    I agree with much of what adcrawford says, and I was one of this year's Silver medal shortlist! If only there were enough stable practices to support the internship model he suggests.

    Schumaker's article is, in my opinion, a single decent idea, encourage practical research over beauty pageantry, which was puffed up with a fair amount of hot air. In fact it revealed that he'd judged much of his evidence on the very superficiality of reading which he claimed to be at the heart of the problem. Without the creative encouragement of the tutors at Liverpool University throughout the 5 years it is unlikely that the thesis project that Elfira The and I worked on would have happened. Now we, along with most of our contemporaries, are working toward the next milestone, the practical application of architecture that is Part III, with the broad toolset of skills that we were taught.

    The Presidents Medals are a red herring. The real problem, from my perspective, is that Architecture Schools are being made to take on too many students and lowering the quality bar as their education becomes a lucrative revenue stream in a supply and demand model in which the demand comes from the students and university financiers, and not the industry in which they may ultimately practice.

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