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Should it matter where you study architecture?

[Student Shows 2013] Essay 2: Allan Atlee

Recent calls in the media for a shake-up of architectural education sound rather parochial out here in the provinces. The revolution being called for is absolutely overdue, and anyway, the wider context of social and technological revolution playing out across the planet in sporadic fits and bursts makes it inevitable. Contemporaneous calls for reform of the system of regulation by the UK Architectural Education Review Group are measured and erudite, and will hopefully be taken forward. However, the alternative and guerilla models currently being proposed and tested, while fascinating, are largely dependent upon London’s particular professional and educational ecosystem. As such they are probably the last place to start looking for sustainable solutions that address the UK system as a whole.

They are also distinctive in that they share most of the characteristics held dear by successive UK governments when it comes to education. Deregulation, flexibility, new providers and monetary bang-for-your-buck are the central planks of an ideology derived from a romantic obsession with markets. If we wittingly or unwittingly follow this route, we will end up with a market in architectural education that is stratified by price and length of study, that may offer greater opportunities to participate but will paradoxically calcify existing elites and privilege in the profession - predominantly in London.

If a true debate is desirable, then there is a need for counter-models to be considered, ones that value collective planning and co-ordination, address the wider ecological potentials of architectural and spatial design education, and prioritise common social needs and desires. We should look to our regional and provincial schools of architecture for more of the answers, and there are five compelling and obvious reasons to do this.

One. The recent closure of architecture centres and the radical downsizing of local authority planning departments risk depriving regional cities of any meaningful place where citizens can actively participate in the transformation of their environments. Cross-programming these functions with education and research would intensify the use of existing infrastructures (schools), and make them more porous and socially useful.

Two. Regional universities are among the most politically stable institutions in many cities. They can drive local economies and provide employment, education and training, and this makes it inconceivable that they will be allowed to fail by central government. Developing sustained conversations about the future will be most feasible where this happens through processes of co-creation between stable universities and more transient, ephemeral and probably horizontal organisations: collectives, think-tanks, unions and private companies.

Three. Historical innovation in architecture and urbanism has often happened in our regions, where particular approaches and strategies have been developed. Victorian Britain’s municipal revolution is the most obvious example. We have a pressing need to develop and nurture new local expertise and capacities to diversify our creative approach to the future. Public trust and engagement with institutions and systems of power is best rebuilt locally, through sustained commitment to delivering more equitable and livable cities and places.

Four. Free online dissemination of the best lecture-based content and, increasingly, open-source research publishing, will focus all institutions’ minds on the purpose and potential of face-to-face encounters - be it through team-working, collaboration, advocacy or networking. This will work best in a localised model, where trust and interdependencies are strongest. Many regional architecture schools built in the post-war period retain flexible teaching spaces that are easily adaptable to accommodate a new programme of situated social and cultural events and gatherings to create, test and debate ideas.

Five. London already massively distorts the UK at every level, including in education, the professions, the economy and politics. We could do worse than to accept that it is part of a different ecological register of metropolitan pseudo-principalities, and exclude it temporarily from our thinking about what a sustainable ecology of spatial education, research and policy formation would look like, and what infrastructure is needed to support it. Many provincial schools are already working in ways that are conducive to this model. Be it in Plymouth, Sheffield, Glasgow or here in Canterbury, communities of students and staff are developing new models of co-creation in architectural education, and it is the potential of this network of interdependent institutions that can offer a truly alternative approach to the liberalised and marketised model being argued for elsewhere, especially in London.

Allan Atlee is head of the UCA Canterbury School of Architecture

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