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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic # 10

The tenth in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: the Art School

‘I find it so hard to understand why this is relevant!’ – architecture student documenting a contemporary piece of choreography
‘But what do you think of the work you are producing as a result?’ – lecturer
‘It’s really challenging. Making me do some stuff I didn’t expect I could do’ –  student
The same student two years later… ‘I still remember that project. I am really proud of what I did. I still have the model on my wall’

The New Year can be a difficult time motivating a mass of students diagnosed with post-Christmas blues.  As for myself, I am entertained with a mass of submissions to mark as they submit last term’s work.

It’s hard to keep concentration marking essays so turning on the radio provides a welcome distraction.  I tune in just in time for the John Peel Lecture recorded at the Radio Academy Festival – this year delivered by Billy Bragg. I am not normally a fan of his music but the topic sounds interesting: ‘How do the ‘pirates’ become the mainstream?’

What struck me was the relevance of certain issues affecting the music industry to our discipline. Bragg highlights the importance of encouraging creativity in early and secondary education to allow greater opportunities for pupils in state-run schools to develop any potential creative talent, whether in art, music or drama.

He declares that this is not solely for a healthy music scene but generally for society. Nurturing such talent helps create a dynamic contemporary culture influenced by the activities and styles of the night-time economy – averting a homogenous urban landscape.

Billy Bragg reflects back to his own experiences breaking into the music industry and refers to ‘Skiffle’ – a music genre popularized in the postwar period – and how that then led on to the groundbreaking music of the 1960s.

One can easily draw comparisons with a number of other examples: the de-industrialisation in the seventies which generated Punk and Post-Punk; the flamboyance of the New Romantics which counteracted the bleakness from the previous decade; the recession of the early 1990s which played a part in inspiring the Young British Artist movement.

Herein lies the crux of the argument – the importance of the art school in its capacity to play a part in the regeneration of contemporary culture.

The art school acts as a communal meeting point where creativity and political angst meets. As old Billy points out, such artists and musicians may not change the world – but the creative arts perform another vital role, one that ‘holds up a mirror to society and ask us to consider what we should do next.’

The art school acts as a communal meeting point where creativity and political angst meets.

This is not exclusive to art schools. Architecture has asked some key questions of society at significant points in modern history with collectives that challenge the convention of the time: the interwar period and CIAM; Team X and Archigram responding to the mass housing reconstruction of the post-war period; Archizoom and Superstudio alongside Arte Povera alongside the emerging power of globalization; the restrained architecture of the Modern Minimalist to rehabilitate the style of excess in the 80s. 

The curriculum must encourage a sense of reflection which fine/contemporary art achieves so well. Artists are not ashamed of this. But there are people in our profession who remain cynical about the creative and theoretical nature of the work our students produce. Even some of our own students question the relevance of art (theory) and how it helps in ‘designing buildings’.

We should dismiss this cynicism. Applying such ‘irrelevance’ provides a conceptual framework to allow students to appreciate why they are producing architecture in the way that they are. It inspires them to adopt particular design strategies, influenced by theory, and promotes unexpected and delightful results.

Even the ARB criteria sets out a standard to recognise the importance of the subject matter: GC3 Knowledge of the fine arts as an influence on the quality of architectural design - (ARB Prescription of Qualifications).

All this talk of criteria leads me back to Billy Bragg’s lecture, but his concern is with state education. He observes that the creative arts should not be seen as something that will occur naturally outside of education. Instead they must be part of the national curriculum to engage a younger generation across all demographic and social groups rather than just schools that can afford to organize extra-curricular sessions with affluent donors.

We must beware an education system that categorises creativity as a peripheral subject.

We must beware an education system that categorises creativity as a peripheral subject. This could have a disastrous effect on many professions, least not ours: one that is slowly revealed to us over years as our creative industries homogenise into a bland culture of uninspiring ubiquity – à la Mr Brainwash. We won’t notice it – there won’t be a big event that suddenly makes it aware to everyone. It will creep up on us like Brit Pop did.

Every year, potential applicants provide a portfolio so we can assess if they are suitable for the course. Year-on-year, we are seeing more and more of the same thing – but worse. Drawings which have no contextual depth, a depiction of buildings they think look ‘cool’. I could go on.

Art education at Secondary and Further levels appears to be more and more prescriptive. We have to spend a large part of the undergraduate (and even postgraduate) programme breaking down this expectation of rote learning.

We need a voice to generate a debate about creativity within our profession. What platform can we use to raise our alarm? Perhaps Kevin (McCloud) can step up? Or Channel 4’s new architecture boy George Clarke? Or perhaps somebody whose role is meant to support the profession. I’m not finger pointing or anything RIBA, but you have been quiet of late.

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