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Education speaks

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At London Metropolitan’s studio culture summit, leading academics  called for a collaborative approach to learning, reports Merlin Fulcher

‘The RIBA has solidified the opposition between the speculative and complimentary,’ said a critical Tom Emerson, who blamed the institute for fuelling one of the greatest divides in UK architectural education today (AJ 06.07.2012).

The ETH Zürich professor and 6a Architects co-founder was speaking at the London Metropolitan University Studio Culture Conference. He was joined on the panel by Forum for Alternative Belfast co-director Mark Hackett, who also had problems with the RIBA. The institute, he argued, should cease vetting schools and instead focus on accrediting professionals.

Other academics called for a less competitive, more collaborative approach to architectural learning with strong links to practice and the outside world at the event taking place at the London Metropolitan’s Daniel Libeskind-designed Graduate Centre. They complained that a thorough reappraisal of studio, or unit-based teaching, had been missing for years.

Opening the convention, Robert Mull, London Metropolitan’s dean of architecture, argued that a ‘brutal, competitive’ unit culture had thrived under Alvin Boyarsky at London’s Architectural Association in response to Thatcherite individualism during the 1980s.

Mull – who headed an AA unit for 12 years – asked whether the well-established method of pitching students against each other to solve a shared brief properly equipped them to deal with today’s increasingly divided, wider society.

Mull said: ‘We should be talking about the huge intellectual chasm between the academy and world around it.’

He added that students working on self-directed, live projects were helping to dissolve these boundaries.

Delivering the summit’s keynote speech, Emerson – who has taught at the AA and Cambridge – discussed a series of live projects by ETH Zürich students, including a replica of João Batista Vilanova Artigas’ Jaú Bus Terminal, which illustrated how a collaborative approach helped to share knowledge and to boost innovation.

In Switzerland, students were more inclined to work in teams towards a common goal, he said, which led them to make the best out of available materials and skills.

Emerson’s controversial stance on the RIBA broadened the debate among the 60-strong audience, but not everyone agreed with him.

For Oxford Brookes University senior lecturer in architecture, Harriet Harriss, the RIBA criteria has left much open to interpretation with the responsibility lying with educators to be more creative.

She argued the architecture school has become a ‘sanatorium for creative people’ – an insular place that is complacent about the studio system’s value and plagued by the ‘black box’ approach to grading that makes it impossible to define how to obtain an ‘A’.

In her paper, entitled ‘The distributed studio’, on situated learning, she claimed that academics should yield active control to their students, enabling them to assume leadership of live projects outside the campus and studio setting.

This would create a ‘risk confident community of learners’, she argued, by making students more aware of the kind of danger they will be exposed to in professional life, like being sued.

With tuition fees increasing as part of the government’s drive to privatise higher education, educators at the conference also asked whether students would continue to pay for a studio system which is so expensive.

Rachel Sara of the University of the West of England presented research, carried out with Rosie Parnell of the University of Sheffield. They found that more than half of students found the design crit to be a negative experience and only eight per cent said it was positive. Their findings – summarised in a short film where tutors tore up models, swore at and attempted to seduce their students – showed the commonly blurred lines between constructive support and intimidation.

London Metropolitan’s Jane McAllister and the University of Westminster’s Ben Stringer compared the modern diploma course to a travel agency where expensive field trips of limited value are used to win prospective students.

Pie Architecture’s Fran Balaam and Michael Corr joined Hackett and Tom Down of Cambridge-based Mole Architects in comparing requirements in the RIBA plan of work to the marking criteria for London Metropolitan’s comprehensive design project. Their findings called for a radical overhaul of teaching to take account of multiple routes through and after architectural education.

Hackett – who retired from his Belfast-based Hackett Hall McKnight in 2010 – suggested that the RIBA should focus on accrediting architects who wish to build and allow more freedom for schools to be places where students and teachers explore architecture’s context in the real world.

Hackett concluded: ‘Architecture courses aren’t offering the right choices to people at the moment. The RIBA should redefine completely what an architect is or stay out of the picture.’

Mark Hacket
Co-director, Forum for Alternative Belfast

The RIBA role in the validation of courses is problematic because it forces a singular vocational path through education. One key driver for many students is to attain that elusive title and this leads to stresses and aberrations in what could or should be their natural career direction.

An architect should be considered as someone who has rigorously demonstrated competence as a critical, self-critical and strategic thinker, who can also deliver practical visions if required. This is not the same thing as someone who administers contracts between parties, holds indemnity insurances and follows a code of conduct largely designed to assure ‘clients’ that they are ‘safe hands’.

One of the flaws in our vocational path to title can be perceived in the negative connotation of the oft-used phrase ‘dropping out’. We don’t provide positive paths for people to practice as architects in roles which society increasingly needs and demands: the critic, the activist, the good bureaucrat, the politician. The declining and peripheral role that architects now have in decision-making, procurement and the urban debate reflects their absence at high levels in the administrative, critical and political spheres. Occasionally, the sense of grievance of a student ‘dropping out’ of a flawed system can work against the interests of good architecture later in life.

There is another pressure driving down standards of independent and critical thought. In the context of rising fees, students are becoming more demanding, not always for better standards, teaching and critique as I remember we once demanded in Belfast. The pressure is rather a role reversal in which individual students are questioning grades, sinking into the tick box culture that universities have unwittingly set as a rod to break their own backs. The unit system with its student choice of direction and study offers a useful way out of this conundrum.

In my view these pressures will force change, and in many ways it will improve architecture, the role of architects and their contribution to society.

Key findings
London Metropolitan University Studio Culture conference in brief

  • Educators must question whether the studio system can resolve schools’ separation from the outside world and be affordable and desirable to students.
    Robert Mull, London Metropolitan University
  • Studio culture, both in practice and education, is about sharing knowledge towards a common goal
    Tom Emerson, ETH Zürich
  • Field trips must engage locals and promote critical thought about relative ways of seeing
    Jane McAllister, London Metropolitan University
  • Field trip organisers need good contacts, such as local activists, to help students engage with resident knowledge and opinion
    Marisol Rivas Velázquez, University of Stuttgart
  • Precedent studies can boost students’ awareness of cultural heritage
    James Payne, London Metropolitan University
  • Students can use precedents from their own lives to design places sensitive to people’s emotional needs
    David Knight, Kingston University
  •  Live projects should be used to cultivate a risk-confident culture among students
    Harriet Harriss, Oxford Brookes University
  • Involving students with real projects in your practice helps them realise the validity of their work and its stake in the real world
    Fran Balaam, London Metropolitan University
  • Architecture’s context in the wider world needs to be reinforced to students at key stages so they can continually reconsider their trajectory
    Mark Hackett, Forum for Alternative Belfast
  • Design crits should be a true dialogue with constructive feedback and critical reflection
    Rachel Sara, University of the West of England
  • Reviewing by group and allowing digital presentations can be important
    Sam Clark, Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University
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Readers' comments (1)

  • We need to take this thinking a step further and have an inclusive debate about the future of built environment education. The approach needs to be holistic and take account of all disciplines much like the approach noted in the blog below.


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