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Several architecture courses in the UK stretch the boundaries of design studios with hands-on construction experience to enhance students' understanding of technology and materials.

A source of endless debate in architectural education is how to teach architects about technology and the rudiments of construction.

Many schools have abandoned their workshops in favour of CAD suites, but a few still include hands-on experience to inform the design process. University technology workshops can be the source of materials innovation and the best courses have a lively interchange with practitioners and industry.

For example, Alan Chandler, course tutor for the University of East London's (UEL's) MSc Material Matters course, now in its second year, has been approached by Zaha Hadid about his research into fabric formwork for concrete. Chandler calls his approach 'a philosophy of engagement' between teaching and practice. It keeps teaching relevant and takes advantage of the freedom to experiment that academia enables. Chandler argues that risk - so prevalent in architectural practice today - needs to become 'a focus of activity, not a pariah to be avoided'. He wants to equip architects to use judgment in design and production, and not to assume that mastery of materials is the domain of others.

Chandler's approach, as well as that of professor Remo Pedreschi at the University of Edinburgh, is based on constructing 1:1 prototypes. Building at full scale calls on lateral thinking and intuition, and students must develop safe ways of working, getting to grips with basic health and safety. Michael Stacey at the University of Nottingham - which has plans to develop a prototype hall and where some students already build prototypes as part of their thesis projects - says hands-on materials experience complements computer work, because so much design is now virtual. The basic premise of a prototype is to enact a thought process by testing an idea, which can then be refined.

Chandler says that rather than being a response to increased use of computers, the UEL course 'acknowledges what we have done for years and makes a proper course out of it'.

The inuence of ex-head Peter Salter through the Architectural Association still pervades the school and students are sensitive to the sensuous use of materials and craft techniques. Architect Peter Zumthor also has a following at the school. One of the precursors to the course was a trip to Venice, where students built a gondola.

Prototypes also contribute to a lively visual culture. 'Producing only an image of architecture is not enough, ' says Chandler.

With a nod to Aldo Van Eyck and Buckminster Fuller, the prototyping carried out at UEL is based on the premise that the 'detail is the measure of the architecture'. Fuller's notion of 'tensegrity', which relates to the resolution of forces with the structure, pervades UEL's design work, while an understanding of tolerance, loose -t and exibility comes through from a reading of Van Eyck. Many of these themes were explored in a two-day symposium which was held at UEL in 2004, whose proceedings have recently been published in book form as Material Matters:

Architecture and Material Practice, edited by Katie Lloyd Thomas (Routledge 2007).

Prototyping is part of a five-week introductory module for Edinburgh's MArch students. Pedreschi, like Chandler, works with fabric-cast concrete, focusing on building components such as columns, beams and panels. 'Building is a verb, not a noun, ' Pedreschi tells his students. He pushes them to explore materials' surface texture and reflectivity, as well as how they are made. The notion of accuracy and tolerance runs through the work. Each year the studio is based in a different city - this year Cádiz, whose vernacular architecture inspired students to cast concrete screens.

The UEL MSc degree course (around a third of students are ex-diploma) starts with a conference day including speakers such as Ian Pritchett on lime hemp, Roland Keable on rammed earth, Tom Makin from Buro Happold on gridshells and Chandler on his own fabric formwork. An underlying theme of sustainability pervades the course in the choice and economy of materials and their reuse. Students work in teams to develop a fabric formwork concrete prototype, which they summarise in a report - a reflection on the construction process and their own participation.

The challenges of working with fabric formwork concrete highlight issues of construction and its iterative decision-making process. Chandler, who has received support from the Concrete Centre, is an admirer of concrete's structural and thermal qualities and is seeking to improve its environmental credentials through the use of recycled aggregate and the minimisation of waste in the casting process. He is drawn to fabric because it is a responsive shuttering technique.

Geotextiles such as polypropylene weaves are the most effective because they are elastic, tear-resistant and allow walls to sweat out excess water. They are also inexpensive and lightweight.

Students experiment with the tension and spacing of fixings such as bolts and plywood discs. The elasticity of the fabric introduces an element of unpredictability to the process, which appeals to Chandler - and most certainly to Zaha as well. This process will be documented in a book, Fabricformwork, by Chandler and Pedreschi, which is to be released by RIBA Publications in the autumn.

After the team projects in formcast concrete, UEL Masters students move on to develop a prototype from their own studio project, a detail that communicates the particular nature of the design. Chandler warns students against the seduction of the 'overly complex' or the 'mute' detail, either of which can be 'a smokescreen for incomplete thinking'. He asks his students provocatively: 'Who does the detail serve - the architect, the user, or both?'

The richness of this approach to architectural education is that it ranges from the mundane to the technical to the philosophical. It gives students an introduction to the act of building and it may even lead to innovation in materials.

These themes will be explored at Concrete Extravaganza, a workshop organised by the Concrete Centre and ARCHAOS at the University of Edinburgh on July 5-6. See www. concretecentre. com

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