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Flora Samuel: 'I’m not sure the term architect really describes what we do any more'

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Last October, Flora Samuel became the first woman head of the University of Sheffield School of Architecture. She talks to Steve Parnell in her first interview since taking up the post

What’s your position on the age-old stand-off between education and practice?

I believe you carry on learning to be an architect for the whole of your life – it doesn’t stop after seven years. I’d argue for a basic degree in architecture that could be augmented by a master’s degree. It could take you into practice, in various research directions, or into planning or some related thing. However much some people are educated, they’ll still design that abominable library at the end of my road.

I have all sorts of mixed feelings about encouraging young people to spend vast amounts of money to become architects. When a student comes to see me at the end of their MArch and says they’ve got £33,000 of debt, over £15,000 of which is fees, it’s a real problem. And it’s going to get worse if universities are encouraged to hike up fees by the government. I think it’s completely irresponsible to carry on in terms of this seven-year structure. But if more education moves into practice, you have to be able to trust practices to do a good job of teaching when they may have other priorities. 

How do you see the future for architecture students?

The number of graduates being pumped out by architecture schools is far more than practice will ever need. We have to break out of the culture of ‘you will be a practising architect’, because we’re going to have three-quarters of cohorts disappointed, even before they’ve got into practice.I think there are very serious problems with the structure of the profession at the moment. I’ve had students come up to me and say, ‘I really want to practise architecture, but I don’t want to be an “architect”.’ I feel very complicated about the issue of protection of title. I’m not sure it is necessary – there are so many cowboys pretending to be architects anyway and I don’t know that the public knows the difference. Clearly it is a different situation at the more complex end of the market. I’m not sure someone who is employed to design cladding for a tower in Dubai needs to be an ‘architect’ – surely they are employed for their specialist skills? We need to get more specialised to get more useful, because the world is so complex now. I’m not sure the term architect really describes what we do any more.

How do you envisage architectural education in 20 years’ time?

The Times Higher Education Supplement predicts up to 30 universities may go bust in the near future, so maybe a lot of schools will have gone. I would love to see a world of happy architects making thoroughly green buildings and developing exciting research specialisms. In the currentsituation, universities are looking for schools of architecture to be businesses. The bottom line is going to be money. All we can do is protect the good things we do as much as possible within this very difficult financial situation. 

What do you think will be the impact of increasing tuition fees?

The hike in fees will be disastrous for creating a further scale of elitism in architecture. With the government still pushing numbers while cutting Higher Education Funding Council for England funding, it just doesn’t add up.

In order for a school to survive, it’s got to radically reduce its basic undergraduate population and grow its fee-paying cohorts, overseas and postgraduate students. The research and the post-graduate component will become the dominant force. We’re increasingly making collaborative research bids where methodology is by design. We have to engage fully with the debate about the value we bring as architects to a project, and get more rigorous about saying what we add through the practice of design, because it’s a very valid methodology for exploring ideas.

Besides Le Corbusier, what are your other research interests?

I have a pet project on why people don’t employ architects to do their house extensions. It’s amazing how little respect there seems to be for architects. On Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud tries to promote architects to the public, but from my experience and research from interviewing people, the effect has been the opposite. I’m really troubled that many people don’t seem to understand good design can improve their lives – a whole bunch of people that could afford to employ an architect have no interest in doing so. That is obviously the more privileged end of society, but we have to find ways in which anyone could use an architect’s services.

 Do you see the role of the architect as maker or enabler?

They are not mutually exclusive by any means. I feel very strongly about sustainability and that we are failing as educators if we are not enabling students to produce sustainable buildings. I don’t see how that can happen without a profound knowledge of building as a craft. I think the most exciting architects are those who are actually getting out and helping people. I’m worried that with the new ARB and RIBA criteria, the assumption seems to be that we’re all practitioners in the old ‘Honeywood Files’ model, when they should recognise the variety of roles encompassed by the word ‘architect’. They should be pushing issues to do with participation, social engagement, research skills and helping people to get projects off the ground. 

Sheffield consistently ranks highly in any league table of architecture schools. Why do you think that is and how are you going to maintain or improve its reputation?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best school of architecture because it is so strong in the areas of social engagement, inclusion and critical practice, which are really important to me. Its work with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and the live projects, which have been going on for about 15 years now, are particularly exciting – we were pioneers in this area. And there is some useful research going on. Good teaching practice is taken very seriously here, which may have something to do with the fact that the students are so proactive about getting up and making things happen. It’s a remarkable community. My job, as I see it, is to work with staff to build on these strengths, to consolidate them and get them out there making a difference, influencing things.

Biography: Flora Samuel

Samuel’s parents met at the Architectural Association after the Second World War, and said to her that whatever she did, ‘do not become an architect’. Ignoring their advice, she studied at Cambridge in 1983-86 and was briefly a teaching fellow at Princeton before returning to Cambridge to finish her training.

Samuel worked in housing and in private practice while teaching at London South Bank University. She worked at Cardiff University for 10 years, where she was the first woman to run a studio year group. Here she completed her PhD on Le Corbusier’s scheme for La Sainte Baume. She has written a number of books including Nature and Space: Aalto and Le Corbusier with Sarah Menin and Le Corbusier in Detail.

Samuel’s favourite buildings

• Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles, France

• Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, US

• Erik Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden

• Josep Llinás’ Jaume Fuster Library, Barcelona, Spain

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Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    I think I can give Flora a few pointers for/on/to her concerns about the future of the profession and architectural education:
    1] As I understand it ARB only require foreign architects to possess the BSc/BA and Masters level of education to enter the profession. Only in the UK is there a requirement for Part 3, a professional level of examination in business and contractual matters. It is achieving the Part 3 level of education that makes British architects useful! Any old 'artist' can design a building, it usually takes an architect to make it one that satisfies Firmness, Commodity and Delight in equal measure.
    2] The reason Mr + Mrs Public don't use architects is because non-architects tell them we are expensive and then charge them the earth and take them to the cleaners!
    3] When Mr + Mrs Public employ a 'plan drawer' who calls himself an architect, provides them with a badly designed home / extension and rips them off, it is architects who get the blame and the bad press. John Poulson being a prime example! The ARB really ought to be doing the job it was created for, preventing such charlatans from mis-leading the public!
    4] If it was a requirement that buildings were designed by competent and qualified persons (in say the Canadian way) there would be plenty of employment opportunities for architects and technologists.
    5] As an employer I would hope that an ability to design buildings with an understanding of structural engineering and building services, besides presenting well, is a base level expectation from a Part 1 student. I would expect any post part 3 architectural graduate to be able to read drawings, understand construction methods and detailing. I would also expect them to have a knowledge of briefing, procurement, contract law and business management. If that sounds optimistic it shouldn't, that was the extent of the education I and many others received at Bath.
    6] An architectural education is one that gives the graduate very broad and transferable skills. It is employers outside the profession that are slow in accepting that fact!
    As a profession we need to wake up to the fact that we can regain a professional standing within the community by being architects with a holistic view of creating good architectural design. To continue in a desire to be specialists in only the 'Delight' of the tree Vitruvian principles is a serious error.

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