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Healthy practice

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TECHNICAL & PRACTICE: Does specialisation have a place in architectural education and could it be a help or a hindrance in the job market?

The world of architecture is becoming more sophisticated in terms of building types, delivery systems (eg Private Finance Initiative) and building contexts (urban renewal).

So are British schools of architecture, with their almost universal 'general practitioner' approach, serving their students well in this complex and competitive environment?

I wholeheartedly support the notion that a BA or BSc in architecture is an enormously valuable general degree, equipping participants for a wide variety of future careers. Heaven knows, the public awareness of the key role that architecture plays in the shaping and quality of our lives is so low in this country, that the idea that RIBA Part 1 students may end up as key players in all sorts of walks of life outside architecture, can only be a plus.

However, I believe the commitment to an additional two years' academic study, with the specific objective of obtaining the RIBA Part 2 architectural qualification, merits further examination in a different light.

Speedy recovery

At the end of the day, the practice of architecture and, therefore, the education of architects, has a vocational base and therefore, the latter should equip students for the real world, without watering down quality.

Government initiatives to improve design quality present wonderful opportunities (somewhat marred by the obsession with PFI) which need to be rigorously and imaginatively exploited in the schools of architecture. One way to do this is for universities to increase the amount of research they carry out at the cutting edge of issues concerning public buildings. For example, there is growing evidence that design excellence in healthcare buildings can produce measurable improvements in patient outcomes by speeding recovery and cure rates.

As a practice specialising in healthcare, we attract students and architects from around the world. With 22 different nationalities in the practice, it is a shame more British students do not show the same level of enthusiasm.

Notable exceptions last year were Matthew Hird and Keven Lester, students who chose a healthcare building for their thesis project at Liverpool University. Wacky some of their ideas may be, such as their allglass operating theatres, but the freshness and imagination displayed in their approach was a tonic.

Liverpool is to be congratulated because, although initially sceptical about having them specialise early, the tutors were very supportive and encouraging. OK, they were not able to provide the level of specialised support they needed, but this was obtained from the Medical Architectural Research Unit (MARU). Sadly, many other schools do not provide any real level of encouragement to students wishing to explore specialist thesis subjects.

Opportunities abroad

More dynamic ways of promoting worthwhile interaction between practice and schools merits attention. I recently presented a 30-minute synopsis of UK healthcare architecture, alongside presentations from 20 other countries, at an American Institute of Architects conference in Vancouver.

One of my duties during the threeday period was to act as an advisor and juror to five groups of students (two American, one Canadian, one Mexican and one Japanese) designing 'a mobile disaster hospital'. This 'charette' produced some intriguing solutions and acted as an excellent forum for exchange of ideas. Perhaps the RIBA could act more as a catalyst between practices and students with relevant interests; in parallel to the work it does bringing practices and clients together. * Schools of architecture should reflect the needs of society and, undoubtedly, the design of excellent public buildings deserves more emphasis and attention in the curricula and choice of design projects offered by most schools. More design competitions open to both practices and students would increase opportunities for collaboration between the real world and academia.

Charlie's angels

In conclusion, I am not advocating specific specialisation in the Part 2 course. However, I do think that students could be much better prepared and motivated to face the challenges of a rapidly growing body of public sector work.

Some training (role playing? ) in responding to and obtaining the best out of highly sophisticated multifaceted clients, such as hospital consultants and university professors, combined with encouragement to look beyond popular stereotypical final thesis subjects, would be a good start.

Prince Charles has recently been appointed as a design champion for health buildings. He could do a lot worse than to concentrate his efforts on promoting interest and enthusiasm in innovative healthcare design at the schools of architecture.

Mike Nightingale is a senior partner of Nightingale Associates, tel 01235 820222 *Architects for Health, affiliated to the RIBA, holds a series of annual events including foreign study tours.

One of its key aims is to promote interest in healthcare design in the schools of architecture.

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