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intellectual respite

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Alan Short's successful practice work feeds into his role as the new professor of architecture at Cambridge. He believes bureaucracy should be kept at bay and treats academia with healthy scepticism, while enjoying being one step ahead by katherine shonfi

In Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, the anti-hero Chichikov conceives a truly superb tax fiddle. In his job as a St Petersburg revenue official he learns that landowners, taxed for each serf they own, can acquire a cash sum for each serf they release from toil and settle in Siberia.

Charming his way round the Russian aristocracy, Chichikov sets up a trade in the 'dead souls' of serfs. The idea is to 'buy' the souls of already dead serfs from landowners, 'relocate' them and collect the government subsidy.

Alan Short, the new professor of architecture at Cambridge, doesn't miss a beat in declaring this tale of a wheeze of Faustian proportions his favourite companion for a stay on a desert island.

For Short, what is to be steadfastly resisted in life, be it in universities or architectural practice, are big bureaucratic machines. They promote in particular an obsession with process over content and product and their telltale symptom is jargon.

Strikingly, he says that such machines actually have the capacity to harass you with processes. But we are talking Gogol, not Kafka, here: Short's reaction to the enemy is the antithesis to boringly familiar postmodern angst. Rather you get the sneaky feeling that he enjoys the light footedness of being one step ahead of the game, reading and trouncing enemy moves.

Through an agreeable mixture of nous, erudition, sharpness and charm, Short himself is a heartening example of the architect, as both practitioner and educator, who remains resilient and indeed buoyant in the face of the bureaucratic realities of professional life. It makes him a distinctly bracing and enjoyable person to converse with for a couple of hours.

He is, by any standards, a successful architect, spearheading a busy mediumsized practice - Short and Associates - with jobs including theatres and university buildings. For the past few years he has combined this with the job of dean of art and design at De Montfort.

He speaks with infectious enthusiasm of the successes of his very large faculty, and is unsurprisingly a firm opposer of the go-italone tendency among architecture schools.

Short feels architectural and other art educators worry too much about containment and control of the student, and not enough about random intellectual stimulation, the stuff of common culture.

To this end he encouraged the art historians to join the art and design faculty at De Montfort, and has tried to make available to the diversity of students they teach - including students of footwear, metalwork, and industrial designs - a whole range of design and art history courses. In Short's own year at Harvard he was struck by the fact that every postgraduate of the entire university had to complete a course on architectural history - resulting in future presidents, supreme court judges, research scientists and heads of corporations who all knew their Wrights from their elbows.

One's sense of Short's own Cambridge education in the early 1970s is that he was not an acolyte. He talks with equal appreciation of a variety of teachers, ranging from Bill Howell and Marciel Echenique - then newly arrived as an escapee from postcoup Chile - to Anthony Blunt.His practical architectural training is another thing entirely. He admits to having been Sir Basil Spence's 'Philippino houseboy' at the age of 17 - duties included Lady Spence's shopping - before starting formal study. He also spent vacations working in Spence's office before year-out and Part 2 experience with Colin St John Wilson (predecessor to Peter Carolin as professor at Cambridge).

Wilson had been Spence's favoured assistant, Spence worked for Lutyens, Lutyens was Norman Shaw's preferred, and Shaw worked for Street. It is an enthralling lineage to a student of architectural genealogy. Arguably, Short's genetic makeup includes his preponderance for heavyweight buildings. In his concern to give intelligible, distinct character to the individual spaces and buildings the practice designs, you can sense Shaw and the opposition to impersonality that is a byline of the anti-bureaucrat. It is a heartfelt passion in him: aged four he attended a Dame School in Hillingdon where the headmistress, to use Short's words, 'demonized space', using the impersonal institutional architecture as an aid to disorientate and terrify the children.

The practice is well-known for its environmentally sound principles, but refreshingly Short refuses to be drawn into predictable complaints about today's students' woeful lack of technological understanding. Instead, he is more likely to groan when he sees the dubious homage of yet another politically correct ventilation 'chimney' in a student project, and he bemoans the fact that a lack of prototypes tends to make ecologically aware designs a collection of predictable cliches. But Short is eloquent on the other relationship between practice and architecture, the one few people talk about anymore, that is what practitioners themselves can gain from involvement in education. In essence, it is another element in the strategy of warding off the demands of the bureaucratic machine: education is the ideal place for practitioners to gain respite, a place to remember what architecture is really about, untrammelled by constrictions which can overwhelm.

There is, though, one Cambridge tradition to which Short admits he subscribes. It is not the tradition of the proselytiser, but of the sceptic, a thoroughgoing urge to be critical about whatever is presented as orthodoxy, or a necessary model. He is someone open and responsive to talk to, who continues to enjoy teaching, who has a distinct view and personality, and has, unlike many architects, no hidden wish or need to see that replicated around him. He plays on an altogether larger field.

In Short, it looks like Cambridge has acquired a stimulating, knowing and outgoing head.

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