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Mistaken priorities

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Changing Architectural Education: Towards A New Professionalism Edited by David Nicol and Simon Pilling. E & FN Spon, 2000. 300pp. £24.99

Changing Architectural Education collates the papers presented at a conference in April 1999 at De Montfort University. Leaving aside overseas delegates, students and practitioners among the 70 people who attended, this leaves an average of about one academic from each of the 40-odd British schools. It is a cross section of certain types of thinking about architectural education in the UK, and pretty dismal reading it makes.


Dismal because its design owes much to 1970s sociology textbooks. Dismal because too many of the papers betray inexperience in using literary form. Dismal, moreover, because it betrays that underneath the all-too-eager adoption of buzzwords like ‘Egan’ and ‘Latham’, British architectural academe continues to operate through unrecognised and complacently accepted cliches.


Fortunately, the sanest, most elegant and perceptive among the clutch of exceptions to the general miasma, venerable Princeton professor Bob Gutman, explains that American practices, at least, increasingly recognise that ‘the purpose of schools was to educate rather than merely train’. It may play well with the Construction Industry Council to claim that education should - necessarily inadequately - mimic practice, but it is increasingly not what architects want, nor those numerous students who go off to design websites or create rock bands. Architecture is not just part of the construction industry.


Change in architectural education, the general impression runs, occurs in response to external forces.There is no sense that education - teaching and research - might drive its own dynamic, a dynamic which would certainly be cognate to Egan, Latham and their friends, but would not be beholden to them.


Education, in other words, might be an end in itself, and successful achievement might be more than ticking a few checklists.This is what an academic conference might address.


It is otiose to name names, and I only single out Prue Chiles and Nick Callicot and Bob Sheil because I know their papers give an inadequate picture of their work at Sheffield and the Bartlett. And there are honourable exceptions. Katerina Ruedi substitutes self-criticism for self-congratulation, while Hannah Vowles and Wendy Potts struggle gainfully to describe serious points: the former addresses the ritualised discrimination of crits; the latter deals with the radical reorganisation of the Portsmouth School.


The apex of the system of architectural education is the validation procedure, overseen by the RIBA.The institute’s director of education, Leonie Milliner, clearly likes the idea of an inverse pyramid of counter-culture.Her ‘Delight in Transgression’has precious little delight, and what transgression there is is not, I suspect, what she intended. Reading her is to sense what a nascent Protestant must have felt in 1517, listening to a priest incanting the Latin Mass, without betraying a shade of even superficial understanding, let alone an appreciation of its deeper significance.


Worst of all, though, is the book’s almost complete evasion of non-design teaching. It is as if the conference was an ingenious attempt to legitimise the studio through the gospel according to Egan. Gutman again comes to the rescue. He summarises the virtues of wider teaching practices and subject matter.’Students spend more time acquiring a general background in liberal studies, including the social sciences, literature and philosophy…


[enabling] architects to be better informed and thereby better able to talk intelligently about matters outside the realm of architecture, especially in their encounters with clients.’


Here, surely, lies the key to improving architectural education, not in the tinkering with role-playing and pretending that the studio is some kind of magical talisman which can simulate practice and give a rounded education at the same time.Re-casting the studio in terms dictated by the construction industry ensures that architecture will remain its whipping boy, a role more fairly reserved for the progenitors of this book.


Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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