The AJ talks to Kevin Singh about becoming the new head of Birmingham’s School of Architecture, replacing Tom Jefferies who left to join Manchester in January
Where you have come from? I started at a student at the Birmingham School of Architecture (BCU) in 1988 and have spent most of my life in and around it. I also studied in Peter Cook’s Unit 17 at The Bartlett in the early 1990s.
After qualifying I ran the BA (Hons) Interior Design course at what was the University of Central England (now BCU) and simultaneously co-founded a design-led practice, the space* studio, in 2000 with an ex interior design student Tony Kerby.
Seven years ago I became course director for the Part 2 course at Birmingham and have been acting deputy head since Tom Jefferies’ departure
Why did you want the Birmingham headship? Although I’m not from Birmingham I’m committed to the School and City having been associated with it for as long as I have. As someone who also practices in the city I think Birmingham needs a strong school of architecture to assist the necessary cultural shift in encouraging good contemporary design. I’m also ready for a new challenge having run the Part 2 course for eight years.
What does Birmingham offer that’s different to anywhere else? It’s probably like nowhere else in the UK, constantly reinventing itself, which is a constant challenge its Architects and the wider profession.
Our Faculty, the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design is the largest Art institution outside of London whilst the School has an exciting mix of Architecture, Landscape and Urban Design. All of these aspects will allow us to tap into how our city is evolving. We also have fantastic links with local practices, often due to alumni relationships. These kind of relationships will be critical as architectural education is about to go through a very challenging period.
‘Due to increasing fees more students may well be forced to study locally’
Is there still too much focus on London in architecture? It doesn’t really matter what anyone says, London is naturally a focus but it’s up to the regions to show what they are made of. There are some good Schools out there and due to increasing fees more students may well be forced to study locally, this may have a positive impact in terms of graduate retention in the regions and ultimately a spread of talent. I was a big supporter (naturally) of Ruth Reed’s bid for the RIBA Presidency and her message about the regions and it’s good to see Stephen Hodder picking this up too, so the answer is yes!
‘I certainly plan to put my own mark on the School’
Will you be making any major changes in your first year as head? Not headline changes but I certainly plan to put my own mark on the School. This will be from a combination of building on what we already have and from my 14 years experience of teaching at the coal face. I will be paying a lot of attention to the detail and getting a solid infrastructure in place that will give us a strong platform to push on from. We also have a series of new appointments coming up so this will give me an opportunity to add specific qualities to our already strong teaching and research team. We are currently developing some interesting links with other Schools, particularly in the USA and an International element will be a feature of the School.
How do you think tuition fee changes will impact on students and education and are you worried about elitism? I’m sure everyone is worried and Architecture will be potentially hardest hit due to the length of our education, especially as ultimately the salaries pale into insignificance compared to other Professions. Elitism has always a concern in the profession but those passionate about being Architects will always find a way, we just have to support them as best we can.
‘We can’t afford is to give away even more of the profession’
One could argue that it will lead to a relative shortage of Architects and this might be good in the long run as supply and demand may result in higher professional fees for projects. What we can’t afford is to give away even more of the profession like we did in the past so the quality of the education we all offer needs to be top notch.
What is the biggest challenge facing the profession over the next three years? In an educational context it has to be fees. Professionally, the recession is still a big concern. As someone running a small(ish) practice I am also worried about the increasing amount of specialism clients demand and methods of procurement which result in the same practices getting the same work and the door being closed to new people and new ideas.
‘The profession needs to find more realistic and less ideological way of getting students experience’
Do you worry that there won’t be jobs for your graduates? Yes, particularly at BA level where it’s easy for employers to say that graduates lack experience. The profession as a whole needs to find more realistic and less ideological way of getting students experience so they can continue to Part 2, and ultimately into long term employment. It does however put some emphasis on all students to be the very best they can be and make the most of their education.
Which architects will feature on your course? I’m proud to say that there isn’t a School style - although there is an identifiable spirit to the work - so we don’t have a doctrine of architects, processes , or languages. On a personal level, I enjoy the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro who were first introduced to me by my mentor from years ago, Ed Frith.
Name one thing people may not know about you. I nearly failed my first year at architecture school.
What’s your favourite building and why? Lloyds of London inspired me as a student that architecture didn’t have to be like the mundane buildings we see around us every day. My favourite quote about the building is: ‘Dat ain’t building, dat’s f**kin’ architecture!’
Kevin Singh is Head of School, Birmingham School of Architecture, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, Birmingham City University