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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #8

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The eighth in a series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: privilege

That’s so cool’ - student’s response to images of the architectural endeavours of London’s Hipster elite

At home one evening, I set myself down to review a presentation for a lecture I’m giving. I’ll be talking about the political and cultural influences that affect the spatial morphology of post-industrial cities.

The television is on in the background and remains on all evening while I work. The TV session is book-ended with the day’s news - David Cameron’s Conservative Party Conference speech on aspiration - and ends with The Culture Show - an architecture special. I cannot believe my luck.

These two programmes catch my attention but seem innocuous enough and don’t take too much notice of them. That is until the next day when I see the online discussions on the school’s social media forum. Absolutely nothing was said about them - at all - by any student. Now, the Tory Party Conference may be a bit of a hard sell to architecture students but The Culture Show had lots of juicy content to comment on.

The fact no one did may have something to do with what Cameron’s speech touches upon - aspiration, or more precisely, privilege.

I refer in particular to the Culture Show clip on ‘aspiring’ architecture graduates. Within the four minute VT clip, we are shown an array of edgy, raw and temporary, spaces all for uses in the cultural sector. And then we get to meet the designers, their haircuts and their ironic 90’s tracksuits.

This is great. I can show this to my students and hopefully inspire them to do something useful with their degrees. Surely they can see the benefit participating in such adventures? After all, once they graduate, most of them won’t be architects anyway.

We get to meet the designers, their haircuts and their ironic 90’s tracksuits

In reality, I would not even think of showing them such a thing. It is just as cruel as telling a mediocre 16 year-old singer (who goes on a TV talent show) they are the next big thing after an emotional rendition of Whitney Houston’s I will only love you - the only song they have ever practiced - just to be booted off the next week because they can’t sing anything else. Their dreams of pop stardom: crushed.

From the work shown on the programme, the architecture itself is interesting enough and well designed for its typology. The play on local references, raw materials and re-appropriation of furniture (and symbols) all lead to a development of what we can now easily identify as a temporary vernacular.

Architectural merits are limited in terms of the physical quality of space. Sequence and scale of space are not necessarily challenged from the conventional. The design is normally dictated by severe restrictions on budget and resourceful one can be with what you can find. Adventures in construction lend themselves well as educational exercises where you test skills in delegation, project management and budget handling.

Let’s take stock; it is fun, but that is about it

But instead, hearing the designers speak about their own work, they present it as a very serious task indeed. Let’s take stock; it is fun, but that is about it.

While I admire these hipster graduates and their motivation for achieving such things, you can only help feel - and I don’t say this lightly - that it is inevitable to be able to do this in the capital if you’re the daughter of a famous artist or with a first name one vowel different to a salad ingredient.

Firstly, the city has a critical mass to enable a network of people to accept these cultural artefacts as important, and therefore commit to working as part of it. Secondly, for having the financial capacity to do such things while not in employment. A privilege, sorry - aspiration, that not many of us can afford.

I teach in a large city outside London. The majority of students that join our course are a positive mix of gender, age, race and family income. As much as they would love to participate in creative acts of architecture, they need to work to study and so focus on achieving on the best they can do. I recently found out that one of my best students from last year also worked 35 hours a week during most of her three years of study - just to be able to study in the first place.

These kinds of activities remain, and will continue to remain, for those fortunate enough to do so. It is frustrating how the media can project a conceited idea on what architecture students should be doing by solely giving attention to these types of achievements.

For some earning a good degree is an achievement in itself

For some students, earning a good degree with all the odds against them is an achievement in itself. Not because they were previously deemed not able to academically, but because they had to work that extra bit harder to be given the opportunity in the first place.

Funnily enough, the VT clip starts with a brief historical recounting on how the act of architecture has reinvented itself during period on economic downturns during the 20th Century. But the clip focuses on stylistic changes rather than ideological shifts in social convention channeled through construction of the built environment.

The graduates of these previous times now have their place in the discourse of recent architectural history. I wonder if graduates of the 21st Century will rank alongside them with a motivation beyond current fashionable typologies.

I often discuss my student’s ambitions with them, and I am encouraged by the fact most of them are keen to study architecture to help provide positive social change just as much as create interesting spaces. Acknowledging this in the same week when the Prime Minister considers privilege a ‘right’ is something to applaud as aspirational.

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