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The show must go on

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After an unsettling year in architectural education, structurally and financially, Terri Whitehead visits the leading schools and students at their summer showcases to examine the effects, good and bad, of collective uncertainty

It has been a turbulent year for the students of the 36 validated architecture schools in the UK. With talk of top-up fees, student loans spiralling out of control, and proposed modifications to the course structure, there can be no doubt that architectural education is in transition. Visiting a selection of schools, I was curious to see how these factors would impact on the end-of-year shows.

Architects and students alike were stunned last year when Cambridge said it would not be recruiting more diploma students for Part 2, and the Bartlett, widely regarded as one of the top schools, received a disappointing result in its RIBA assessment this year. Current students of architecture are gaining an awareness of political and economic issues relating to their education.

They will probably find that it helps prepare them for their career in practice - if they go there at all. With allied fields such as computer graphics, information technology, visualisation, film-making, teaching and management having more sociable hours and better pay, many students will not look to qualify for their Part 3. However, the work at this year's end-of-year shows is a remarkable display of optimism and dedication, with an emphasis on creativity and innovation.

Every school of architecture has the tradition of a showcase for final projects and, with increasing public awareness and appreciation for architecture, many have taken on a life of their own. Some have become proper art/architecture events, with opening parties, lecture series, music and awards ceremonies. An example is this year's 'Bartfest', the Bartlett's summer show. Held at the Slade School of Fine Art, it was teeming with students and the public, who enjoyed music, wine, food and, fortunately, good weather.

Visiting five shows in two weeks is a daunting task. To the uninitiated, imagining one or two rooms with faded pencil drawings or foam-board models, this year's works would come as a shock. It is difficult to present an entire year of work, but it is an even more daunting task for diploma graduates, who feel pressure to sum up six years of education and invention in one final presentation. Outstanding final projects tend to incorporate a sense of narrative and demonstrate the development process of a student's work. This is done best while remaining focused on a sense of the architecture: the fusion of imagination and buildability to produce an innovative solution. Mastery of representation techniques is nearly as important as the ideas, as is incorporating new technologies as appropriate. But the most important quality is the most difficult to define: it is the way of infusing a sense of life and movement into the design, to show a sense of what the spaces will be like and reveal the intangible conceptual ideas.

With the influence of wider architectural and cultural issues, the top student works at the different schools bear striking resemblance. In many cases, school stereotypes are disappearing as tutors swap round from year to year, and public and school lecture series allow students access to the same influences. With rising numbers of architecture books and periodicals, students are increasingly influenced by factors outside their unit or studio groups.

As architectural education braces itself for more change, and there is increasing pressure to streamline the programme, it is difficult to say what next year will bring. These proposed changes follow recent shake-ups in many big schools. This is Peter Cook's last year as chair of the Bartlett, and the Architectural Association is looking for a replacement to fill Mohsen Mostafavi's illustrious shoes. The Royal College of Art has a new head of school, as Hilary French is now head of the school of architecture and interior design.

Architecture students in the UK have the energy and determination to face new challenges, as architectural education looks forward with some of what Cedric Price called 'calculated uncertainty'.

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