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Tom Emerson criticises RIBA for educational divide

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Tom Emerson, the co-founder of emerging star practice 6a, has blamed the RIBA for fuelling one of the greatest divides within UK architectural education today

The ETH Zürich professor, who has previously taught at the AA and Cambridge, criticised Portland Place for deepening the row between those who think architecture schools should be creative and those who say they should focus on practical skills.

Speaking at London Metropolitan University’s Studio Culture summit last week, he championed a more flexible, collaborative approach to teaching and practice, centred on live projects, and which helped share knowledge and boost innovation.

Emerson said: ‘The RIBA has solidified the opposition between the speculative and complementary [methods of architectural education].’

Asked whether the RIBA or ARB criteria restricted innovative teaching, he said:  ‘[I] don’t share the same values [with the institute], not only pedagogically but as an architect.’ However, he later added the RIBA had never prevented him from doing what he wanted while teaching in the UK. His remarks came after a RIBA Appointments and Newcastle University survey found 79 per cent of employers thought graduates lacked the practical skills needed to practice architecture.

University of Strathclyde architecture professor and former SCHOSA chair Gordon Murray said fundamental changes in architectural practice and higher education funding, coupled with attempts to create a level playing field for architectural qualification across Europe, meant a rethink of the RIBA’s role in architecture education was now ‘long overdue’.

He added: ‘At various points in the past, most significantly in Sunand Prasad’s presidency, RIBA and SCHOSA have had encouraging discussions around creativity and innovation and the tremendous asset the RIBA can bring to education via the Drawings Collection, the Library, and most importantly practitioners. Instead we get the pipeline process of validation.

‘The RIBA should not only embrace such a rethink, it should facilitate it.’

Cardiff University architect lecturer and year one chair Sam Clark asked whether the recession and increased student fees meant it was time to rethink the ‘seven years, two degrees, three parts route’ to becoming an architect.


Further comment


London Metropolitan graduate Tom Down

The same dichotomy exist throughout education as a whole, so the RIBA is more a symptom less a cause. Best practice requires both skill in architecture and understanding of the relevance of everything else. These skills and that understanding do not benefit from being codified as separate the moment a student signs up to an architectural education. As a result the RIBA criteria are bound to be at best unfocused and at worst irrelevant. It would be far better if the RIBA led the profession expansively towards inclusivity and relevance by opening up the early stages of study and instead focus on the validation and promotion of best practice - in practice. This is the example set by architect and educator Tom Emerson, why cannot it be the example set by our professional body?

Harriet Harriss, senior lecturer in architecture at Oxford Brookes University

Emerson’s views are valid but only to a point. Scrutiny of the RIBA Criteria for schools suggest that the RIBA are leaving a lot ‘open to interpretation’ leaving schools freer than they were previously to set curriculum aligned learning programmes - we educators just need to be a bit more ‘inventive’ about how we interpret the brief, so to speak.


Alan Dunlop, professor at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture in Aberdeen

It’s not a new debate, as long as I can remember there has been conflict between what the profession wants and what schools teach.

At the moment I’m in China working with a new school of architecture in Suzhou. The faculty is international and very ambitious. They intend to challenge the traditional method of teaching architecture by rote in the more prestigious schools in China by encouraging individualism and creative thinking in their students. My role is to review what they have achieved in the first year, which is remarkable and provide supportive comment on the work produced, the pedagogy, their aspirations and guide the faculty toward eventually achieving RIBA accreditation. The first part is the most exciting and rewarding, the second will be the most challenging.

The profession wants motivated young people coming out of the schools, of course but principally it wants students who are able to work in an office, follow instruction and draw on the computer. Not, in my experience to promote individualism, architecture as an art and encourage creative thinkers.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Paul McGrath

    This is a classic example of the elite of the elite discussing amongst themselves how they could effect changes to the education of an architect without actually doing anything more than talking about doing so. All the arguments for and against are well known and understood; yet nothing changes.

    It seems the tripartite 'pipeline' is regarded as absolutely sacrosanct. Once registered, anyone seriously questioning it is considered a heretic and soon loses any serious ambitions to challenge the all to easily accepted and cozy orthodoxy.

    This is just another introverted and decadent academic debate going nowhere.

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