London Met’s show admirably focuses on real needs and addresses real issues
I was glad to be asked to review London Metropolitan University’s graduate show. The polarisation of academi and practice that affects some schools, which view the gravitational and tectonic constraints of building as too boring to study, or the petty duality of the debate over modern and traditional architecture, which obsesses certain practitioners, finds no sway at the Met.
When architects obfuscate it is little wonder there is widespread misunderstanding of the value we have to offer. Take, for example, this prospectus from the Architectural Association: ‘Diploma 2 will work on the synchronisation of both environmental and cultural flows, which involves defining a new aesthetic philosophy and social agenda for parametric environmental design. Specifically, the unit will work on articulating habitable-ground systems to alleviate the climatic, circulatory and social stagnation that afflicts many global cities.’
I think the AA is referring to drainage systems, but I’m not sure. At least with the Met I was reasonably confident I might understand what was going on. For here is a school that seems confident in the material, technical and social art of architecture, a school which recognises that contemporary architecture is part of a continuum of history. That is not to suggest that the work fails to challenge conventions and orthodoxies. Much of it stands out as questioning the relationship between programme, context and idea. But it is familiar and legible, and the work is the richer for it.
With bleak economic prospects and a supply of architecture graduates that exceeds demand, I approached the London Met exhibition enquiring what value our future professionals might be able to offer an industry on its knees. The energy and commitment of the Met’s students and the quality of their output speaks for itself. Every wall in the school is adorned from floor to soffit with beautiful drawings, meticulous models or the latest form of rendered image. Perhaps the competitiveness of the job market has pushed students to work harder and produce more and better. But, stamped on the ample work is the hallmark of a school that, year after year, is growing clearer and more coherent in its idea of architecture.
Strong underlying themes run through the unit-based teaching – such as a focus on resource efficiency from David Grandorge and Peter Karl Becher’s students, exploring the potential of converting multi-storey car parks into schools; or UFO’s unit examining the ecology of construction and digital manufacture with a view to minimising waste.
The other notable interest here is in the relationship of architecture to the city. The Architecture Research Unit’s studio has shifted from its former polemic about invisible, matt buildings to a discourse about the presence of architecture as city block. Lynch and Jones’ students explored the contiguity of building and public space, while AOC’s found value in the suburbs of Milton Keynes. Duncan Bowie’s urban planning course is helping to address the skills shortage in this area and engages with considerations about the relationship of planning, urban design and architecture.
But, returning to my original line of enquiry about what students can offer the profession, maybe one answer comes from the Met’s Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resource programme. Studio 6 and Unit 7 embedded themselves in Kuchpura in Agra, India. They collaborated with the independent NGO Cure (Co-ordination Unit for the Rehabilitation of the Environment) and instigated, without undue rhetoric, the installation of a wastewater treatment system. The enterprise of students identifying a problem, finding a client, engaging with a community and realising a project encourages me to think that students have entrepreneurial skills that can ease real social and economic pressures.
Alex Ely is a partner at mæ architects
Resume: A sharply focused engagement, free of modish obfuscation, sets the Met apart