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AF debate: Mull calls for clarity on architectural education

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Robert Mull has called for architecture’s ‘warring parents’ the RIBA and ARB to come together or risk infantilizing architecture education

The dean and director of architecture at London Metropolitan University’s Cass spoke to the AJ ahead of a panel discussion by the Architecture Foundation this week which aims to explore and debate the future of education.

Mull has demanded a radical change to address the new realities of students who wish to train in the profession and warned that students from different backgrounds could be priced out of architecture due to concerns over their future debts.

The free panel discussion entitled Futures in the Making: A Panel Discussion Exploring the Future of Architectural Education, includes dean and director of architecture at the University of Greenwich Neil Spiller; Peter Clegg, senior partner at Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios and Brighton University lecturer Gem Barton.

The panel will present their views on what skills are vital in order for students to rise to the many challenges which architects face in practice; discuss what should students learn on an architecture course and whether; are there gaps in the curriculum.

The event starts at 7pm at Wednesday 26 November in Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Twenty Tottenham Street, London W1T 4RF. Anyone wishing to attend the event can reserve tickets here.

Q&A: Robert Mull, dean and director of Architecture, The Cass

How has architectural education changed over the last ten years and has it kept pace with the world architects are facing today?
The structures of architectural education have changed little while higher education, of which it is a part, has changed radically. The effective privatization of higher education, fees, student debt and fear of debt has all impacted on architecture students on long professional courses.

As a result education - and in time the profession - will become smaller, less diverse and less representative of the society it serves. This is a great loss.

What have evolved are student’s priorities. They are more socially engaged, caring, active and determined to do something useful with their privilege and skills whilst they are students and once they graduate.

This has lead to new forms of practice, which are more cooperative, more discursive and more humane. Schools have been a part of this but there is so much more to be done to refine educational and professional structures to match this change.  This is a challenge but a source of great optimism.

Is the part 1,2 and 3 system working?
No. Since the Delft Declaration architectural education has been pushing for a reform of the part 1,2,3 system and the length of architectural education to allow for greater flexibility of delivery in response to evolving student needs including debt.  While significant progress has been made we are still waiting for decisive change.

But educations obsession with structural change and the relationship between its sometimes-warring parents the RIBA and ARB risks infantilizing it and can be an excuse for inactivity. Students, schools and practice need to realize they are architectural education and act together to take greater control of content, be active, ambitious and less compliant.

How can our architectural education equip graduates with the right skills so they can contribute to these bigger, more complex and socially challenging questions?
Over the last ten years the boundaries between schools and the society they serve and are a part of have been broken down. Real clients, live projects and project offices have allowed students to question and refine their value not just as professionals but also as caring citizens. This shift has been matched by the teaching of the hard business, communication and participatory skills demanded by the live project environment.

Other supportive structures such as work based learning, earn and learn, accelerated and decelerated study remain complicated by current funding patterns and by the EU directive. This is an area that needs strong collective lobbying.

Similarly is there enough taught about localism, getting involved at grass roots levels, funding, community engagement, business skills and making money?
Teachers practice, practitioners teach, schools practice. The lazy view that there is a comfortable separation between education and practice is increasingly redundant and a distraction.

In terms of formal teaching it varies of course between schools. But participatory design, community engagement and business skills are now taught and used in most schools.  Often this is done as part of live projects carried out with local and international partners.

Everywhere the economic, social and political infrastructures that predetermine architecture are seen as part of the material students need to understand and feel confident they can influence.

Many students in contexts like my Free Unit see education as the first stage of their future practice.  There is no longer the real world and the “unreal” world of education. Many are already working or active in their own practices, agitating, making, building consensus and thriving.  Most hardly notice graduation. This blurring of the boundary between education and practice is liberating and suggests a new balance that needs to be matched by new academic, professional and financial structures.

Could there be a more open and honest split between schools of architecture and what they intend to deliver?
I value a strong connection between a student’s life experience and ethical position and what they do as students. Many schools already have distinct characters, which are well understood by potential students, current students and employers. Within schools courses and units provide further levels of specialism that represent the complexity of current practice and allow students to locate themselves within this complexity.

More can be done to offer students distinct choices. But at present all schools need to deliver all the criteria and the degree of specialism allowed in validated and prescribed courses is very limited.

What one piece of advice would you give a prospective student today?
I would defer to the late great Sam Potts -ex Free Unit and founder of RARA (The Redundant Architects Recreation Society) who advised ‘Make some s—t and make it beautiful’.

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