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Degree show review 2019: University of Edinburgh

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The work here is challenging … beautiful, thought-provoking and entitled to our full intellectual attention

The University of Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA) has maintained a strong but quiet reputation for many years. Spread over two buildings on Chambers Street, the show is heaving. A queue of visiting architects outside the exhibition betrays a clear industry demand for ESALA graduates.

The final-year undergraduate studios (or units) focus on architectural, urban and landscape challenges within a Scottish, if not national context. The work is sound and rigorous but somewhat stifled by the sterile, linear set-up. One of the studios is ‘open’, meaning students propose their own theses based on a specific area of interest. This studio stands out. It feels raw, earnest and refreshingly uncurated.

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Meanwhile, MArch students elect for one of five studios. Each explores the identity of a different international city. With campaigners such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion bringing to light the urgent need for a response to the climate change emergency, I must confess, I enter the MArch show hoping for a challenging inquiry into our impending post-carbon world.

The studio Blue Lagoon: Bath, led by Lisa Moffitt and Simone Ferracina, hits the nail on the head. Almost. Field trips to the hot springs of Iceland and Bath prompt speculative proposals for a post-carbon city. An array of makeshift water tanks and wind tunnels visualise thermal streams in air and water, providing fascinating, hypnotic film footage.

There are promising ideas: hydroponic food production, algae cultivation for biomass, geothermal fuels, all of which drive strong building forms. However, it is frustrating that the studio is littered with proposals for the architect’s favourite – the good old thermal baths. At least if we survive the climate emergency we know where to head for a dip.

Georgio Ponzo and Ana Garcia’s MArch studio, The Other Paris, interrogates the live-work relationship in Parisian suburbs in light of future Metro line expansions. The works on display here by and large conform to a rational, solid sub-urbanism, with many of the projects submitting to prevailing Modernist principles.

The newest studio, Chris French and Maria Mitsoula’s City Fragments: Palermo, proposes new institutions to nurture civic change in the wake of post-war planning. Harriet Garbutt and Miles Heath’s joint proposal for a new Syncretic City is a sensitive exploration into the reconciliation of production, craft and re-emerging religions.

Rather appropriately, these two students have seemingly worked so in sync that, were it not for the colour difference between drawings, it would be hard to tell the projects were executed by different people. Garbutt’s ceramic-tiled Weaving Workshops and Heath’s towering Dye Production Facilities are beautifully illustrated in the context of a long city section, exposing intricate, thoughtful proposals.

It is nigh-impossible to get into the room playing host to Dorian Wiszniewski’s sixth-year MArch studio, Parasituation: Calcutta. A series of excruciatingly detailed measured drawings of street and market life, aptly referred to as ‘Moments of Intensity’, have strongly informed the students’ choice of representation across the studio. 

Line drawings are balanced by beautifully conceived paper constructions pinned to walls and models in various media sit on welded stands around the space. The work here is strong. Andrew Chavet and Kate Le Masurier’s Crafting the Liminal suggests a new architectural policy which treats the neglected water-threatened clay buildings of the city as a scaffold for transitional development. It is an intriguing approach to adaptable, temporal living and admirably executed.

Situated in Collective Architects’ newly refurbished former printworks, is Island Territories: Manhattan. This studio runs across both fifth and sixth years; the current students have one year remaining. Led by Adrian Hawker and Victoria Bernie, the cartographic methodologies of John Randel Jr, surveyor-come-designer of Manhattan, are referenced to explore memory and culture within the city. On first impression, the studio feels reminiscent of bygone Bartlett days; dark, de-saturated visuals and layered-up plane tables, illustrating strenuous mapping exercises which would remain incomprehensible, were it not for time-lapse footage of the contraptions in use. 

View from walkway smol

View from walkway smol

Perhaps as a result of no final-year pressures, the students’ work exudes a freedom of chaotic exploration which is not as evident in most other studios.

One attendee, clearly baffled, questions the intellectual accessibility of the show, suggesting that art is now more relatable than the works on display here. I put this to MArch director Adrian Hawker, who tells me this view comes as no surprise. Art shows, he comments, are often exhibited as a carefully curated series or singular piece with little else to distract our attentions, allowing subjectivity.

He’s right to some extent. Architecture requires the viewer to be proactive, absorbing the designer’s sometimes enigmatic thesis and immersing ourselves in the process in order to gain a reasonable understanding of the final product.

Yes, the work here is intellectually challenging. Yet I am left asking myself, is not this beautiful, thought-provoking and Irn Bru-fuelled culmination of creative endeavour, as entitled to our full intellectual attention as Tracey Emin’s bed?

Natasha Ho is an architectural assistant at Hawkins\Brown

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