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Degree show review 2019: Welsh School of Architecture

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In an age where the relevance of the architect can be questioned, these students appear ready to challenge that view

 Asturriving at the Welsh School of Architecture (WSA) on a balmy Friday evening to celebrate the launch of this year’s degree show, turntables spin, music pulses and students appear rightly upbeat.

The show has been carefully curated by the students themselves, with clear wayfinding leading the viewer on an engaging, meandering path through the corridors and rooms of this hulking space with relative ease. 

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The MArch (fifth-year) degree output forms the centrepiece of the show and, stepping away from the carnival atmosphere of the main concourse, a surprisingly restrained sense of order becomes evident. Sharing a consistent visual language, each design studio is introduced, pronouncing overarching themes, motivations and rationales before the individual student’s work unfolds around the viewer. 

If there is one criticism, it would be that, in creating such a uniform display, the vibrancy and chaotic blend of individual students’ own personalities risk merging into a single homogeneous entity. Perhaps reflected by one studio taking it upon themselves to subvert the ‘brand’, daubing fluorescent pink tape on each of its displays.

But what becomes clear from the high-calibre work on show is a common thread that unites each of the varied studios – an architecture of compassionate, thought-provoking ideas, firmly rooted in place and the human context it is designed to serve.

In the Craft and Environmental Imagination studios, projects display interest in the process and experience of architecture, laced with phenomenological exploration and haptic, sensory spaces – from disused slate mines to subterranean viaducts in the heart of London. The Scent Repository, by Alexandra Simms, proposes a fascinating building that takes the user on a beautifully illustrated mechanical, kinetic journey through perfume-making.

These projects display an acute awareness of the issues faced in Wales by marginalised individuals

The themes in the Infrastructural Urbanism and Healthy Communities studios carry some of the most socially conscious messages. The guerilla spirit of rejecting the ever-increasing privatisation of the public realm is tackled head-on by Fiona Fearnley with Unclassified in the Urban Realm.

The recognition that our policed urban realm is under-used, when it could provide refuge and opportunity for those with nothing, is powerful. These projects display an acute awareness of the issues faced in Wales by marginalised individuals, whether through homelessness or the post-industrial decline of the Welsh Valleys. It is reassuring to think this cohort of graduates has devoted time trying to solve such issues – let’s hope this sentiment can be put into practice in future.

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Elsewhere the ‘Local Adaptation’ studio run by Kate Darby and Gianni Botsford delivers an intriguing collision between the natural and hyper-digital; manifesting itself in a primer project working at 1:1, forming timber structures ‘cut’ by shadows cast on site by adjacent structures. The understanding and focus bestowed upon timber as a building element is almost cathartic – the project One Oak Tree by Oliver Martin takes this idea to the extreme by cataloguing the entirety of a single oak tree before allocating each part for use in the construction of a writer’s retreat.

The Value studio provides a fascinating look at the role communities – in conjunction with architects – might play in the age of a diminishing public sector. Group research is carried out to underpin each studio, but perhaps it is most evident in The Value Pocket Book, a document that, with more time, would no doubt make for valuable reading.

Forging Tacit Networks, the re-imagination of a former steelworks into a community-led craft cider brewery and biodiversification project network by Matthew Gaunt, certainly piqued my Herefordian interests. There is an equally impressive display of understanding seen in the engaging Livable Urbanism Mangalore studio, focused upon applying the concepts of the ‘smart city’.

Welsh School of Architecture

Welsh School of Architecture

Source: Welsh School of Architecture

Welsh School of Architecture degree show


Winding down through the building, the processional route is interspersed with work from various groups within the WSA, including the MArch fourth-year students, who spend a sandwich year in practice while carrying out design and research work. 

Reaching the ground floor, the BSc work on display is of a high standard, with a clear display of confidence and pragmatism on show. Interestingly, many social issues running in parallel to their peers at MArch level are tackled, as seen in the themes investigated by the Hay and District Social Club and The Commons studios. While computer imagery is, of course, prevalent throughout, it is refreshing to see that the art of hand-drawing is still practised and used effectively in many of the schemes on show.

The WSA can be applauded for producing a show that demonstrates its students’ imagination, with a clear appreciation for the conceptual, whilse keeping one eye firmly fixed on the logic and rigour that form an equally vital part of architectural practice. In an age where the relevance of the architect can be questioned, these students appear ready to challenge that view.

Oliver Steels is an architect and founder of ERRAND Studio 

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