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Gem Barton: 'Universities are not in the business of producing faster horses'

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There appears to be an underlying opinion that education exists solely as a service to the industry - this is grossly inaccurate, says Gem Barton

The education system is not akin to a production line; you cannot order a graduate with the right ingredients. This kind of approach would stifle and smother natural selection and industry advancement. This belief has been pedalled by professionals and the press (to an extent) that almost everyone believes it.

Founder of Ford Motors Henry Ford famously said: ‘If I had asked the customers what they wanted they would have said, faster horses’. Providing people with what they think they want/need isn’t always the smartest move for society and innovation. This is one of the fundamental problems we encounter when the receiving industry does not always fully understand the university system. Universities were developed as scientific places for invention, research and development and to foster, nurture and harbour innovation.

Ruth Morrow, professor of architecture at Queens University Belfast commented: ‘Architectural education is not just there for practice but also for society. A large number of those entering architectural studies go on to take other roles in society - (some of which benefit those in practice)’.

She added: ‘It’s questionable whether the profession does represent the ‘modern world ’ or indeed ‘reality’ given its appalling gender imbalance. Let’s not forget how abnormal we are as a profession’.

In a good studio good students will promptly become very useful

In discussing the AJ article (AJ 02.02.14) with Will Alsop, professor of architecture at UCA, he told me: ‘Architectural education is always under scrutiny from the profession, about creating ‘office fodder’ as it were. Good students will learn quickly and in a good studio they will promptly become very useful. I look for imagination, flexibility and good communication skills, in a broad sense. If they don’t know something I expect them to be able to know where to find it.’

There is a disparity here, which has been made worse by a lack of communication between industry and education. Nowhere in a course handbook will you find a university claiming to train a student for the ‘job’. Universities teach people how to have ideas, how to think – not what to think. University is a learning experience, not a technical training. The learning does not stop once the course is completed, graduates then have the responsibility to continue their own life learning through experimentation and experience, the world (and the office) becomes their classroom.

‘We are not educating students to fit in with the ‘reality’ of out-of-date professional practices. Skills also develop over time, with practice, in practice. If a practice considers itself to be ‘modern’ it should also take seriously its responsibility to keep supporting its employees skill development’, added Morrow, in response to the article.

Part 1 and Part 2 graduates are still students, they are still in the midst of their seven year study programme, one that includes a minimum term in practice - this is a part of their education - proved by the necessity of it’s completion prior to Part 3 registration. It is during this time that the students develop greater knowledge and understanding of the ‘realities of practice’ in practice. If Part 1 and 2 graduates were ‘oven-ready’ they would no longer be students and would warrant a substantially larger salary equitable to that of the Part 3 graduate and higher.

The first year of architectural study could be used as a one-year conversion course, setting up new possibilities of collaborative learning and practice. Much of the architecture education premise ‘over-values pretentious drivel and under-values knowledge, precipitating twin villains: arrogance and ignorance’. It is this ego-perpetuation of the industry that can be most harmful to the nurturing of new graduates in practice, be they Part 1, 2 or 3. Universities should be experimental hubs of new knowledge and practice. New graduates in practice should be considered a gift-wrapped delivery of priceless naivety; fresh, non-egotistical, non-tarnished, bright, alive and ready to learn, but practices have to (and should want to) mould them too.

Harriet Harriss, principal lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and champion of ‘live projects’ learning told me: ‘One of the problems facing schools is that they try to simultaneously reflect and direct the needs of practice: producing oven-ready graduates conditioned to meet the needs of business ‘as is’ who are also equipped with the skills needed to move practice forward through innovation and entrepreneurship’.

While Perry Kulper, associate professor of architecture at University of Michigan described it to like this: ‘Architecture education should not aim to prove the profession, but rather there should be significant points of contact and radical points of difference between professional training and disciplinary positioning.’

University should be the golden gates of new ideas

A quick scroll through the comments sections on design websites’ coverage of degree shows can reveal a certain amount of distain for the type and quality of work being produced by graduates. Most comments centre around the theme that the work showcased often shows little of the skills valid for employability. So what is architecture school for? Should it be concerned with pandering to the demands of the commercial market or should it be dedicated to furthering the discipline as a whole? Not all academics and institutions would agree on the answer to this question but I believe (perhaps overly utopian) that the university should be the golden gates of new ideas, respected and accepted for its radical practices – one that should be supported and nurtured by its government and its industry - not ridiculed at degree shows for ‘lack of detailing prowess’ or beaten into submission by stats and surveys about unemployment and drop out rates.

Architecture education strives to prepare students mentally and emotionally for a life in practice, with as many of the skills as is possible/suitable to develop within the university system. One of the key findings from the RIBA Appointments: Skills Survey Report 2014 that the original AJ article failed to comment on was that employers found students’ design skills to be satisfactory and when employers were asked which five personal attributes they believe to be most important they listed self-confident, relevant experience, analytical, flexible and critical. I believe a good school of architecture will produce students with good design skills and the personal traits listed above – and this takes time. Time which would be reduced if we were to double the curriculum to include all the knowledge areas employers also deem vital for graduates; Building Regulations, planning systems, design and specification, RIBA Plan of work and BIM. To do all of the above, in the time scale currently available, with the resources at hand, is impossible.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • This is just disingenuous drivel. Today's practitioners were yesterday's students and so have experience of both these worlds. You should read what recent RIBA Gold Medal winners O'Donnell & Tuomey had to say on education, i.e practice having more bearing on teaching. No one is arguing for graduates to be able to administrate building contracts at the age of 21, but they are asking why students don't seem to understand the basic physicality of architecture; the basics of how buildings are made, in the real world, after completing a degree in the subject. The level of authority, competence and professionalism expected of architects is much higher than I think people like Professor Barton realise (if this article is anything to go by). We're not artists or simly designers. Will Alsop is a genius in my opinion, but look how many times the guy has gone bust!

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  • Clinton Cole

    The decade in which Henry Ford produced the first production line auto-mobile is the same decade that architectural education was formalised globally (1900's). Our 'educators' have had a century of opportunity to dismantle and restructure architectural education yet to this day it remains fuelled by outdated, outmoded, irrelevant, archaic and inevitably unsustainable indoctrinated views, your own a case in point albeit, somewhat perfunctory Henry Ford designed, marketed, engineered and made/invented an exclusive product into an affordable product for the masses. How do your students benefit and whom does your utopian architectural education provide for?
    Clinton Cole
    Director
    CplusC Architectural Workshop

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  • I think Professor Barton is right in saying the the aim of architectural education is not to train staff for practices. Considering the diversity of architectural practice world-wide and the different forms and shapes it currently takes and it could take, I am not even sure such a programme would be feasible. However, this isn't to say that the education should not aim to provide the students with the right set of skills to enter into to market and make valuable contributions.
    As someone who is both a practitioner and a tutor, I think that architectural education does not equip the students with some of the fundamental skills that they need to operate and innovate in the 'real world'. I don't think those skills are necessarily about detailing and building regulations but rather the ability to deal with, analyse and understand information. Architectural practice as I know it, is a collaborative practice which sits at the intersection of many different disciplines. An ability to understand and analyse data, whether in form of statistics, legal documentation, financial figures,technical specification, qualitative or quantitative surveys or historical information and an understanding of the methodologies for dealing with these types of information is perhaps a fundamental skill that architecture graduates lack.
    In my opinion, architectural education places to great a focus on a dialogue which is internal to the discipline rather than helping the students understand the context of the discipline and the practice of architecture and giving them the tools to be able to learn and operate effectively once dealing with the world on non-architects.

    Pouya Zamanpour
    Director of London Atelier
    Associate Lecturer at Oxford Brookes

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