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Debate: Should architecture only be taught at universities?

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Student Shows 2014: Oren Lieberman & Christopher Platt debate whether architecture should only be taught at universities


Yes by Oren Lieberman

I maintain that the education of an architect needs to be commensurate with the complexities of architecture itself; so it would be contradictory to say that the university is the only place to learn architecture.

There are, and need to be, a variety of contexts which support a person’s engagement with knowledge, skills, and critical reflection. So, while I am taking the ‘Yes’ side of the debate here, that ‘Yes’ does not negate the need for a rich variety of learning and practising contexts, which include, of course, the academic institution as one of the most productive substrates for developing and producing architecture.

The complexity to which I refer not only concerns itself with the breadth of possible artefacts which might be defined as architecture, or are entwined with architecture’s distribution in the environment, but also with those artefacts in time: what is the time of the design process - indeed, does it end? What are the effects of our interventions in the world and what is their duration? The architectural material artefact is not just in the world, but it is participating in that world’s ongoing coming into being.

In discussions around the position of the university with respect to practice, the ‘ivory tower’ label is often employed to set up what is a very limiting binary opposition, which places the university somehow outside the ‘real’ world. This is a rather narrow-minded rendering of that expanded field called architectural production, where ‘reality’ is in fact everywhere and not an exclusive purview of an architectural office.

The reason that the university is a place where architecture should be taught is that it is commensurate with that expanded field of production, which includes a breadth of disciplines, methods, methodologies, epistemologies, and indeed, ontologies. The university emphasises the entanglements of, in the words of artist Michael Craig-Martin, ‘creativity, individual initiative, self-motivation, self-discipline, lateral thinking, scepticism about received wisdom, adaptability, practical skills, and contemporary awareness’.

The argument can certainly be made that in the best architecture offices these dimensions are also present, and a university education should certainly draw upon practice.

However, it should not blindly mimic it. The office and the university are different places. While the connection between learning architecture at university and becoming an architect is a direct one, practice and university are embodiments of different worlds, not merely of different world views. Universities and professional practices can take different sorts of risks, can ask different questions, can enact different positions and, indeed, because of these differences, can together engage in an amazingly rich dialogue.

Even in these times of growing marketisation of higher education and an instrumentalisation of it through various measurements and assessments of ‘impact’, I still believe that the academy has a performative capacity to empower people to make a difference in the world, and it continues to be one of the most important learning contexts for architecture.

Practice of course is another, and indeed, there are many contexts both in between and completely outside of these two in which architecture is learned.

The more the merrier, I say.

Oren Lieberman is dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Arts University Bournemouth


No by Christopher Platt

Should architecture even be taught at all? Preparing for a life in architectural practice is a long and complex process. Only a small part involves attending an educational institute. The rest involves the life-long learning process of observation, practice and reflection. Paradoxically, we prepare for ‘doing it’ by ‘doing it’.

Should architectural education be about preparing for practice or about education in the broadest sense? Perhaps it can be about both. Should we separate the activity of studying the topic of architecture from the issue of entry to the profession or should architecture remain (like medicine) a vocational subject, where there is a presumption that those embarking on the course wish to practise?

For better or for worse, I’ve always been attracted to the vocational position, presuming that those embarking on studying architecture would like one day to practise and build their ideas. That’s an unfashionable position at present, often cited as ‘conformist’ or ‘traditional’, or described as ‘training’; but for me the attraction of architecture has always been the activity of tuning ideas into three-dimensional reality, working closely with people as individuals and communities to make a difference to how they live.

Given that architecture has been around a lot longer than the academy, it’s curious that the latter is the default learning environment for the former. It’s a salutary fact that some of the world’s most distinguished architects did not complete nor, indeed, attend a university or architecture course. I entered an architect’s office on my 17th birthday straight from school and was a participant on the Mackintosh School of Architecture’s part-time course for four years before becoming a full-time student at 21. At a formative stage, this immersed me in the environment of an architect’s studio, exposing me to teamwork, the excitement of a building site, the importance of accuracy and taught me not to be precious about authorship, among other things. The joy of studying the topic in the traditional manner came to me much later and has remained with me since.

The best preparation for any vocational subject is surely a ‘learning and doing’ environment, in which the growing complexity of the topic and the role is revealed by a steady accumulation of knowledge, skills and critical reflection, ideally with peers and experts.

That is essentially the definition of a studio, and the studio is the beating heart of architectural education: a physical place and a way of working that brings together research, the design process, people and debate. Whether it needs to be located in the safe haven of a higher education institute or in a more decentralised structure across practices is for me a highly debatable one. The most helpful model is probably something between the Open University and the innovative architectural practice, rather than say, Oxbridge, Yale or ETH Zürich.

In higher education establishments we are part of an ever-increasingly regulated and audited learning and teaching industry, where academic processes and procedures seem to dominate, rather than serve the core academic business of research, teaching and knowledge exchange.

This can stifle pedagogical agility and spontaneity by eating into staff time, energy and morale. The particular educational needs of architectural education are considered no different than those of chemistry, English literature or ancient Greek. In the academy, the seamlessness of knowledge is allowed to treat everything homogeneously. The result, however, is an over-academicising of the discipline of architecture, which sends out misleading messages to students about what is important about being an architect. This goes to the very heart about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘training’.

Now is certainly the time to consider alternative models and to ask far-reaching questions about what is the most supportive environment in which to prepare for a life in architectural practice.

Christopher Platt is head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture

The views here are expressed in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackintosh School of Architecture nor of the Glasgow School of Art

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Christopher Platt is articulate and talks sense. He makes his points clearly and with feeling.
    Oren Lieberman completely undermines his own argument by proving that being Dean of a University Faculty does not mean that he can express himself cogently or write english. His argument is gobbledegook. Meaningless puffed up vocabulary to express... what? I have no idea. Perhaps he should join an Architectural practice and take some lessons in ordinary communication and humility.

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