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Debate: should architecture schools produce ‘oven-ready’ architects?

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Earlier this year, Bell Phillips director Hari Phillips took issue with Rory Olcayto’s Leader comment that universities don’t exist merely to feed staff to practices. Five months later, would a visit with the AJ to the Bartlett’s student show change his mind?

Keen twitterati will remember a storm – well, strong breeze – which blew up on the social media platform back in February between Architects’ Journal editor Rory Olcayto and Hari Phillips, a director of Bell Phillips Architects. The dispute was over architectural education. Phillips’ beef was that many graduates, while full of big ideas, struggle with the practical end of the business. Olcayto countered that universities were not merely there to provide practices like his with cheap labour. 

One of the more speculative projects at the Bartlett Summer Show

One of the more speculative projects at the Bartlett Summer Show

This debate cut to the heart of a vital issue. Faced with skills shortages, practices like Phillips’, which works predominantly in the housing sector, are crying out for graduates who can hit the working world at a sprint. But, for many, this can jar with the fundamental purpose of education, which should allow bright young minds to soar into uncharted territory before the reality of producing a door schedule on a spec office block sucks them back to earth. The spat ended with Hari agreeing to meet the AJ at a summer show to examine the students’ work. In July we got in touch again and decided upon the Bartlett. It seemed the perfect theatre. The school is famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for generating conceptual and – let’s be honest – occasionally confusing work.

The challenge is how to translate what you see at the graduate show into the day-to-day work of architecture

‘Maybe it is the different space (this year the Masters show was held in a warehouse, rather than the Quadrant), but it feels fresher, less dense and more accessible,’ says Phillips. ‘The old Bartlett shows had a very cohesive direction, but were obsessed with graphics and amazing visuals, which were not always easy to translate into what they meant as a building. I feel there are more diverse ideas, presentations and a greater engagement with issues like housing density. There is less shape-making and fewer machines and random objects.’

By way of example, Phillips points to an impressively detailed section drawing that tackles housing for senior citizens. ‘Housing is the biggest issue for us as a practice and this feels like a very real unit to me. People are not just making shapes on the computer and pressing ‘render’. They are working in multimedia and the presentation feels really vibrant.’

Indeed, Phillips’ enthusiasm for the show seems undampened by the plinth of pristine toilet rolls opposite him or the tower scaffold made of bike wheels. It certainly marked a softening of the stance adopted by the architect prior to his visit but Phillips, who took his Part 3 at the Bartlett, is clearly speaking from experience when he criticises certain elements of architectural education.

‘There are a few units where you feel the unit master is this godlike figure and everyone just draws what he or she wants them to draw.’  To illustrate his point, Phillips moves into another area of the show populated by 3D printed forms. ‘What we look for is a good work ethic and a passion for architecture and the Bartlett has never had a problem with either of those things.  The challenge is how to translate what you see at the graduate show into the day-to-day work of architecture.’

Phillips looks at some intricate parametric shapes, few of which resemble a finished building. ‘I question the validity of this,’ he says. ‘Perhaps they could work at Zaha’s or for Libeskind. If one of these guys sent a CV to us there would not be a place for them in our firm.’

Exhibits at the Bartlett Summer Show

Exhibits at the Bartlett Summer Show

A glance around the unit confirms that this crop of hopefuls would not be the most natural fit for Bell Phillips. The practice mainly focuses on housing so it is probably fair to say that interest in hiring potential starchitects is limited. And here is the rub. Few would deny that we stand at a critical moment in higher education. The days of the student grant are long gone and the new wave of 20-somethings enters the workplace potentially saddled with £30,000 of debt. It is therefore worth asking what price we put on personal and intellectual development. In an ideal world, universities are forums for free enquiry, where young minds are given the freedom to explore new ideas and yes, fail. But is it right for lecturers to concentrate on the big picture at the expense of practical skills? It is a shame to entertain the thought that perhaps high-minded conceptual work is becoming an indulgence in the global market place.

For Phillips, it comes down to economics:

‘University degrees are a huge investment, so you need to think very hard about how employable you are at the end of it. It is a good market at the moment in London and everyone is looking for staff. But it can be a very tough market.’  With that thought in mind, are there any budding architects on show that Phillips would employ?

‘Definitely,’ he says. ‘In fact, I think we have already been in contact with a few. About half our practice are Bartlett graduates.’

While it is heartening to hear that graduates are still very much in demand, the contrast between Phillips’ initial and later reactions highlights the complexity of the architectural education issue. Twitter cannot hope to reflect the subtleties of the argument of course. After his visit to the show, Phillips became involved in another back-and-forth on Twitter about the same subject. This time however, the architect, perhaps chastened by his tour of the Bartlett, found himself defending the very position he had initially attacked. His antagonist David Kerrison was having none of it. No doubt the debate will continue to rage on Twitter and elsewhere.

7 February Phillips’ challenge

Phillips challenges AJ editor Rory Olcayto’s leader column, headlined: ‘Universities don’t exist to create oven-ready graduates

Hari Phillips (@hari_BPA): U wouldn’t expect a doctor to graduate without knowing the difference between the head and the feet.

Rory Olcayto (@roryolcayto): In your experience are graduates as thick as that? And what was your own education like? So different from today?

Hari Phillips: Personally I had a varied & rich education in Bath, Barcelona & East London (more by luck than judgement).

Rory Olcayto: You made it through OK but today’s students can’t? Also, in universities I visit fundamentals are taught.

Hari Phillips: I was lucky to get a good balance. Bath is v unusual in its relationship to the industry…

Rory Olcayto: The truth is, architectural education is a mixed bag. It probably shouldn’t be vocational either. Why can’t we have an architectural degree like an eng.lit degree – that allows students to frame thoughts architecturally?

Hari Phillips: Fair enough. But it’s all skewed one way at the mo.

Rory Olcayto: But your own experience contradicts this. It’s not as bad as you think!

Hari Phillips: Bath is an oddity and Barcelona’s in Spain so not sure about that.

Rory Olcayto: Thinking maybe you shouldn’t write off all the schools you didn’t happen to study at.

Hari Phillips: Now who’s being disingenuous?

Rory Olcayto: Um where?  Yr comments are sweeping. Most schools employ working architects to run studios. I trust them. Don’t you?

Hari Phillips: Is that true? Many are academics who don’t practice.

Rory Olcayto: I know a lot of working architects who teach. I’m not going to list them but ask around. And your doctor analogy is funny but disingenuous. I won’t explain why.  You’re smart enough to know better!

Hari Phillips: My point is that grads really don’t understand the industry they’re going in to – the reality where we assemble materials to produce (mostly) buildings.

Rory Olcayto: I believe strongly in education as mind-expansion, not training.

Hari Phillips: Bit of both please.

Rory Olcayto: That’s why there is two years training in practice … your wish is granted. Hari – maybe go to the schools shows this year.  We’ll come with you. And write about it.

Hari Phillips: OK. I’ll bring some humble pie just in case.

Rory Olcayto: ok. That’s the AJ student issue sorted then. #goodnightswork

10 July Phillips’ Twitter appraisal

Hari Phillips: Greatly enjoyed the Bartlett School of Architecture’s Summer Show. Fresh, vibrant, diverse and engaging

David Kerrison (@davidkerri): Are they buildable?

Hari Phillips: A surprising number of actual buildings and engagement with pressing social issues.

David Kerrisonn: I’m sure social problems are there. Are the buildings buildable? Or mere ‘concepts’?

Hari Phillips: Some yes, some no. A healthy mixture.

David Kerrison: How are unbuildables healthy after years of studying?

Hari Phillips: Because architecture is a broad subject, of which building buildings is just one aspect

David Kerrison: Ah, that explains it. Here is me thinking it was about buildings.

Hari Phillips: And critical theory, urbanism, history, technology, psychology, perception, economics…

David Kerrison: I know. Not much use to most practices wrestling with the contractors over the drawings.

Hari Phillips: That’s where the students with the buildable projects come in.

David Kerrison: Yep


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Readers' comments (1)

  • A nice piece - the education debate is complex, but becomes polarised when we forget that the whole of life is an education. The notion of an 'oven-ready employee' makes the false assumption that all of education happens before starting work, and that after one starts working one ceases to learn and should be valued purely in terms of the efficiency with which one 'produces the goods'. If architecture were so codified as to make this possible then quite frankly someone would have computerised it by now. It is not, even in the repeat business of housing.

    What a good university education does is to teach people how to learn. The key components of this are to ensure that students learn to question all received wisdom, have open and curious minds and are reflective and critical about their own thought processes and so can recognise what they are getting stuck within a mindset, and know how to get unstuck. They learn how to accomplish these things both individually, using plastic media to stimulate thought, and collectively through discussing and debating in the tutorial and crit. This is a surprisingly general set of soft skills which means that when they arrive in the office they should be able to learn all those things that they have not been taught, but will tend to do so whilst questioning what they are being told.

    I am sure there are practices that go out to buy an oven-ready employee, but perhaps they shouldn't complain if what they get is more McCain than Raymond Blanc?

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