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Degree show review: Newcastle University

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There is a remarkable clarity to much of the work at Newcastle University’s end-of-year show, dealing with practical situations but with twists that reveal students’ preoccupations

The London opening night of the Newcastle School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape degree show is, in fact, its only night. Like many schools, Newcastle has for many years held a satellite show in London. When it became apparent that some 90 per cent of visitors attend the opening night, it was decided to essentially hold a one-night party, featuring a curated selection of work from the Newcastle version of the show.

Speaking to head of school Adam Sharr, it seems this sense of giving London a taster without acquiescing to the city’s huge appeal for graduates is intentional. One of the school’s recent strategies, for example, has been the provision of incubators, making it easier for graduates to start up in the city in which they studied.

Sharr describes Newcastle as a ‘research-led school’, the aim here is on training graduates who are not only ready for their first day at work, but also have some kind of personal focus, playing incredibly well into the increasing specialisation of practice.

As a result, there is a remarkable clarity to much of the work, dealing with practical situations and often a relatively straightforward brief but twisting it in a way that reveals what has been preoccupying each particular student.

This year Stage 5, for example, centres on Vienna, producing responses from Iván J Márquez Muñoz’s ‘what if’ scenario of the city voting ‘yes’ to the 2028 Olympic Games; to Nathaniel Coleman’s Return of the Repressed, dealing with the various historical spectres that haunt the city. Both have highly theoretical aspects, but lead back to serious design propositions, with Muñoz’s fictional studio working with his investigations of the city to understand how Olympic infrastructure might actually engage with such a place.

Ivan J Marquez Munoz: Vienna 2028

Ivan J Marquez Munoz: Vienna 2028

Ivan J Marquez Munoz: Vienna 2028

Continuing this strength in grappling with existing conditions, Assemblages (Stage 6, Studio 2), led by Zeynep Kezer and Jennie Webb, asks students to choose an ‘assemblage’ – a collective made up of interactive components – intensively map it and propose a spatial intervention. Newcastle’s Bigg Market, the Irish Border and North Shields are all under scrutiny here, again drawn with convincing clarity.

Moving through these Part 2 projects to the Part 1 work it becomes clear where this focus comes from. Many Stage 1 units look at modelling a tiny portion of a building, understanding a 1:50 plan or section, examining a particular chair or designing a small hut or market.

One portfolio includes as its introduction the task of deconstructing and documenting, Todd McLellan-style, various mechanical items. This is an approach to architecture as rigorous study, offering puzzle-like solutions, gradually scaling up from a staircase to a whole city but demonstrating how the same skills apply to both.

Emma Gibson: McDonalds Anatomy

Emma Gibson: McDonalds Anatomy

Emma Gibson: McDonalds Anatomy

This is not to say there isn’t experimentation, but it is still grounded in real solutions. Steve Parnell and Amy Butt’s Architecture+ (Stage 6, Studio 3) has students envision speculative futures, both as physical things with structural form but also as a means of ‘critically questioning the utopian impulse’. 

Tom Cowman’s wonderful Welcome to the Masc Games imagines the ‘last-gasp attempt by men to retain power’ as a huge memorial to masculinity. In a similar vein, Ed Wainwright and Sam Austin’s Intoxicated Practices: Intensities of Production (Stage 6, Studio 1) engages with modes of production to ‘expand our conception of what an architectural project/process/practice might be’. It is perhaps as open-ended as the work here gets, and still is represented diligently in section to give it a certain air of reality.

Tom Cowman: Welcome to the Masc Games

Tom Cowman: Welcome to the Masc Games

Tom Cowman: Welcome to the Masc Games

Could some of this use a little loosening-up? Perhaps; but the blend of rigorous theoretical analysis with ‘proper’ architectural solutions and documentation is no doubt one that practices value hugely, not least of all in the ‘selling’ of a convincing architectural proposition.

Laura Harty and Matt Ozga-Lawn’s Freespace (Stage 6 Studio 4), sums this up well: not only were students asked to respond to Grafton’s theme for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, they were also charged with producing the exhibit that would sit in the Corderie. Negotiating what is often the graveyard of architectural communication at such an early stage can be no bad thing.

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