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Degree show review: Sheffield School of Architecture

09 sheffield2
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Students are facing up to the big global subjects while simultaneously demonstrating the importance of retaining local knowledge within the UK’s smaller cities, says Jonathan Orlek

Projects in the Sheffield School of Architecture summer exhibition consistently confront big global challenges such as housing provision, ageing populations, the future of education and migration. Students demonstrate a deep commitment to collective action within the built environment and the role of shared space, through attention to programme and materiality as well as social and economic contexts. The MArch Arrival City studio exemplifies this ethos, developing sophisticated architectural programmes with a view to accommodating a multiplicity of voices and actors in Offenbach, a city on the outskirts of Frankfurt celebrated during last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale for its role as a host city for immigrants.

Closer to home, the value of critical engagement within architectural and urban processes was foregrounded by a number of undergraduate students who redesigned faculty buildings within the University of Sheffield campus masterplan. These proposals beautifully articulate what spaces for higher education could look like if they were designed by and for the graduates who funded them, functioning as wonderful, subtle rebellions against recent university flagship projects.Janani Rajeswaran’s proposal for a new textiles and fashion faculty stood out for its response to creative methods and consideration for the display of student work. These projects emphasise the benefits of retaining situated graduate knowledge within cities such as Sheffield, and question institutional roles in supporting this – on picking up Janani’s business card I notice that her location is already listed as London. 

04 xingjian fan ba architecture p2

04 xingjian fan ba architecture p2

Xingjian Fan, BA Architecture, P2

Across the school students proposed new buildings and functions for artist-led institutions in the North of England. These projects demonstrated that there is still much to be shared between art and architecture by pushing the conventions of gallery and theatre design through tactile and sensory approaches, and the playful blurring of art and architectural objects. Given the Arts Council’s recent trend towards funding enhancements/extensions to existing organisations rather than new capital projects, I did wonder how these graduate ambitions and innovations might best be developed through professional practice. 

This question was addressed by many of the MArch studios by looking to current bids for UK City of Culture in 2021, Hull’s recent City of Culture status, and past European Capitals of Culture. Students developed proposals, masterplans and strategies in preparation for the projects that might be ignited through these commissioning processes. Given the challenges of this type of high-profile creative-led regeneration, these struck me as important speculative responses. 

01 kate nicholson march studiotemporal places

01 kate nicholson march studiotemporal places

Kate Nicholson, MArch, StudioTemporal Places

Projects in the Re-Activist Architecture studio, which used Coventry’s 2021 City of Culture context as well as grounded and embedded methods, felt most exciting, seductive and urgent within the show, and again developed new propositional roles for both architecture and artist-led collaborations.  One example is Alexander Craig-Thompson’s thought-provoking Institute for Transient Workers, which explored how City of Culture projects can support and collectivise diverse gig-economy labour. 

Throughout the exhibition the quality of model-making was extremely high, and many cleverly combined digital fabrication with the hand-made. The use of collaborative, large-scale prototyping featured heavily within the postgraduate research courses, where they were used as tools for urban engagement and exploration.  

05 nicholas birchall march studio in residence

05 nicholas birchall march studio in residence

Nicholas Birchall, MArch, Studio in Residence

One of the largest challenges faced by graduates is surely finding opportunities to pursue experimental, self-initiated and socially motivated projects outside of education. Perhaps it is the Live Projects at Sheffield School of Architecture – six-week group projects undertaken by MArch students with real clients and budgets – that provide invaluable strategies for achieving this. This year’s projects included: RUSS Self-Build, which developed self-build strategies for a Community Land Trust and affordable housing project in collaboration with Architype Architects; and Community Economies, an Erasmus+ funded project to convert a vacant warehouse in Rovereto, Italy, into a platform for diverse economic exchanges through open source mobile architectures, with designer Brave New Alps. These offered two different approaches for developing playful research-led projects into critical future practices. 

Jonathan Orlek is director of Studio Polpo

03 james thormod meng structural engineering and architecture p2

03 james thormod meng structural engineering and architecture p2

James Thormod, MEng Structural Engineering and Architecture, P2

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