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Ranked no #3 for employability 

Degree show review: University of Bath

03 bath3
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The school said to produce the most employable graduates is creating richly crafted, thoughtful work, but retreating from challenging social issues towards the utopian, says Piers Taylor

By now, we architects are familiar with the might of the Bath University machine. It is a school that regularly comes top of the rankings for the best school of architecture in the UK, and often comes highest in student satisfaction surveys. I regularly hear that Bath students are the most ‘employable’ in the country. Certainly, the school works hard to maintain these messages of quality by shunning the risky provocation of other schools in favour of a pragmatic, industry-focused approach.

We know, of course, the back story. The school was originally conceived by Ted Happold and Peter Smithson as a technically motivated school that happily married engineering and architecture. Bath piloted the engagement with practice in two separate semester-long placements within a four-year undergraduate programme and another in its two-year MArch. Nowadays, in the absence of big names such as Happold and Smithson, the school has a collective ego. It has effectively outlawed the cult of personality of unit-led schools in favour of a genuinely strong and stable leadership with teaching support from mainly local practices, including numerous staff from the Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios stable. Many of the staff have some kind of connection with FCBS and at times it feels like a slight monoculture that would benefit from the diversity of a more provocative outsider influence. 

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 07 image 0001

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 07 image 0001

Lydia Whitehouse, BSc (Hons) Architecture, The Uncanny

It is mighty hard not to be impressed by the student work, however – particularly in sixth year – and not just the perfect presentation. My initial suspicion of the slick representation and curation disappears quickly. Pleasingly outward-looking and international, the final year MArch work begins with group work on a masterplan for a European city, and previously studied cities are ruled out, making the ones presented enjoyably diverse. This year’s cities include St Petersburg, Tallinn, Leipzig and Sarajevo. 

Following the strategic group work, students then individually develop a building that sits within this strategy. Many of these buildings are exceptional: professional, confident and consistent across the year. The best schemes are animated, rich, real and engaging, with breathtakingly accomplished drawings and models, particularly those of Tom Roberts with his Timber Innovation Centre. 

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 11 image 0001

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 11 image 0001

Claire Drake, BSc (Hons) Architecture, The Uncanny

Several years back, the sixth year felt like a poor relation to the fourth year: now, the MArch is the flagship course for the school. The work is steadfastly of a high standard and any concerns that the projects are slightly grandiose – centres for awareness, or the making of stringed instruments, and, of course the ubiquitous spa – disappear in the sheer competence of the overall body of work.

The work in the final (fourth) year of the BArch is also consistent – both in terms of graphic representation and also the scale and type of projects presented. Each year, the fourth year chooses a different provincial town in the UK – this year Dorchester – which forms the basis for a mid-size proposal. If at many London school shows you would be pressed to find anything much resembling a building, here, one is hard pressed to find anything that challenges the boundaries or possibilities of architecture. At a time where practice is changing faster than it has in recent years, the BArch is very much business as usual, with crafted, phenomenologically rich buildings across the board. 

In a discipline increasingly concerned with pressing issues around neglected communities, dying high streets, climate change, housing or urbanism, many schools are tackling these issues head on. Bath’s BArch instead deals with a changing world by taking refuge: most projects are in hiding from post-Brexit Britain, with wellbeing centres, retreats and places of sanctuary or worship. As anarchic as it gets is a shamanic monastery. 

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 12 image 0001

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 12 image 0001

Raven Xiangxue Chen, BSc (Hons) Architecture, The Uncanny

If I am feeling a little bit claustrophobic as a result of this flight from the pressing issues of our times, I can however simultaneously bathe in the sensory delight that is so much at the forefront of the BArch work – and, for the most part, forgive these indulgences. Nonetheless, I can’t but help wonder what this talent could do if it was based in Runcorn, Stoke on Trent or Milton Keynes, engaged with the everyday and taking on the challenge of making ordinary municipal buildings as perfect as these utopian fantasies. 

Irrespective, Bath is to be commended for the consistent quality of its work, and the question remains: what do practitioners actually want from architecture schools? The answer in most part is probably not provocative game-changers challenging their status quo but students exactly as Bath’s who can effortlessly slot into the best AJ100 practices and help them win work. Against that, are Bath students probably the most employable in the world? Very possibly. 

Piers Taylor is founder of Invisible Studio Architects 

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 13 image 0001

Pages from bath architecture annual 2017 print page 13 image 0001

Freddie Bond, Thomas Boshell, Marialena Byrou, Emma Hugh, Hannah Richmond, MArch

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