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Ranked no #2 for employability 

Degree show review: University of Cambridge

02 cambridge2
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This year’s skilful explorations of materiality and narrative communicate a refreshing shift in direction for the school’s collective identity, says James Soane

The Arcsoc Cambridge show, once again at the charmingly dilapidated Bargehouse on the South Bank, has a clarity not seen for years. There was a cornucopia of models and painterly drawings elegantly distributed across three floors. The question as to whether an end-of-year show demonstrates the ethos of a whole school is often meaningless, as the diversity of teaching and representation is so broad and varied you have to study the rubric. 

However, here it seems the school is collectively heading in a new direction. The second and third year work was legible and charming, while the Part 2 MPhil director explained that the revised programme focused on international-facing research-led practice. While I agree with their assertion that the diploma is not a ‘rehearsal for a professional career’, the work displayed a curiously arm’s-length attitude to the built environment. Even so, I commend the clever collages of Cameron Cavalier whose Tottenham Stadium project is both playful and provocative.

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 105

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 105

Thomas Nuttall, BArch Year 3, Studio 1, Assemblage 174

Controversially, in my view, this year the AJ has asked reviewers to look through the lens of employability when considering the work. On face value this seems to be a retrogressive step and one that plays into the narrative generated by the old guard, that students learn nothing of use these days. Often this plays out though the interrogation of the ‘technical’ aspects of a project, which, from the wisdom of practice, can seem naïve. So what. The pendulum swing that distances academia from practice has been disrupted, and we are beginning to witness refreshing conversations that intertwine questions of the possible and the near future with the propositional.

From a student perspective, the first year is a big leap into the unknown, and at Cambridge there is a live project with ‘real’ clients that resulted in a series of play structures. I remain to be convinced that using ‘play’ is an effective introduction to architecture,  as the work, while engaging and quirky, has a tendency to be child-like. The leap from first to second year is pronounced, and there are three studios with a focus on the integration of structure, materials and environmental thinking (they also still have five exams!). Studio 1 looks at the timely question of housing in Tottenham Hale, resulting in studied hybrid propositions, while Studio 2 uses the same area to rethink the role of public space. Their joint charette with Central St Martins students appears to have provided a great opportunity for collaboration demonstrated through a series of atmospheric drawings and detailed models. In contrast Studio 3 takes a more conceptual approach, heading out of the city taking on board what they describe as ‘critical drawing’. These pieces of work are sometimes precious but never obtuse – they address the matter of architecture.

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 42

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 42

Shirley Lo, BArch Year 2, Studio 1

Third year operates as a traditional unit system with three pathways. The work of Studio 1 at Woolwich Arsenal tackles head-on the shiny new world of Developer London. While the sense of context is often missing – the drawings suggest a calmer, more interconnected realm where the public space is as important as the object buildings. The huge masterplan model played the developers at their own game, with Thomas Nuttall’s petal-planned tower taking on the scale of its ugly neighbours. Studio 2 travelled to Liverpool, taking the troubled area of Toxteth as a peri-urban site and introducing a riot of colour and lush growth. The confidence of the proposals was as striking as they were believable (although, having grown up nearby, I did not see much evidence of the city I know). By contrast Studio 3 proposes a rural winery in Enfield and a distillery in Clerkenwell – surely hitting all the buzzwords in one go. Here the work is more beguiling and bucolic, forgoing the contingencies of such programmes in favour of an artful logic.

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 130

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 130

Darya Moatazed-Keivani, BArch Year 3, Studio 2, Castle Primary School

There is much to learn from this year’s show, but by the time you read this it will be over. The profusion of models reminds us that they are tools to explore materiality and narrative, not just finished form. There is no question that the students are not prepared for practice; the real question is whether practice is prepared for them? This year Cambridge has emerged from the shadows. 

James Soane is director of Project Orange and director of critical practice, London School of Architecture 

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 140

Arcsoc catalogue v 2606 01 140

Emily Wickham, BArch Year 3, Studio 3, Ashwell Primary School

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