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Student Shows 2015: CASS School of Architecture

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Rory Olcayto takes a look at the CASS School of Architecture’s end-of-year show

Ranked 43 out of 47 in The Guardian’s 2016 league table of architecture schools

Here’s some stuff you should know about London Met before we consider its lowly position in The Guardian’s chart. Stirling Prize-shortlisted architects Peter St John and Deborah Saunt teach there. Ex-Design for London chief Mark Brearley does too, as does Jamie Dean, a senior figure in Boris Johnson’s regeneration team, in a unit run by brick-loving housing architect Stephen Taylor. Architecture Foundation director Ellis Woodman has based his organisation in the school’s Whitechapel home and Architecture Foundation trustee Robert Mull is the departmental head.

‘London,’ says Mull, in a welcome video on the university’s website, ’is our greatest resource and our greatest asset. Wherever possible we try to engage with London, make projects in London and use it as part of our projects.’ In other words: ‘If you’ve come to London to study, study London here.’

Connections then, with the city and practice, are strong in all sorts of ways. Mull’s Free Unit for example, a diploma course in which students write their own briefs and choose their own tutors from the world at large, has spawned a number of interesting firms: Studio Weave and Hat Projects, are the most prominent, but DK-CM and the now-defunct Pie Architecture originated here too. And another thing: it’s not called London Met anymore. It’s called the Cass, following a merger in 2012 with the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Media and Design. Forget the Bartlett. Forget the AA. The Cass – sounds good doesn’t it? – is the coolest school in town. London-obsessed, anti-parametric, bricko-philic and, just like all the others, nine grand a year.

Despite this impressive context, I dreaded my visit to the summer show. I was expecting a monoculture as suffocating, say, as the Bartlett’s cyberpunkery, whose acolytes would peg Cass students as shoegazing, humourless bores. I decided to ignore years one to three and focus on the postgrad show. Why? Because The Cass has developed a reputation as something of a finishing school for Britain’s undergrad stars. During my visit, several prospective students were also perusing the show.

My first contact with fourth and fifth year was Unit 13, New Adventures in Adjacency. Led by tutors Geoff Shearcroft and Josh Wyles, students explored the potential of custom build as a development model for the Ebbsfleet Valley. Projects in the main used poster-style graphics, betraying source material as varied as David Hockney, Chris Ware, FAT and Lemon Jelly album covers, to showcase their ideas. At first glance it seemed rather RCA, except here at the Cass the proposals were not obscured by the style of presentation, but made comfortably legible. A highlight was the price list pinned to a studio column –  every student drawing was up for sale.

In contrast David Grandorge and Colin Wharry’s unit, Going to a Town II, focused on designing a photography and art archive in Berlin, was typically solemn, with moody renders in the style of Chipperfield, Kahn, DRDH and Zumthor. The drawings impressed; the models more so, particularly a huge 1:20 maquette showing archive study desks and a wall of bookshelves. Saunt’s unit, Above and Below, explored the architecture beneath our feet, taking its cue from Crossrail and the missed opportunity that mega-project represents. But, although rich with ideas and verve, the exercise seemed hobbled by the difficulties of drawing and modelling hollowed out space.

The Cass’s secret weapon is Florian Beigel, the tutor whose teaching was long ago recognised with an RIBA award, and whose design skills are displayed all around. His Architecture Research Unit, set up in 1980 to explore practice and teaching, designed the Cass interiors that house the diploma year studios. His own unit this year, like his timber fit-out for his employer, has a Ronseal directness. It asks students to ’design a good house’ although not by giving form to a room-led brief, but rather by testing how we feel about domestic space and time.

St John too, whose unit is centred upon composition and form, presents a cerebral but distinctly unpretentious exercise, asking his students how these qualities can be used to speak directly to citizens amid an ancient, unplanned townscape.

In both units, the results were strong, with drawings and models implying depth, rigour and the physical impact of building.

The Free Unit, however, was underweight. The work was poorly presented and felt slight in comparison to other units. Of all the work, it was the hardest to find a way in to. Video formed a major part of the work. Maybe it was me – I struggle with video in architecture degree shows. Yet Mull’s track record with this approach is strong. A reboot, perhaps, is all it needs.

It’s hard to square what I saw at the Cass with The Guardian’s view that it is one of Britain’s worst. On the one hand there was nothing that was truly outstanding, on the other, it was a confident, enjoyable show.

I met Chris Bryant there, of London architectural firm Alma-nac, who regularly receives Cass graduate applications. ’You know their critical thinking will be good,’ he said. ‘They’re conscientious. They can finish a job, and you know that if you ask them to do prepare a facade study, for example, they’re going to draw it four or five times. We trust them to undertake a critical process themselves.’

Still, explained one post-grad tutor off record, London Met is failing in terms of its increasingly monocultural make-up. ‘Six, seven, even five years ago, it was more socially diverse. There was a more interesting mix of people here. Today, most students come from comfortable, even wealthy backgrounds. They are producing good work, but…’  My informant tails off, but I know what they mean. But this problem is one all schools share: the problem of nine grand a year. Guardian, are you listening? This is way more important than Top of the Pops.

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