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Student Shows 2015: London South Bank University

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Ellis Woodman reviews LSBU’s end-of-year show

Ranked 45 out of 47 in The Guardian’s 2016 league table of architecture schools

It has long been clear that whatever the architecture school league tables represent, it is not the quality of the architectural education that the surveyed institutions deliver. Westminster has produced three RIBA Silver Medal-winning students over the past decade but currently languishes at no 39 in the rankings. The Cass at London Met, which would get my vote for the top spot, is lower still at 43.

Instead – if you believe the league tables – the Bartlett is the best school in the country, as it has been off and on for many years. And yet how many Bartlett alumni have gone on to establish critically recognised practices over the past couple of decades? After Duggan Morris and Julien de Smedt, I am left scratching my head.

That criterion may not be the only useful measurement of a school’s success, but for a 17 year old interested in becoming a practising architect it is surely the most significant. While an architectural education can productively form the basis of a whole range of career routes, no teenager ever signed up to architecture school in the expectation of becoming a video-game designer.

The tables also represent an inadequate measure of another consideration that a prospective student might well want to bear in mind: inclusivity. In fact, schools that pursue a policy of maintaining a broad intake are actively penalised by the rankings system, with points being awarded on the basis of the A-level grades students attained prior to enrolment.

For London South Bank – a university that prides itself on the ethnic diversity and variety of backgrounds represented by its student body – this is not good news. Its architecture school currently stands in 45th place in the rankings – two spots from the bottom.

South Bank is something of an anomaly in another respect. Where the other London schools are strongly reliant on the input of part-time staff – often practising architects – South Bank’s teaching is delivered predominantly by its in-house faculty. It is a choice that brings the danger of insularity but recognises the fact that weaker students frequently require more teaching than stronger ones.

South Bank is, however, in the process of shaking up its established teaching model. While the degree level has historically been structured on the basis of the members of each year group undertaking the same project, this year represents the introduction of vertical second and third year studios. The change has been motivated by a recognition that it provides students with more choice – something the university hopes will improve student satisfaction levels, which are an important index for the league tables. It also reflects its awareness that research outputs need to be enhanced. The hope is that the vertical studios will allow for faculty members to tailor design programmes around their research interests.

The end-of-year show, staged in the less-than-ideal environment of the university’s student union, suggests that this process of integration still has some way to go. The work of the degree students – only a selection of whom have been granted wall space – is eclectic to put it kindly. Excitable formal mannerisms abound, with little evidence of interest in the architectural culture outside the studio door.

By far the strongest undergraduate studio is the Transpontine Laboratory led by Jaime Bishop and Richard Henson of Fleet Architects and Andrew Dawes of Zoda Architects. Following a trip to Seville where they studied the Calle Feria market, the students were assigned a site in Camberwell and tasked with developing designs for an integrated housing and market scheme. The projects of Yung Man Benjamin and Benedict Spry were particularly convincingly developed, while Thomas Walker’s planometric illustrations represented some of the most attractive drawings in the show.

What none of the degree work prepares you for is a diploma course dominated by a preoccupation with parametric design. It is familiar stuff, and at times not unaccomplished, although the visitor’s engagement is significantly hindered by the total absence of captioning.

For me, the one non-digital studio, led by Mike Kane and Ron Yee, proved more rewarding. Having taken their students to visit the buildings of Lina Bo Bardi in São Paulo, they asked them to apply the metropolitan scale and social ambition of that work to projects designed for the local context of the Old Kent Road.

One of South Bank’s obvious strengths is its location at the centre of a very rapidly transforming city. Developing an engagement with its locality suggests itself as an obvious way for the teaching programme to consolidate its still rather diffuse identity. The university is performing a crucial service in providing students from diverse backgrounds with an entrée into architecture, but on the basis of this year’s exhibition, it could still significantly up its game.


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