James McLachlan takes a look at Southampton Solent University’s end-of-year show
Ranked 46 out of 47 in The Guardian’s 2016 league table of architecture schools
Given that Southampton Solent University does not offer an architecture degree, it is a surprise to find it ranked at all on The Guardian architecture schools league table. For the record, it comes in at 46 out of 47, resting between London South Bank and Central Lancashire. But Southampton Solent, which celebrates 10 years as a university this year, teaches architectural technology rather than pure architecture and its course is accredited by the Chartered Institute of Architecture Technologists rather than ARB or the RIBA.
‘Comparing it with BA Hons architecture is not a meaningful comparison,’ says vice-chancellor Mike Wilkinson, ‘and the employment trajectories of students will be very different. Many of our students study part time while continuing in professional practice. The league tables concentrate on full-time students and have a weighting towards research.’
Indeed, architecture and architectural technology are very different animals – one dealing with hard, calculable data; the other involving critical thinking that can see numerous answers to the same question. With architectural technology, either the window detail works or it doesn’t.
Southampton Solent’s alumni could just as easily work for a volume housebuilder as an architecture studio, and this versatility is an undoubted strength. The roster of companies that Solent graduates have gone on to work for includes Capita, Scott Brownrigg, Barratt Homes and Balfour Beatty.
‘Architecture students spend a good length of time learning the creative and aesthetic side, while we look at how buildings are put together,’ says Sarah Radif, the university’s architectural technology programme leader. ‘We are teaching practical skills rather than creative processes.’
The students tackle live briefs – a mixed-use building in London by Adam Architecture is one example. Southampton Solent’s end-of-year show amounted to a solitary open evening with suited graduates photographed beaming alongside their final year projects – all of which were buildings or parts of buildings. An equivalent architecture show would of course demonstrate a far looser interpretation of what constitutes the built environment.
Radif is keen to stress the show’s success in terms of the large numbers of potential employers that attended. The university has an employer liaison group, which holds focus groups with local industry to find out what skills they need from graduates.
‘Some employers are interested in whether we could deliver something in under three years,’ she says. ‘Apprenticeships are also really high on the agenda.’ This employer group also helps Solent arrange guest lectures, site visits and work placements.
The university prides itself on the diversity of its students. Radif says there is a mix of mature students, sponsored by their employers to achieve a qualification, and school-leavers, many of whom are the first in their family to enter higher education. ‘We don’t want our students just to study,‘ says Radif. ‘We want them to get a job.’
Given the battleground that architectural education has become, this attitude will win support for Solent among the camp that believes higher education is producing a slew of unemployable dreamers. Indeed, at a recent AJ roundtable debate, a senior partner from Stride Treglown stressed the importance of BIM and Revit, bemoaning the lack of such skills among new graduates. In point of fact, after three years schooling, a trainee Revit technician in London can start on £25,000 while a fully fledged BIM coordinator can make double that.
The architectural technology course at Solent falls under the umbrella of the built environment faculty, which includes three other degree-level courses: interior design, interior design decoration and construction management. There is crossover between the various disciplines, with interior design and architectural technology students sharing modules in the first and second years. Next February will see the completion of a £30 million redevelopment of the university’s East Park Terrace campus in the city centre. Designed by AJ120 practice Scott Brownrigg, the teaching facility will house five storeys of seminar and lecture facilities around a cavernous central atrium connected by walkways. Propped up in its centre on silvery legs will be a large red egg-shaped pod, serving as a multipurpose space and eyecatching centrepiece for the building. Not one to miss a trick, the university seized the opportunity to arrange work placements with the project’s architects and contractors.
In the context of the ‘oven-ready’ students debate, one could argue that Solent graduates are cooked to perfection. The creativity shown by the graduates is rooted in pragmatism and there is no doubting their importance to the industry. Other institutions might do well to take note of Southampton Solent’s approach.