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Student Shows 2015: University of Central Lancashire

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Owen Pritchard takes a look at the University of Central Lancashire’s end-of-year show

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

On day one of architecture school, armed with a set of pristine Rotring pens, an uncracked set square and youthful optimism and naiviety, you might, if you were anything like me, have been expecting to learn how to ‘do architecture’. Because when you first turn up to enrol as a fresher, you really don’t have a clue what you are letting yourself in for. Five years of university, some years of practical training and then those seven letters: RIBA ARB. Simple.

The architecture school at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in Preston was only founded six years ago. The school has accredited courses for the Part 1 and Part 2 requirements of the arduous route to qualification as well as a foundation course and a degree for architectural technicians. This is an important year for the school – the first cohort are leaving with their Part 2 qualifications, and the first of the graduates to pay the current system’s £27k in fees are departing with a bachelors degree. It is, in the words of department professor Karim Hadjri, ‘the end of the first lap’. Next year the department transfers from the school of Architecture, Construction and Environment to the School of Art Design and Fashion. Hadjri sees this as an opportunity to consolidate his department’s role in the university.

The increased fees – UCLAN has charged the full £9k per year since 2012 – have introduced a new set of pressures on the department, but the staff have also noticed a change in the student attitude.

‘The flip side to the students demanding more from us is that they are demanding more from themselves,’ says Jenni Barrett, course leader for the diploma. ‘They have to make their time here count. Everything has to have a purpose beyond university work – can it get them a job? Does it say something more than theory? Everything has a value attached.’

The school prides itself on its small size, and is incredibly well equipped, making the most of its links with the engineering department to make use of its workshops, while keeping its own workshops and technologies exclusively for its own students. The masters course has 16 graduating students this year; unit groups can number as little as eight on the undergraduate course.

Speaking with the staff, the sense of optimism and collective endeavour is palpable – infectious even. ‘There’s no pressure to expand the numbers,’ says Hadjri. ‘In the third year the staff to student ratio is 1:9. We are Preston, not Manchester or Liverpool. We do not need to compete.’

This independence, far from creating a hermetically sealed laboratory of ideas and idealism, has led the school to readily interact with the region.

‘We look at Lancashire as a field of exploration,’ says third year leader Ronny Ford. ‘It has coastal and market towns like Preston and Blackpool, but it is predominantly agricultural. That’s what the course is. A dialectic between the urban and the agrarian.’

Hadjri agrees: ‘We expose our students to contemporary architecture, but focus on our problems here. Our advisory board guides us on what the industry, practices and region need.’

Rem Koolhaas has identified agriculture as the next frontier in architecture. Could UCLAN be on to something here?

While the work on show couldn’t be deemed radical, the undergraduates reveal a depth of understanding and rigour that shows they have not only used their initiative and nous, but have been encouraged to follow their convictions. The projects on show range from one tackling cockle-picking in Morcambe to cultural and civic interventions in the Lancashire town of Skippool.

On the masters course the students are prescribed briefs for the first two projects of the course, then encouraged to develop their own thesis and final project. On display are ideas that include a visitor centre in the Lake District, a space port in Cornwall and a bridge spanning the Thames between Pimlico and Nine Elms.

The school’s ambition is in no way tempered by its small size. There is an apparent application by the staff, and a commitment from students, that is producing good work and inquisitive, ambitious architects. One student so far has been nominated for an RIBA Presidents Medal, and recent graduates have been recruited by Foster, OMA and Ole Scheeren. Others are retaining links to the area and have moved to local practices to furthur develop the relationships and knowledge of the locale.

‘I’d say about 80 per cent of my year have work lined up,’ says diploma graduate Joshua Allington. ‘The others are taking a bit of time out to travel.’

The teaching at UCLAN will benefit not only the students but the region. There’s a balance between creative and practical rooted to its geographic context. UCLAN is teaching a generation of architects not how ‘to do an architecture’, but to think independently and address the real issues that Lancashire faces.

It’s a boutique school. It is intimate and has a real sense of community. Long may this continue.

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