Laura Mark takes a look at the University of Salford’s end-of-year show
Ranked 40 out of 47 in The Guardian’s 2016 league table of architecture schools
How does a school that has yet to see a single year graduate from its architecture course even make it on to a ranking scale? That was one of the questions on my mind when I visited the University of Salford.
The school ranks 40th in The Guardian’s 2016 league. Its architecture course only began in September yet it is pitted against established courses that have been running for years.
Set within the university’s well-established School of the Built Environment, the course has a strong footing. Other degrees within the department include construction, quantity surveying, project management and real estate. It is also highly regarded for its research, and faculty members have authored a number of government white papers. According to QS World Rankings, the university is the 39th best in the world for architecture – somewhat different to TheGuardian’s placing, which only covers UK schools. Dean of school Hisham Elkadi puts the QS score down to research within the faculty and adds that the new architecture course ‘extends the school’s portfolio to tacking social and ecological challenges’.
Elkadi was brought in to launch the architecture course in 2014. He has a proven track record. The University of Liverpool graduate previously started the BA programme at the University of Newcastle, whose well-regarded architecture school now sits at a lofty 21 in The Guardian league. He then left to set up the architecture programme at Belfast’s University of Ulster, establishing a blossoming school. ‘When I left, it was at sixth place in the rankings and we started from nothing,’ he tells me.
So Elkadi was well versed in how to deal with the bureaucracy of starting an architecture course by the time he reached Salford, but this school held a different challenge. He had to establish an architecture degree within an already thriving built environment school away from the art and design faculty.
‘I’ve taken a different approach to when I started up Ulster,’ he says. ‘We built [Ulster] around the architecture in tensioned societies and the role of architecture in healing … That was right for a school in Belfast at that time.
‘An architecture programme can only be credible when it is contextualised. It is necessary for an architecture school to engage with its immediate communities as well as building bridges further afield.’
Unlike the political background that Elkadi used to inform the coursework at Ulster, Salford focuses on the social and ecological challenges posed by the area’s industrial heritage and its location close to the so-called northern powerhouse of Manchester.
‘The new programme,’ says Elkadi, ‘was designed for our students to develop architecture that converses with, serves, and accommodates intelligent communities and urban environments facing increasing societal and ecological challenges in the Greater Manchester region and beyond.’
Being within a school of built environment could hold the course back. For the first cohort, with no architecture students to look up to, it would be easy to become bogged down in the world of project management and construction and see design lose out. Elkadi admits this is a difficulty they will have to overcome.
‘The major challenge in Salford is to build a design culture and keep the architecture identity,’ he says. ‘We are resuming a culture we had here in the early 1900s when we originally taught architecture. In a sense we’ve returned to our roots of being a more unified school of the built environment.’
In their first year the school’s 29 students have been introduced to the key architectural theories that will form the next seven years of their education. Tasks included exploring photomontage, analysing an El Lissitzky Proun, and looking at the proportions of Albrecht Dürer’s alphabet.
It isn’t until the final project of the year that students are let loose on a building – a home for a researcher with particular needs and ideas. The designs I saw were rough and ready; awkwardly cut models and corrugated card were in abundance. It wasn’t exactly the slick model-making work of a Bartlett student. But then the facilities are very different and these are only first-year students.
And the students are happy. One, Abby Cassidy, described it as a ‘family’, and praised the support she received from the course’s staff. As I walked through the school with Elkadi, he chatted to the students, and knew them on first name terms.
Cassidy told me she hoped the school would start a Part 2 course so she could continue her studies there. She won’t be disappointed. That is the school’s plan. It also has a new purpose-built building in its sights – a home for the architecture course to grow into.
This course has the start of something and it will be interesting to watch its progress. Seeing it top the league in the coming years is unlikely but if Elkadi has his way it won’t remain in the bottom 10 for long.