Merlin Fulcher takes a look at the University of Westminster’s end-of-year show
Ranked 39 out of 47 in The Guardian’s 2016 league table of architecture schools
‘You’re graduating from the best school of architecture,’ says Harry Charrington, congratulating this year’s crop of University of Westminster students. There is a moment’s silence as the dazed student body – overcome with heat and exhaustion – stares back at the new head of architecture in awe. Or perhaps disbelief because the school continues to be ranked by The Guardian among the UK’s 10 worst for studying architecture, although it’s near impossible to understand why.
Looking around the newly refurbished Marylebone Campus lobby, the quality of models, images and ideas leaves little doubt that the work of the Part 2 students is comparable to any of the top 10 schools. Whether it’s the Ben Stringer and Peter Barber-led unit on Thames Estuary housing islands; the bizarre and alien Kew Gardens interventions shepherded by Mike Tonkin, Anna Liu and Jonathan Schofield; or Sean Griffiths and Kester Rattenbury’s gabble of wild and inspiring John Cage and I-Ching inspired film schools, the output is simultaneously unique and of a high standard.
As television architect George Clarke delivers an unexciting ‘inspirational’ speech – something along the lines of: ‘Right, get out there and build!’ – the fringes of the party drift magnetically toward the displays. The real star is evidently the show. I venture upstairs to the Part 1 and remaining Part 2 displays where opening night festivities are already in full swing.
Squeezing past the crowds, I fix on new recruits Anthony Engi Meacock and Giles Smith of Turner Prize-nominated Assemble, whose undergraduate design studio starts with ‘cuckoo-in-the-nest’ marketing suites for high-end residential development on the Isle of Dogs. Intended to subvert the speculative housing boom by introducing socially and politically beneficial outcomes, the focus is particularly timely as architects come in for increasing criticism amid the intensifying housing crisis. A later focus on public-facing Section 106-funded elements – where Assemble specialises – illustrates how young and yet-to-qualify architects are themselves introducing professionally relevant, real-world discussions into the school.
Across the corridor, new tutors Elly Ward of Ordinary Architecture and Tom Coward of AOC, have started a mini-revolution of their own. The duo took over mid-term from a tutor specialising in complex wooden pavilions, and launched a new project focusing on co-housing in the capital. The students were given eccentric characters from Grayson Perry’s Who Are You? TV documentary, and asked to house them all under one roof. The students’ collective enthusiasm for the oddball challenge was remarkable. The studio’s eclectic display area – featuring a timber house inspired by the previous term’s work – went on to win the best in show.
So where’s the problem? An external moderator discreetly suggests to me that Westminster’s greatest failing this year is the lack of sketching behind students’ architectural ideas – too many hastily constructed digital and physical models; too much laser cutting. These same criticisms, however, seem to crop up at every student show every year. They also have nothing to do with The Guardian rankings. Practising architects meanwhile stress the diversity of what’s on display, with both outstanding and ‘graphically average’ material side-by-side. Their main gripe is space limitations, which mean some students have just two A3 boards. Partly to blame is Jestico + Whiles’ soon-to-complete overhaul of the department – set to deliver a game-changing 40 per cent more studio space, but for now putting large areas normally used for exhibiting temporarily off limits.
Speaking to students, I hear more familiar concerns. There is a high attrition rate in the first year, I am told, and tutors don’t have enough time for their students. Another says she graduated from Part 1 without knowing enough about building or having touched many materials at all.
I put these criticisms to Charrington, who argues that the league tables favour campus universities with strong sports facilities, and that in London most students’ lives are so much more interesting they don’t bother completing the survey. The league tables, he says, ‘do not seem to see learning as being particularly important.’ He concedes that Westminster nevertheless needs to improve its ranking.
After the event, Griffiths adds: ‘We are working very hard to put this right so that the respect with which the school is held within the world of architecture, and the quality of our courses and our students, is more accurately reflected.’
And he adds: ‘We hit the same level as other top schools with a very diverse intake including a high proportion of students from less well off backgrounds and those from ethnic minorities.’
With its new teachers and expanded studio space, Westminster may well become the UK’s most nurturing environment for architectural talent and diversity. Hopefully as its success grows this will be something the league tables are also able to recognise.