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The politics of space is Sheffield School of Architecture’s strong point

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William Matthews of William Matthews Architects takes a look around the Sheffield School of Architecture’s end-of-year show

Go to Sheffield and see the world! Or at least the rest of Yorkshire … through the eyes of an architecture student. I was a student there in the late 80s/early 90s, and our projects were often set in the many neglected corners of the region: Chesterfield, Hull, Scarborough and Doncaster – towns ravaged by post-industrial decline and a heavy dose of Thatcherism. Thirty years later little has changed.

Of course Sheffield, Chesterfield, Hull et al haven’t moved so it is entirely appropriate that student projects should be based in the region, but that many of the issues we sought to address as students are still so prevalent is a sad and damning indictment on the success of regeneration in the area. The social and political consequences continue to fester, with this nagging sense of towns that the modern economy has failed to reach.

The Arts Tower is the home of the socially and politically engaged student

The politics of space has always been Sheffield’s strong point. Some schools have flashier images with instant wow factor (aesthetics); some show meticulous 1:20 wall sections with weep eyes in the right place (technics); some even talk and teach architectural theory. But the Arts Tower (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) is the home of the socially and politically engaged student. As a result, the work is often harder to engage with; a situation exacerbated by the practical issues of so much research and so many drawings and models being produced and too little space to show more than isolated clichés.

Sheffield School of Architecture

Sheffield School of Architecture

Rachel Glenn

Of course, some schemes are so graphically seductive they can draw you across the room. Rachel Glenn has produced some wonderfully poetic images of her registry office in Shipley, and if Rebecca Liebermann’s bound compilation of collages was for sale, I’d buy a copy and treasure it. Many MArch students are equally strong, but it’s the processes lurking beneath the images that are most interesting. None of the students appear overly seduced by the latest computer software or computer-controlled machine. Instead, at the heart of all the projects you sense that the most important thing is the human being.

This humanity has served past students well, and on the evidence of this show, today’s crop will be equally well equipped – a testament to the long standing quality of teaching provided.

Sheffield School of Architecture

Sheffield School of Architecture

Paul Bailey

For the students themselves the reality of a five-year course and £9,000 annual fees – and the likelihood of a post-Brexit recession – will probably be their biggest concerns. The fees will never drop, and the wider economy is a bigger issue beyond the control of the schools, so how long the five-year course is tenable is an interesting topic. Sheffield’s solution is the MArch: Collaborative Practice, the first course of its type to receive RIBA validation and ARB prescription. The route is a two-year programme where year one is based in practice with the student employed four days a week, and year two is based at the university in Sheffield. Although the work of the new course on show is very limited, you get the impression that the inherent common sense and attractiveness of the course mean we will see more of it in the future.

As students start to question the cost, and more importantly the value, of their courses, making their studies relevant to their employers’ requirements becomes paramount. By tying the students into employment, and at the same time bringing the best practitioners into education, via their support and contribution to the courses, it must be a win-win situation and an obvious plus on any CV.

William Matthews, founder, William Matthews Associates

student banner wide

student banner wide

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