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The UK’s students are ready for practice – but is practice ready for them?

Summer show 2017 006
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In a world where employment and education are undergoing rapid change, Jon Astbury takes a closer look at the evolving relationship between education and practice

Each year the AJ faces the challenge of how – or indeed whether – to rank and establish criteria for the UK’s architecture schools. Whatever your thoughts on rankings, and as rewarding as it would be to review work produced by all of the UK’s 52 schools, if we are to attempt to snapshot anything by way of trends, some sort of filter needs to be applied. 

This year we have again turned to the league tables drawn up by The Guardian. But rather than looking at overall results we looked at one figure in particular: that of ‘employability’, calculated by how many respondents report having found a graduate-level job within six months of graduating. This is not due to a desire to resurrect the old debate that students aren’t grappling with enough ‘real-world’ issues these days, or to bemoan student shows not being technical enough – rather, it is a call to look at the relationship between education and practice as less of a conveyor belt and more of an ongoing conversation, in which parameters are shifting and new connections are being forged.

You are more likely to guess a project’s origin from its location than its drawing style

While this may be the case for those in larger cities with an established architectural ecosystem to dive into, the AJ Student Survey this year shows that feeling unprepared or underskilled for the world of practice remains a primary frustration (37.8 per cent of respondents felt they didn’t have the knowledge required), be it simply for the reason of not being taught certain software or due to a more fundamental lack of business knowledge, law or ethics. There is an expectation and a recognition that years out provide experience in this regard (63 per cent described this as ‘incredibly valuable’), but schools still have the challenge of meeting the multifarious wants of architecture students – 56 per cent say that the course is not what they originally expected, and ‘not enough art’ is almost as common a complaint as ‘not enough technology’. 

And so the resulting ‘Employability Top 10’ that follows reveals a cross-section of schools that is refreshingly regional, and in many ways captures both sides of the artistic/professional debate that remains at the forefront of student’s minds. What exactly makes an architecture student ‘employable’ and is it visible in the work? We asked practitioners (many of whom had studied at the schools) to visit the summer shows with this perennial debate in mind.

As ever, the breadth and output from the UK’s schools are staggeringly rich. Most pronounced in this small selection (perhaps a result of only one London school being included) is a welcome lack of an overriding school manifesto or ‘cultish’ unit ethos – the majority are marked by the diversity of teaching and range of architectural responses encouraged. While the usual, time-worn criticisms remain – the Bartlett is too whimsical, Bath does not do enough to push architectural boundaries – you are more likely to guess a project’s origin from its location than its drawing style.

Mh 050717 cardiff university 011

Mh 050717 cardiff university 011

Cardiff University student show

Indeed, stand-out projects this year are very much grappling with the existing (and often the local) rather than any sort of distant tabula rasa, with ideas of knitting together a place as a whole taking precedent rather than slaving over architectural form-making. At UWE Bristol this involved linking a disused Salisbury quarry back to the city, and at Liverpool preventing the beleaguered Waterfront from becoming a ‘Notopia’ (particularly pertinent given its threatened UNESCO heritage status). Here and at Sheffield students also dealt with the campus at which they were studying – a fruitful shifting of focus from exotic climes to areas which they lived and worked in every day. Arts organisations and creative-led regeneration also played a part, with Sheffield examining City of Culture bids and the projects these could spark, with insight into commissioning processes and bids. This local, situated graduate knowledge is vital and valuable, and it is up to local institutions and practices to harness and invest in it or the case remains that many will be pulled away by London’s draw.

There has also been a ramping-up of architectural responsibility – reflective perhaps of students’ desire to see a greater focus on politics and ethics. At Liverpool University the maritime/mercantile context of the city has been channelled into a mobile shipbreaking yard by Yuwei Zhang, and at De Montfort University in Leicester, Tinuade Ogundaini’s ‘Floating Commercial Hub’ in Nigeria is being considered for presentation to the local government. It is a sign of the times – with truth being stranger than fiction – that global crises are proving far more ripe areas of architectural exploration than any imagined brief. Here some whimsy creeps back in amid the gloom: at the Bartlett, Ryan Blackford’s project ‘Motherboard Russia’ sees a church become a villainous headquarters where Putin and Trump can meet. For Bath this head-on approach was eschewed in favour of a turning inwards to create refuges, wellbeing centres and retreats more wedded to the idea of architecture as a (dare I say phenomenological) craft rather than a global problem-solver. 

‘Live’ projects also feature heavily across these 10 schools; at Bristol, Cambridge and Strathclyde in particular, ‘real’ clients and the construction of 1:1 works help keep architecture grounded in the hands-on world of construction that many students crave. It is particularly true of Liverpool and Strathclyde that a local architectural scene can be felt bubbling beneath the surface, stemming the yearly ‘brain drain’ of graduates who apply their skills elsewhere. 

Mh 050717 cardiff university 029

Mh 050717 cardiff university 029

Cardiff University student show

Finally, this year sees the addition of three new schools to our directory, with new courses at Reading, Falmouth and Loughborough universities demonstrating that there is still a healthy interest in new ways of teaching architecture and improving its accessibility. This year also saw the young London School of Architecture exhibit its first graduating students, and a range of designs for the future of London, demonstrating that the school’s bold merging of practice and education is paying off. As the LSA’s director of critical practice James Soane comments in his review of Cambridge’s show (page 28): ‘Students are ready for practice, but is practice ready for them?’ If not, this will be their loss – and I for one am excited to see the form of practice that these students will forge for themselves.

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