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Nottingham Trent University: School of the Built Environment

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Nottingham students need to ask bigger questions and seek out broader horizons, writes Darren Deane

Nottingham Trent University BArch Degree Show, 6-11 June

Emerging schools of architecture have one advantage over more established institutions: their identity can be constructed from scratch. Nottingham Trent, which saw its first 19-strong cohort graduating this year, is in this enviable position. Established in 2006, the founders must have been spoilt for choice when selecting an ethos, but absolute freedom can quickly flip into a search for safe ground. 

Most projects on show are driven by community-based briefs and can be read as a reaction to the vertiginous marketplace of architectural education. The process is quite straightforward: adopt the social and geographical limits of the surrounding context, complete with inhabitants, their needs and sites, map these on to a bounded insular conversation, then substitute this closed world for an outward-facing institutional agenda. Bypassing universal questions and ideas that transcend place is the hidden cost that limits the school to a vernacular provincialism.

The growth of a young school depends on careful integration of intellectual strands, and the kind-hearted regionalism shown in sections of the show may well run out of steam. Contextualism is certainly a grounding component in architecture, but cultural interpretation needs to move to the edge, cross the tracks, and expand horizons.

A smattering of projects did find their way to the edge. The urban crematorium by Catherine Amos attempted to reinstate material presence into the urban core. As the only scheme to have exposed the developmental stages, it also revealed the effort put into the orchestration of the plan, a dimension regularly undervalued these days by students intoxicated with photorealism. James Decent’s alleyway project was the highlight in terms of articulation – a reciprocation of tectonics, spatial structure, room characterisation and urban situation. Perhaps these projects are the breakthrough that will move the school towards an edgy contextualism that positions architecture between universal ideas and communal concerns.

Darren Deane is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham

Resume: New kids on the block have yet to bust out of their provincial contextualism

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