Collaboration between ‘rival’ architecture schools is not only possible, it can be clarifying and empowering for both staff and students, argues Ellis Woodman
Earlier this year the Architecture Foundation launched an online database detailing the briefs of each of the 88 diploma studios operating in London. Free-to-access at www.architecturefoundation.org.uk and searchable by keyword, it is conceived as a tool enabling individuals to recognise shared research interests. A student at the University of East London developing a project for artists’ studios on the Old Kent Road might therefore discover that a studio at Westminster is exploring a similar programme or one at the Cass is focused on the same location. A dialogue becomes possible across institutional boundaries that are all too rarely transgressed.
A key reason for this insularity has been that the schools see themselves in competition. They function in a market where maintaining a distinct institutional identity is understood as fundamental to success at attracting students. That awareness informs the culture of every school in the country, but for the 12 operating cheek by jowl in the capital, the impulse to differentiate is particularly pronounced. Where Central Saint Martins maintains a reputation for its programme’s political engagement, the Bartlett keeps faith with its history of techno-futurism; where the Royal College of Art prides itself as a home of critical thinking, Kingston finds its focus in a more traditional definition of the architect’s craft. So different are these institutions’ goals and measures of success – not to mention their graphic and linguistic vocabularies – it is little wonder that conversation between them remains so limited.
To test whether it was even possible, in March, the Architecture Foundation convened a series of megacrits, bringing together studios that the database had enabled us to identify as pursuing related interests. The work presented over these four days ranged from AA projects conceived at a territorial scale and located in a dystopian future to scrupulously regulation-compliant designs for housing by students at South Bank, where even the drainage details had been explored. And yet, for all this diversity, it quickly became apparent that dialogue was not only possible but that the exposure to other ways of thinking was enormously clarifying and empowering for the participating students and staff. While a good diploma studio is always defined by an intense focus on a particular set of concerns, the possibility that this inward focus develops into a form of theocracy is always a real danger. Studio cultures need to renew themselves constantly, making dialogue with others a fundamental requirement.
Peter Murray led a group of AA students around the country in a repurposed double-decker bus
The diploma studio database and associated megacrits can be thought of as an internet-age child of Polyark, the cross-school initiative conceived in 1973 by Cedric Price and Peter Murray. In February of that year, Murray led a group of AA students around the country in a repurposed double-decker bus, developing projects in collaboration with colleagues at different architecture schools en route. Students from the host institution would then join the group and participate in a project at the next school, with video documenting the presentations at each stop. The Polyark bus tour had its roots in an article that Price published in the AJ in 1966, in which he made the case for the establishment of a National School of Architecture, the students of which would be free to pick and choose between the teaching modules offered by the various existing institutions.
Half a century later, the message that schools can only benefit from embracing dialogue has lost none of its pertinence. Particularly at a time when architectural education faces enormous challenges in the form of mounting fees and diminishing resources, it is imperative that schools look to what they hold in common and can readily share.
Ellis Woodman is director of the Architecture Foundation as well as an AJ columnist