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The studio is critical, but it's not where all the magic happens

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Is the studio too dominant in schools of architecture? wonders Paul Finch

The recent RIBA education day, where decisions were taken that could set the framework for schools for decades to come, included heartfelt pleas from several delegates to end the influence of the studio.

Just how influential studio teaching is, and indeed the proportion of time that it takes in the seven-year marathon leading to qualification, is open to debate. A measured intervention from Harry Charrington, head of school at Westminster, suggested that the proportion was smaller than some assume, and would be likely to diminish, certainly way below 50 per cent of teaching time.

But you know what the complaint is based on: the notion that architectural education is warped because of a false assumption that everyone can be brilliant at design. The profession in reality comprises a vast majority who would not claim to be design stars, but would quite reasonably regard themselves as competent professionals – competence being a term applied to a series of skills in addition to design that come within the architect’s orbit.

Moreover, since most clients neither need nor want to try to win the Stirling Prize when they commission an architect (many of them only once or twice in their life), should it not be the case that excellence in ‘everyday’ architecture – decent design, well-ordered documentation, obtaining of planning, dealing with tenders, ensuring proper construction delivery, controlling cost – should have greater priority in schools than a system geared to producing the exceptional?

Shortly after the RIBA event, I found myself pondering these questions in the context of an ‘open crit’ event at the Bartlett. Students had been invited to present, if they wished, to invited external panellists with a few internals thrown in. The day I attended was stimulating, both in terms of the range of subjects addressed and the spirited way in which the students made their presentations.

The day ended with guest presentations by two recent graduates of the school, one of whom had won the RIBA Silver Medal. These provided a good insight for their student successors since not only were the presentations extremely professional, but the rigour of thought that had informed their projects was very clear (one was for a reservoir, dam and housing in Bedfordshire; the other the creation of a visitor centre in Slough, based on Winnie the Pooh – nothing if not eclectic).

While all this was happening, elsewhere in the school a hive of activity was under way, including the buzz of machines of various descriptions that make schools these days resemble factories, or at least prototyping areas. The art and craft of making goes hand in hand with programming and exploiting every possibility afforded by digital technology.

Studio and non-studio activities should surely be regarded not as opposites, but parallels. The studio is critical to the teaching of architecture, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. It is a place where more than design is being taught and encouraged: at its best it is a stimulator of intellectual rigour; a testing ground for the development and resolution of proposals that stretch both the imagination and the mental and physical resources of the student.

However, the thing it cannot do is recognise skills other than those generated by design projects. It cannot by definition find out what students may excel in other than the magic stuff. This is a challenge, since there is an implication that it is only the people who do best in the studio who count.

It may be that bringing all professional and practical training within the academic programme offers the opportunity, if it is needed, to adjust the balance.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Paul McGrath

    If you start from a position which most architects who don't win awards would recognise, that as long as an exclusive club that comprises an elite intelligentsia exists, there will always be an unnecessary distinction between competent designers (which most architects undoubtedly are) and those supposedly having an exceptional design flair. The drive and desire to rise above the rest and join that club, starts in the studio. It is also clear, the higher calibre the school of architecture, the better the credentials become for being admitted to the club.

    The self-selected Russell Group of universities to which the Bartlett belongs, decidedly set themselves apart and some would say above other universities. Along with other Russell Group universities the Bartlett could be accused of having no interest in "everyday" architecture (even if it is excellent) and every interest in grooming the exceptional. It is not by accident that a guest presentation by a former student was an RIBA Silver Medal winner. Precisely because it is this type of plaudit that sets one person apart from another. Rightly or wrongly it is a fact of life in education and the wider architectural profession. The false assumption, if there is one, is not that everyone can be brilliant at design but that only a fortunate, favoured few are capable of good design.

    There are a vast number of good architects produced by an excellent education system who never get to exercise their skills to the best of their ability. Due in large part to constraints outside their immediate control or influence. Conditions they have no option other than to work under.

    Nor does the Architects' Journal appear interested in everyday architecture or the opinions of merely competent architects. (Inconsequential comment boxes excepted.) It would appear opinions are only newsworthy if they come from award winning architects or established personalities. Thereby continuing the virtuous circle that started in the studio.

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