The humanitarian issues the world faces call for a new, hands-on, practical and cross-disciplinary module in architecture schools, writes Ben Bolgar
Why would anyone choose to study architecture? asks AJ managing editor Will Hurst in a recent leader article. With architecture being the longest and most expensive degree, and with architects’ salaries notoriously low, one can’t help wonder what can be done to keep attracting students into the fold.
One thing, perhaps, is to look for growth areas and to see how architects can be valued more by society in general.
An obvious target area is that of rapid urbanisation. The world’s urban population is set to double by 2050 and urban land coverage set to triple. The main reason for the greater land take is the sprawling effect of ‘unplanned’ growth, which, sadly, will be by far the majority of new settlements.
This disturbing projection will have profound implications for food, water, ecology and energy consumption and, by association, human health, wellbeing and security. We are already seeing the impact of mass migration on global politics but, if you believe these projections, it hasn’t even started to take hold.
So what can architects do? And why should we care? It would seem fairly obvious why we should care but perhaps less obvious is how architects can engage with an issue as vast as this.
One way must surely be to restructure architectural education to understand the city as well as the art of building appropriately to culture and climate. A large part of this focus must be on the practical versus the over-intellectual. That is not to dismiss the academic practice of training teachers, but the humanitarian issues we face do not require over-thinking; they require a great deal of doing.
Cities are complex organisms and projected growth is rapid so what is required has to be incredibly simple and implementable. Looked at another way, unless a city mayor understands what you are talking about and why it matters, it probably won’t happen.
So, if the learning of how to plan cities is kept to basics, like urban blocks, a hierarchy of streets, a good distribution of public spaces and walkable urban boundaries and so on, the implementation of these plans is altogether more complex. That is where the different professions of architecture, engineering, planning, ecology and surveying need to work together under a common understanding of city building to see how they can shape and deliver new settlements that are happening without formal structures in place.
Architecture, engineering, planning, ecology and surveying need to work together under a common understanding of city building
It is precisely by working as a team on a common problem and understanding the language, priorities and focus areas of each player that students pick up nuanced knowledge. Finding the right balance between competing priorities towards a common goal is a critical skill in itself that is impossible to write down as text, as it needs to be experienced in person.
In thinking how such a module could be integrated into an architect’s education it could possibly be as done as the first practical year out. There would have to be enough hands-on practical experience to cover the Part 1 criteria but this would seem to be the right time in the course to broaden the student’s experience.
It would, ideally, need agreement between the RIBA, RICS, ICE, RTPI and the Landscape Institute to bolt such a programme into the various teaching structures. But if it could be achieved, then maybe the next generation of architects would see their future as acting for a noble cause and being trained in the ‘Mother of All Arts’.
Ben Bolgar is senior director of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community