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How future technologies are revolutionising architectural education

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Student Shows 2014: Essay by Neil Spiller


Thirty years ago, when I fell out of architectural education bright-eyed and bushy tailed, there was less to learn; the tsunami of the new technologies (nano, bio and virtual) had hardly begun and was not really reflected in the standard architectural practice of the time. Then, no one predicted the massive changes that have been wrought on the architectural profession, but these are nothing compared to what is to come. Changes in technology have manifested themselves in many different ways, how we procure, fund, make and design buildings has changed in technology’s wake. Architecture doesn’t stop with buildings, it encompasses cities, landscapes, environments (all have virtual and actual components). Materials are also changing, the pre-eminence of dry, hard materials is being challenged by soft and wet materiality. ‘Top down’ construction methods are being questioned by emergent ‘bottom-up’ paradigms.

Where does all this place architectural schools within this miasma of change? I would argue right at the centre of the vortex; riding the surf on a continuing precarious, but exhilarating, trajectory.
The schools are absolutely crucial to the development and continued evolution of agile, decent and dynamic, and connected environments. This makes them special and valuable. However, due to the onslaught of technology and the changing nature of architectural practice, some housekeeping is required.

This dusting and cleaning, that is needed, is often diametrically opposed to much of the sophist, inconsistent and outmoded approaches to teaching students in most schools. We have to switch from 20th-century thoughts, concepts and ambitions to 21st-century ones. To many of those teaching, ‘architectural technology’ still means structural systems, CAD, Moodle and 3D printing bogey-shaped pieces of cyberplasm.

More advanced schools have seen some of the changes to come, but have fallen into the fetishisation of Grasshopper, Rhino, Arduino boards and robotics. Few are seeing that these opportunities signal an era of material abundance not cutting stuff out in buildings out in the name of sustainability (if only I knew what ‘sustainable’ means - as architects and educators, we have so liberally used this expression that it is now meaningless).

Today, even the most dedicated Luddite cannot escape the digital world’s embraces, seductions and frustrations. As designers and human beings, we flit between the real, the augmented real and the virtually real thousands of times a day. Our cones of vision have multiplied a thousand times in the last half century. So the dogmas and doctrines of over 50 years ago are outdated and dangerously myopic.

The seemingly crazy protocols of surrealism seem more appropriate than the white, clean and neat hair restraint of Modernism in this fecund technological era. The one thing that is crucial for architectural schools to teach is mental and spatial dexterity, way above the tired, creaking supposed dynamism of clean lines, pure boxes, glass walls and squeaky clean order.

We live in a world where my duvet can blog, I can print a gun with my desktop 3D printer, I can create an augmented reality storm, or I can grab buckets of big data about sites surveyed by my own modified scanner drones. All these and many more spatial opportunities and conditions are architectural. Some might ask whether all architecture students need to be proficient with all these technologies, will there not be specialisms? But soon you won’t be able to function as an architect without them - such ideas, spatial reflexivity and concepts are the new telephone, set square, drawing board and construction techniques of the architect’s trade.

So schools have to teach more technologies (technologies of representation and technologies of spatial construction) than ever before. Most architectural staff do not have these skills. Schools have to give students extended time to assimilate the spatial dynamics of this new ecology of virtual, bio, nano and ‘normal’ things. So this, flies in the face of the liberal whingeing about shorter courses which treat the student as an ‘oven-ready turkey’, ready for a few meals, but often under-cooked in a few years’ time when their ‘fast-track skills’ have disappeared and technology has moved on.

Today we are able to create personal and public reflexive environments that exist both virtually and actually. We can choreograph their vitality, sensitivity, scale, biological and mechanical ecological interactions; how we observe them, how they observe us, how they recognise us and how they fully accommodate our spatial and visceral desires. We are able to seamlessly hybridise materials, expand the traditional palette of materials in many unthought of ways - flesh, bone, diamond.

We will be able to conceive of buildings and their sites as agile and, maybe, really sustainable interventions that utilise synthetic biologies. We might be able to grow architecture. What about ethics and building procurement? Nothing is sacred in this new world. I am not a technological positivist, there are many political, social and libertarian issues within these technologies and schools must not ignore them.

So to sum up, architectural schools are highly valuable, but they must change. Many staff in schools are past their sell by date. Courses should stay at the same length and the power of architectural education should not be sacrificed to soul-searching egalitarianism. There should be fewer schools with higher ambitions and ideals. It should be difficult for a student to get into architecture school, but once in it is demanding but equally rewarding. Practices should use the engine of architecture schools to drag themselves into the 21st century and cosset students when they join by seeing them as the future and not just the latest in a long line of turkeys - expedient for a fast buck - unaware that their practice is slated for extinction without them. It is time to kick out the Jams, Brothers and Sisters!

Professor Neil Spiller is Hawksmoor Chair of Architecture and Landscape and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Greenwich

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