Richard Waite reviews the end-of-year show at the Birmingham School of Architecture
Ranked 38 out of 47 in The Guardian’s 2016 league table of architecture schools
Only 10 years ago, Birmingham School of Architecture was a hair’s breadth away from extinction. In 2004 the school, then part of the University of Central England (UCE), was in turmoil after 93 per cent of its Part 1 students failed their finals.
As a result, admissions were suspended, its head resigned and the university’s senate considered whether or not to resuscitate the course – at the time the only architectural education course in the West Midlands (see AJ 18.11.04).
Although the school restarted in 2005, and was given the chance to distance itself from the disgrace when the UCE was renamed Birmingham City University in 2007, it has fared poorly in the league tables. For two years (2013 and 2014) the school languished at 41 out of 46 in The Guardian’s rankings.
‘It is really frustrating’, admits an exasperated Kevin Singh, head of the school since 2011. ‘I honestly believe we are a top 15 school. Everybody who comes here is always surprised by what awaits them.’
A tour around the end-of-year show reveals evidence of talent and hard graft – a busy school, with a clear direction and, possibly, a number of genuine future stars.
A hard-to-define coherence unifies the projects, and while there is no house style – something Singh and his ‘collegiate team’ avoid – the work is undoubtedly ‘of Birmingham’.
The city has a tradition for making stuff, and the exhibition is a homage to this heritage with models – some massive – literally everywhere. Wooden, metal, laser-cut and plaster prototypes litter the school’s home.
For the last two years the course has been run out of the upper floors of a newish building designed by local firm Associated Architects; externally little more than a pimped corporate HQ but much more successful inside.
The building overlooks Eastside park and the proposed terminus for HS2 at Curzon Street, and the school has capitalised on this infrastructural mega-event on its doorstep, throwing its students at the resulting design challenges, urban impact and development opportunities.
At Part 1, each of the studios tackled different sites on – or forgotten by – HS2’s arrival route into Birmingham.
Tutor Matt Lucas’ Nowtopia group looked at Castle Bromwich; Tom O’Donnell’s Experiment Cities focused on Digbeth; Alessandro Columbano’s Copy Culture investigated the possibilities of the historic industrial buildings in Water Orton; while Anna Parker’s Outside-In studio took on the suburb of Lea Hall.
Work is, in the main, thoughtful, grounded and buildable – especially at Part 2 – rarely veering off into indulgent flights of fancy. It is real architecture not pure theory.
That is not to say there aren’t some provocative, box-busting ideas on show. Part I graduate Jac Doody, who received a first and has been put forward for a President’s Medal, took HS2’s potential impact to a far-reaching conclusion in his portfolio project.
Doody not only investigated how a suburb, Lea Hall, bypassed by the HS2 rail link could turn to a new industry – in this case working with the bitcoin virtual currency – but also how to house and rehabilitate those who then became consumed by this computer-based pursuit. His work includes impressive sketches, graphic novel-like visuals and a believable narrative.
At Part 2, the four studios grapple with issues ranging from architecture’s relationship with global politics and the civic good (Studio Plastic: led by Mike Dring and Rob Annable) to reassessing capitalistic growth and offering alternative solution to broken ‘contemproary urban life’ (ScarCity led by Matt Lucas and Eduardo McIntosh).
Again, work is solid enough, with Joanne Yu’s alternative look at how to revive Athens’ fortunes by reusing marble waste to drive an agricultural renaissance among the standout projects.
The school, which describes itself as ‘boutique’ and only admits 65 students a year, is refreshingly diverse too – 38 per cent of last year’s cohort was from an ethnic minority background.
It also has very strong links with local practices and its fee-earning, live projects arm - Co.LAB - worked on numerous projects and events bringing in almost £18,000.
So why is the school still so low in the newspaper tables? Singh believes it is partly down to how many points are given for research. Because the school is in the faculty of art, design and media, any credit for this goes towards the art ranking, not the built environment.
Also, Singh says, it is harder to show student progression and ‘added value’ because of the high intake threshold – namely 340 UCAS points (AAB).
What’s more the tables don’t seem to reflect what the students feel. Part 1 student Joseph Bowman says: ‘It’s a shame that [the rankings are] something those leaving school are influenced by when determining where to study.
‘Personally, I ignore them now. I don’t feel the good work and changes that have happened at the school over the years have been represented in the school’s ranking at all.
He concludes: ‘I certainly wouldn’t let it make me feel like my education had been of a lower quality than any other school.’
Student’s view - Jac Doody on his experience at Birmingham City University
‘The school’s links within the industry are excellent, the opportunity to have a two week placement in year two as part of the course was beneficial to a lot of the student cohort as many had never been in an architectural workplace before. In addition to this, the Co.Lab programme run by Alessandro is another great part of the school throughout all the years - another opportunity to work on live briefs but this time with an academic edge.
‘As well as taking part in an elective module in year two, students from all years are encouraged to take part in events at the end of each year to help set up the various parts of the degree show as well as other activities. In addition to this, the workshop facilities are great. It became a second home for many students. As well as the traditional woodwork/metalwork and laser cutting facilities, the plaster room has been good this year too, with many of the year experimenting with new materials.
‘The approach of the school could be described as completely open to each individual. While design projects are closely related to the technical resolution which forms part of the technology module, projects can be speculative or pragmatic, both of which are investigated thoroughly through a series of paths.
‘The school could improve the links within the studio project and the History and Theory (Cultural Context) modules as at times they can seem disconnected, but I know they are planning to bring the two closer together starting from next year. We could also be encouraged to use other workshops more, as BCU itself has jewellery workshops that has equipment we don’t have in the main building as well as facilities in the engineering department among others.
‘From my own perspective, my own studio tutor Anna Parker - who ran Studio 3:Outside In for the first time - was fantastic. She made us understand the spaces we were proposing in both theoretical and technological resolutions. The contextual relationships were important and a social edge was present in everyone’s projects, allowing the residents of the surrounding area to interact with the schemes at various levels. In addition, Alessandro and Matt Lucas were great for the whole year, as well as running their own studio units. They provided alternate insight into everyone’s projects which helped them develop into full architectural propositions.’