LINES DRAWN: WHAT DO STUDENTS WANT FROM ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION?
By Nick Pocock (MArch year 1) & Ryan Harrison (BA 3)
With the implemented rise in tuition fees and the proposed total overhaul of course structure, architectural education is witnessing a critical point in its trajectories. Major changes are underway in the outlying structure to becoming an architect in the UK, but opinions coming directly from students have been limited. In response, a recent spring gathering of students from across the country came to debate the values of architectural education and its prospective futures, in a series of workshops and panel discussions running over a weekend period.
The name of the event, ’Lines Drawn’, was organised by the Architecture Students’ Network (ASN) and held at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales: a 40 year old institution in sustainable building techniques, who currently offer an independent postgraduate architecture programme in their Cambrian campus. We began the weekend with a tour of the site, going through a catalogue of built experiments in sustainable architecture, ranging from timber huts to geodesic domes - some of which we would be staying the night in. Over 70 students from 28 different schools of architecture had come, with an excellent breadth of representatives from first years all the way up to Part 3.
Following an introduction by ASN co-founder Vinesh Pomal, we all moved outside to hear a presentation by Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright, who questioned whether the current state of architectural education was causing students to retreat rather than engage with the many concerns that practicing architects face. It was this retreat into an insular and esoteric circle that he feared was causing architectural education to become a vacuous rather than engaged experience, with students more concerned with creating otherworldly scenarios than dealing with contemporary issues - calling for education to become a more practice-based learning experience.
Following the presentation, we were all spread into separate groups to discuss these concerns in greater detail. Being split into smaller groups allowed us to form more democratic circles where each student would be able to have their voice heard - a welcome element of learning different students’ experiences. However, some conversations were lacking in clarity somewhat when topics drifted between different students, who instead of responding to previous points would lead the conversation in a different direction. All the same, it became an excellent networking situation for students who wanted to find out what their peers were learning differently within other schools of architecture – and questioning what values truly mattered when it comes to assessing the quality of architectural education.
It became apparent how important it is for architects to become a socially-engaged profession rather than differentiated - one student comically noting how her contemporaries would often pride themselves for their dishevelled looks after completing two all-nighters to prepare for a design crit, (we’ve all been there), contributing to a sense of separation and exclusivity from other university faculties who architects are meant to collaborate with.
Following the discussions, we all gathered for the main event of the day which was the panel discussion, featuring The Architectural Review’s Executive Editor and founder of the London School of Architecture, Will Hunter; Editor of Touchstone magazine Patrick Hannay; Oliver Wainwright and Head of Portsmouth School of Architecture Pamela Cole. After a long day of travelling and debate though, the debate seemed somewhat less enthused than if it could have been if held earlier on - (or after a few espressos) - but key points including how the restructuring of elements of the (much-vaunted worldwide) RIBA Parts 1-3 system needed to still be left intact if a new system was made in its place.
Plans are underway to replace the system with a ‘4+2’ European-style programme, which sees students carry out 4 years at university (rather than a bachelor and postgraduate course), followed by two years of professional experience. This replacement many argued would keep (or attempt to keep) architecture as an accessible profession ahead of the many issues of un-repayable debt that students currently face. It needs to be debated however that if this was put in place students would miss out on being able to experience the different cultures of carrying out their studies at different architecture schools – creating a positive conversation between different universities and styles of teaching, which the weekend’s course had been so effective at demonstrating.
On the following morning and on the train back to Leicester, it struck me how important it is for architects to create dialogues between their peers, creating positive solutions to problems we all too often are presented within studio and practice. With the way that universities are often either making graduates ‘employable’ by making sure they have a good set of CAD skills upon graduation, (or in the other sense so otherworldly that they have no problem getting work in film production), the key attribute that students should be attaining is the essential tool of discussion and debate. One student over the weekend had noted that architects should even be taught how to ‘be more charismatic’, which while I find is something difficult to teach, a reasonable point when it comes to architects needing to be more involved rather than less in arguing with or against other professionals in the built environment.
It was an illuminating experience for the both of us, (having been well-acquainted with the LSA system) and interacting with other students and hearing about their experiences was both fascinating and helpful, particularly with postgraduate and year-out students offering help to Part 1’s on the steps to take following their graduation. We can only hope that more of these networking events can be held to continue this discussion between architecture schools.
Plans are already underway to host the next ASN event, this time offered by the University of Kent in their Canterbury campus. With Leicester’s central position in the country, hopefully we won’t have to wait long before DeMontfort can offer the same opportunity for architecture students.