The latest Architecture Anew talk, a RIBA + VitrA season of talks, discussed how the skills learnt in architectural training can be applied to other fields, writes Pamela Buxton
Architects Beyond Architecture, the fourth in the Architecture Anew, a RIBA + VitrA season of talks, highlighted architects who work outside the mainstream of the profession – whether by stretching the boundaries of what could be considered architectural practice or by applying skills learnt in their training to other fields. The event focused particularly on architects pursuing humanitarian and socially motivated projects, from exploring migrant housing conditions to investigations into human rights violations.
‘The majority of architectural graduates don’t become architects … they take that skill set and migrate,’ says Harriet Harriss, architect and dean of the Pratt School of Architecture in New York, who co-chaired the event with editor and educator Roberta Marcaccio. ‘Statistically and economically, they are more powerful outside architecture.’
Harriss and Marcaccio are the ideal chairs for a discussion on this subject having – along with Rory Hyde – co-edited the book Architects after Architecture, which considers alternative pathways for practice.
They hope the book and talk will help ‘liberate’ architecture from its attachment to building by giving visibility to those whose work is often marginalised outside mainstream architectural practice. They also want to articulate the possibilities for architecture to have a more ethical agenda, particularly at a time when the construction industry is, says Harriss, ‘complicit’ in the climate crisis and global warming.
‘Just designing buildings is a cul-de-sac,’ says Marcaccio. ‘There’s so much more architects can do.
So what transferrable skills does an architectural education deliver? In their book, the co-editors talk about ‘the unique combination of pragmatism and emotion, of technical problem-solving and imaginary vision’ that architecture requires.
At the talk, architectural researcher and designer Kishan San discussed his work at the campaigning research agency Forensic Architecture, which investigates human rights violations. He showcased Forensic Architecture’s investigation into the Beirut Port warehouse explosion as a demonstration of how architects can intervene in humanitarian contexts and apply their skills to more social ends. The research combined architectural techniques with relevant media such as satellite imagery to form a better understanding of the circumstances of the explosion, such as the way that vats of ammonium nitrate were stored in the warehouse prior to the disaster.
‘We were able to construct a 3D model, place media within it and deconstruct the space,’ says San. ‘We could then analyse it against existing storage regulations, which we spatialised.
‘One of the skills of an architect is in coordinating an event – the process of bringing a building to site. We’re able to bring together people from different specialisms, such as data science, film-making and animation, as part of the creative process. We can also apply this to an investigation of human rights violations.’
Research architect Lindsay Bremner, a professor at the University of Westminster, is applying her architectural skills to a different field in her project Monsoon Assemblages, which she presented at the talk. This five-year study combined urban and oceanic research and ethnography to understand how monsoons affect the land. It also made use of architectural drawing and mapping skills, using architectural methods not for problem solving but to produce knowledge.
‘Incidences of monsoonal distress are increasing as cities grow,’ she says. ‘I was interested in what is turning monsoons into a problem rather than a life force.’ Bremner found that profit-driven urban development paid scant attention to how people need monsoons for their water, and to the way water flows in the cities.
Mark E Breeze, an architect, documentary filmmaker and founding chair of the University of Cambridge Sustainable Shelter Group, regards films as very much part of his architectural process.
At the talk, he discussed his film Shelter Without Shelter, which seeks to communicate the nuances and challenges of providing shelter for refugees at several locations in Europe and the Middle East.
While Breeze is working at the intersection of architecture and film, RIBAJ Rising Star Chris Hildrey sees himself as still working within architecture. However his projects encompass projects that wouldn’t typically be considered architectural, from music videos to his best-known project, the ProxyAddress address system for homeless people.
He advocates for architects to use their ‘rare and valuable set of skills’ such as the ability to combine scientific rigour with artistic requirements, in contexts beyond the creation of buildings.
‘When you go through this long education, you’re trained in many skills,’ he says, ‘and the one thing you don’t do is get a building built. But when you qualify, that’s the one thing you’re expected to do.’
Co-chair Marcaccio speculates that the impact of the pandemic may precipitate an increase in those with architectural training looking beyond the mainstream, with more thinking laterally about different ways of practising.
Architects Beyond Architecture was part of the Architecture Anew talk series, a RIBA + VitrA partnership. The next event, Rewilding: Nature Cannot Wait, is on 13 July.