Lost in thought

Has architecture education roamed too far from home?

‘What do they teach you at architecture school then?’ comes the inevitable, well-intended question over small talk in non-architectural circles, after you explain that, in spite of your first three years of architectural education, you are not very good at physics or maths, the accurate dating of historic buildings or, for that matter, knowing how to build a house.

That I sometimes struggle to answer this question explains my weary approach to the hotly-acclaimed new book, Radical Pedagogies: Architectural Education and the British Tradition. Furthermore – and knowing how my position may be perceived – I dare to swim against the tide of heated debates and rhetorical manifestoes to declare that I just don't believe this type of pedagogy is what British architecture education really needs. Perhaps rather, in these post-modern times of uncertainty and unsettlingly fast change within the discipline and beyond, architectural education should be taking an unfashionable pause to lay some solid, deep-anchored foundations and – to continue the metaphor – dig down to find its roots rather than spread its wings. As it turns out, however, in their seemingly disconcerted calls for action, the contributions to this book appear to point more to the shared roots of the profession than they are led to believe.

The stated aspiration of the book – to inject radical new imagination and tenacity into the tired debate about how to make architectural education better – is in many senses a timeless one. As RIBA director of education David Gloster describes in its preface, British architectural institutions are ‘intellectually restless’ environments with a well-established lineage of critical self-reflection. But the aspiration is also highly contextual. The Bologna Declaration, a process that started back in 1999 and was agreed by all EU member states as a way to set up a shared framework to recognise academic and professional qualifications, has instigated a review of how British higher education providers structure and deliver their own processes. In the realm of architecture, however, this set of recommendations has ignited lively conversations across schools, the trade press and beyond about the relationship between architectural education and industry, protection of the title and, by the end of the bottle, what does it mean to be an architect anyway? 

In the realm of architecture, these EU recommendations have ignited lively conversations about the relationship between architectural education and industry, protection of the title and, by the end of the bottle, what does it mean to be an architect anyway?

The contents page of Radical Pedagogies is quite simply delicious. Intentionally diverse, the star-studded line-up of contributors (‘students, recent graduates, practitioners, educators and developers’) make tightly edited punchy contributions with the sort of sexy titles that you would expect from a collection self-identified as 'radical'. The book is set out in four Marxist-sounding parts. It kicks off with ‘The Critique: A Historical Analysis of Architectural Education’, with contributions from Alan Powers, Mel Dodd, Daisy Froud and Tim Ivison as an enlightening explication of a series of less well-known historic experiments in architecture schools. Part 2 covers ‘The Limitations of the Current System’, and contains essays by Jack Self (on the problems with a neo-liberal approach to education), James Benedict Brown with an imaginatively structured analysis of Paulo Freire, Hayley Chivers, and Matt Gaskin and his students Rob Dutton and Devon Telberg, Tatjana Schnieder, plus an interview with Chris Brown on architectural education from the perspective of the developer. Part 3, ‘Forms of Resistance’, features Bob Sheil, Ruth Morrow, Cany Ash and Robert Sakula, Jack Pringle and Holly Porter, and O'Brien, de Azua and Che Tizzard of Red Deer architecture studio. Part 4, ‘Resistance in Action’, takes a more practical future-orientated direction, and includes essays on current experiments in architectural practice. It contains essays from Toom Keeley, Nina Shen-Poblete, Sam Jacob and Laura Mark, and has an interview with Will Hunter and Nigel Coates.

The tome, in one way, reads like a hymn book to radical approaches to architectural teaching, and in particular, the radicalism of newness and expansiveness. The history of architecture education contained here looks a bit like the Hungry Caterpillar story book, from the narrow early days of the Royal Academy, where training architects would relentlessly copy plaster casts of architectural details, to the expansive endlessly diverse schools of the modern day that take the whole world as its subject. Today, architectural pedagogy, in the words of Cany Ash, is eclectic in that it ‘begs, borrows and steals as shamelessly as a magpie’. Ivana Wingham argues that it could be more eclectic still, following her proposal that [t]he project in a new curriculum could include strands of architecture and beyond, such as design, humanities, art, science, technologies, business and professional studies’. The practitioners at Red Deer argue that the tendency towards expansiveness in content should be duplicated for process (‘we advocate rolling up students' sleeves and exposing them to microbiology and micro-brewing, haberdashery and hadron-collider maintenance, aquaponics and leather curing’) whereas Bob Sheil argues that ‘schools of architecture today must continually relearn how to educate the architects of tomorrow’, an eerie prescription for infinite recreation that echoes deep into the future.

But if there is a crisis in thinking about architectural education, as the book’s introduction suggests, couldn’t this heavy pause for reflection be its own cause? In other words, in this constant quest to expand, borrow, redefine and dismantle, what is architecture? All that is not solid, after all, melts to air. 

The tome, in one way, reads like a hymn book to radical approaches to architectural teaching, and in particular, the radicalism of newness and expansiveness

There is a different, quieter current however, that runs beneath the surface of the book, and seem to hanker after something other than radical expansion. There are a number of very enjoyable attempts to define what is at the core of architecture, for instance. Cany Ash and Robert Sakula argue that the bedrock of architecture is ‘the ability to take stock of a situation and a user requirement, to make a creative leap into the dark, and thereby, alchemically, to synthesise a solution to a human need for space, utility, enjoyment or comfort’. With an emphasis on the process of production, the practitioners at Red Deer argue that ‘architect’ should be a verb, as in not to be an architect, but ‘to architect’.

Then there is a series of essays on contemporary pedagogies, which seem likewise to be burrowing away in search of some kernel. Will Hunter and Nigel Coates's essay on their anticipated London School of Architecture, promises to reconnect education with practice. Mel Dodd, who runs an experimental new masters course at Central Saint Martins, argues that ‘maintaining a strong culture of pragmatism and real-world application, so integral to art and design practice, grounds our discipline in production’. Talking about her young practice STORE, Nina Shen-Poblete celebrates the importance of real projects, and the act of making. A common theme here seems to be something of the ‘master builderliness’ of the pre-disciplinary days, whereby practice is grounded in the physicality and reality of building. But then, in the many ways they rethink and reposition traditional and familiar educational processes, aren’t these pedagogies more reactionary than they are radical?

Given its name, this book performs a surprising trick by demonstrating how radical approaches to architectural education are beginning to give way to pedagogies that foreground the (simple) production of space. I am left with an image of students in the future armed with a pencil and saw, learning first to make simple drawings and build simple buildings. And in this sense, I am reminded of how Hayley Chivers, in her contribution to the book, describes her personal experience of architecture training as having been anchored by live projects, a formative period aptly (and fondly) described as a time that allowed ‘roaming without getting lost’. This is a great phrase to end on since it reminds us that it is only by understanding the normative and experimental dimensions that frame traditions, that the seemingly radical nature of the new can best be understood and debated to the benefit of future generations of students, teachers, and architects.

Georgie Day is a Part 2 architecture student at the University of Cambridge


Radical Pedagogies : Architectural Education and the British Tradition edited by Daisy Froud & Harriet Harriss, RIBA Publishing, £35, 304pp