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Living in the past

What promises to be an exciting read on theory and practice disappoints as hollow and backward-looking

Work from Smart Geometry 2012 Studio, School of Architecture, Rensselar Polytechnic Institute.
Work from Smart Geometry 2012 Studio, School of Architecture, Rensselar Polytechnic Institute.

Completion of the school of architecture at the University of Greenwich provides the backdrop for this contribution to current debates about architectural education. As we undergo one of our periodic existential crises, and education faces the challenging context of fee charging, gender/minority inequality and research imperatives, this publication makes a timely contribution.

The new Heneghan Peng building is a gift. It provides a compelling framework off which to hang arguments around architectural education and its aims, pedagogy and practice, as well as their expression in the space and material of the building itself. Astonishingly, the pragmatic description published here makes no reference at all to the education of an architect. This is a disappointing hollow at the book’s heart. 

Its subtitle, ‘How tomorrow’s practitioners will learn today’ implies a discourse on the relationship between theory and practice. I was excited. But the essays (mostly by educators) are didactic and promotional, not discursive. Contributions by staff are ­supported by reflections on their own ­educational programmes by the deans of ­selected schools that Greenwich, ambitiously, sees as its peer group. At times it feels like a sequence of prospectuses.

Greenwich sits at the hub of London’s historic connections to the rest of the world, and has a huge diversity of students. Yet where is this diversity of voices reflected in the book? Where are the women? Of the 41 contributors only three are female – writing with their male partners. Do women have negligible influence on education? Why are the contributors so white/western/male/middle-aged? Why does this book replicate and celebrate the values of the past when it aims to explore the future? 

The (masculine) traditions of architectural education are manifest everywhere in the contributions. Greenwich’s educational lineage is traced back to the AA under Alvin Boyarsky and the Bartlett’s Cook/Hawley era. Alvin’s unit model, based on the charismatic father/tutor and visiting global critic, is referred to as the contemporary paradigm. Many have made compelling critiques of this patriarchal system; here it remains unquestioned. While several authors refer to exploring the (broader) culture of architecture, the culture promoted by this volume is based on positivist ideas of progress, innovation and, especially, image formation, within a limited ‘scopic regime’. 

  • Speculative realism? Global Cities, Architectural Association.
    Speculative realism? Global Cities, Architectural Association.
  • Editor Neil Spiller's Map of the Surrealist City, 2013.
    Editor Neil Spiller's Map of the Surrealist City, 2013.
  • Speculative, spatial and sustainable? Martin Tang's project for CJ Lim's Bartlett unit.
    Speculative, spatial and sustainable? Martin Tang's project for CJ Lim's Bartlett unit.
  • Product of University of Greenwich: Rings of Persephone.
    Product of University of Greenwich: Rings of Persephone.

We are regularly reminded of the evolving technological revolution and the importance of being true to the zeitgeist. Accordingly the educational vision offered is of boys with toys speculating on a future digital fantasy, free from the messy forces of everyday existence. The implication is that dealing with reality is in some way conservative. But what transpires is that future gazing is in fact the conventional status quo, replicating all the systems and values of the past. The featured schools operate as neo-Beaux-Arts factories, vying with each other to produce the most extravagant image of a fantastical future. The most worrying aspect is that the authors are convinced it is progressive, and that the imagery, which comes straight out of ‘cutting-edge’ software referencing science fiction, is liberating. There is no critical reflection on the way that technology has changed since the 1970s; it has not produced the liberation/ revolution promised, and has been exploited by capitalism. As Mohsen Mostafavi points out, the control effected by the software programmes employed must be tempered by critical reflection if we are to avoid becoming slaves to the machine. 

In this book’s view of architectural education, there is almost no debate around architecture’s relation to wider and more challenging societal, political or cultural issues or the economic context, and only vague references to climate change. Ben Nicholson is the only author to admit doubt, hovering, paralysed, between the architect’s contract with the 1% and our inability to effect anything relevant to the remaining 99%. 

Imagination is the core of our education and needs to be stimulated wherever it can. I fully defend the right to speculation, but do not accept the imagination is unable to address reality and the here and now. By giving up on them, the schools make architects and architecture more and more irrelevant to the built environment, complicit with technology but without the critical tools to examine it. 

However, what is more than apparent from this volume is the extraordinary talent, energy and creativity of the students whose work is featured. If this could be turned to address some of the issues we all face while still retaining its speculative and critical impulse, then this book might achieve the promise it sets up but never fully delivers. •

Sarah Wigglesworth is director of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and Professor at Sheffield School of Architecture

Educating Architects: How tomorrow’s practitioners will learn today

Ed Neil Spiller & Nic Clear. Thames & Hudson, 352pp, £29.95