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Maria Smith

Why are we so uneasy about the connection between education and practice?

This time last year I wrote my plea to the reviewers of architectural education (RIBAJ June 2014: ‘Teach Taut’). I was super-excited by the prospect of our profession’s pedagogy being given the overhaul it deserves. It was with cautious optimism, then, that I attended the RIBA’s open council meeting in March where the results of its radical rethink were being voted on (RIBAJ, May p55 and online).

It wasn’t the game changer of my dreams. Nigh on nothing was done to reduce the length of study; the RIBA seemed to be more worried about things it had no control over (EU directives or Arb’s scope) than things it does (validation criteria or promoting best practice). It was great that the council meeting was open, but half the time it felt like one of those nightmares where you’re screaming at the top of your lungs but no sound comes out. My favourite part was when they voted that you can call yourself an architect once you, er, qualify as an architect. But let’s suspend our frustration with the slow wheels of bureaucracy and look at what we can take away from the event.

As far as I can see, the overarching message behind the five points the council voted in is that the professional practice and part III curriculum needs to be better integrated into architectural education at large. In principle, I can’t agree with this enough. But there is
a huge barrier: the issue of whether or not architecture schools should be delivering ‘oven-ready’ architects.

Those against the ready-mealification of architectural education argue things like: this would require constraining education to such an extent that it would become bland and unnutritious; it amounts to Starbucks running a primary school to train junior baristas; that it is insulting to say education is a dry run for practice when it is a noble undertaking in its own right; and that learning about real life is best done in real life practice so it’s not really worth universities trying.

Those (like me) who believe there needn’t be a conflict between teaching architecture as an academic subject and teaching its context argue things like: it’s a long and expensive road to qualification so it’s only fair that graduates come out capable of earning a decent salary; architectural practice is a complex and fascinating world so it’s not selling students short to expose them to it; and that equipping students with the tools to engage with the factors affecting the creation of a worthwhile built environment is what teaching architecture is all about. 

Do you really want Whiplash? Blood all over the drum kit and one great solo for every hundred suicides?

So why are we so uncomfortable with the connection between education and practice?

Does education prepare us poorly for practice because it fundamentally disagrees with the state of practice? Architects earn little, have little authorship, little social influence, little agency in the world, little use for their creativity, and generally little opportunity to feel they’re doing anything good. Why would education want to predetermine this cop-out when there’s still hope that one in a million will hold on to their idealism and somehow change the world? Really? Did you see 2014’s Oscar-garlanded Whiplash?  Is that what you want? Blood all over the drum kit and one great solo for every hundred suicides?

For education to stick its head in the sand is not a mature response. Many of architecture’s problems stem from a lack of engagement with business, property and law. This disengagement is bred at architecture schools, and architecture won’t ever fix these problems unless a good proportion of its professionals are well versed in these issues. Education doesn’t do enough to explain these things: in general, it doesn’t set enough store by the value of an expert conveying their knowledge to young people in an engaging and educative way. That’s the terrible cop-out. 

Perhaps the underlying problem is the assumption that practice is just boring. Most of the practitioners who teach are unusual – they tend to run their own small, ‘design-led’ practices. They live vicariously through their students, revelling in the freedoms of their world rather than bringing the complexities of practice to the classroom.

Is it not the teacher’s responsibility to engage their students in topics that are important? How has it become a conflict to teach the real world context of a subject so entrenched in said real world?

I believe that better embedding the professional practice and part III curriculum is key to improving architectural education, but I also believe we each need to look into our hearts and resolve the ‘oven-ready’ problem before we can do this successfully. What do you think? 

This autumn, Maria Smith will be working with The Cass, London Metropolitan University and the RIBA Journal on unusual short courses teaching practice in architecture and design.


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