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Hitting the funny spot

Eleanor Young

Missing your targets on the boring stuff of practice? There’s a new set of short courses to help – and they’re not just fun, they’re funny

Could insurance, liability and contracts bring a twinkle to your eye? Maria Smith – co-founder of Studio Weave, practitioner, writer and teacher – and Robert Mull, dean and director of architecture at The Cass, think they could. They talk to RIBAJ about pairing value engineering and comedy, and more, in a series of short courses.

Eleanor Young Maria, you’ve had these courses up your sleeve for a while now. What’s the plan?

Maria Smith It is a series experimenting with new ways to teach practice curriculum  to students, graduates and young practitioners. Two threads come together in each course, with one person leading on a practice issue and one on a form of communication like creative writing or comedy. 

EY Do we need a new course?

MS I am conceiving these from the perspective of someone who has been employing Part 2 students for eight years. Some were very talented. But I have seen what they feel more – and less – entitled to engage with. It’s not that they aren’t interested in these other subjects, but they don’t feel prepared or qualified. They are confident and intelligent, prepared to renegotiate design from first principles, but not other things. It is wasted talent. 

Robert Mull It is more about cupboards of knowledge that are out of bounds. We need to throw open the door. These are the very areas architects have become less confident in. It is about the retrieval of bodies of knowledge that we have become careless with.

MS The idea is that students become conversant in the subject without noticing. It’s a Trojan horse. For example one course teaches value engineering with comedy. It won’t have that bravado of knowledge – which will hopefully open the conversation up. It won’t be award winning stand up, but will probably make some quite stunning points about value engineering by using that form.

RM Is it any stranger to learn about buildings by talking about cybernetics or the theory of the derive, as is conventional in architecture school? Or origami? We are used to that sort of promiscuity in the way we teach design. 

EY So you are using conceptualisation as a guide principle as well as interrogative tool?

RM Isn’t it curious we take it for granted that to deal with anything as apparently straightforward as a building, we have to circle it like a wolf pack before we dive in. And, strangely, I think some of the really tough and ethical issues concerning the nature of practice, duties of care and professional obligations, and the relationship between law, finance, politics and society, should be given the same kind of scrutiny by creative and generous means that we apply to the design of the built environment. I think it’s very positive to use the finely tuned and creative spirit of architecture in some of those subject areas. 

MS It is a compliment to design to circle it like wolves. I want to compliment insurance just as much. It is about elevating its status, showing its worth and that it is worth engaging with in that way.

EY So how should architects engage with, say, contracts?

MS I know some things are seen as interesting to engage with and other things are seen as finite, not really able to be manipulated; the idea that a contract is fixed and all you need to be able to do is understand it. But actually, as any lawyer would tell you, to engage with them and use them as tools you need to be creative and innovate and understand them and play around with them. What we are trying to do, in a short time, is reframe ideas about a contract – a sub-consultancy agreement even. It is not the ‘how’, but giving the confidence to get involved in that conversation. Because how the sub-consultancy agreement works completely changes how you can operate and designs you can realise. 

RM This course is about advocacy, dialogue and precedent. A sort of discourse – as you would have about a design project – that makes the subjects malleable, approachable and friendly. And that gives students, as a group, a sense that they are no longer scary or impenetrable.

MS It is tricky: on the one hand if you say something is not fixed, it is more scary. On the other, you are saying it is something that needs to be changed and you can change it.

EY First you freak people out then you empower them?

MS Like any good performing arts movie…

EY Is it about reinventing? If you tinker but are not in control how helpful is that?

MS The truth is they are malleable. If people aren’t questioning they are being ripped off.

RM It is not lazy radicalism. There are stable bodies of knowledge but you can make them work for you. You need certain attitudes and playfulness to make them operative. So this collision of comedy and value engineering seems perfect. There is something intrinsically farcical about value engineering: you design something which is perfect and then you value engineer it. Flushing that out and making that comical is quite powerful.

MS Part of the joke in the course name ‘Target:Practice’ is about arming people and showing them how to use a weapon that already exists. It shows them how to take aim – not to invent an entirely new weapon.

EY How does this fit it what is happening in architectural education?

RM How the debate will show itself is unclear really but it is between the teaching of bravery and design skills and the teaching of practical tools to implement design bravery.

EY You put both sides very positively. Is it just a moderate rebalance?

RM If there has been an imbalance in those two instincts in architectural education and practice, that has simply been carelessness. Certainly we see the two of them as being completely roped together. The architectural graduate needs both to be brave, to be effective and not sublimated to the norm, and the practical skills to be confident. 

MS There are two main things in flux at the moment that have driven this series of short courses. One is the architecture education review that the RIBA education committee voted on. One theme that seemed to come through was changing the way the Part 3 curriculum is delivered, that it shouldn’t be an afterthought, a stage that happens after a period in practice, but integrated into a more general bit of teaching. It is important that we think about how to make that engaging. And secondly, I hope the availability of student loans for taught postgraduate courses will open up the Part 2 courses for people. 

There is something intrinsically farcical about value engineering: you design something which is perfect and then you value engineer it

EY Is your course a nascent Part 2 course?

RM There are overlaps with our Part 1 and Part 2 and if it really works aspects will be hijacked and delivered separately for those courses. How the freedoms implicit in the RIBA’s education review are used is really in the air at the moment. There has always been a question of whether Part 1 is specialist and Part  2 generalist or vice versa; of somehow no longer being able to tolerate that one is mechanistic and one aspirational. They are absolutely the same. 

EY Why at Cass? Why an institution?

MS I have a relationship with Cass, I did Parts 2 and 3 there and have taught there. Why an institution is more interesting. There is often an idea that some things can only be taught in practice. I think that is a cop out. That learning environment where you can discuss and interrogate, get things wrong and learn from them, is really important. 

EY How did you learn those things?

MS I learnt some of them at Cass. And we started a practice while I was still a student. I did Part 3 on our own project. But in some ways that was an advantage because I always knew I didn’t know what I was doing and I would have to ask somebody.

EY Who?

MS There have been so many somebodies: other architects, project managers, quantity surveyors, structural engineers, the usual people. A lot of architects think they should know the answer to those questions. Actually you need to have an attitude not of ‘I don’t know – I am terrible’ but ‘I don’t know – who do I ask’. I started a practice when I had no experience so had no qualms about that. 

EY And how are you finding your new somebodies, your criminologist say? 

MS I am having great fun looking for one. I have talked to a screen writer from the Bill for the course on design review panels; Fred Manson will contribute to that on the design review side. Then we have stand up comedy about value engineering and sub-consultancy agreements with poetry appreciation. 

EY Who do you imagine will be attending the course?

MS We’d like a mix but there is a target group – those who have done Part 2 but not Part 3, even if it has been years. Also young practitioners, students at any level, those who have recently done Part 3. And practitioners – it’s out of hours. And you get CPD points.

RM You would not only acquire the CPD body of knowledge that you are required to but you also return to your practice with a twinkle in your eye about that subject area. 


The RIBA Journal is partnering with Cass on six Target:Practice courses which will launch in October and run until March. Each course will be made up of three two-and-a-half hour sessions during the evening or a one day weekend and will cost £180. For details click here.

The course is CPD-accredited and participants will join a group of colleagues/compatriots with a sew-on badge to prove it.


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