How do architecture students at Sheffield Hallam University gain the confidence to challenge conventional practice methods?
The studios of Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) are empty at the moment but there will be students there again soon. They will be looking out at Park Hill. You can’t avoid it, over the station, across the railway tracks, up the hill. ‘I love you will u marry me’ is Urban Splashed across the bridge connecting the two largest of the megastructure’s refurbished housing blocks, lit up by the afternoon sun, commanding the view. There’s no evidence that this most divisive of brutalist icons has infected SHU students’ work, however. This is much closer in ethic and aesthetic to the output of Peter Barber, who recently displayed his exhibition ‘100 Mile City and Other Stories’ at Hallam’s Sheffield Institute of Arts.
SHU Architecture was one of the last wave of courses that appeared around the millennium. Its Part I BSc emerged in 1999 out of the BSc in Architectural Technology, and the Part II MArch about a decade later. It is now a mature programme with its own very clear idea about what architectural education should be. Andrew Wilson, head of architecture, tells me: ‘We like to think of ourselves as a deeply committed, responsible and inclusive school of architecture. Our core mission remains to produce young architects who want to, and know how to, make a positive contribution to society and the environment.’
Interest in the environment has waned in architectural education since SHU’s Part I started. Instead, the flashy iconic ‘I love you will u marry me’ image-fest has grabbed the headlines and awards. It took a Swedish teenager to wake us up to the seriousness of the situation and cause a panic of ‘declarations’. Yet Hallam has been declaring for over 20 years now, with environment and technology the backbone of the undergraduate education, integrated into all the design projects from the outset. The architectural technology and architecture degrees share the first year architecture design module, and environment and technology throughout all three years, allowing each to appreciate the other’s contribution. As course leader Oli Cunningham explains, ‘addressing climate change and the impact humans are having on the environment has never been more critical and urgent.’
These aren’t just declarations, though: the students’ work is built on environmental responsibility from its (re-used) foundations up. Last year’s graduates tackled projects on food and architecture at Hardwick Hall, and further education in the ‘Brasilia of the North’ where Sam Walton proposed a ‘school of future construction’ on the steep banks of the Tyne, envisioning the impact of technologies like drones and mycelium bricks on the construction industry. The large (A0) 1:20 sections that the students draw are culminations of the habits they’ve developed and a deeply embedded understanding of architecture as environment.
The Part II programme has also been ahead of trend. Anticipating the idea of apprenticeships, it has until this year only offered a three year part time programme – essentially a two year MArch stretched over three years to allow students to work in mostly local practices 3-4 days a week while studying. It didn’t take much to tweak it into an apprenticeship model, which started this year alongside a two year full-time programme. We will have to see how plans for this progress in the current uncertainty.
Could the amount of time spent in (often quite hard-nosed) commercial practices restrict time for engagement with the more experimental nature of a postgraduate course, or constrain the students’ view of what architecture could be? ‘What we have been most interested in,’ reveals Sam Vardy, the course leader, ‘is the way that students not only very much engage with the agendas of the course, but start, even in small ways, to take them back to practice.’ So it works as a feedback mechanism, with students gaining the confidence to hold their practices to account. Part-time students develop benefits beyond the obvious improvement in time management skills and work/life balance, as graduate Catalina Ionita confirms:‘What I valued most was the way the course shaped my understanding and vision of our sector, fundamentally motivating me to challenge conventional practice methods which often do not show great care for the future. What was critical for me was the constant flow and communication between practice and academia.’
Care for the future – imagine that!
Like the environmental agenda of the BSc, the vitality of this MArch comes from the research and practice of Vardy and the other like-minded MArch tutors, several of whom recently taught at and/or received PhDs from Sheffield University. Julia Udall and Cristina Cerulli, for example, are directors of local practice Studio Polpo (the first British social enterprise architectural practice) and are examining the high street for the British Pavilion at this year’s postponed Venice Biennale.
The research and practice themes are manifest in the three strands of the MArch: instead of straight technology, history/theory, design, we have the praxis of architecture, social and political design, and ecologies of architecture. In praxis, for example, students are encouraged to develop their own idea of a future architectural practice. Talking to some of the fourth years, many of whom come from the region and most of whom imagined setting up their own practice, ‘architecture’s relevance’ was top of their agenda of issues affecting the profession. Praxis addresses this: their field trip was reimagined to visit a number of progressive/alternative practices in London such as 00, The Decorators, Public Practice, Jan Kattein and Peter Barber, to open their minds as to what architecture can be. This then feeds into their own manifesto and agenda for setting up a practice.
Practice is not a remote idea, somewhere out there in the world, but a driver – a way of thinking, developed, and enacted. And this way of thinking results in design projects that are political, radical, challenging, charged, transformative – and locally situated but outward-facing and forward-looking.
At the end of the day, on my way back to the station, just across the road, I looked up again at the neon graffiti on Park Hill’s bridge and imagine it transformed to SHU Architecture’s purpose, ‘care for the future’. It should stand this interrupted cohort of students in good stead.
Part 1 students 200
Part 2 students 45
Studio floor area 1026 m2 (area per student 4.18 m2)
Tutors per undergrad student 13 (5 FT, 8 PT)
Tutors per MArch 6 (3 FT, 3 PT)
Studio opening times 24/7