The way we were

Over the last three decades practice and academia have drifted apart. The time is ripe to revive the mutually fruitful closeness of research and design – and page 47 offers some help on how to do it

Research across the UK by RIBA Chartered academic.
Research across the UK by RIBA Chartered academic.

Practice and academic landscapes have changed enormously in 30 years: how have research areas changed with them? Two newly available reports throw light on the themes that academics in schools of architecture across the UK are concentrating on. The 2013 RIBA and SCHOSA (Standing Conference of Head of Schools of Architecture) Review of University Research looks at where research attention is focussed today, presenting listings both school by school and grouped by theme, so that practising architects know where to turn when developing partnerships with universities. If practices and universities work together they have a much better chance of accessing, for example, the €80bn recently made available through Europe’s Horizon 2020 initiative. 

Alongside the 2013 review, the RIBA is reissuing the 1982 report Research in the Schools of Architecture. Taken together, the reports encourage us to look at research in architecture in context – as an evolving discourse – which continues to support the work of practising architects long after particular research projects are complete. The 1982 survey provided an invaluable snapshot of research which, as the then chair of the research steering group John Partridge (of the distinguished practice Howell ­Killick Partridge and Amis) pointed out, allowed the RIBA to take a strategic view of the ­research that was (and continues to be) of immense importance to both the RIBA and the profession.

So what has changed? A glance at the list of schools of architecture in the two reviews shows that many of the schools that were thriving in 1982 continue to do so today. There are far more than there were, and some sad losses – the Department of Architecture at the University of Bristol for example. 

Changing demands

Lecturers in 1982 were far less stretched then than now: there were more staff and fewer students. Architecture had notably few female academic researchers – although its female professors today are still few – and there was little sign of the global mix that now characterises architectural education. 

The financial context in which the schools sit has also radically changed. In the 1980s research was a desirable attribute for a high-powered school of architecture, but it did not necessarily have a significant impact on the school’s income. This changed in 1986 with the advent of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which meant that schools could access significant funding by demonstrating the quality of their research, often through publications. Over the last few years this stream has dwindled, meaning that ­academic architects increasingly need to find other sources to support their research. 

Pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise forced many staff in schools to give up practice and focus on research, perhaps contributing to the worrying disconnect between practice and academia

In 1982 a minority of staff in most schools were actively researching; the rest were practitioners, but pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise forced many to give up practice and focus on research, perhaps contributing to the significant and worrying ­disconnect between practice and academia identified in both the RIBA Home Improvements: Housing Research in Practice and Architects and Research-Based Knowledge reports.

Sustainability is one constant, remaining an important topic over the last 30-odd years. In 1982 there was notable emphasis on solar energy projects, largely funded by the Science Research Council – later known as the Science & Engineering Research Council, and now replaced a number of more specialised organisations. Retrofitting was firmly on the agenda, but has been relatively slow to take off. Work on sustainability continues, but with a far greater emphasis on issues related to behaviour and social science.

It’s hard to see how today’s academics could have the time or get the funding to pursue projects like those of Geoffrey Baker, whose book Le Corbusier is still available today

Diminishing flexibility

Thirty years ago architectural historians followed their own inclinations across such subjects as the history of cottages, Victorian architecture or modernism. It’s hard to see how today’s academics could have the time or get the funding to pursue projects like those of Geoffrey Baker, then at Brighton, whose work on the design strategies of Le Corbusier led to his influential 1984 book Le Corbusier – an Analysis of Form, which ran to three editions, and is still available today. Theoretical topics receive little recognition in the 1982 review. For example the Cambridge University entry dwells extensively on the work of the Martin Centre with little mention of the intellectual hot bed created by Dalibor ­Veseley at that time. The situation for theoreticians today does not feel much better. 

The use of computers and computational design was on the ascendant in the 1980s. We would expect a similar effect with Building Information Modelling today, but BIM is comparatively absent in the 2013 study – perhaps because of a lack of capacity in this area.

In 1982 the social aspects of architecture received scant attention. Not so today, when design for health, old people, the community, education and urbanism are becoming increasingly popular, reflecting a real concern with issues of wellbeing. The processes of creativity and knowledge exchange are also receiving greater attention. An exciting development, one which has the potential to reconnect practice and academia, is research by design – which is gaining increasing recognition from funding bodies as a valid and important new methodology for the solution of complex spatial problems.

It is in this spirit of working for and with the profession that the new Review of University Research was undertaken. We hope the new review will encourage beneficial collaborations between practices and university, and encourage architects to explore how ­research can be of benefit to them. In the meantime this reissue of Research in the Schools of Architecture celebrates the past work of the universities, and its impact on both practice and academia today. 


Flora Samuel is professor of architecture and a former head of school at the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield


 


Matching practice and academia

How would you know whether the research in your local school of architecture was relevant to your work in practice? How would you find a researcher with mutual interests to work with? Many architects and academics do, of course, work together, but these relationships are often the result of chance meetings or referral from mutual acquaintances. From this month, finding out what’s happening in academia becomes a little easier, as the RIBA and SCHOSA (the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture) together publish a downloadable review of UK & Ireland based university research.

As well as links to the research pages of each of the 48 schools of architecture’s websites, the review contains summaries of the work of their main research groups. There are contact details for the first port of call for enquires about research, plus the names and research interests of academic staff – with a link to their research pages. Readers can navigate by school or explore themes by keyword, each of which link to the schools active in those areas.

There are ambitions to move beyond the current format to an online searchable database for worldwide research – just one of the steps the RIBA, with SCHOSA, is taking to matchmake between practice and academia.


See architecture.com/research for the Review of University Research


Note: RIBA chartered academic members are RIBA validated schools of architecture who have joined the RIBA’s academic membership class. 


 

Disconnect? Disseminate

Since the beginning of architecture, the foundation of an architect’s knowledge has been the activities of past generations. Architects know that good design decisions are made from an informed position, but that authoritative guidance can sometimes be hard to find. It can also be difficult to disseminate knowledge from practice-based investigations. 

This is a problem. The industry operates in such a complex and rapidly changing social, technological and regulatory context – compounded by the need to design for future climate change, which might be mild or calamitous – that credible information is needed now more than ever. So how can architects, the RIBA and academics support each other? To answer this we first need to understand how architects find, create and share information.

A new report by the Research Information Network for the RIBA – Architects and research-based knowledge – shows that not only are there very different understandings of what constitutes research across the profession and academia, but that their differing cultures also present significant barriers both to discourse about new-won knowledge and to the dissemination of vital insights.

The RIBA is already working to help break down these barriers, and facilitate the flow of knowledge, with its annual research symposium and awards. But there is more to do: for example we are working to signpost more ‘grey literature’: reports, case studies, data and so on from bodies such as DC Cabe and the RIBA that aren’t picked up by standard academic indexing systems, and can be difficult or impossible to track down.

There is also a real opportunity for architects to take back lost ground and to disseminate insights from practice in a more authoritative way, and to benefit from it either directly (in terms of research funding) or through innovation and increased profile. For suggestions on how to engage with research see the RIBA’s Research in Practice guide. This and the Architects and Research-Based Knowledge report can be downloaded from architecture.com/research.


 

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