Article by Ben Taylor*
Architectural education is in crisis! It fails to prepare architects for a profession (also in crisis) that is subsumed by and serves to reinforce neoliberalism! That was the position expected of attendees walking into the Radical Pedagogies symposium and book launch, held at London Metropolitan University on 4 June 2015.
True to the its prodding title, the respondents – educators, practitioners, students past and present – were invited to offer their own five-minute manifestos before engaging in a group discussion over the implosion of architecture as we know it and how education might save it. With talks underway between the RIBA, SCHOSA, and the ARB about restructuring the three-part system of architectural training, the conference was a timely review of just what kind of architects we want to produce in the UK.
The day began with a fascinating history of architectural education, tying the changing training of architects to the evolution of the profession. Then, from the limitations of the current educational system we moved to forms of resistance (to the consumerism that increasingly pervades both the profession and higher education) within. It ended in a superb conversation – driven largely by Jeremy Till and Jack Self – which tied many of the issues raised throughout the day into a more highly-charged prognosis for the future of the profession.
I would be surprised though if many of the attendees found the discussions particularly radical. Most were not unfamiliar: does the Crit system push one to stand by one’s beliefs, for instance, or does it simply train students to endure exploitation in the workplace? Should we be teaching architects to be the crusading social-scientist-designers of a better world, or producing more formidable competitors in an international labour market? Indeed, although many voices articulated how there should be more varied routes into the profession, the conversation almost wholly omitted the idea of means of training outside the bounds of university education.
“I would be surprised if many of the attendees found the discussions particularly radical.”
I found this curious, especially at a time when studying architecture might soon mean either a long period at university or an even longer period at university (and either way a profane amount of debt) – in no small part the very impetus for the conference. Given that architecture is presently not taught in the national curriculum, students have had few means of accruing the skills in critical and lateral thinking essential to practicing architecture. Therefore, for all the talk of being radical, why assume still that only those who can get AAB in Science and Maths A-level exams are cut-out to be future architects?
However, this aside, underpinning all of the discussions was a highly probing reflection on the purpose and quality of architectural education. That is, do we want architecture schools or architect schools? The two are of course not separate from each other but they will inevitably require a different focus. The real insight that Radical Pedagogies delivered therefore was that architectural education has to recognise that practicing as ‘an architect’ is becoming ever more varied and multifarious.
As was raised numerous times throughout the day, only one in fourteen people who begin studying architecture conclude as a registered architect. And, with increasing numbers employed by fewer larger practices, that proportion is becoming far more specialised, making it far harder for young architects to be taught shop. But this is surely the strength of the three-part system: a first stage that aims to expand one’s thinking about architecture, the built environment and the society that inhabits it as much as possible – recognising too the learning outcomes of the ‘other thirteen’; a second that hones and channels the interests of those who wish to continue as architects; and a third that outlines the intricacies of practicing in a professional context.
“I would contend that the primary role of education must be to build the individual into a more critical, enquiring and empathetic person.”
Perhaps then it is less the structure and timeframe of architectural training that needs to be rethought than the content and delivery of each constituent part. Certainly, there appeared to be consensus that the part ripest for change is the current Part 3 – possibly to a more CPD-style format that allows architects to specialise to the type of role they wish to subsequently undertake (be that BIM, business management, conservation, etc.) and creating more incentive for practices to sponsor individual development. Thus, I would concur with the point made by Jack Self that it is less architectural education in crisis per se, rather that it faces the challenge of recalibrating itself against a construction industry that prioritises the concretisation of wealth and a broader educational system that is increasingly valued only in terms of economic output.
Ultimately then, the conference highlighted that rethinking how we want architectural education to operate requires rethinking the difference between education and assessment. I would contend that the primary role of education must be to build the individual into a more critical, enquiring and empathetic person. Assessment, on the other hand, is a fundamentally more idealistic, even utopian, project of endeavouring to deliver the ‘best’ people into the ‘best’ jobs in the best interests of society. This is a distinction – and it is a distinction – architectural education must not forget at this time of uncertainty. Assessment is essential, but education has to be recognised as more than simply boosting employment statistics.
As such, Radical Pedagogies was a welcome and pertinent reminder that architectural education must not allow itself to be simply subsumed by a neoliberal pursuit of growth at the expense of all else. As was perhaps put best by Mel Dodd in her ‘manifesto’, what is needed is for architectural education to sustain resistance without retreating from reality.
*Ben Taylor is presently undertaking his RIBA Part 2 at Cambridge University where he is a founding member of CDRS Thought, a platform for critical architectural journalism. Holding a BA (hons) and MRes from Plymouth University, he has previously written on Occupy London and the improvised dwelling as protest, published in Consuming Architecture (Routledge, 2014).