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Lessons from Prince Charles

Alan Powers remembers his time at the Prince’s Institute, which was not as stuffy as its patron’s reputation might suggest

Each revolution in architectural education, the Modern Movement included, tends in time to become an academic fossil, and every new movement begins by destroying a forgoing formalism and focusing instead on materials and people before it too settles into a paradigm. It is 20 years since the one-year Foundation Course at the Prince of Wales’ Institute of Architecture opened to receive 28 students, and over 10 since the last group of students graduated. It has been the only radically alternative stand-alone teaching institution attempted so far in Britain since the RIBA Board of Architectural Education standardised the curriculum and began to grant exemption from its exams in 1904, and since it was not fairly appraised or reported at the time, it is worth looking at again.

The Foundation Course, more than the Diploma Course which ran alongside at the Institute, 1993-98, was both pluralist and prescriptive, taking the view that students at an early stage need to learn skills of hand and eye and habits of hard work, following Mies’s dictum, ‘It is neither necessary nor useful to invent a new architecture every Monday morning.’ Thus every week of the teaching year brought a new exercise, with life drawing running as a regular evening session. Working with wood, metal and stone, modelling quickly in wax, constructing polyhedra with Keith Critchlow, drawing the orders with Julian Bicknell, engaging in community planning and oil painting in autumnal gardens were some of the constants, with lectures accompanying these tasks or delivered by members of the Temenos Academy, the forum for traditional spirituality in the arts conducted by the redoubtable poet Kathleen Raine, an aspect unique to this school but largely welcomed by the students.

Foundation Course student built project Hackney City Farm with Imre Makovecz 1992 - 4

One of the distinguishing features of the Foundation Course was that students ended by working on a full-scale construction project, this one led by Imre Makovecz, a favourite of the Prince’s (AR January 2012)

Most spectacularly, each year group finished the year by building a complete building, to a design chosen from a student submission. While architecture schools have from time to time done building practice, it has usually been a token activity. Here instead was a serious task of team working that was hard to run for the staff but very personally rewarding for the students.

This mixture reflected the Prince’s own varied and even contradictory interests, at the risk of setting one faction against another. The read-across between architecture, craft and fine arts reflected the Arts and Crafts Movement, and probably owed much to the advocacy of Theo Crosby who worked with Jules Lubbock on planning the summer schools in 1990 and 1991 that brought together many members of the future teaching team. In 1991, the dualism of pedagogy was symbolised with a teaching exercise at the Villa Lante, Bagnaia, where Leon Krier replanned corners of the town in one of the twin pavilions of the villa, while in its pendant, Christopher Alexander worked with large-scale cardboard models to conceive the perfect interior space. Turning three weeks into a year-long curriculum was the work of Brian Hanson, the Institute’s founding Director, together with Hugh Petter and Catherine Goodman who respectively ran the Foundation and Fine Art strands. While experience led to some tweaking, the fundamentals remained the same over the 10 years.

This was hardly the paper-based Beaux-Arts revival that some critics feared, even though there was an irresistible temptation to offer neat drawings for publicity rather than the more lively half-formed products of rapid workshops. If the course resembled anything that had come before, it was probably the first few years of the Bauhaus when Johannes Itten ran the Vorkurs, a rich fertilising soil from which to grow a new plant. Many of the students went on to enrol in mainstream architecture degree courses, where their critical mentality as well as their dedication made them welcome recruits rather than contrarian misfits. When the Foundation Course closed, some of the strongest objections came from admissions tutors of other schools.

Foundation Course students building Yurt 1993

The Diploma Course, directed initially by Adam Hardy and later by Victor Deupi and David Porter (on a surprise detour between partnership with Neave Brown and headship of the Mackintosh School), was never such plain sailing. If the Foundation Course could sidestep questions of architectural style in its welter of activity, a more concentrated approach was needed here. The Arts and Crafts architects who rejected the proposal for formal training in the 1892 ‘Profession or Art’ controversy felt that design was out of place in the classroom, but lost their battle; the opportunity to reopen that question was not taken at the Institute. One of the Prince’s intentions was to achieve a greater reintegration of the construction industry and design, so there was an uncommon attention to materials and construction, but even so, there was the usual struggle to obtain cross-sections showing how it would be built, and the problem remained too big to solve.

The projects set tended to be somewhat unreal and at crits there was little unanimity about the intended outcomes of the exercises. A really radical school might have dispensed with such projects altogether, but somehow these conventional practices were assumed. Some students liked classicism, others vernacular. Urban context mattered and some quite elaborate local consultations and charrettes relating to project sites kept alive the spirit of the Prince’s commitment to Community Architecture. Sustainability was much discussed. It was an international student body of varied age make-up and they came and went on different paths.

Urban_design_project_for_Spitalfields_led_by_Hugh_Petter_1992

Urban design project for Spitalfields led by Hugh Petter 1992

All students learned CAD as well as hand drawing. Fees were moderate and bursaries available in a successful effort to avoid a ‘finishing school’ atmosphere. Curiously, neither history teaching nor building conservation were given much attention, on the basis that the battle that needed winning was for new building, and these would detract from it. Several students came to study for PhDs, however, while the diploma students wrote some creditable MA theses. There was room for each student to have their own drawing board, even in central London, so that the busy timetable created a buzz of students spending all day in the building, with catering at least as good as the AA, an exhibition programme, public lectures and links to the magazine Perspectives(1994-98) edited first by Dan Cruickshank (former AR history editor), and then Giles Worsley with Tom Dyckhoff that was part of the same programme of revising received opinion in the light of unfashionable attitudes.

Sketch of Gloucester Gate

Sketch of Gloucester Gate, produced by a student at the Prince’s Institute in 1992

Teaching was reasonably sheltered from the rapid regime changes within the stuccoed walls of its pair of Nash villas at 14-15 Gloucester Gate, although each of these tended to steer it in a new direction, from warm hippydom to cold classicism and finally, under Adrian Gale, to a more tolerant view of Modernism. Given the substantial grounding of Arts and Crafts values of honesty and left-leaning social commitment still present in British architectural culture, this concluding act should not be too surprising. Perhaps because at the Institute there was permission to take classicism seriously if one wanted to, Postmodernism had no place. There was a lack of cynicism or irony that reflected the founder’s own outlook.

Apart from the Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts course, VITA, and the reconstitution of the fine art teaching at the Prince’s Drawing School, the courses were wound up as part of the rebranding as The Prince’s Foundation and its move to Shoreditch, although summer schools and apprenticeships dotted about the world have extended the educational mission alongside work on planning and development consultancy. These were worthwhile new directions in line with the original purpose, but the courses were not abolished because of failure, rather, it seems, because those managing the Prince’s image after 1997 felt that they were not contributing positively enough to his profile.

Foundation Course student built project Hackney City Farm with Imre Makovecz 1992 - 3

One of the distinguishing features of the Foundation Course was that students ended by working on a full-scale construction project, this one led by Imre Makovecz, a favourite of the Prince’s (AR January 2012)

One could even say that, despite much adverse publicity, the original Institute was the victim of its own success. A lot had already changed in the years between the Prince’s Hampton Court speech in 1984 and the years of the Institute. His best service to architects was to make them improve their act, while for him to have endorsed Modernism would have been the most cunning way to hasten its destruction. Instead, it re-emerged but mostly in a more friendly form, having learnt lessons about responding to people and places that were too often forgotten in the 1960s.

There is talk at the Foundation of restarting the Foundation Course, adding to a growing programme of summer schools, involving many of the original tutors. However, it remains impossible for any student to qualify in Britain on a course that permits let alone encourages classicism or anything other than the currently favoured aesthetic paradigms. Perhaps the Institute came too close, especially during its more classical moments, to simply offering a mirror image of this kind of normative approach, but in offering an alternative even for a short time it had value in itself and there was a lot more on offer besides.

 

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