A growing lack of empirical knowledge in architecture schools is gradually confining the profression to the margins of the built environment, argues Michael Badu
Kevin Rhowbotham addressed a number of important issues in his piece on British schools, most notably how modern British architectural education has come full circle in the way it now seems to propagate the sort of ‘mysterious uselessness’ that Viollet-le-Duc and Llewelyn Davies attributed to the Beaux-Arts system. In identifying empirical knowledge as the potential saviour of architectural education (and by implication the profession itself) Rhowbotham is, I believe, correct, but I would say that he has not correctly identified the type of empirical knowledge particularly pertinent to architecture. Rhowbotham seems to suggest that sociology ought to be the sine qua non of architecture.
I would like to make the radical proposition that first and foremost architects should be concerned with the skilful realisation of buildings. Although architects should have a firm grasp of the social implications of their work, it is wrong to suggest that the understanding of social implications, and the playing of a leading role in applying that understanding, constitutes ‘the work’ of the architect.
It is perhaps within the social sphere more than any other that architects need to behave as enlightened collaborators, rather than experts. The pertinent empirical knowledge of the architect can only be that which constitutes their expertise. I believe that this comprises two primary strands. I quote Alvaro Siza in identifying the first: ‘to know architecture is to know the work of other architects’. How was the great architecture of the (immediate and distant) past achieved? How were the mistakes of the (immediate and distant) past committed?
Secondly, contrary to popular belief within the profession (and particularly in schools of architecture), architects don’t ‘build’ buildings, but rather play the leading role in controlling how they are built. To do that, architects must know the language of building; planning and building control approval; American black walnut, sapele; countersunk self-tapping screws; concrete mixes and treatment regimens and so on. These aspects must form the basis of architects’ knowledge if they are to have any credibility at all.
It’s true, of course, that students can only really get a firm handle on this once they actually start their working lives, but it is surely also true that for students to be completely incapable of displaying any sort of familiarity with this kind of empirical knowledge during their first job interview, is unacceptable. Society deserves better. It is a severe lack in these two areas of knowledge that has led to the marginalisation of architects and the decrease of their influence rather than any lack of social awareness or philosophical content.
Recently, as developments in procurement have required architects to know less and less of it, there have been moves to almost abandon pursuit of this type of empirical knowledge in favour of the development of the media-savvy ‘cool & coiffured’ consultant, practically divorced from the largely ‘blue-collar’ building language, culture and practice, which must be wrestled with by those architects who want to give real life to their design work.
Buzz-terms such as ‘Spatial Agency’ and ‘Alternative Practice’ have been coined. All those connected to the profession either by way of academia or practice, must realise that taking the profession in this direction, further away from architecture’s ‘physical’ aspects, certainly means the abandonment of building production to just the kind of institutional, bureaucratic and capitalist interests that so many contributors last month railed against.
A building industry from which architects are ever increasingly sidelined has a direct bearing on the plight of architecture student Debo Ajose-Adeogun, recently featured in the London Evening Standard and very impressively mentioned in your editorial. At least no one can accuse the AR of being irrelevant at the moment.