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Alternative Routes for Architecture

The urgent case for a new school of architecture

How young British architects wish to practise is changing profoundly and the country’s architecture schools are in danger of being left behind. In February, RIBA Building Futures produced a report entitled The Future for Architects?.1 On its cover a small metropolitan practice explains: ‘In 10 years’ time we will probably not call ourselves an architecture practice, it will be something else entirely.’ Indeed badges such as ‘spatial agency’, ‘design house’ and ‘creative consultant’ are, the report says, already growing popular among a generation of graduates who want to work in a more networked, multidisciplinary way. Two recent books − Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture2 (AR March 2012) and Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture3 − are full of further examples of how architects might construct different opportunities for themselves in the 21st century.

It is perhaps no surprise that architectural practice has so far gone much further than many architecture schools to find new ways to operate within the changing realities of the construction industry and the world beyond. Practice has, after all, always had to survive in the marketplace and innovate to do so. The question now for existing architecture schools is what can they do to better prepare their graduates for this new type of life in practice. But there is also a bigger set of questions. Are architecture schools housed within the state-controlled university system really the best place to create the next generation of architects? Will their often ossified structures allow enough flexibility to respond to the speed and scale of the changes in the outside world? Can the siloed nature of faculties offer collaborative experience and shared knowledge? And are established institutions − with their fixed hierarchies and risk-averse bureaucracies − really the right environment to inculcate the buccaneering commercial and creative opportunism that are the hallmark of emerging practices?

Clearly some shifts in schools are already taking place. For example, the runner up of the AR’s new Global Architecture Graduate Awards, Joe Swift (page 36) − co-designer of RARA (the Redundant Architects Recreation Association) − was in Robert Mull’s and Peter Carl’s ‘free unit’ at London Metropolitan, in which students must generate their own briefs and enact them outside the groves of academe. This is one of the few examples in mainstream education that has responded to (or perhaps anticipated) new ways of being an architect.

But the unavoidable question is: if architecture students need to learn more about how to operate in the real world, why not provide a route for their education outside the university campus altogether? Scattered throughout this issue are a number of examples of such pedagogical experiments: Beatriz Colomina et al on the International Laboratory of Architecture and Urban Design, among others (page 78); Alan Powers on the Prince’s Institute (page 84); Peter Cook on Alvin Boyarsky’s International Institute of Design (page 110). As precedents, they give credence to the idea that a guerrilla architecture school could be the best place to prepare the guerrilla practitioners of tomorrow.

And while the changing nature of practice highlights the opportunity for such an independent architecture school, the changing nature of higher education gives it even greater urgency. Architectural education in England is simply becoming too expensive. Last year the cap on university fees leapt from £3,290 per year to £9,000; and for 2013 the average fees are expected to be £8,507 per year.4Students at the top universities will pay £45,000 on fees alone. Combined with living and other costs, Part 2 graduates could easily leave with £100,000 of debt.


London Evening Standard, 20 September 2012

And to say that salaries in the profession hardly make up for this financial burden would be an understatement. Shockingly, an architectural survey conducted by Archaos in April last year found that 27 per cent of respondents who were paid hourly were paid under the national minimum wage. (Can you imagine this happening to lawyers or accountants?) As the AR went to press, the plight of architecture graduates even made the front page of the London Evening Standard with the plaintive headline: ‘A degree in architecture … but all I can get are menial jobs.’

Part 1 students in England are now on the higher fees, but for the moment Part 2s finish with the lower fees they started their courses on. But in a few years’ time these will go up: and then what happens? The architectural profession has always been caricatured as a rather gentlemanly pursuit. But at a time when it needs to widen access and recruit the best talents to deal with the scale of its current challenges, it could deter all but the wealthiest of candidates, and become more elitist than it has ever been.

A new school of architecture

What would a new architecture school designed for these new types of practice look like? For this short article, let’s just speculate about an alternative way of getting the postgraduate part of your professional architectural education (for the main reason that undergraduates are comparatively better suited to a structured university environment than postgrads, who would respond most to a looser and more challenging educational scenario).

Pedagogically, a guiding principle would be that the latter part of your architectural education should be a type of supported ‘proto-practice’, and that the educational structures should reflect these new ways of working. This would imply reinventing the school not as an established hierarchy, but as an orchestrated network, one that not only includes tutors, but also a range of expert consultants, different disciplines and other institutions. The school could embed itself within a community, one where there is opportunity for architects, and all the project work should be set locally and engage with real issues. There should be a mixture of group working and individual enquiry, and students should be taught by the sort of practices they might want to become in 10-15 years’ time. The avant-garde approach has become so institutionalised in many schools that it would be an irony to use such counter-institutional spirit to refocus the profession on what such schools would probably see as a reactionary emphasis on practice. But any type of proto-practice shouldn’t merely be just like being in practice; it should offer the opportunity to experiment, to push and test ideas away from commercial pressures, to think how architecture might better operate as a spatial and urban problem solver. And this in turn could be of benefit to practices themselves: the ones involved in the teaching, and beyond into the profession.

A different business model for a school

Clearly a new school would have to operate not only on a different pedagogical model, but also a different business model, and there is now opportunity here as the British coalition government has shown determination to let private universities compete with their public counterparts by allowing students to borrow their fees for both. So far, however, the most notable private alternative − philosopher AC Grayling’s New College for the Humanities − plans, when it opens this month, to charge students fees of £18,000 per year, double the fee cap. This is along the Ivy League model where high fees are needed for high-profile world-class faculty members.

Any new British architecture school should play the opposite game of undercutting established institutions to make becoming an architect cheaper and more accessible. To do this it would have to radically rethink what it offers. A primary purpose of any 21st-century school is to develop a student’s intellectual creative capital, and one place where you wouldn’t want to cut costs is on the teaching staff. The ‘good news’ for any such start-up is that studio tutors are relatively cheap. One leading architecture course in London, for example, pays its tutors £160 per day. A new school prioritising its tuition fees for tuition should significantly raise this pay, in order to attract the best possible tutors from busy lives in practice and into the studio; and even to encourage the idea of teaching as a form of practice in itself that can benefit a whole office.

But there are plenty of savings to be made elsewhere. To start with does a Part 2 course really need to be two years? Other institutions in the UK − such as Cardiff and Cambridge − are experimenting with different time models. If you offered a 12-month programme it could mirror working life with only four weeks’ holiday per year, and this would give you two-thirds of the teaching time of a two-year programme. Some students would say that they need the holidays to earn money, but using the school’s spatial resources more intensively allows it to pay one year’s rent instead of two, and these savings are ultimately passed on to the student. The same, of course, is true for the students themselves: they only need to pay for a year’s living costs instead of two.

And, of course, there are other models, such as two-year programmes where students undertake paid work in a practice two days per week, not just as a job but as a formalised part of a networked learning set up.

Physical resources could be dramatically reduced. As one leading global technology company discovered when it recently redesigned its headquarters, all its employees want is strong wireless connection and good coffee. Architecture students (most of whom bring their own laptops) might want to add to that a really good plotter. The new school should offer large studio space, and little else. All other physical resources − libraries, workshops, lecture theatres − can be sourced in other ways, in the local community or as part of the professional network you could create. With the pace of change, investing in fixed resources within an institution is difficult when they can so easily become obsolete. Furthermore, pushing students to find − beg, borrow, or steal − what they want to use in the wider world equips them with the network of expertise they will want to use as young practitioners. They could also rent as and when they needed to, and this could be budgeted for as a discretionary voucher as part of their fees. Other models from outside architecture could provide inspiration. The idea of ‘meanwhile businesses’, which go into London Boroughs that are in the process of regeneration, could be one option; an architecture school that only intended to operate for four years would have critical focus and wouldn’t become stale.

Also the precedent of a think-tank, which delves into policy issues and makes proposals, could provide the model for group research, which could look at local problems or typological precedents, creating shared expertise within the school from which individual projects could spring forth. All this might sound like it misses the point of education as a ‘pursuit for its own sake’, and one that undermines universities as ‘places of research’. But architecture isn’t just an arts degree, it is a professional training too; and the recherché nature of much research would be better married to architectural studio concerns.

There are many obstacles to such a proposal − not least the pending EU ruling on the length of architectural training across the continent. But, still, the idea of a 21st-century form of apprenticeship, which redefines the relationship between master and apprentice, might be just what the profession needs. When the Architectural Association started,5 it united articled pupils who were separately grafting away under different masters. But today, a reinvented form of apprenticeship could provide a vital reciprocal relationship that benefits both the ‘teacher’ and the ‘taught’, and ultimately this would strengthen the profession as a whole.

Alternative Routes for Architecture

Will Hunter has launched a research group Alternative Routes for Architecture (ARFA) to explore different models for architectural education. Over the next 12 months ARFA will conduct interviews, hold symposia and publish a report of its findings. If you would like to be involved, share insights, offer examples of peer learning, debate proposals, discuss obstacles, or simply learn more, please email


2 & 3. By Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till (2011); and by Rory Hyde (2012), both from Routledge.
5. The AA was founded in 1847, following an article in Builder magazine calling on students to take their training into their own hands as the existing vocational training was deeply flawed.


More Education Debate

Radical Pedagogies in Architectural Education
Beatriz Colomina surveys radical strategies of architectural pedagogy, asserting that the discipline can best be changed by revolutionizing the way it is taught

Problems in the British Architecture School regime
Kevin Rhowbotham says Today’s architecture students are locked into an ossified regime not unlike the Beaux Arts orthodoxy of the nineteenth century

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

The Big Rethink: Rethinking Architectural Education
Peter Buchanan proclaims education for architects must be radically reconsidered, through a new, more fully human paradigm that engages with society and culture

Architectural Education: A Call to Arms
Catherine Slessor introduces the crucial issue of how to prepare the next generation for a life in architecture


Readers' comments (1)

  • This utopia school already exists... its called the Centre for Alternative Technology. Can't help think the reason it didn't get a mention is because it not RIBA accredited! But why would a 'guerrilla', non-institutional design centre bother with the unnecessary red tape that just bounds up educational freedom?

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