Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Schumacher slams British architectural education

Irony, allegory and dystopia − Patrik Schumacher sees no future for the type of hopelessly unrealistic education lauded by the British architectural establishment

The submissions to the current RIBA President’s Medals demonstrate once more that architectural education in Britain is operating in a parallel universe. The (best?) students of the current generation as well as their teachers seem to think that the ordinary life processes of contemporary society are too boring to merit the avant-garde’s attention. Instead we witness the invention of scenarios that are supposedly more interesting than the challenges actually posed by contemporary reality. The points of departure for the majority of projects are improbable narratives with intended symbolic message or poetic import.

Robots of Brixton from The Architectural Review  

Accordingly, the resultant works are statements or allegories rather than designs. This is evidenced by the emphasis on evocative, atmospheric imagery, with little or no demonstration of how the visualised spaces organise and articulate social life processes and institutions. For instance, the Bronze Medal (first prize in the Part 1 category) proposes to place ‘an acoustic lyrical mechanism’ into a quarry in Bangalore. ‘The building is played by the wind, acoustically transforming the abrasive sounds of quarrying.’ The Silver Medal (first prize in the Part 2 category) presents itself in the form of a dystopian science fiction movie in which Brixton is transformed into ‘a degenerated and disregarded area inhabited by a robot workforce’. The robots are supposed to symbolise immigrant labourers; they are meant to represent racist exploitation.

One of the runner-up projects presents itself with sarcasm as a ‘genetically engineered “nature factory” for luxury goods, masquerading as a revamped “eco-industry”’. Like the Robots of Brixton this ‘nature factory’ is not a design but an ironic allegory intended as critical commentary.
The other projects in this category that have been selected and highlighted by the RIBA Journal (by publishing them with a project description) ‘engage’ the following ‘topics’: an algae monitoring facility, a retreat for Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a storage building based on the fictional narrative that all citizens would deposit personal things into safety boxes throughout their lives in order to be later confronted by their past.

Basmah Kaki’s RIBA Part 1 project speculates on sound energy and ambient space within the extreme setting of an active granite quarry on the outskirts of Bangalore, India.Basmah Kaki’s RIBA Part I project is discussed in AR Folio

Although there is rather less explanation about the other entries, the project titles (eg, Pyrolytic Power Plant, Tsunami Alert Community, Hydrodynamic Landscape, Mushroom Farm, Guild of Tanners and Butchers) as well as the dominance of atmospheric (mostly dark, cloudy, poetic and dystopian) imagery suggests a similarly idiosyncratic, unreal understanding of what constitutes a worthy design brief. The last two years were also similar: the 2010 winner was a ‘shipwrecking yard’ and the 2009 winner proposed ‘motorised coastal defence towers acting as a warning device to mankind with respect to climate change’. Again, these are not designs of spaces intended to frame social life, these are narratives and messages pushed by evocative imagery.

There is no doubt that creative imagination and skills are in evidence here. However, it is difficult to see what such works achieve and contribute to the advancement of the discipline of architecture. The RIBA’s director of education, David Gloster, seems to endorse what I criticise here: ‘The ability of the best work to create its own world while still reflecting everything that has been going on around its authors was captivating.’ Gloster also welcomes what he considers to be ‘a pronounced political edge’ and he takes this as an indication that ‘students haven’t given up on architecture as catalyst for change’.

I believe that architecture co-evolves with other subsystems of society like the economy, politics, the mass media, science etc. In this co-evolution innovative architecture can be as much a catalyst for progress as innovations in science, the mass media, or in the political system. However, I doubt if the invention of other worlds as arenas for imaginative design is the way to achieve this. I also doubt that architecture could be a site of radical political activism. I believe that architecture is a sui generis discipline (discourse and practice) with its own, unique societal responsibility and competency. As such it should be sharply demarcated against other competencies like art, science/engineering and politics.

Christopher Christophi’s highly commended Venice laboratory projectChristopher Christophi’s Venice project was featured in January’s edition of AR and is discussed in AR Folio

Architects are called upon to develop urban and architectural forms that are congenial to contemporary economic and political life. They are neither legitimised, nor competent to argue for a different politics or to ‘disagree with the consensus of global politics’ (as David Gloster suggests). ‘Critical architecture’ commits the fallacy of trying to substitute itself for the political process proper. The result might be a provocation at best, but often ends up as nothing but naive (if not pompous) posturing. Success in the world is not to be expected from such pursuits.

The demonstration of creative imagination and virtuoso visualisation skills is not enough to merit an award. Should we not expect the best students and teachers at the best architecture schools to make a serious contribution to the innovative upgrading of the discipline’s capacity to take on the challenges it might actually face via its future clients and commissions?

I consider the best schools to be a crucial part of the avant-garde segment of the discipline charged with the permanent innovation of the built environment. It is here that systematic research and serious design experiments can be conducted in ways that are more principled and more forward looking than would be possible within professional practice on the basis of real commissions. Academic design research allows designers to select and focus on specific aspects of the built environment, and abstract from other aspects.

Academic design research − and a Part 2 project could play this role − is not a full simulation of a real project with all its concerns. Thus neither the design brief, nor the design solution of an academic thesis project, have to be pragmatic in a straightforward way. The realism I mean is of a more subtle order. It calls for an optimistic probing of our contemporary world with respect to the opportunities it offers and considers the vogue of otherworldly narratives as counterproductive.

RIBA Silver Medal first prize: the Robots of Brixton by Kibwe TavaresKibwe Tavares’ RIBA Silver medal winning film of a dystopian future London. Featured in AR Folio

Related files

Readers' comments (5)

  • While I completely agree that the British academic architectural establishment is over-infatuated with dystopia, I do not think that the remedy is parametric

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • It seems like what Schumacher longs for, is the very thing he is criticizing.

    I too wish it wasn't so dystopic, who would want to be in dystopia on Valentine's day...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Spyridon Kaprinis

    "... it is clearly subjective truth that counts in life. How we believe matters much more than what we believe, since the "passionate inwardness" of subjective adherence is the only way to deal with our anxiety."

    I guess that architectural education needs more Kierkegaard [and less Hegel]...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • “Architecture only makes sense to the extent that it is capable of producing well-being, whether it is environmental or social. If not, it has no meaning; it becomes a game of egos, shapes, and buildings,” Mazzanti.
    I would like to draw back this existing example by Mazzanti in view - How the drug conflict in Medellín, Colombia, earned it the pseudonym Murder Capital of the World ...and how the New Library is shiftig because of having a political position.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Dear Mr. Schumacher,

    I felt the urge, the necessity to send you a response as such rebuttal would almost constitute a manifesto since your discourse seems the exact opposite of the one I am defending on this platform. I won’t insist too much on your heavy undelicateness as a professor to attack on a very specific level a certain amount of students’ project, students who, I hope, are careless enough not to feel personally affected by your attacks. Orienting your discourse on your pairs, other professors would have been more diplomatic, but, once again that does not constitute the main reason of my reaction....


    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.