President Medals 2011 judge rejects Zaha Hadid Architects director’s analysis of British architectural education
I agree with Patrik Schumacher’s piece that for many years architecture schools have been generating projects based on fictional narratives, with a predominance of what I describe as industrial romanticism. There are very few thesis projects offered by architecture schools that respond to the pragmatic challenges to which architects respond in practice − basic questions of inhabitation, enclosure, materiality, durability, budget, client and environmental cost.
Architectural education has for many years relied on supra-fictional scenarios to allow students to develop their creative imaginations, to take us places we’ve never been before. It’s as if we allow one last bout of wishful thinking before The Fall. However, as a juror for the final stage of the selection process, I saw something more in this year’s medallists’ projects − something that made a connection between the fictional and the real, that conveyed a conviction that architects can, through their work, communicate the need for social change for which architecture is one of many agents.
Particularly in the case of Robots of Brixton, this was polemical work − one could argue in the tradition of Rem’s (collective) AA thesis Exodus − but from a completely different and contemporaneous perspective. Initially sceptical, we jurors found the narratives of the winning projects had their basis in extraordinary quantities of research, thick books of investigative material, design and processes unfortunately not on view at the RIBA exhibition.
The best projects convincingly distilled this research along with the author’s observations, objective and subjective analysis − sometimes extending to compassion, empathy, satire, humour. They were clearly social, environmental and political allegories as much as architectural projects. But is this not also a valid position for an architectural student at thesis level?
I agree that ‘critical architecture’ doesn’t substitute for the political process, but it contributes to it through a discourse that emanates beyond the confines of the architectural. When the thesis takes a further leap into animation, character and screenplay, as in the Silver medallists’ scheme (pictured, left), it moves outside the limitations of architectural representation as we know it.
The ‘designed’ environment is only part of the story of architecture with this medium. The way the environment is used or disused is more relevant. The architectural imagination and the project is inhabited by personalities and characters with whom we are encouraged to empathise, rather than abstracted populations and processes to which the profession is more accustomed.
The portfolios of the students showed an extraordinary level of skill in visual communication and digital tools, used to describe not only architectural qualities and atmospheres, but components and strategies. I came to the conclusion that this 21st-century student work is perhaps more tolerant and humane, rejecting our latent Modernist expectations of the architectural project, the heroically transformative partis. It is accepting of dirt and time; it’s not obsessed with newness. Maybe this is the spirit of the age − they are the first generation in 500 years that will not achieve the standard of living of their forbears (us).