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Your views: AR reader responds to the Education Issue

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A growing lack of empirical knowledge in architecture schools is gradually confining the profression to the margins of the built environment

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.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Kirk McCormack

    A response to the response...

    While I agree with the point that sociological expertise is not the answer to the problems the profession (and the built environment) is now facing, I have to disagree with the profile of the exemplar architect that is given here and the empirical knowledge s/he possesses. This skill-set is not as rare as is implied and is furthermore not the solution. I would contend, notwithstanding recent graduates, (some) star architects and 'alternative practices', that many architects currently practising, and reading these articles, have these nuts-and-bolts competencies. Competencies acquired through trial and error and the iterative testing of ideas and technologies i.e. the scientific method. Remember, it's not all bad. But, this skill-set is not enough by itself and Moore's Law, even though apparently slowing, would suggest that technological advancement will always outrun the depth of our learning. All we can aspire to is a very sound knowledge of key principles and the work ethic to rigorously test them. So I would argue our knowledge base needs to be more expansive than detailed.

    The ultimate problem is that no matter how knowledgeable or virtuous an architect is, s/he is working within a system that is not virtuous and one that does not value true quality or innovation. Peter Buchanan's Big Rethink series has addressed this in a somewhat quixotic manner by choosing to go back to absolute first principles and examine the basis of all human values and recalibrate them to correct the pathologies. Noble but very difficult to implement (I expect Peter will discuss this implementation aspect in his two final articles however). Do I have any suggestions you ask? (or maybe you didn't ask anything...!). My prescription, if you are willing to hear it, has resonance with the statement made above that "architects don’t ‘build’ buildings, but [should only] play [a] leading role in controlling how they are built". This is true but I believe should not necessarily be the case.

    Currently architects have very little control or even influence over how the majority of buildings are built. You have to go back a long way to find when we did. You will be aware of the statistics that only a small percentage of construction actually involves architects (I have no definitive primary source- figures vary widely but all are surprisingly low- refer to And, you will be acutely aware that much of the building stock we now have is unfit for purpose and unsustainable. The relatively small amount of the built environment that is affected by architects can also be described in the same grim terms, which is the basis of this whole polemic. I would submit that the only way architects can truly influence the built environment is by procuring it themselves.

    Not only should architects design buildings and places, they should also steer their financing and construction. The architect as builder and patron. I can imagine your recoil at this suggestion. Understandable. Initially this may appear to be a myopic, facile or possibly futile offering but first answer this; how many times have you broken your professional code of conduct in the last year, in the last 10 years? This is an uncomfortable question obviously. Nearly all professional codes, of any institutions that represent architects, contain some form of requirement that the practitioner have a proper concern and due regard for the effect that their work may have on its users and the local community and to be aware of the environmental impact of their work. The building stock we now have is evidence enough in itself that many architects compromise on a daily basis and fail to pay due regard to the consequences of their design actions. At best, the results could be considered imposed-incompetence and at the worst, wilful negligence. We are therefore very much complicit in creating the pathology. The institutes that represent us professionally enable this by not prosecuting infringement of the code (and sometimes even reward it) and therefore neither protect the public or their members. Surely this cannot go on.

    The unethical compromises we make arise for many reasons but the main one is that those who actually drive and realise our built environment, our clients, for the most part do not operate by or acknowledge any code of conduct and therefore impose compromise upon our own. Coercion abounds because the current culture of business favours short term gain over long term value; instant return and gratification is the Zeitgeist; the construction industry is no more backward than the market it serves. Those who hold the most power and influence in the building process are local government (the state) and the property developer. Both are responsible for the majority of construction completions. To acquire any semblance of self-efficacy we need to occupy one of these positions. The state is not applicable to my prescription but architect as developer(-builder) is.

    Consider how we'll placed architects are to identify and leverage development opportunity (especially complex inner-city, brownfield projects that most developers would see as more trouble than it's worth). The whole basis of marketing our professional service these days revolves around emphasising the value added to a development by availing of our expertise. Why can we not put our money where our mouth is? Furthermore, the traditional relationship between designer and executor needs to be re-established. The builder today of any appreciable size is a contracts manager. Apprenticeships and domestic labour are becoming a rarity with the primary task of the main contractor being the co-ordination of sub-contractors. Avaricious behaviour is rife and again profit is sought over quality.

    What I suggest is that the architect pursues a more innovative career pattern by becoming the leader of a fully integrated, closed- loop (but not insular), business model. Architects by nature and training are highly risk averse but it is essential that we become more entrepreneurial. The process of transfiguration would start by providing architectural education that teaches both construction management skills, economics, business administration and ethical corporate governance; even in our typical mode of practice we are exceptionally weak in these areas. Architectural design would form the core of the curriculum with these satellite subjects being taught in parallel. The default mode of practice would be as a design-build manufacturer which would fund future moves into development (a logical division of labour would be required of course but always within the architect's role or guided by him/her- specialist sub-contracting etc.). At the first opportunity autonomy should be sought from the service provider role.

    This will require a more cavalier attitude to business than we are used to but there is precedent of varying degree for what I am suggesting; in terms of architect as builder we have of course examples from antiquity; the master masons (which I acknowledge are not relevant or comparable to our current conditions), more recently though, we have Frank Lloyd Wright's apprentices who took on the role of construction manager for his Usonian houses. For architect as developer/ promoter we have the terraces at Bath which Nash personally designed and financed and not so long ago, Eric Lyons with Span developments who produced some excellent examples of high quality, highly progressive, speculative housing. Some will react to this by citing examples of financial disaster which befell many architect-speculators in the 18th and 19th century or by forewarning the death any remaining altruism or idealism in architectural design if one of our main goals becomes the pursuit of filthy lucre. I would leave you with a final question to address this...

    If all developers, past and present were trained as architects, would we have now a better or worse built environment? I would strongly argue that it would be better.

    I apologise for I have clearly digressed here from the original issue of problems within current architectural design education... so to quickly return to topic and conclude my remarks, I would offer up two acronyms, given to me by an astute colleague, which highlight the problem succinctly. Aside from the more strategic issues I have spoken about above, he identifies the main problem as being emphasis. In the last 30 years there has been a change from a S.A.D. workflow to a H.I.P. workflow in the schools. The traditional design process, which was previously promoted, involved a Survey of the physical conditions encountered, an Analysis of the resulting physical and programmatic design problem, resulting in a Design solution. Whereas, the current expectation, especially in the more avant garde institutions, is that first a Hypothesis is formulated which is then Investigated to establish some aspect of validity, all culminating in nothing more than a Proposal for a potential design approach. It could be argued that both are incomplete but one results in robust design solutions and the other in only flights of fancy...

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  • Thanks for your response to my response. Starting backwards, I don't think that differences in S.A.D and H.I.P as you've described them has any bearing at all. I think that a combination of experience and the particular constraints of any given project mean that these two methods are inevitably 'combined' by both projects. Both preconceoption, even prejudice, based on experience and the elements of the brief in hand are completely unavoidable.
    The 'closed loop' of the architect-builder solution does ndeed send me out of my comfort zone, but that would be a small problem if i was really viable. The aim here is quality remember. How will you achieve quality when the complexity of architectural design itself has increaed exponentially since the time of Nash and when the division of labour, brought about by the advent of the industrial revolution has become so complete (what you call for is essentially a reversal of this division of labour within the building industry). As an architect you'd have more on your plate than we do now. Better I think to maintain the essentially 'persuasive ethos' of the current system, whereby we have to convince the client, qs, builder and planning authority of the merits, cost effectiveness, buildability and 'rightness' of our work respectively. What we need to do as a profession is to concentrate on that which allows us to do this. This is where my '2 strands' of empirical knowledge come in. You are ight that a large proportion of architects necessarily know thw language of building, but remember I was talking about students with regards to this. Currently students do a lot of work that is essentially irrelevant to practice (other than that which would be carried out for illustration or promotional purposes). knowledge of the language or elements of building production gained while at university would make their speculative university work more relevant. Regards the knowledhe of 'other architects' work, I have met almost no architects who could display the kind of intimate knowledge of precedent demonstrated by Alvaro Siza during his RIBA Gold Medal lecture a few years ago in which he spoke witn intimate knowledge of FL Wright's NY Guggenheim; it's failures and successes. The building was a precedent for his design of the Ibere Carmargo Museum in Brazil. Most architects don't reach depth of consideration. Most of us find it difficult to get past copying images (note the multifarious 'children' Rafael Moneo's Murcia Town Hallproject has spawned). The second aspect of this type of knowledge, 0f what makes some designs more successful than others, is a working knolwedge of architectural history. This is really not taught in schools. What is taught, what is indoctrinated is an attitude; architect as progressive, as thinker, as genius. In engendering these attitudes some history is touched upon but nothing before 1920 usually, or it renaissance architecture is touched upon it is ususally through the prism of Rowe or Wittkower who are useful for writng books but next to useless for designing buildings. Learning to design buildings comes from seeing/experiencing how good buildings are designed not by reading some interesting things regarding seminal designs. Usually the architect emerges 'fully trained' but unable to speak authortitatively on his subject to a lay person, who may ask him/her about St Pauls cathedral or The National Gallery.
    Lastly, I would agree with you that the lack of virtue in the societal context in which the architect works is defnitely partly the fault of the architect, not becuase of the breaking of his/her code of conduct, but rather becuase of abdication of his/her reponsibility as a key expert in the working of the real built environments that real people live and work in. This abdication is entirely due to the architect's inadequate or even defective training.

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  • Kirk McCormack

    Thank you for the response to the response, to the response Michael.

    I have just now- seen your last comment! I think the thing we can both agree on is that there are multiple problems at each level of the delivery of buildings; from the education of the architect (and the public), to the commissioning of architecture, through design and construction, and beyond, there is acute backwardness.

    Even though it can feel like being on the edge of a precipice sometimes, the view is still great!

    Best of luck.

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