A new architecture school seeks to unite practitioners and students in the shared pursuits of innovative design and critical research
‘Mission creep’ is the phrase that springs to mind. To expand a project beyond its original objective is to walk a ‘dangerous path’ that only ends ‘when a final, often catastrophic, failure occurs’. So warns Wikipedia. And yet despite this scary advice, it can be fun to move the goalposts if you see a sunnier spot on the pitch.
In these pages last year I wrote ‘Alternative Routes for Architecture’ (AR October 2012), a piece about the challenges facing architectural education in Britain. The article also launched a research group under the same name (abbreviated to ARFA) to look into different educational models, and − as a think tank would − make a report. At some point the purpose changed from exploring to enacting. It became clear that, instead of analysing different models in an abstract way, it would be more fruitful to test one properly by trying to make it happen. Now, 12 months on, the London School of Architecture is born.
Our starting point was a simple one: how can you make architectural education lower cost and better value? The first so that the profession is an affordable career for talented students to enter; and the second so that graduates are well equipped with the intellectual creative capital and the core competencies to shape the built environment in the 21st century. We didn’t want what we were doing to be an attack on other schools of architecture, many (if not most) of whom are asking exactly the same questions. But we did feel that there was a gap in the marketplace for an institution outside a university campus setting.
Rather than get trapped in the false dichotomy between ‘academia’ and ‘practice’ − where one is where ‘thinking’ happens and the other is about ‘buildings’ − we thought instead about ‘design’ and ‘research’ as activities that both students and practitioners would engage in throughout their careers. The question was how can you make a bridge to unite these two groups around those twin pursuits?
Fundamentally, we want the school to be a platform within the industry, a place to generate and transfer knowledge between study and practice. And we also want it to create a nimble network not a rigid hierarchy. To this end, we will have no fixed physical infrastructure, but use the city as a resource and create an itinerant institution afresh each year. And while the educational structures will be robust enough to give a clear shape, they will be designed to leave the school open to a wider ecology of ideas.
We are only looking at postgraduate level, and the model we came up with is a simple one: a two-year Part 2 course, with the first year with the students in a practice placement and a second year in more self-directed learning. The LSA should provide the space and resources for practitioners to develop their own creative and critical interests. And we’d like them to self-organise into research clusters for their first years to work together to produce relevant and provocative research, to be shared with the profession. The practice placements shouldn’t be people working in isolation; together they should create their own immersive environment that exposes students − and indeed practitioners − to multiple perspectives and ways of working.
The geographic focus for second-year students will move to a different London borough every year. The students are to be embedded in the locale, and one of the questions that we’ll ask of them as a student body in first year is how do they want to do that? Will they spend the budget on studios? Or a hub space? Or a high street shop? The first part of the year will be group work investigating the borough at an urban scale, and this will move into individual thesis projects. These will be taught by practices in the network, and these practices might rotate on an annual basis. All the technical teaching would be delivered within the practices, with a budget to bring in the expertise of consultants in their professional network.
Putting numbers on it was interesting. We started the fees at half the price of a London diploma course: so instead of £9,000 per year, £4,500 per year, with two thirds of the tuition fees actually allocated to the teaching budget. Once you start running the figures through that starts to look pretty tight − but we want to keep it as close to that as possible. The interesting thing is that it is a financial win-win for the practices and the students. If the practice pays fees directly to the school from the student’s earnings, the student doesn’t have to pay them out of taxed income, and the practice can allocate it as a training cost. Accountants, canny financial operators that they are, already operate a similar system.
In a way, everything hinged on the Architects Registration Board. Because we want the LSA to be a genuine alternative route into the profession, we saw it as imperative that we receive Part 2 accreditation. While the RIBA can only validate a course once it is up-and-running, the ARB can prescribe it before it starts. A lot of the last year has been spent getting the proposals into the right shape to fit the criteria, and the board’s Emma Matthews and Grant Dyble have been very helpful with their guidance during consultation. The plan is to make a full submission in 2014.
The ‘we’ in this article is a fairly amorphous one, and refers to different people at different times. However, the LSA now has some key figures in place. Our academic board is composed of Nigel Coates, Leon van Schaik and James Soane, and our governing board is Niall Hobhouse, Sarah Ichioka and Crispin Kelly. We also have some faculty and advisors in practice, full details of which are online. But we’d like the ‘we’ to get bigger! The LSA launch is primarily aimed at practices − as an invitation to get involved. So far, while we’ve talked about the content of the course a lot, we haven’t tried to conclude those conversations, but instead focused on establishing the right framework to allow the culture of the school to be generated by the practices and the students. We’d like those discussions to develop with the practices who will be involved in delivering it. If you think that might be you, please do visit the website and get in touch. The success of the venture is in your hands.
The London School of Architecture