A clear sense of poetics coupled with practicality sits at the heart of student designs from the University of Bath
Although still early evening, it feels like midnight. The winter sun retreated hours ago, and the Alison and Peter Smithson-designed Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering is, along with much of the university campus on a hill above Bath, shrouded in cloud.
The call has gone out to the studios and the bar − where final year undergraduates are rubbing tired eyes while treating themselves to some well-earned refreshment − inviting students back to the crit room for the jury’s verdict.
It is the culmination of the eight-week Basil Spence competition in which architecture and engineering students join forces to design, in groups of up to five, a small public building. The competition endeavours to promote teamwork and problem-solving, and to test the design, as it evolves, through the rigorous application of criticism. ‘Too often, criticism of what you’ve done is conflated with criticism of who you are. At Bath what we teach is that you are not your work,’ explains Alex Wright, Head of Architecture. The school, well-known for producing graduates equipped to address the matter-of-fact reality of making buildings, champions a pedagogical approach that draws inspiration from Karl Popper’s critical rationalism. Popper’s evolutionary model of scientific method has been applied, notably by the late Michael Brawne − a professor at Bath for more than a decade − to architectural design.
The cyclical process of generating a design follows three key stages: problem formulation which may be translated as defining the brief, tentative theories or initial sketches, and finally the application of criticism in order to test trial solutions, arming the designer with findings that can be used to iteratively refine the brief. But if criticism is to be useful then it must be constructive: constructively given and constructively received. As many argue, the crit tradition encourages students to become thick skinned and take a position, often a defensive one. Architecture students everywhere are known for their enthusiasm and commitment. And while passion is important, Wright argues, it does not assure excellence: ‘When you throw yourself into your work, you make yourself vulnerable; this vulnerability can undermine a student’s capacity for objectivity.’
Interdisciplinary group work offers opportunities to negotiate boundaries between professions while collectively conceptualising a project. Tutorial input, from engineers and architects, acousticians and landscape designers, provides students with sounding boards against which to test their capacity to be constructively critical members of a design team. Together, the BSc and MArch (RIBA Parts 1 and 2) combine academic and practice-based learning across a ‘thin sandwich’ course lasting six years. Six-month placements, in years two, three and five, build on the first year in which architecture and engineering students are taught together. For Martin Gledhill, who leads the fourth year studio, dialogue between disciplines is vital. ‘It demystifies the false divide between abstract and technical thinking.’
In the last cycle of the Basil Spence competition students were invited to design a gallery for the work of British artist Elisabeth Frink, perhaps best known for her bronze horses. The winning team − Zara Ashby, Toby Smith, Mark Cranfield, Thomas Peck and Saleema Hughes − proposed a vertical sculpture park, a twisting stack of external terraces balanced one on top of another. A meandering Escher-esque staircase winds up the structurally adventurous tower; a more direct ascent is offered by a lift that is in itself an exhibition space, displaying lithographs and prints. The students benefited from both the problem-solving logic of the learning model and the disciplinary mix of the team. An initial concept, driven by environmental and poetic responses to Frink’s wish for her work to be viewed under natural light and in changing weather, led to structural and architectural challenges: how to hold up a tower of terraced landscapes, and plan access and circulation around it.
Integration of the practicalities of making into the creative process is at the heart of a design by Charlotte Balmer, Philip Buckingham, Lloyd Evans and Matthew Hopkins whose gallery aims to preserve and display Frink’s legacy. The cross section, which positions a soaring timber-clad box within a performative envelope, acknowledges environmental and structural concerns.
A roof with giant spans is articulated by louvres and screens that modify the light and, by regulating solar gain and airflow, control the ambient temperature. Gledhill counters the suggestion that this project, or any other, prioritises technical competence over poetic inspiration. ‘We encourage purposeful engagement with aesthetic concerns, but not at the cost of separating the artistry of design from its material, structural, and environmental dimensions.’