Combining Anthropology and Activism while placing practice at the heart of teaching in Northern England
Huddled over a laptop on the sofa, Kathy announces: ‘The leisure centre emailed a five-day pass! If we go down after lunch they’ll donate a football too!’ AJ, who is behind the counter ostentatiously making an iced coffee for a customer, is too absorbed in his task to listen. Evidently life as a barista is what he has been missing all these years. But Shanks and Rebecca look up from their work; bits of cardboard, a scalpel, masking tape and shiny fragments of coloured foil litter the table. ‘Yeahhh!’, grins Shanks, ‘that’s our raffle prize for tonight.’ The students, who have occupied the LoveEaston café as their base for a month of local consultation, are planning a ‘food fuddle’: part Somali cookery class, part ‘pot-luck’ dinner, and part neighbourhood fête.
This combination of anthropology and activism – of students immersed in a community to learn about processes of urban development – is typical of Sheffield’s ‘Live Projects’, a programme of public-facing activities in which all Master of Architecture (RIBA Part II) fifth and sixth years take part. Since 1999 the programme has run over 100 real-life projects, some of which have led to design strategies and others to built works. All emphasise practical involvement in making architecture – whether that architecture is a building, a development process, or a social formation designed to engage in urban change.
An exploded programmatic axonometric from the project which aimed to propose new and relevant building types that build on an existing landfill site near Wakefield
Placing practice at the heart of teaching and research is, according to practitioner-academic Sarah Wigglesworth – a professor at Sheffield for 14 years – ‘a central plank of what the school is about’. More than just a case of connecting learning to the world of work, this stems from an impulse to take academia out of its ivory tower and into the street. ‘Outreach’ has long been a key concern for Prue Chiles, founder of Live Projects, and it informed her decision to establish the school’s Bureau of Design Research which created, through its practice-focused initiatives, a productive channel of communication between the university and its host city.
This innovation led, says Wigglesworth, to the growth of a core debate between practice and research at the school, one that operates primarily as a critique of architecture: of its thinking, its language, and of the inherited image, exemplified by Howard Roark, of the architect as lone creator. In The Fountainhead, Roark fights against, rather than participating with, the philistine public in order to protect his architectural ideals. This critique now informs every aspect of the school, not least Live Projects.
According to Carolyn Butterworth, Live Projects coordinator, the programme offers students a tangible way to engage with the ordinary world of human problems that is so often edited out of paper architecture. Students learn, she says, ‘how to work in a group, negotiate with clients and stakeholders, stage participatory events, think strategically, manage resources, and communicate verbally and visually’.
For her final year project, student Rebecca Hinkley designed a school in a deprived Liverpool neighbourhood for NEETS: young people Not in Education, Employment, Training or School. Connecting with this group, variously described as ‘disaffected’ and a ‘lost generation’, demanded creative strategies, so Rebecca invented a parachute game – a ‘performative method of engagement’. She and a group of participants played with a parachute to make balloon shapes and shadows on a derelict street, creating a street-theatre atmosphere. ‘Passers-by were intrigued by this unexpected sight and stood watching; some even joined in with us!’
Another student, Phil Etchells, developed a centre in Wakefield for the repair and resale of broken household items. His project reimagined the notion of ‘new town’ as a community built on bottom-up decisions rather than top-down planning. He drew the idea of recycling into a narrative about a better kind of economy, one in which our habit of spending on things we throw away is moderated by awareness of the costs, environmental and otherwise, of landfill. Both projects are steered by a concern for architecture’s social implications.
Such conviction is certainly motivated by a desire to ‘give something back’, but the projects do more than that. By bringing diverse groups and stakeholders into dialogue with architectural processes, they raise awareness. They provide opportunities to not only learn about popular interpretations of urban change but also to show the public out there something of how good design can change their lives – of design’s capacity, as Wigglesworth puts it, to add value by ‘bringing the world together in a way that puts people at the centre of it’.
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy.