Grand designs but shaky foundations

Researcher-dominated schools of architecture are being blamed for a generation who don't know how to make buildings stand up. Hannah Fearn reports

August 21, 2008

Architects and academics are two groups of people who, it would be safe to say, are never reluctant to stand up and make their views heard. So when practitioners and teachers of the discipline clash, sparks are bound to fly.

A dispute has broken out that centres on the unique way in which architecture straddles creativity and technology, with those who teach under fire from some of those in practice. The latter allege that students are spending too much time on the concept of building design and not enough learning about how to build while the former groan about the attitudes that lie at the heart of the complaints.

"It really saddens me to think what has happened to the schools," says Dan Kantorowich, of McDonald Architects. "When I graduated in the Seventies, we were hot property, with practices anxious to get hold of the best of the year's crop because we had all the latest technology at our fingertips. We were somewhat wet behind the ears in terms of professional practice, but as far as technology was concerned we were definitely up to scratch."

Now, he says, architecture schools have become obsessed with aspirational design at the expense of practicality. Young architects may be able to design fantastic-looking developments to delight and inspire, but they don't have the technological skills to understand how to make the buildings stand up.

"It's amorphous, it's abstract ... Architecture schools have gone down that same postmodern path of thinking that ideas on their own are more valuable than the realisation of them. Architecture can't be like that because the buildings have to be real," Kantorowich says.

Training to become an architect is a long process. After an initial three-year undergraduate degree, students spend a year in practice before returning for another two years of full-time postgraduate study, known as Part 2. Graduates then go out to practise and work for at least another year before sitting their final professional examinations.

The training is lengthy because there is so much ground to cover; it is a complex and multidisciplinary subject. But surely this allows time for the more practical elements of architectural practice? Architecture schools are required to make an annual submission to the Architects Registration Board, and are subjected to an inspection by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) every four years. Can crucial elements of architectural training be falling through the gaps?

Kantorowich blames the type of academics employed at universities - researchers rather than practitioners - and a short-sightedness across the industry. "There's a huge gulf between RIBA's view of architectural education and that of the practising majority, and RIBA seems to be blind to the crisis," he says. "All they need to do is provide students with a broad grounding in building technology and materials. The critics of this view say that current building technology is vast, so it's an impossible task. That's utter rubbish. It's like saying that there are so many drugs available today that we can't teach basic pharmacology to medical students.

"The schools have said we don't have the people to do this," he adds. "You don't need to be a practising architect to study and research the theory of design. Those characters are the people who populate architect schools now. They haven't got the skill set to teach technology. They openly admit it."

His fears are echoed by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the Government's adviser on design quality. Jonathan Davis, CABE's director of knowledge and skills, says the organisation's process of design review - an analysis of new projects looking at suitability, sustainability, practicality and the like - is "one of the best litmus tests of quality of architectural practice".

He comments: "The proposals for significant developments (projects) that we design-review suggest that there is an issue with the quality of architectural training. For instance, CABE recently evaluated the 700 schemes that we have seen over the past two years and found that only a handful are driven by the sustainability imperative. Universities have a duty to ensure that training standards are constantly improving and moving with the times."

So what is going on in British universities? Jeremy Till has been head of the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield for nine years and has taught architecture in higher education for 20. For him, the argument that schools are failing practitioners is not only nothing new, but rather irrelevant. Schools can give aspiring architects only part of the training they need, and practitioners should not shirk their part of the bargain.

"The thing I hear all the time as a head of school is that we are not producing students that are ready to work in practice. My response is that merchant bankers need them (skilled workers) too, but they don't complain about their graduates. There is stuff that you learn in university, and there is stuff that you learn afterwards," Till says. "If you are simply educating or skilling students to be immediately useful for practice it means that the status quo perpetuates itself."

Moreover, the world of practising architecture is so vast that higher education alone cannot turn out the kind of students who can hit the ground running in any first job. "Architectural practices are so varied that it's now impossible to produce a graduate who can fit into any practice," argues Till. "I think the diversity of architectural practice has fundamentally changed. The type of project you're working on, the technologies, the sustainability agenda, the globalisation, the different types of building - it's not as if you're aiming at one single target."

Till believes that architecture as a discipline should become more flexible in the way it approaches educating its undergraduates, and then training in practice. Schools could each offer a different specialism, allowing students to pick the area of architecture that interests them most.

Tod Wakefield, head of school at the University of Portsmouth, agrees that the "crisis" in architecture education is a well-worn story. "The threat is exaggerated and the argument old hat," he says.

The criticisms look back to a golden age that never existed, he believes - architects were never ready for practice straight out of college. "They (today's architects) need to think back on their own education. The one key thing for schools to teach is design. That can't be taught in practice. We have to keep our eye on the ball of the primary purpose of education."

Nevertheless, Portsmouth places a clear emphasis on the importance of technology during its training. "We pride ourselves on being very professional in the way we teach," Wakefield says. "The students certainly come out with a strong professional sense as well as a creative sense. They have no problem getting jobs."

But Wakefield concedes that the debate is "interesting". Efforts to reduce the number of years studying, and cost-saving learn-as-you-earn schemes, are yet to get off the ground, partly due to fears of corner-cutting.

"We have been worried about students, about debt. We have been trying to find ways to reduce the time, but it's a long course because it's complex and a very broad subject," he says. "A certain amount of this learning can be done in practice."

As yet, practices remain unconvinced.

David Gloster, RIBA's director of education, is responsible for ensuring that universities are teaching a relevant and comprehensive curriculum. He calls the debate on graduate ability "part of the furniture".

"At the time that the last mason in the construction of the Acropolis was looking around for help, he started complaining about the quality of graduates from the local architecture school," he laughs.

That architectural practices complain about the quality of young graduates is, he claims, to do with cash. "A lot of this is to do with practices wanting to get people into the office who have already got earning potential."

RIBA is continually revising its standards to improve the quality of teaching and professional practice. It is currently working on improving sustainability and the use of materials from renewable resources.

"The currency of information and the relevance of what graduates can do is constantly under review," he says. "We don't think of architecture as a static subject."

In fact, Gloster's vision of the competent graduate is someone who understands technology and construction as well as design, but who also recognises that these are moving goalposts. At the end of their formal training, Gloster would like to see graduates who might not be able to achieve everything asked of them in the first few weeks of practice, but would be equipped to ask intelligent questions about how to go about those tasks. "The good graduate will have got the constructional, technical understanding in their work. That doesn't necessarily mean that they can go out and produce a detailed cross-section of a really complicated building such as (Norman Foster's) 'Gherkin' in the first week after graduation," he explains.

Although architecture schools are reluctant to admit that there is a problem with their teaching, solutions to the perceived skills gap are already springing up. Tom Woolley is based at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, offering courses validated by the University of East London. He has helped to design the centre's new masters degree in sustainable architecture, buoyed by interest from disaffected students, many of whom feel the traditional route has failed to provide them with the practical skills they need to design and build sensibly for future generations.

"My personal view is that, even though accredited schools of architecture address issues of sustainability, many do not go into enough depth to really make a difference," he says. "There is demand from people who want to do it properly. We're finding that some of the people who are applying to come on our course are doing so because in their previous experience they weren't able to get the knowledge or experience that they wanted to meet the needs of building practice in the future.

"In some cases, they have delayed returning to education at Part 2 because they weren't happy to go back to what they felt was an unsatisfactory situation."

Woolley claims there has been a lot of interest from practising architects who want to contribute to the training of this new cohort of students. "We have assembled a fantastic group of people who have said they are willing to give up time to teach on the course as visiting tutors and lecturers because they're so excited about what we're trying to do," he says. "They want to teach people to be good designers, but good with the practical and environmental issues at the same time."

The Construction Industry Council (CIC), one of three partners in the sector's skills council, ConstructionSkills, has spent the past three years carrying out a survey of employers and professional consultants to identify skills gaps across the industry. Lack of practical experience was the key complaint.

In response, the CIC has helped set up a project called Constructionarium - a construction site offering students studying across a range of disciplines in the built environment the chance to experience the practical elements of their subject first hand while still at university.

"Ultimately, when you look at this whole situation it's not just an issue of what is taught and needs to be learnt, but about how that happens and where it happens - where learning best takes place," says David Cracknell, head of lifelong learning at the CIC.

"Constructionarium is one of the ways in which one can give individuals that practical, hands-on site experience. The reality of being able to work with other disciplines is an important feature of the industry and it's not as easily developed in a university setting."

The University of Newcastle is keen to send its architecture students to the Constructionarium site. "Our students are generally recognised to have a good level of understanding of technology, but understanding doesn't mean that it's at the level that would allow them to hit the ground running," says lecturer Naveen Hamza. "It's a well-known fact that there is a general lack of technology application in universities. They know the theory, but they've never applied (it)."

Despite early enthusiasm, Newcastle has yet to achieve the necessary funding and employer support to offer the experience to its trainee architects. The Constructionarium project is expensive, and a contractor must be found to project-manage the students. Currently, contractors are interested only in civil engineers because they can cherry pick the best students for employment on graduation.

"It's an income-generating scheme for them. It's a real shame because architects are just as important," Hamza says. "I was very much interested, as all my colleagues are, and they have been very supportive of the initiative. It's just finding the money to do it and finding somebody to project-manage the students."

Cracknell also claims that employers should be thinking more carefully about how universities can engage with practitioners to ensure these age-old arguments about skills shortages don't break out during each round of graduate recruitment. Alternatives should be considered, he believes.

"If one only has full-time courses where people sit in college for three, four or five years and are then thrown into industry, that clearly won't work as well as a sandwich programme or where there is a part-time element or opportunities for work experience during the course," he says.

Kantorowich himself, perhaps the most candid critic of the quality of today's graduates, claims that the relevant understanding of building technology and how materials behave could be taught to students in a matter of six weeks. In a controversial article in the architecture journal Building Design, he suggested that RIBA should set up a series of summer schools to give students the missing elements of their early training.

"We could probably get a lot of the basic technology and materials understanding into a student in six weeks. It's not all that difficult to do, but it just needs to be done," he says.

Each of these solutions suggests a common-sense approach to tackling perceived skills shortages: bringing education and practice closer together.

The Manchester School of Architecture is not only a joint venture between the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University, it also works closely with the city's practices through the Manchester Society of Architects.

"The reason for this approach is not that I think there is something lacking in schools, but rather that I think the education of future world-class professionals is best achieved through a rich dialogue between the profession and academia," says head of school David Dernie. "Both have something to offer and that knowledge transfer is a positive driver for education."

Dernie has formed an advisory board chaired by Stephen Hodder, a renowned local architect and graduate of the school, to guide the direction of the centre. Visiting lecturers, bringing practice into the classroom, are also a distinguishing feature of the school.

"There is in my view a growing need for higher education to move out from the traditional ivory tower to create a dynamic relationship with the industry, where there are no barriers to learning," he concludes.

This vision for the future of architecture training is inspiring, but also achievable. If, instead of fighting a war against the way the other works, education and practice were to come together, perhaps a more consistent and rigorous early training could be achieved.

The last word goes to Dernie: "The resilient walls of our ivory towers need to be perforated: the most dynamic schools of the future will be without any walls at all."

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