Reunited: 'in my day, we rarely stayed in college'

November 5, 2004

I hadn't been back to my old department at University College London since finishing my degree more than 25 years ago, and the first thing I noticed was that, while I remember it as the Bartlett School of Architecture, Environmental Design, Town Planning and the Built Environment, it has been rebranded as "The Bartlett". Now you have to ask the man on the door if you're in the right building.

In 1977, I had rehearsed my interview on the train and almost convinced myself that I wanted to come to London to partake of the cultural life of museums and galleries, ballet and opera. In reality, I was just a small-town boy desperate to escape the South Wales valleys, with the sole ambition of meeting Babs from Pan's People. (I only ever got to meet John Noakes - which was just as good.) I soon realised that out of an intake of 35 undergraduates, I was the only one whose parents weren't architects or engineers. This social experiment continued the following year when the department went the other way and included just one son of a professional in the predominantly working-class intake. Today, undergraduate numbers have risen to 90 per year, but there seems to be a real mix of backgrounds.

Now 75 per cent of the school's PhD students come from abroad. While the percentage of foreign undergraduates has remained the same, with European Union accession countries paying UK fee rates, the pressure is on to look further afield for cash cows.

Speaking of cash, my trip down memory lane was helped by the fact that the place doesn't seem to have been painted since I was last there, at least not in the sense of professional decoration. The students have wreaked havoc on the walls and floors with aerosols, paintbrushes and glue. Staff called these "accretive layers of creativity", but they simply reminded me of a squat. We used to get told off for sticking drawing pins in the walls.

Gone are the expansive studio spaces. These have been replaced by tiny cellular sweatshops full of students beavering away. Admittedly, my visit did coincide with the run-up to the final crits but, in my day, we rarely stayed in college. When new drawing boards (now they have new-fangled computers) were delivered, we all got up early to nick them and take them back to our flats to work. Now the college is a hive of activity.

The basement workshop is especially hectic. It used to house a hammer, some cardboard and a couple of house bricks, but is now kitted out like an industrial unit, with lathes, drills and welding equipment, and students hurriedly making end-of-year models. Sadly, the concentration in architecture on so-called "design skills" is a new and worrying trajectory.

Now 80 per cent of Bartlett's tutors are erstwhile practitioners or from industry, which is intended to bring a "real-world" influence on students.

But in my job I recognise that mentoring needs to be reinforced by rigorous technical and scientific knowledge: architecture is still an academic subject. I was pleased therefore to see that the Bartlett still retains one-to-one tutorials and, sitting in on a crit, it was nice to see that students are still bollocked for lazy presentations.

To make my nostalgic trip complete, I sneaked past security into the student union for a gassy pint of lager in a plastic glass. Unfortunately, it's now a cappuccino bar.

Austin Williams, technical editor of the Architects' Journal , revisited the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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