In response to rising student debt levels, stressful workloads and employment anxieties, many architecture schools are adapting to include paid placements within courses and are giving students more input into the content and structure of their studies
Words by Veronica Simpson
There has probably never been a worse time to be a UK architecture student in the history of the profession. Many of the qualifying students graduating this year have paid the highest tuition fees ever: £9,000 a year, thanks to the introduction of that top fee option in 2012. Including living costs, they may have amassed debts of over £100,000.
The world they emerge into is in political and financial turmoil, not least thanks to the Brexit uncertainty. More pressing yet, as our society is finally facing up to the enormity of the climate crisis, those that are lucky enough to gain employment will be entering a profession that is complicit in the construction sector’s responsibility for a whopping 40% of CO2 emissions.
Small wonder that architecture schools have been observing record levels of stress and anxiety; back in 2016, an Architects’ Journal survey reported 26% of students had received medical help for mental health problems resulting from their course, thanks to a toxic cocktail they cited of any or all of the following: fear of their mounting debt, a studio culture of long hours, adversarial and archaic assessment practices, poor job prospects and a worrying degree of discrimination.
Given the global picture, three years down the line, the stress levels are hardly likely to have improved. And yet there has been some change for the better: a handful of architecture schools have been re-shaping their courses, finding ways to make the curriculum more meaningful, engaging and relevant, and also more affordable.
The Bartlett School of Architecture, where students may soon be able to undertake a new MSci condensing seven years of education into five, including a work placement. Image Credit: Jack Hobhouse
The Bartlett School of Architecture, currently rated the top school in the world, is introducing an MSci course that condenses the usual seven years into five. The last year is spent on a paid placement, where academic work is combined with practical assignments and research. It is still awaiting RIBA and ARB accreditation, but this is the first time the Bartlett has introduced a part-time, placement-focused element. The course has been developed collaboratively with 20 international practices to ensure that ‘it’s not just competing with the current route but doing something different’, according to Sara Shafiei, BSc Architecture programme co-director.
Shafiei, who developed the MSci course together with Professor Stephen Gage, says that by framing each year’s assignments within the context of research into real world issues — such as housing, global health and wellbeing, climate change — the students arrive in practice having built up knowledge in a specific area that is of mutual interest to both individual and practice.
The Bartlett School of Architecture, where students may soon be able to undertake a new MSci condensing seven years of education into five, including a work placement. Image Credit: Tim Crocker
The whole purpose of this course has been to broaden access for home students, who save a compelling 20% in fees, and have their living costs in Year 5 offset by the paid placement. What it doesn’t offer is flexibility in terms of timing — there is no option for taking time out between Parts 1 and 2, and obviously no option to switch to a different school for postgraduate studies.
All being well with accreditation, the initial cohort of around 18 students will start in 2020 at the school’s 22 Gordon Street HQ. If the course is approved, Safiei is sure other schools will follow suit. And that’s fine by her: ‘If this can open up the floodgates for more diverse types of students to go to university and choose architecture, isn’t that what it’s about?’
Part-time, placement-enriched studies are not new: at least three architecture courses have been established in the past few years designed around this model. The London School of Architecture (LSA) — the UK’s first independent school of architecture since the Architectural Association (AA) was established in 1847 — launched its two-year postgraduate course in 2012, offering in its promotional material a ‘21st-century apprenticeship with a reciprocal relationship between practices and students to tackle a growing crisis in the funding of architectural education’.
Work by Seyi Adewole, one of this year’s LSA graduates
It has also been a core part of Reading University’s newly established architecture school, set up three years ago by Professor Flora Samuels. The first undergraduate cohort has just completed, and the school is about to embark on its MArch programme with a commitment to embedding students with real world research skills into practices. The course is designed to facilitate cross-fertilisation with other disciplines: ‘We’re working closely with urban research and real estate planning,’ says Samuels. ‘Three of our students are going off to do masters courses in construction engineering and project management. We’re delighted.’
Placement-based tuition is also happening in some of the older schools. Sheffield School of Architecture introduced a Collaborative Practice option in 2015. Students are employed four days a week, with the fifth day for academic work and support. Says Collaborative Practice director Satwinder Samra: ‘The work that students do in practice becomes live academic content. We ask students to reveal the design processes that brought that scheme to life. Then we ask them to come up with an alternative brief and proposals… The other thing we’re trying to do is uncover the everyday workings of practice, from social infrastructure to business acumen.’ Samra is convinced this option has helped to keep some students on course, especially in terms of financial support.
LSA founder and director Will Hunter gives a presentation at the school’s east London base
Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh School of Architecture has been offering a two-year, part-time Masters course for a while, and head of school Sally Stewart feels one of the benefits of these closer relationships to practice is the opportunity to influence the affiliated practices to be better, more considerate employers. ‘Traditionally, the profession can put demands on the schools but it’s very difficult for the schools to put demands back on the profession,’ she says. That pressure can more effectively be brought to bear where schools work more proactively with practices, she says, as with the LSA.
Being based in London, the LSA certainly has the pick of the UK’s most sizeable and high-profile practice partners, something which has undoubtedly contributed to its current popularity — it will absorb its biggest intake ever (exceeding 80 students) for September 2019. The original cohort of 30 practice partners has now expanded to 110. Furthermore, the course received full RIBA and ARB accreditation this summer — an administratively cumbersome but necessary initiative, says founder and director Will Hunter, in order to allow students to qualify for government loans (despite the reduced fees and paid placements, the cost of London living was still a deterrent to less affluent students).
CSM graduate Gemma Holyoak’s Housing Factory workshop at Tate Exchange in 2018. Holyoak developed the ideas in the workshop into a new digital tool
But where affordability was the main crisis on the horizon when Hunter set the school up, bigger challenges to our social and environmental ecosystems have taken over, and the LSA has widened its remit correspondingly. ‘We have this very strong relationship with practice already. But we’re now working with people like Stanhope, Savills and Arup — our key partners — and also Tata Steel and Kingspan. We are looking very much at collaboration and making proposals that can really create change in the city.’
Over at CSM, Mel Dodd — who launched the MA course in Architecture: Cities and Innovation in 2013 and then became director of Spatial Practices — has always been interested in exploring the ‘radical and transformative potential’ of architecture education. To this end, she pioneered student placements in a wide range of institutions — from hospitals to local councils — where useful insights on policy, property management and planning could be gleaned. In this way, her students could infuse some creative thinking into these stolid organisations as well as gain an understanding of wider built environment challenges.
That mission continues. Dodd is keen that course placements are not about ‘buying into some neoliberalisation of education — “oh yeah let’s just go outside and do it all in practice” — but rather being critical about practice as well and employment practices and lack of unionisation… Once you start thinking about how you educate the practice, you have to think about how it’s performing, both at the level of jobs and interns and payment but also architecture as a multinational industry, with a massive carbon footprint and a massive labour footprint.’
Clitterhouse Farm in Cricklewood, a project from CSM graduates Billy Jacob Adams and Freddy Wiltshire
Dodd is excited to see the current cohort of students and graduates embracing a more radical agenda to create their own activist platforms. ‘They are mobilising, realising that forms of resistance are possible,’ she says. She was an early signatory to the student-led Architecture Education Declares, an open letter to architecture schools to focus on environmental change, which emerged just before the 2019 degree shows and now has over 1,600 signatories. One of CSM’s MArch graduates, Neba Sere, is a co-founder of the Black Females in Architecture group (BFA), which now numbers 170 members across diverse built environment professions, aiming to mentor this very underrepresented community and improve visibility. Incidentally, CSM’s architecture undergraduate course has an impressively diverse cohort with 45% BAME students.
Scholarships and grants can be tailored to help launch student initiatives, says Dodd. She cites CSM graduate Gemma Holyoak, who used her work placement at Southwark Council to help develop a digital tool using local authority land information so that Community Land Trusts can find sites for affordable housing. The tool, named Visualising Viability and developed in collaboration with fellow CSM Spatial Practices graduate Michael Kennedy, has just won a £10,000 Mead fellowship grant.
Clitterhouse Farm in Cricklewood, a project from CSM graduates Billy Jacob Adams and Freddy Wiltshire
Two more CSM graduates, Billy Jacob Adams and Freddy Wiltshire, have gone straight from college to playing a strategic role in the design and development of their final year project, Clitterhouse Farm in Cricklewood. The two students worked with the local community to plan the transformation of a series of dilapidated farm buildings on an Argent development site into a cultural and community centre. The quality of their proposal helped secure £50,000 of mayoral funding, which contributed to the final pot of £200,000 raised through crowdfunding on Spacehive. The first phase of works — a new-build cafe and workshops — is due to be finished by February 2020, with the wider scheme taking another few years to develop.
Traditionally perceived at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of practicality (and affordability) is the AA. But the winds of change are blowing here, too, following the appointment in spring 2018 of Eva Franch i Gilabert (Blueprint 360) as director. ‘When I arrived last year I hired 30 people within the first month and I brought in 11 new units. And I really did try and insert an entire new set of conversations into the school,’ she says, mentioning the New Canonical Histories public programme which welcomed a range of people trying to rewrite the histories of architecture, culture and art. ‘I’m very interested in what are the new vectors of desire and what are the new drivers of change,’ she adds.
As director of the AA, Eva Franch i Gilabert has tried to introduce a ‘new set of conversations’ into the school
Franch i Gilabert has also introduced a new core programme called Experimental Studies: ‘I’m now talking to philosophers who teach ethics, anthropologists, geographers, people who teach politics and law, to try and understand what are the things we should be teaching in a school of architecture. It’s important to open up new sets of skills, forms of agency and knowledge to create new paradigms.’
She is intent on providing a multitude of opportunities for knowledge sharing, at all levels, including across the nine postgraduate programmes. If it still sounds like a school of ‘magical thinking’ then one notable practical outcome has been the emergence of a new school of design co-founded by AA alumnus Kishan San and RCA architecture graduate Pierre Shaw. Together they have launched the School of Speculation, a critical design school that, according to their mission statement, ‘allows designers to distance themselves from continuing the status quo, using the power of design to reveal underlying realities through politically challenging provocations’.
Shaw and San feel that the privileges of their education should be more widely and freely shared to empower the citizens and designers of tomorrow. Although the school is still in its infancy, with a few workshops and one summer school under its belt for 2019, the way in which it is engaging its students — a mixture of international art, design and architecture students and graduates — who pay a minimal fee (the two-week summer school cost £65) is yielding impressive results. The summer school, which took place at London’s Design Museum and the South London Gallery, resulted in an array of projects which tackled the sinister and powerful world of digital architecture, and the way data — as owned and harvested by global corporations — is shaping our futures in ways we certainly wouldn’t choose if we had full knowledge of the implications.
‘Geopoetics’ performance with School of Speculation students at the Design Museum. Image Credit: The Rodina 2019
Given that collaborative practice is where some of the most exciting architecture and participatory design is happening, how will students understand the benefits of true collaboration in the old-fashioned, architect-as-hero, critoriented, competitive system that has prevailed for the last 30 years? Some of the new schools have abolished the visible grading of work altogether. At the LSA, students have to opt in to find out what their grades are. Others are giving students a role in shaping their courses. At CSM, MArch students have been invited to design and deliver their own seminars, inviting whoever they think best for the role of critiquing the issue.
The inclusion of marginalised or overlooked voices is highly topical, and here, enlightened schools are taking strategic steps to broaden their students’ perceptions. The Bartlett’s university partner UCL has just appointed its first vice-dean for equality, diversity and inclusion — Kamna Patel — who promises to dismantle prejudicial systems, right from student intake to staff promotion. The Bartlett has also just run the first architecture summer school for blind or partially sighted people, under Jos Boys, of the school’s Disordinary Architecture Unit. The week-long course was ‘a revelation’, says Boys, in showing what those with different ways of sensing and experiencing the world could teach us about what — and who — matters in our built environment.
While the research for this article was initiated in a spirit of alarm and trepidation, the resulting conversations have sparked embers of optimism. There are certainly schools of architecture out there looking to engage the new generation of highly articulate, activist students, showing them pathways that could steer us towards a more sustainable future. Says Dodd: ‘We know that capitalism has caused endless growth and that’s largely prevailed through the built environment as well. That is challenging to architecture: if you’re not growing, you’re reutilising, adapting, modifying. It’s a radical reinvention of what people have done automatically for years… To me the whole of our society is built into expansion and growth. That’s why I think architectural education has defaulted to it. For change to happen, it needs everyone to come on board with it.’ The revolution starts here.