THEME: The Future of Architectural Education

How Will Architects be Educated in 20 Years Time?

BY Steve McAdam | October 2012

Welcome to our inaugural series of think pieces, in which five experts share their views on one of the key issues to emerge from our 2011
\The Future for Architects\ report; How will architects be educated in 20 years time? We hope that these broad range of speculations about the future of education will provide opportunities for reflection, and you are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display. If you would like to join our mailing list, please sign up using the \home page\

The future education of architects depends on three shifting and compelling areas for consideration: The notion of ‘profession’, the nature of higher education and the dynamics of architectural practice.

Professions

Futurologist Alvin Toffler, in his 1990 publication ‘Power Shift’, suggested a demise in the panoply of ‘classic’ professions. In moving toward a service economy he believed there would be an inevitable rebalancing of exchanges between what had once been the ‘educated’ and the ‘proles’ and stated the need for a new, consumer-focused contract – “Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive, they’re emotional, they’re affectional. You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.” (1)

The rise of service industries, the increasing spread of education and corresponding demise in the status of professionals convinced Toffler that the gap between producers (professionals) and consumers would increasingly be closed, leading to an emergence of “Prosumers” who would fulfill many of their own needs through ‘open source systems, assembly kits, freelance work’ and various other mechanisms. The current rhetoric around ‘localism’ and ‘open source planning’ is remarkable, given the fact that Toffler was discussing this 21 years ago.

In this fast shifting context we might want to ask how professional institutes are likely to fare. Are they destined to be the Guilds of tomorrow – representing archaic trades that were once the mainstay of European economies and yet, for all the good they quietly do, now feel irrelevant to you and me? Or will they be lightening rods for all forms of expert thinking, crucial to our understanding of pressing future challenges?

According to a 2006 summit on the ‘Future of Civil Engineering in 2025’ prepared
by the US ASCE Steering Committee, civil engineers will “serve as master builders, environmental stewards, innovators and integrators, managers of risk and uncertainty, and leaders in shaping public policy”. This sets out a powerful if slightly puffed up message; in fact, it might be our own. But then, what is ‘our’ message? How will our profession reach out to the wider world and its needs rather than potential clients alone, and what will it advise when market forces, environmental shifts and seismic changes in attitude leave us uncertain and unsure? Can we react quickly enough? Can our role responsively and rapidly evolve?

On the other hand – what is a profession that continually changes? What does it profess? Perhaps the central question is – what is our ultimate creed?

Education

Universities are moving inexorably toward industry / research clusters where ‘education’ is seen as a direct economic feeder rather than an academic and ‘removed’ environment. This is echoed in Vince Cable’s recent foreword to the September 2011 University Alliance publication ‘Growing the Future’ – “I want all our universities to look more closely at how they work with business: to promote better teaching, employer sponsorship and innovation”. In that publication a strong picture of our universities role as innovators and partners to industrial capital is presented.

Sir Patrick Stewart, Chancellor, University of Huddersfield, has observed this behavior, citing Jaguar / Land Rover’s location in Warwick, Boeing in Sheffield, Lloyd’s Register in Southampton and the BBC in Salford as all evincing strong examples of “businesses taking a hard, practical, profit or mission driven view of university knowledge and backing it to be a source of major competitive advantage”. Lancaster University’s recent purchase of the Work Foundation provides another example of collaborative development.

Turning to architectural education we may ask – who are our industry partners? Though some schools will have relationships with manufacturers, most do not. If we, as a profession, eschew direct associations with the ‘construction industry’ and instead want to be counted among the ranks of our growing ‘creative industries’ as the 2011 Building Futures publication ‘The Future for Architects?’ suggests – then the profession may already be more diffuse than thought and the parameters for industry partners may be considerably widened. Will universities change too? Will new, private sector ventures compete for a share of the education market? Will knowledge be a networked commodity rather than something provided on campus?

Whatever the future of private sector educational ventures it is clear that there are tough times ahead for traditional UK universities. In response to Government austerity measures affecting university funding, Russell Group director general Wendy Piatt warned in a letter to the Guardian: \”It has taken more than 800 years to create one of the world\’s greatest education systems and it looks like it will take just six months to bring it to its knees.”

For architecture courses which need workshops, dark rooms and 1 to 1 tutorial systems seldom required by other fields of study, required resource may lead to presumptions against accommodating the course, or of upping the tuition fees even further, especially where HEFC, industry or private sector research funds are scarce. Until a viable alternative emerges the pain will continue to be passed on to our students who are already reeling from the escalation in tuition fees. In the year that saw annual fees of up to £9,000 kick in, it is no surprise that applications for our profession declined significantly with a 20% slump for some schools of architecture.

Architecture takes a double hit through being a five-year courses alongside ‘medicine’ and ‘law’, while offering shaky economic prospects by comparison. This suggests that radical measures may have to be found if courses are to survive, especially in cities where living costs are already high. One such avenue might be a split between academic training and ‘learning on the job’, the latter a form of part time employment that could offer practical experience and some income.

Architecture

It seems that we need to consider, now more than ever, whether architecture is primarily a technocratic skill or, at least partly, a discipline of social care that goes well beyond bricks and mortar. As the built output of our profession impacts more on people, for more of their lives than the output of any other profession, shouldn’t \\\’people\\\’ be at the centre of our considerations? Yet, many architecture courses don\\\’t seem to spend too much time on this, or on social science, human geography or anthropology. In fact, since the post war \\\’divorce\\\’ of town planning from architecture, there seems to have been a diminished level of consideration for anything outside the physical dimension of architecture. The question seems to be, is architecture here to serve itself or the people who will use, live in, work at, pass through and in any other way experience the building and the impacts it has on everything from lighting levels to the local economy?

If it’s ‘people’ then architecture magazines of the future would not only be saturated with images of buildings but of accounts of the way in which they are implemented and occupied and of their contribution to enhanced land values, safety levels, communal activity, decreased pollution, local jobs and better skills. This would help the profession to be seen in a different light and the fruits of its efforts more widely and deeply appreciated. It is interesting that many of the students who took part in the Building Futures research for “The Future for Architects?“ publication said that they had chosen to go into the built environment professions with a social agenda and that the architecture profession brought a ‘social science’ aspect to the building process that engineers often lacked.

Yet, is there room within the prescribed RIBA accredited course for these considerations? Would we have to swap nuts and bolts for psychometric charts and social science modules?

At London Metropolitan University (LMU), where I taught for many years, only two of the current array of eleven courses clustered around architecture and design are RIBA accredited courses. The others pursue varied and emerging agendas such as ‘digital design’, the ‘architecture (of) rapid change and scarce resources’, ‘energy and sustainability’, integrated ‘renewable energies’ and the multi-disciplinary course I helped set up about ten years ago; the MA ‘cities, design and urban cultures’ course.

For me, this is quite telling. It suggests that real discussions, those most relevant to contemporary conditions, are somehow exiled from the professional course on architecture, though of-course, architecture students are encouraged to dip into these rich fields.

Prof. Robert Mull, Dean of LMU’s faculty of Architecture and Spatial Design and the person directly responsible for the rich education on offer there says, of the new wave of students who are grappling directly with localist agendas and slim resources “If education and the profession can match the clarity and compassion of students and reform themselves then in time there is the promise of a more relevant profession willing to act collectively, to engage with compromised realities and humble building types.”

So – let BIM become the province of engineers, and architecture the new home of the ‘emotional’ and the ‘affectional’. As Toffler said ‘You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.’

In conclusion

If the RIBA can find a way to represent a broad creative body in a stimulating but friendly manner while breaking free of a singular definition of architectural practice; if our universities can find ways to make education pay for itself through research, live projects and paid, practical skilling and if our profession and its architects can evolve to match their social duties better, then the future’s bright! ……. If

(1) Alvin Toffler interviewed by Norman Swann, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National, “Life Matters,” 5 March 1998.

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Steve McAdam is a founder and director of Fluid and has led major urban regeneration projects in both the public and private sectors in London and across the UK. In 2003 he was appointed to the London Olympic masterplanning team by the London Development Agency to direct all aspects of stakeholder consultation, public sector engagement and responsive masterplanning. Prior to this he project-led the public consultation programme for Argent’s Kings Cross Central project, for which Fluid received a CABE award for innovation. Steve is a consultant to the Council of Europe, and a visiting lecturer at London Metropolitan University.