How should architecture be taught in the 21st century? asks Daisy Froud

As we all get ready to go back to school after the summer holidays, and with the launch of the new London School of Architecture happening at the end of this month, architectural education will be back in the headlines. Co-editing a book on UK architectural education recently, I was struck by how often the phrase ‘the real world’ cropped up during conversations with contributors. Opinions varied regarding this pragmatic realm’s specifications. For some, it’s a commercially minded place where ‘oven-ready’ grads pump out well-resolved CAD. For others, it’s a complex messy universe where ‘communities’, planners and other constraints ambush young creators as they emerge from academia’s protective bubble. Whatever, practitioners, clients and students alike expressed concern that education is out of touch with it. A recent 2015 RIBA poll in the Architects’ Journal reinforces this.

Daisy-Froud-Open Crits, Architecture Year 3 and Year 5 held in Room GO2, Bartlett School of Architecture,140, Hampstead Road by ©Stonehouse Photographic

Year 5 MArch Architecture Unit 12 student Helena Howard presents her work at the 2015 Open Crits at The Bartlett School of Architecture UCL ©Stonehouse Photographic

Intrigued, I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask senior figures at the world’s top two architecture schools (according to the QS World University Rankings) whether they felt that this concept of the ‘real world’ preoccupied their respective institutions and/or influenced their own approach to education. I spoke to Alan Penn, Dean of The Bartlett and to Carlo Ratti, Founding Director of MIT’s esteemed SENSEable City Lab. Both originally trained as architects.

Initial responses suggested divergence. “I prefer not to focus on the ‘real world,” declared Ratti. ‘Do not think about how the world is, but how it COULD be.” Penn appeared to feel differently, articulating the purpose of all education, including architectural, as that of preparing students to fulfill their individual potential and to make a useful contribution to the society around them. Something that humans, as social animals, he believes, inherently desire to do.

Daisy-Froud-Alan Penn discusses student work at Open Crits, Architecture Year 3 and Year 5 held in Room GO2, Bartlett School of Architecture,140, Hampstead Road by ©Stonehouse Photographic

Professor Alan Penn discusses Samuel Coulton’s BSc Architecture student work at the Open Crits ©Stonehouse Photographic

Digging deeper however, common ground appeared. Outlined below is some shared territory that could provide possible guiding principles for a twenty-first-century architectural education.

1. There are many ways to be – and to become – an architect. What an architect is, and can usefully do, is never fixed, just as societies and environments evolve. Penn was clear that education’s purpose is not to craft a particular idea of ‘architect’, with a defined set of instantly deployable knowledges and techniques. It is to provide an “open and exploratory space” where students can test different methods and approaches as they work out a “personal position” and determine the role that they wish to play in the world. Ratti too emphasised experimentation: the role of the architect is changing to involve more collaboration with other disciplines, and – importantly – with citizens. He calls this “the choral architect”, someone who focuses on enabling rather then defining. Educational practice must surely therefore also evolve.

2. Research is key. Ratti believes that “labs are now crucial to architecture”. They provide space for students to speculate, and then to articulate and test new possibilities for beneficial change. He compares the designer to a biological agent that produces mutations. Some artifact-mutations inevitably fail, while others capture the imagination of fellow citizens and thrive. While Penn explains how in recent years Bartlett educators have focused more on understanding and articulating design as a process of research, and in enabling students to do similarly. The idea is that they become conscious of the way in which both intuitive and ‘rational’ thinking inform evolving designs, and develop the skills to self-critically ‘flip’ between these as required. Media – drawings and models – are essential tools to support them in this.

3. It’s really not about ‘problem-solving’. While this Modernist concept endures in architectural circles , both interviewees were adamant that it is not a useful focus. Ratti was again explicit: “The greatest inventions of humanity were not addressing particular issues – they were dealing with human dreams. Think about the Internet, and how it changed our lives!” Penn, while not overtly against meeting identified social needs, stressed that good architecture – unlike some other forms of design – cannot be ‘goal directed’, because the goal is inevitably unclear at the outset, in any other than very general terms. It only emerges through a process of ‘problem-finding’ – a specific aspect of ‘design research’ that education can nurture.

4. Digital technology is not optional. This is not due to some techno-fetishist love for shiny bloodless things, but to an acknowledgement that the presence of digital tech within our everyday environments, and as structuring devices for our personal and social practices, is now inescapable. It is therefore essential that students develop understanding of the way in which these technologies permeate life, and shape experiences of space, and that they feel confident in using them as tools and materials. “No digital, no architecture”, says Ratti, adding that in future decades ‘digital’ may be replaced by ‘bio’ or ‘nano’.

Ultimately, as someone who works every day with urban communities on messy political stuff, I feel relief that both interviewees do, in fact – according to my definition – place great emphasis on the Real World i.e. on the relationship between ‘real’ human beings and the practice of architecture. Ratti stresses that the rationale of the SENSEable city is not to develop technology that invisibly controls city life, but to generate artifacts that empower citizens, enabling participative city-shaping. While Penn, aware that in recent decades the idea of architecture having an explicit ‘social responsibility’ has declined, has recently initiated an ‘Ethics in Built Environment’ project at The Bartlett.

I guess the next question might be, if we care as educators about these relationships, then how might we bring more of the Real World into architectural education? And address the lack of representative diversity, in terms of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, among student cohorts, and thus in architectural practice itself? But that’s a question for another blog post.

Daisy Froud is a strategist who designs tools and processes to enable better communication and co-production between architects and non-professionals, and the co-editor (with Dr. Harriet Harriss) of Radical Pedagogies: Architectural Education and the British Tradition (RIBA, 2015). A former founding partner of architecture practice AOC, she is a Teaching Fellow at The Bartlett School of Architecture, specialising in the history and theory of spatial politics and participatory design.