Thursday03 September 2015

What have robots got to do with architecture?

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A RIBA Silver Medal-winning film has refired debate about the award’s agenda

This year’s RIBA Silver Medal has once again raised the curtain on the annual pantomime of debate between the profession and academia, prompting accusations that the prize no longer rewards the discipline of architecture.

Following in the footsteps of crying coastal defence systems, biomimetic power plants and dreamy perceptual observatories, Bartlett student Kibwe Tavares’s Robots of Brixton has provoked a torrent of outraged comment on bdonline that this is “not architecture”.

Set in a dystopian “augmented Brixton,” the project uses robots as a metaphor for a subjugated class of migrant labourers, designed to carry out the tasks that humans are no longer inclined to do. An animated film follows the lives of young robots surviving at the sharp end of inner city life, battling police and smashing shop windows in scenes based on footage of the 1981 Brixton riots. But many bdonline readers were unconvinced.

“There are people out there doing much better robo-sci-flimflam which this should be judged against; not architecture,” commented one. “While we’re at it, let’s give a country music award to a particle physicist,” chimed another.

Tavares: does his Robots of Brixton merit a RIBA award?

Tavares: does his Robots of Brixton merit a RIBA award?

All in the presentation

The controversy follows recurring criticism in recent years that the President’s Medals reward presentation skills over architectural ability, and encourage projects that have a tenuous grip on reality.

“There are no problems identified in these projects, and there is no architectural imagination or problem-solving on display,” said Patrick Lynch, director of Lynch Architects. “The RIBA appears to select design judges who can be trusted to promote the oxymoron of technology-driven creative freedom. Architecture is reduced to drawing and drawings [are] invariably reduced to digital rendering.”

But other academics have been quick to defend the winning projects, arguing that students ignore embracing these communication techniques at their peril.

“These skills are absolutely fundamental to architects being able to get their ambitions across to the public,” said Neil Spiller, dean of architecture at the University of Greenwich. “Digital animation is undoubtedly a tool that most architects of the future will need.”

Skill, style or substance

Alison Brooks, a member of the judging panel for this year’s President’s Medals, was clearly wowed: “The level of technical skill and digital artistry being used by these students to describe not only components and strategies but also architectural qualities and atmospheres is outstretching even the most exquisite watercolours of the Beaux-Arts school,” she said.

Like many students from the Bartlett’s Unit 15, Tavares has gone on to work in animation, setting up his own studio, Factory Fifteen, which already counts Samsung and European Land amongst its clients, with Film4 and the BFI funding its next short film.

But the question remains over the RIBA judges’ priorities. Jeremy Till, dean of architecture at the University of Westminster — which has produced five out of the last 10 years’ Silver Medal winners — was impressed by the winning students’ technical abilities but expressed surprise at nature of their subjects.

“It is a strange sign of the times that, when the profession is faced with absolute meltdown, student design projects retreat into dystopias,” he said. “Whereas the dissertations are tackling the now serious realities of our times. I think that’s the wrong way around.”

Past Winners

Jonathan Schofield, University of Westminster
Creative Evolution

Silvertown Ship Breaking Yard by Jonathan Schofield

Schofield’s Silvertown Ship Breaking Yard project envisaged a new ship yard for the Royal Docks, in which retired vessels could be dismantled, their parts reassembled in a “ludic chamber” as new forms of experimental architecture.

Nicholas Szczepaniak, University of Westminster
A Defensive Architecture

Nicholas Szczepaniak, A Defensive Architecture

This project proposed a set of militarized coastal defense towers in the Thames Estuary that would bristle, creak and groan to warn of potential environmental disasters.

James Tait, University of Strathclyde
Time and Tide for Seaweed

Time and Tide for Seaweed

This project proposed a seaweed cultivation farm, floating restaurant and baths off the coast of Scotland, harvesting the plants to be used for fuel production, fertilizer and cosmetics.
Tait is now a Project Architect at John McAslan + Partners.

Steve Westcott, University College London
Greenwich Perceptual Observatory

Greenwich Perceptual Observatory by Steve Westcott

This project explored a reformulation of the Greenwich Observatory, inspired by the principles of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau and investigations generated from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.


Readers' comments (27)

  • Much as it pains me to say it, Lynch-mob is right. There are real and sizable questions in architecture, and none of the work getting recognised in the president's medals is addressing them.

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  • I think that the key question at the heart of this debate between practice and academia is not 'what is architecture' but 'what is an architect?'.

    As a practicing architect I have no issues with this sort of thoughtful and high quality experimentation, I am also sure that these graduates are very imployable in one way or another, and I have enjoyed many Bartlett / Westminster exhibitions in the past. However I strongly feel that courses that produce this type of work should be renamed 'Architectural Experimentaiton' or 'Architectural Animation' and crucially should not lead to RIBA accrediation or become one of the key elements for qualifying as a fully fledged, practicing architect.

    There is a simple question that needs to be addressed: How can someone who has not designed a single building in their their entire final (and most important) year be sanctioned to practice building design and delivery in the real world afterwards?

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  • flow

    I've been saying this for ages. Good to see other people beginning to twig, willing to speak up and tell the truth - that the Emperor parading in front of us is indeed butt-naked.

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  • @rod hull: Because those people will have designed plenty of other buildings prior to that year (and have worked in practice on real buildings):

    It's not at all clear to me why not designing a building in 5th year would suddenly magically disqualify an individual from architecture (which is logically identical to your proposition). By the time you get to 5th year, you would usually expect to have at least four student building projects under your belt (plus however many mini projects), numerous technical reports (including at the bartlett your RIBA accredited report (AFAIK), along with whatever practice based building experience you picked up during your 1+ year out.

    'what is an architect?' - this isn't a key question, it's meaning, in practice, has never really changed since it's inception.

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  • @meh +: So why is Bartlett Part 1 work of the same ilk as Bartlett Part II?

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  • The BD really has dumbed down over the last few years.

    1. Giving this robots project more air time than it deserves. Nothing has been DESIGNED. Thats why it's not architecture. Should we give an award to Pixar because they RECREATED Play Skool toys? What about the company that made Halo - at least there are characters, buldings that have been designed. There is a vision.

    2. When people start quoting Ice Cube on BD, it really is time for me to stop reading this website. The man is a notorious racist and made a lot of money from making songs about shooting white and Asian people with machine guns. Cave Bitch being a particular favourite of mine.

    ...profession is dying guys. Gotta start digging up now.

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  • i2hellfire

    i particularly liked the comment, "There are people out there doing much better robo-sci-flimflam which this should be judged against; not architecture..."

    judged against architects, and based on technical quality, sure the movie was quite impressive. but it didn't address anything having to do with architecture, which is what i'm assuming the other entrants were doing, in decidedly less polished sci-fi mannerisms. judged against other fx shorts of this nature? sorry, doesn't hold up. for example, k3loid by big lazy robot (just because i happen to know one of them). a bit of a lopsided comparison i know, given that they have infinitely more experience. but they're coincidentally also former architects, but never sought recognition amongst architectural awards. http://vimeo.com/33030265

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  • Rod, thank-you for your question which probably succinctly defines this debate. I think an element which is often forgotten in the arguments over the value/method of architectural education - perhaps by both the critics and the students - is that the Part II programme demands a research from the students, including design research.

    The future of Architecture (both as product and profession) is dependent upon engagement with and social, cultural, political, technical and economic realities, and these architectural issues are broader than construction alone. If a design research project addresses these areas then I think it is valid. Often the direct connection between the research and the realities of material practice aren't immediately tangible however this doesn't mean the work doesn't have value and doesn't address issues pertinent to contemporary architectural practice.

    As you identify, the practice of architecture is intrinsically connected with the act of building - however, I think it is important to recognise that architectural education and practice requires an engagement with our world. If students wish to use their design research to gain an understanding of the world or make a critique of it then that's OK in my book; an awareness of the world around them will only strengthen their practice as architects and prevent it defaulting into autonomous questions of form.

    We can have a very specific debate about the merits of Tavares’ project but I think the arguments here are much richer for addressing broader issues of the relationship between architectural education and practice. The key question for me is not just in the validity of the way design research is presented (the medium), but as Patrick Lynch and Jeremy Till identify, the value of the research itself (the message). The debates are obviously connected, but I think identifying a single medium for research as the only appropriate one for exploring a whole range of issues relevant to contemporary architectural practice is problematic.

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  • ti's just a showreel for factory fifteen.

    RIBA have been mugged.

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  • Reading his statement on the president's medal website, he talks of 3 design strands. 1) Urbanism and Master-planning, 2) film design and 3) Robot design. What I would have liked to have seen from an architectural context was an avenue in which we could disseminate his decisions on the urban design and masterplanning of this dystopian allegory. Exceptionally talented piece of work nonetheless.

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