The head of the London School of Architecture believes we need to reimagine the whole education edifice. Here he talks to Ben Flatman about his own influences and why architecture needs to embrace a more flexible and diverse approach to training
Architectural education is at a point of transition. Events are driving increasingly radical and urgent change. The climate crisis has exposed the architectural profession and wider construction industry to accusations of complacency; Grenfell left many questioning the basic competency of some architects; and there is a growing realisation that the established RIBA tripartite system is too rigid, detached from practice, and prohibitively expensive.
The London School of Architecture (LSA), which took its first students in 2015, was established specifically to address many of the perceived failings of the current architectural establishment. It runs a postgraduate RIBA Part 2 programme, with students spending most of their first year working in an architect’s office.
Salaries help balance out the cost of tuition fees. And rather than focusing on far-flung field trips, the LSA’s programme is very explicitly driven by direct engagement with the city in which it is based - London is the focus and generator of much of the students’ work.
The LSA is about to launch its new strategy document. It’s a process that has been led by Neal Shasore, Head of School since June 2021. I meet Shasore just as the 2021-22 academic year is ending. He is in an expansive mood, keen to share his vision not just for the LSA, but on the wider direction of vocational and professional education.
A key element of the new strategy is a laser like focus on competency. “We want to talk about Grenfell,” he tells me. “The only serious way to memorialise this tragedy is in a progressive way”. The LSA’s response is a complete rethink about how architects are trained and maintain their professional competence.
Oxford stands out amongst the world’s top ranked universities in not having a school of architecture
He is not the typical head of an architecture school, having originally studied art history at undergraduate level at Oxford. At the time Shasore joined the university, the course was only recently established.
Although “not particularly desperate to go to Oxford”, it was there that Shasore explored his interest in non-western traditions in art and became increasingly focused on design and architecture. This led to a PhD on the English architecture of the 1920s and 30s, with a focus on its public purpose.
Oxford stands out amongst the world’s top ranked universities in not having a school of architecture. Architectural history has traditionally only been taught as a niche “special subject” on the English baroque, a course established by the late Howard Colvin within the wider history faculty. Art history has therefore provided a much-needed opening into architectural and design history within the university.
Shasore tells me that having had the confidence in his own design skills knocked at school, academia was in some ways simply a displacement activity. “Art history and thinking about architecture is all born out of a frustration of thinking I can’t do it for myself” he says. “Essentially I’m a frustrated architect.”
But throughout his time at Oxford, he was increasingly drawn to thinking about the application of theory in the world of actual architectural practice. Having temporarily run out of funding for his PhD, and keen to gain experience outside academia, Shasore took a job as practice projects co-ordinator at RIBA. “Something clicked” he tells me. “It enabled me to start really thinking about practice and professionalism”.
“The students were lovely, brave and with an intense focus on London”
He went on to develop these intertwined preoccupations as a research associate at the University of Westminster, looking into ”Public Space and the Role of the Architect”. Later, he undertook further research at the University of Liverpool as part of a project titled ”Civic Centre: Architecture, Civic Design and the Municipal Project in Britain, 1919 – 1979”.
Having been introduced to the LSA by Alan Powers, who was leading the architectural history unit, Shasore began teaching there. “It was the best fun I’d had,” he says. “The students were lovely, brave and with an intense focus on London.”
Shasore has perhaps given more thought and consideration to the history of architectural practice than most architectural academics. “I feel I have been working in intersectional praxis” he tells me. “What’s the point of being a historian if you’re not mobilising your knowledge to interpret the present?”.
Coming from outside the architectural education mainstream has enabled Shasore to bring much needed fresh thinking. I remember attending a Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture (SCHOSA) meeting as a student observer in the early 2000s and my questions around educational reform and student costs being met with blank stares by the heads of schools.
Shasore sees the need for reform, but also brings strategic vision and ambition that is hard to imagine in most mainstream schools. “Whenever I go to other institutions, I am reminded that we are different. We have a dogged commitment to what practice is. Our agility and leanness makes us demonstrably different.”
“I didn’t really want to go to Oxford. I spent eight years there and when I went back to teach, I didn’t like it”
Attention to the underlying requirements of professional practice runs through the new strategy, reflecting Shasore’s own preoccupation with the history and on-going evolution of how architects work.
Shasore’s appointment at the LSA seems to have come at the perfect time for both him and the school. “I didn’t really want to go to Oxford. I spent eight years there and when I went back to teach, I didn’t like it. I find this place much more stimulating and relevant to the world.”
Although not keen on being labelled an academic, Shasore draws deeply from his research background to contextualise both the objectives of the LSA, and the wider issues of architectural practice. His thinking is clearly informed by a historical understanding of how the profession has evolved, and how underlying themes around competence and the role of education repeatedly return to the forefront of professional discourse.
For many commentators looking back today, the 1958 Oxford Conference on architectural education is the origin of much that has gone wrong with the profession. It marks the point when the direct link between education and practice was deliberately severed. “Architecture has this weakly professionalised status,” says Shasore, arguing that 1958 was a typically 1950s “technocratic” response to an underlying “older angst” about architectural professionalism and “what we say we can do.”
He also references Ruskin and Lethaby and what he sees as their “counterhistory” of architectural discourse around professionalism. “If you read a lot of that stuff now it sounds pretty fresh for a world facing eco collapse,” he says.
“The school was set up to bridge the gap between academia and practice”
Shasore wants to break architectural education out of the narrow shackles imposed since 1958 and position the LSA within wider discussions about the future of construction and training. “If we were to have the equivalent of the 1958 conference now, it would have to be about all the intersections of different forms of practice,” he says.
With the new strategy underpinning its next stage of development, Shasore is keen to be leading the rapidly evolving debate around the future of the profession. “The school was set up to bridge the gap between academia and practice. The LSA is a relevant, practice-oriented institution”.
The focus going forward is increasingly on the need for school-level engagement with architecture. GCSE level design courses have seen a precipitous fall in recent years, and Shasore shares the view of many that creating a more diverse profession requires that children are exposed to the built environment at a much earlier age. “We want LSA to be at the vanguard of those changes” says Shasore.
He defines this element of the LSA’s future programme as “Part 0”, underlining that is sits outside the RIBA’s traditional Parts 1, 2 and 3 system. The intention is that Part 0 will form the basis for a future cross-industry pre-university level qualification. “There are lots of great programmes out there but they’re not getting at the core of the issue”. The “opportunities are enormous” he notes.
At the other end of the educational ladder, the LSA is seeking to build a market in the life-long and digital learning spaces - what Shasore defines as “Part 4”. “We want to be leaders in blended education, with ed tech” he says.
“It’s incredibly expensive to deliver education”
Initially this will involve two pilot courses. The first will be on life and fire safety, while the second is aimed at small and emerging businesses. The latter course will be about helping practices “find interesting projects outside London”. Shasore describes it as focusing on “business development through heritage and conservation and retrofit”, before adding, “we are all conservation architects now.”
Shasore also talks about growing LSA to provide courses that will have relevance across the wider construction industry, and not just for those seeking to become architects. “The government post Augar [a 2019 report on the future of higher education] is putting emphasis on level 4 and level 5 qualifications,” he notes.
These initiatives also chime well with ARB’s recent announcement that all architects will need to undertake compulsory CPD from 2024. The need to stay up to date and maintain competence throughout a long career is likely to become a key priority for the profession in the coming years.
Shasore’s vision marries a clear pedagogical approach with a keen awareness of the need to keep this small independent institution on a sound financial footing. “It’s incredibly expensive to deliver education. LSA is all about how to reduce your overheads and put your expenditure into teaching,” he tells me.
New courses and online learning offerings are intended to build revenue. He also talks about wanting to become an incubator and mentor to a range of new enterprises in the built environment sector.
“We are a network of practices”
“We’re still very very new,” he tells me. “It would be wrong if LSA now emerged as a traditional school teaching Parts 1, 2 and 3.” The commitment to challenging the status quo aligns with wider post-Brexit changes that are now occurring.
The disappearance of the EU’s professional qualifications directive means that ARB is now able to explore new diverse routes into the profession, such as a mid-career conversion courses, for those with a non-architectural undergraduate degree. “ARB has indicated that there’s a general openness to alternative routes into architecture and the rise of apprenticeships has changed the dynamic,” says Shasore.
Ultimately everything comes back to London. “The city as campus is an Oxford ideal,” says Shasore, before stating that the LSA is “unabashedly about London”. And underpinning the school’s London-centric ethos are the two hundred architectural practices that it works with. “We are a network of practices”, says Shasore.
“LSA is a critique as much as an institution. This is why LSA’s new strategy reflects what is happening more broadly in education and training,” he says. The critique Shasore is developing is detailed and rooted in a profound interest in the history of practice. But the analysis is underpinned by a keen belief in the power of education and the social role of architecture. The LSA is “not just about getting students on the conveyor belt,” says Shasore. “It’s about what we need – for our community and our planet.”