Architects need to embrace lifelong learning, research and interdisciplinarity, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

I was part of a panel discussion recently titled ‘The Architect: creative genius or master builder’. At the end of an interesting discussion, and following several questions that circled back to education a Part 1 student asked what the one thing we would change about architectural education was. I don’t think I gave her a full answer, but the query keeps circling back in my mind.

It’s something that kept coming up during the writing of my book as well – everything has been tried before, and there will never be a ‘right’ answer that will last for centuries. Education must adapt, as construction and the profession does. Perhaps now is the time for real change. Were I to be able to wave a magic wand therefore, this is what I might change.

Lifelong learning

We need educational reform, not the one the ARB has planned, but reform. Firstly students at university are being mis-sold a career based on worship of the concept and the glory of the individual. If universities cannot effectively mark group work (as I have been told), perhaps they should be less involved in the education of our profession.

Lifelong learning also needs to be a key part of reform. Product advertisements masquerading as CPD won’t safeguard our knowledge and skills, and the RIBA’s CPDs (based on the ones I’ve attended over the last couple of years) aren’t quite good enough yet either. To date however, I see limited evidence that the profession in its broadest sense is willing or able to engage with high quality research, ongoing learning, or R&D in a serious way.

If we believe in lifelong learning, and believe the title of ‘architect’ is worth protecting, we need to be more intentional about maintaining the skills of the profession, and about removing those from the register who cannot or will not maintain the standards that are being protected.

Relationship between practice and academia

Future of the Profession

Cross over between practice and academia should be more than practitioners teaching studio units. More diverse routes into the profession should be encouraged, but this will require practices to engage with apprentices and students, and this takes time. In the past, apprentices paid fees to practices to allow for this teaching time. It was not well policed, leading to significant corruption (as satirised in Martin Chuzzlewit), but well regulated this could bridge much of the gap between practice and academia.

Additionally the cross over between academia and practice should continue as part of a career. Trying to live to my own principles I am currently trying to start a part time research project. It is an uphill battle, despite enthusiasm from academics and the practice I work for.

The university systems I am coming up against are not designed for practitioners to engage in postgraduate research without jumping through academic career hoops I do not have time for. In a practical discipline such as architecture though this research and practice interchange should be easier - more like engineering.

Interdisciplinarity, and the danger of subcontracting

I disagree with the outcomes of the 1958 Oxford conference on architectural education (the three part system). However, their original intent - for a broad building industry degree, taken by planners, architects and engineers; followed by a specific post grad seems like a sensible idea to me.

My Part 1 course gave me the academic qualifications I would need to practise as an MEP engineer. I cannot understate how useful this has been to my life in practice as an architect. An education system that fostered greater cross disciplinary understanding could only be useful in a profession as collaborative as ours.

Architectural practice is narrower in scope now than it has been at almost any point in history. For various, often good, reasons so many aspects of the original role have been subcontracted out that architecture is barely recognisable from the profession it used to be.

While I would not suggest structural engineering was folded back into architectural practice, areas such as planning, the Principal Designer role and greater engagement with detailing could, arguably should, come back ‘in-house’.

In the same vein I believe a mistake was made when Architectural Technicians were split away as a separate discipline in the late 1950s. Architects and Architectural Technologists are one and the same. In my mind both are equally valid ways to practise architecture - and should, broadly speaking, not be skillsets split between two different people.

How can someone design a building with a limited understanding of how it will be built? Losing control of the construction of a project is where the quality of the design is often lost.

In much of the above there runs a common theme- that architects should re-embrace the ‘boring’ bits. The bits that require a bit more rigour, a bit more engagement with the mechanics of construction. I am not alone in this thinking though. Some universities already offer apprenticeships; The London School of Architecture is doing what it can within the current framework; Public Practice is slowly re-engaging architects with planning departments; and the Hackitt Review pushed for architects to become the holders of the ‘golden thread’.

However, there are a lot of established interests at play. My thoughts above would significantly reduce the influence of universities, and eventually lead to the elimination of planning and architectural technology as entirely separate disciplines… so I imagine many of my thoughts, and these small emerging trials of greater interdisciplinarity will remain largely on the fringe. I may be wrong though, stranger things have happened in history.

>> Also read: Can ARB’s reforms help architecture rebuild its reputation for technical expertise and leadership?