An incredibly diverse range of architects, urbanists and designers have benefitted from their time at the school, writes Eleanor Jolliffe
Will Alsop, Bob Allies, Simone Shu-Yeng Chung, Selina Mason, Tim Bell, Adam Nathaniel Furman and Carolyn Steel. This group of architects and the architecturally adjacent demonstrate some of the almost startling diversity of British architectural practice over recent decades.
Will Alsop was a Stirling Prize winning modernist with a penchant for controversial colour; Bob Allies is the co-founder of one of the UK’s largest architectural and urban design practices; Simone Chung is an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore and curator of that country’s pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021; Selina Mason, the director of masterplanning at Lendlease and former deputy head of design at the Olympic Delivery Authority.
Tim Bell is the co-founder of Bell Phillips, an award winning architectural practice known for its thoughtful design; Adam Nathaniel Furman an artist designer and author whose work plays with vibrant postmodernism; and Carolyn Steel is an author and architect who has produced multiple pioneering studies of the relationship between food production and consumption, and urban environments.
Though it may seem it, I have not listed these names entirely at random. This diverse selection of people all hold one experience in common. All of them have, over the last thirty odd years, held awards at The British School at Rome (BSR).
I could have picked from any of around 180 greater and lesser known names, including my own, stretching back to the early 1910s. All of their CVs would have held a period of three months to two years (funding has diminished in the last couple of centuries) spent living, reading, drawing and thinking in the Lutyens designed building behind the Borghese Gardens on the edge of the historic centre of Rome.
All of them have sat at the long trestle tables of its dining room, eating meals with the esoteric and ever shifting collection of academics and artists who form the community of this interdisciplinary research centre. All of them have sat for hours in its extraordinary library.
To experience the BSR for the first time is truly special
All of them have strolled through the Borghese Gardens, and between the twin churches marking the edge of the Piazza del Popolo. Rome laid out at their feet.
It might be easy to assume that the BSR is a stuffy, outdated institution filled with crusty academics, defined by outdated codes of behaviour and a preoccupation with the classical orders. Such a place though would not easily have influenced the diversity of the list above.
A few weeks ago Bob Allies, new head of its Faculty of Architecture passed me a list of past architecture award holders. We had a vague plan to gather some experiences of some of their time there.
Over the last few weeks I have been speaking to some of these architectural alumni, some of the names listed above, and some not yet mentioned. These interviews will be written up and published here in the coming weeks.
The list, though, has fascinated me. The BSR award holders include some of the cornerstones of modern British architectural practice. It would seem not to be an irrelevant bastion of a past age but to hold a largely unsung position at the heart of British architecture.
The architectural awards are a period of sabbatical, a gift of time immersed in the transformative power of the city of Rome. An award for the individual perhaps, but when tracked across a career there is also a benefit for the whole British profession through the wider influence that many of these individuals have had.
The value to British architecture of encouraging cultural reflection such as this is likely to be priceless
The Faculty of Architecture has been newly reformed and two alumni – Tim Bell and Bob Allies – sit on its board. Having been there, they both know how precious time at the BSR is; and how difficult the experience is to communicate to those who haven’t visited. Both have an almost evangelical zeal for sharing the experience as widely as is plausible.
To this end they are launching what will be an annual architecture and urbanism summer school – to be led this year by RIBA Gold Medal winners Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey. It offers a glimpse of BSR life to its participants, and helps secure the future of the annual architectural award.
From the 18th to the 23rd of September a group of Part 2s and 3s from eleven UK practices will explore the wonders of Rome, and of the BSR’s archives; led by Sheila, John and the staff and fellows of the BSR; responding in a design exercise led by Sheila and John.
To experience the BSR for the first time is truly special, and having seen the itinerary, I find myself rather envious of all those going on this trip.
The successful practice of Architecture draws on a broad knowledge of diverse discourses, cultures, and types of space. Rome and the BSR is not the answer to this – but the experiences the BSR offers are almost globally unique for architects; and I would argue uniquely transformative for the individual.
The value to British architecture of encouraging cultural reflection such as this is likely to be priceless.
Practices sending students to the inaugural summer school:
- Adam Architecture
- Jeremy Blake Architects
- Reiach and Hall Architects
- Stiff Trevillion
- Sheppard Robson
- Maccreanor Lavington
- Witherford Watson Mann
- Eric Parry Associates
- Alison Brooks Architects
Practices interested in participating in next year’s Summer School should contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
Eleanor Jolliffe is a practicing architect and co-author of Architect: The evolving story of a profession