Architectural training too often leaves students beholden to misguided beliefs and ill-equipped for the workplace. It’s time for change, writes Satish Jassal

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If I am honest, I would likely not have pursued architecture in today’s climate. The escalating student debt, often soaring into the tens of thousands, would have made it an impractical choice for me. As much as I always wanted to be an architect, the financial burden, the duration of the courses, and the frequent lack of essential skills and knowledge upon graduation make it a daunting path.

The cost-benefit analysis of enrolling in an architecture course and stepping into this both privileged and deeply challenging profession makes no sense. I remain sceptical whether the proposed changes by the Architects Registration Board (ARB) would make the field more accessible to students with diversity of background and thought.

I believe that many of the challenges we face as a profession stem from the prevailing culture of the genius ‘starchitect’. This myth paints architects as omnipotent, omniscient beings producing intellectually superior work.

Students at architecture school, desperate for good marks, are sometimes gaslit into adopting this way of working, and accepting certain behaviours as a necessary by-product of the starchitect culture. Consequently, some tutors (though not all) strive to emulate these characteristics, aspiring to become starchitects themselves.

This culture is underscored by tales of students pulling all-nighters, undertaking unpaid internships, submitting to tutors’ ego-driven design solutions and uncompromising attitudes, and exploitation at every level. Did this starchitect culture originate in practice or was it generated in architecture schools by tutors?

The students were expected to sleep in a barn together in near-freezing conditions

During my Part 2 studies, I was invited by two tutors to spend the summer in France, converting their old barn into a summer house. They suggested I could “toil in the countryside and work for my bread”. I found this proposition amusing, assuming it was a joke.

Future of the Profession

I had to work a summer job to fund my architecture course, so even if I had wanted to, I could not have accepted their offer. However, four of the other studio students did travel to France and built the tutors’ holiday home in exchange for bread - the edible kind, not the kind that pays for tuition fees.

Another tutor, who also ran his own practice, would set studio competitions based on his private projects, effectively using the entire studio to analyse his live sites, construct site models, and create design concepts for his real-time clients. I hear through the grapevine that even today this practice remains common and tolerated by schools of architecture to keep these architects teaching in the schools.

A colleague recently shared a distressing story about a tutor who arranged for his entire studio to physically build a shelter he had designed in the countryside. The students were expected to sleep in a barn together in near-freezing conditions during its construction.

My colleague, a type one diabetic, found that her glucose sensor would not function in such low temperatures. Despite her health concerns, the tutor was dismissive, prioritising his folly over the wellbeing of his students. “Maybe you could warm the sensor up by the kettle?” he told her.

I question the sustainability and necessity of UK architecture students travelling to South America for a studio project

A student I was mentoring shared that their tutor had organised a studio project in South America, in close proximity to several buildings by the tutor’s favourite architect. The project necessitated a visit to the location, a prospect that excited my mentee, although the financial implications were daunting for someone of their background.

The mentee sought my advice on potential sponsors for the trip. I was unnerved by the predicament they found themselves in.

I question the sustainability and necessity of UK architecture students travelling to South America for a studio project. Could it be that the tutor was merely using this as a pretext to visit their preferred architectural sites and overlooking the financial pressure this placed on the students?

I have employed students who, despite their intelligence and high academic achievements, lack basic architectural skills after five years of higher education, including being able to draw plans, sections and elevations. They are adept at creating computer models and images, but this is only a small part of an architect’s work.

I once met a tutor at an event who suggested I needed students who could “sell my ideas through computer images”. I responded, “I needed students who could compile a planning application without constant supervision.”

After five years of study, architecture students should at least understand why a planning application is necessary, as it is a fundamental part of most architects’ work.

Let us break the cycle and promote a more collaborative and empathetic way forward

The current state of architectural education is concerning, with basic competency often overlooked and the system exploited by a small number of self-interested tutors. Architecture students are being let down. Perhaps an apprenticeship route would be a more effective way forward for the profession.

While I don’t necessarily endorse ARB’s proposed reforms, I do believe that the culture in some architecture schools needs to change. The detrimental behaviours perpetuated by the mythical starchitect model needs to be eradicated. This cyclical culture, preserved by some who prioritise their own agendas over the needs of others, undermines the efforts of dedicated tutors who genuinely care about their students.

I realise it would be unfair of me to tar all schools of architecture and tutors with the same brush. There are commendable architecture schools and tutors that engage students positively and teach ways of engaging with the communities they impact upon, rather than focusing on single iconic buildings.

I also understand that higher education is becoming a more and more difficult environment to work in, as demonstrated by strike action in the last few years. The resources that schools of architecture have are being squeezed, competition between schools is higher and time spent with the students is reducing, almost reflecting the pressures of working in practice. Is there another way?

The UK boasts some of the world’s finest architecture schools and expert tutors, as demonstrated by the quality of the buildings showcased at the RIBA awards each year and this should be applauded.

Not all of us will become starchitects, so let us not promote this culture as the only path to excellence in architectural education. Let us break the cycle and promote a more collaborative and empathetic way forward.

>> Also read: Tomorrow’s architect today: Why we need to proactively reach out to young people and open up new routes to qualifying