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Introducing the Inter-Practice Year

DEBORAH SAUNT

The Design Think Tank Unstable City – led by Paolo Vimercati and Petra Havelska – is looking at how to intensify Rotherhithe
The Design Think Tank Unstable City – led by Paolo Vimercati and Petra Havelska – is looking at how to intensify Rotherhithe. All five Design Think Tanks will present their work at a public event at the Design Museum on Thursday 16 June

What is it going to be like to make architecture in the 21st century and beyond? What roles will the architect embrace? And what type of architecture will result? The LSA seeks to be instrumental in tackling these issues and the Inter-Practice Year is where it begins.

From the outset we aim to reach into new territories to foster innovative design using relevant methodologies that might be surprising. And with each investigation, we aim to produce beautiful architecture that has cultural specificity and human conditions at its core. At the same time, we aim to encourage speculative and strategic provocations that reflect on the world and architecture’s place within it, arguing, for example, that changing technological and economic factors require a radical rethinking of what architecture is. This will be timely and challenging, and capable of attracting the attention from the world beyond the school.

And, crucially, we consider that the school’s spatial design output must be informed by dynamic debate and engagement with broader constituencies and interests, framing the LSA’s overall aim to redefine where architecture inserts itself into contemporary culture. Uniquely, our design-based research and ideas will be developed between the school and practice. We do not see these realms as oppositional or contradictory but part of an enriching exchange between thinking about, making and inhabiting architecture. Hence the first year is named Inter-Practice.

Firstly, our Practice Partners (who will host the students, and be the anchor points for design-based projects in the First Year as well as the tutors for the Second Year) have been chosen for their ambitions to move architecture forward, to ask great questions and to challenge the redundant duality of Theory versus Practice. They have demonstrated an open commitment to evolving this debate, and an ability to reflect on how their work is a result of combining the two, as well as embracing other issues in tandem. By being part of the LSA, they open themselves to academic scrutiny and peer review in a welcoming and generous manner, where we will be asking practices to fundamentally address the question: ‘how do you approach the task of design?’

As Kester Rattenbury said in her essay Here be Buildings (AR Education Issue, 2014), it is only in exceptional environments that practitioners will be ‘stepping back from the design and looking critically at what they do, articulating their particular way of working and analysing their tactics’.

The LSA is just such an exceptional environment: it embraces aspects of architecture and the city that challenge fixed preconceptions in order to evolve new points of view, confronting issues that might appear unpalatable or beyond the remit of the ‘traditional architect’. It is an educational model built on an active ethos that is less about being ‘taught’, and more about asking questions together, with inspirational people challenging each other and the over-arching hope that our students will be establishing their nascent practices within the Proto-Practice Year.

To that end, the Inter-Practice Year is the critical springing point from which to harness the dynamic dialogue between what are usually seen as oppositional conditions – the academy and the world of practice. We refute this adversarial argument of so-called polar opposites and seek to reconcile the more complex relationships at play when it comes to making architecture. Above all we will focus on the spatial implications of design.

Our curriculum is founded on an emerging point of view that in order to improve architecture we have to grapple with the question of how architecture is really made and, as Jeremy Till said in his RIBA paper What is Architectural Research?, we ‘have to find a way to improve communication of the tacit research that is carried out in practice’ and to make this evident. This is less to do with the theories of what the architecture means and more to do with understanding ‘what we do and how we do it, that is, rather the history or theory of what we’ve done’ (Kester Rattenbury). This must be part of a fluid exchange between ideas and actions that can happen anywhere and above all, must be fostered and must be expected to flourish within the formal educational process of studying architecture.

 

But how does this really work?
In the First Year, the Design Think Tank project offers the opportunity to test broad-reaching ideas-based research through design, in partnership with the practices. This type of research is not self-referential and specialised but outward-facing, hoping to have repercussions in terms of spatial consequence, informed by relationships and input from specialists, institutions, experts or communities. The topics should embody the characteristics we seek in our students – finding new areas of engagement for architecture and being unburdened by preconceived outcomes.

What might the topics be? From high density living to new forms of public space, evolving technologies to emerging typologies, recent government policies to scientific discoveries: the wealth of areas of interest can be as open as the students and practices want and should come from the ground up. The research need not be led by people with experience in the specific area, but rather by those with a thirst for rigorous enquiry that is open to critique. These studies will not be site specific but should have relevance across wider terrains, and should ask what architects can contribute to this process – can new types of spatial proposition be generated? What role is the architect likely to take and what territory can they claim?

Urban Studies will create a foundation for later design explorations that are firmly grounded in context. Supporting modules will delve into how organisations work in order to create architecture, using the Practice Network as a resource. Their experiences offer a full spectrum of alternative ways of working to demonstrate that successful practices are united in their detailed understanding of context – the social, political, and economic conditions in which they operate.

In their design work and analyses students will postulate ideas, critique them and develop them into spatial propositions, and will be asked at all times ‘how does design happen?’ and ‘what are the consequences?’ It will be important to acknowledge the skill of sharing, of not losing power or independence when engaging in collaborative work, of finding one’s voice among many. Jane Drew said that ‘Architecture is 10 people deep’ and this research format will embrace this ethos.

The LSA will take care in making the practice/student pairing process as clear as possible. We will provide stewardship for the students so that the three days per week placements are a crucial experience that work alongside the two days of design, research and learning. With debates as well as lectures, seminars as well as socials, life will be very active at the LSA, relishing the shock of the new, and fostering a maverick quality at all times.

We have requested, and will continue to encourage, that all of the practices are open to the interrogation of their own ideas and ways of working (much as students are continually challenged to explain themselves), and that the professionals will also speculate on why they actually design in the way they do within the world of architecture. In effect, the practices, like the students, will be learning about the future of architecture and their role within it by reflecting on what they have done, and must be open to scrutiny and engagement too. This will be a ‘no holds barred’ exploration of future practice. It won’t be an easy ride. It is breaking new ground.

Our Practice Network has a diverse and dazzling wealth of expertise and experience, and its members often hold contradictory points of view as well as operating at different scales of business, from the design-led boutique to multidisciplinary service delivery, from art-architecture practice to architect-led development. Through this heterogeneity we want to encourage debate and disagreement so the students are placed in a cauldron of real conditions and contemporary discourse, not a place of self-referential introversion.

The research interests that practices have suggested they might like to foster in the Design Think Tank Project display an extraordinary spectrum of potential fields of enquiry, whose multiple characteristics and perspectives truly represent the quality of thought on offer in London today.

The culture of the school promotes self-discovery for the practitioners as well as for the students. It is an open learning environment; a shared inter-generational resource for designers at different stages of their careers. This is a conscious evolution of education: a standalone school established from first principles, not a tweak to an existing institution. While we seek to establish new systems of delivery, we place more importance on establishing new communities of practice – connecting people with an aligned purpose to create meaningful exchange and unexpected outcomes.

Ultimately, the LSA aims to anchor students to stand by their work with conviction, with a sense of commitment to the wider world.