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How the Proto-Practice Year works

CLIVE SALL

In distinction to the unit system, which currently prevails in many British architecture schools, the Proto-Practice Year explores different types of tutorial model. At the heart of this shift is the desire for students to be given the opportunity to be exposed to a range of design approaches, rather than being isolated in a unit, which – at its most limiting – can be a year-long induction into a singular methodology, architectural language or graphic identity that bears no relation to the student’s ultimate goals. We seek to develop in students professional judgement, and believe the best way to achieve this is in an immersive and challenging environment, where a range of options are available, and they are supported to reach their own decisions on how and what to design.

The whole of the Second Year constitutes the Thesis Project. However, this is not evidenced in a single design proposal spread over three terms, but rather two distinct design proposals: one in the winter term; and the second in the spring and summer terms. The LSA believes that an appropriate Master’s level thesis should articulate a clear approach to design – and that this is better developed and tested within a minimum of two design propositions. Leading architects have a cogent thread that runs through their work, that transcends individual commissions. Setting two design projects encourages self-reflection and enables students to be objective about what it is that drives and underpins their architecture, beyond the specificity of a client, site, programme, and so on. The timescales of these projects more closely reflects those generally found in professional life, and will develop in students the creative agility necessary for their future careers.

Students must complete their First Year with a clear direction for the Second Year. This should include an evolved understanding of the urban conditions in the borough and a thematic area for their architectural speculations. The two design proposals should be separate but interrelated, so that an appraisal of the first can inform the development of the second. These could take any direction, and students will be guided to develop a personal roadmap for Second Year that will further them towards becoming the practitioner they wish to be. But, to give three examples: if a student were interested in the isolation of the elderly in urban society, then their first project might be a design for new types of supported housing, and their second project might explore adapting public spaces for inter-generational inclusion; or if a student were interested in how parametric design can create environmentally responsive form, this could be explored first in the design of a train station, and secondly at the scale of a mixed-use tower; or, if a driving concern is the disenfranchisement of class groups and the collapse of local democracy, the student might design a socially integrated pub, followed by a cross-programmed town hall/shopping mall. The options are literally endless…

Throughout the year, students are taught by tutors employed from the Practice Network. The winter term is taught in smaller tutor groups, so if there were 30 students, there may be five tutors teaching six students each. Students and tutors would be matched depending on their interests. Over the course of this ten-week term, there would be opportunities to have tutorials with other tutors, in order to experience a range of perspectives on the project work. Alongside the project design is the module on the History of Design Methodologies, which explores how architects have approached the task of design through the ages up to the present day.

Running these two components in parallel aims to open students’ eyes to the range of design approaches available to them, so that they can make more informed and mature choices about their own architecture. Crucially, the historical exploration is not assessed in written form, but as part of the portfolio of design work explored in the project. And this is not because we are attempting to create an historicist architectural output, but rather because having a longer perspective on the act of design will enrich future speculations.

In the following two terms, the format changes so the 30 students, for example, would be divided into three thesis groups of 10 students taught by a firm from the Practice Network. It is in the development of this second project – the Comprehensive Design Project – that students must further evolve the articulation of their 10 architecture and test it with more aesthetic, technical, performative and environmental concerns. The practices will use expertise within their own network – engineers, sustainability consultants, etc. – to develop the second project toward an integrated design proposal.

The Thesis Project is composed of two designs projects, the latter being the Comprehensive Design Project. However the final assessment of the Thesis Project must transcend and include these two proposals; it must be greater than the sum of its parts. The Viva Voce in particular will evaluate how successfully the students can express the connections between the two, and how this frames their critical position on their own architectural design.

The Second Year is a genuine experiment for the school. We anticipate that there will be no house style; that it will not be possible to trace the graduates’ work back to the lineage of the tutor. In each year, the graduating projects should display 30 different and personal approaches; not variations on a theme from a handful of units. Similarly, every year could produce entirely different results. We are looking for experimental, surprising and original approaches to the discipline. At its best, the work should offer alternative visions that challenge and reflect back into architectural practice, which we hope will have a positive effect on the direction of the profession. The evolution of the world and of architecture must be intimately interrelated, and we wish the school’s graduates to be at the forefront of shaping this future.