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Imagining the future — the LSA at the EAAE conference in Zagreb

Harriet Harris (left) and Lesley Lokko (right). Credit: Miljenko Bernfest

LSA Chief Executive Will Hunter was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the European Association for Architectural Education (EAAE) which most recently was hosted in Zagreb, Croatia.

The conference was titled The Hidden School and among the conference guests were Harriet Harriss, Dean of Pratt School of Architecture in Brooklyn, Lesley Lokko, Director of the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg and Will Hunter, Founder and Chief Executive of London School of Architecture. In the Faculty Archive, Tadej Glažar, Professor at the Ljubljana Faculty of Architecture, and Siniša Justić, Professor at the Zagreb Faculty of Architecture, discussed the topic of architectural education with the conference participants, the transcript of which was published in Croatian architecture magazine, Oris. You can also the full conversation below.

 

 

TADEJ GLAŽAR: I would like to ask you to share some memories from your time as students.

LESLEY LOKKO: I was in the Bartlett the year before Peter Cook arrived and I remember everyone saying Peter Cook is coming! I do not think that anybody in the first year really knew who he was but the school changed, literally overnight. I had studied under the old, more traditional curriculum for a year before he introduced the Unit System, which he had brought from the AA. Since this happened 25-30 years ago, questions of race, identity and gender were quite peripheral to architecture, but the Bartlett was a uniquely forward-looking place. It meant that there was a sense of experimentation and a real commitment to extending boundaries, which in turn meant you could bring almost anything to the table. So, I actually had an incredible experience as a student and was able to find my own voice quite quickly.

WILL HUNTER: I started at the Bartlett in 1999, about a decade into the Peter Cook years. The first year was taught as a year group, led by Frosso Pimenides. This was a total shock to the system after a rather regimented school experience, where bells regulated when lessons started and finished. I recall teaching days lasting well into the early hours. The first year was designed to make you think differently, by crafting devices for the body that altered your physical interaction with the world, for instance. The second and third years were taught vertically in the unit system that Lesley mentioned, which were highly competitive amongst each other. Architecture students seemed the least integrated members of UCL—geographers, historians and chemists might have debated or played netball together, but we architects tended to stick to ourselves, pulling all-nighters for imminent deadlines. For Master’s I went to the Royal College of Art, which was much more of an art school environment, and significantly more chilled. Nigel Coates nurtured four units, with all the projects based in London. There was only 30 of us, so we integrated much more with the other creative disciplines — fashion, artists, product designers — and it was probably the first place I felt I had found people like me.

HARRIET HARRISS: I started out my undergraduate training at Manchester University in the North of England. There is an enormous cultural and economic divide between the north and the south in the UK. Manchester is a very confident and independent northern city with a very strong socialist tradition. The pedagogic emphasis was upon critical regionalism and our professors would often drag us to remote farms and make us build live projects in the rain. While it was useful to have that one-to-one construction knowledge, we were more often than not soaking and freezing. For my Masters, I studied at the Royal College of Art in London under the leadership of Nigel Coates. The professors were less interested in printed briefs and timetables, preferring to nurture a sense of creative freedom. From a student perspective, it felt astonishing, just to be given that agency. During that time, because I have always been pushing the edges of what architecture is, I set up a magazine for the entire college called Pollen, whose name was intended to allude to the pollination of disciplines. Our experiments with the theme, format, materiality and liveness proved so successful, Pollen won Time Out’s prize for contribution to student life in London.

Credit: Miljenko Bernfest

 

HARRIET HARRISS: That is also true in the UK, where the economically-driven expansion imperative has considerably changed the context in which architecture is taught. We have all seen the reports in the media of University vice chancellors paying themselves extraordinary salaries. Yet, at the same time, educators have become the most casualised workforce in the UK—exceeding the hospitality industry. By implication, most architecture educators are on a salary that has not matched inflation rates in over a decade and temporary employment contracts have become the norm. The UK higher education system has been privatised by stealth and that is really the tragedy of it. Education has provided the methodology that is now being used to privatise the UK’s National Health Service, which is currently free. The lesson is that doing anything too immediate or aggressive all at once is to be avoided. Instead, the more effective tactics are to incrementally under-resource a public institution in order to force its collapse or dismantling, one component at a time, and that is really what has happened with the UK education system.

WILL HUNTER: The British coalition government’s reforms that increased tuition fees from £3 000 to £9 000 were intended to make a market in education, to encourage new providers and to stimulate competition. But virtually all the existing universities put their fees up to the maximum, so everybody charges the same, and there is a limited choice for students on price. I do not really mind the vice-chancellors that Harriet mentioned being paid a lot of money because I think it is important that we can recruit the best talent to lead the sector, and they are the head of large, complex organisations. But the real scandal for me is the amount of money that goes into bureaucracy, which can divert resources from our core mission of teaching.

LESLEY LOKKO: Over the past twenty to thirty years, there has been a proliferation of universities, not just as places to get an education, but also as a means of class mobility and a corresponding explosion in the number of graduates, certainly in Europe and the US, but globally too. Getting an education is one of the fastest and surest ways to move up the social ladder. That is fine if you support an open and generous immigration policy but the opposite has happened. There has been an incredible backlash against immigration, particularly in Europe and the US. So, as the number of graduates increases, the labour pool for lower-paid work decreases. And you think—can the economy support this? And instead of—what is the word—valorising or validating trades equally, the snobbery increases. Nowadays, it is considered much better or more valuable to be an engineer than to be a plumber… well, whois going to do your plumbing? So, I think there is a real schizophrenia about what education is for. When it comes to architecture, what do we educate architects to do? Not everyone is going to become a star architect or run his or her own practice. Many architects are actually architectural technologists — what we used to call a draughtsman, only now you train for six or seven years for a job with a different title but roughly the same pay and probably worse conditions. The whole value system is askew. And yet no one, no politician I know of, will go on record and admit to this. For me, it is actually an ethical question: what is the point of education?

Siniša Justicć (left), Will Hunter (middle) and Tadej Glažar (right). Credit: Miljenko Bernfest

 

SINIŠA JUSTIĆ: That is one major discussion currently being held. What do you educate architecture students for? Is it some kind of holistic self-development or is it really a professional education for professional practice?

HARRIET HARRISS: I think there are a few things we need to consider before plotting a pedagogic response to the problem. Firstly, according to the U.S. employment trends data, by 2065, 85% of jobs that we will be doing have not been invented yet. Can we safely assume architecture will make it into the surviving 15% of existing careers? Even if it does, educators need to consider what an architecture skillset can achieve beyond buildings. By equipping graduates with a trans-disciplinary, multi-sector skillset, they are not limited to any one form of practice or any specific career. Resilience, agility and tenacity are key. What constitutes architectural knowledge, whose knowledge it is and who created it and whose agenda it serves are under increasing scrutiny. So, there is an openness to new forms of knowledge, new ways of framing old knowledge and what we call archivist activism, whereby challenging, correcting and also reimagining whole tracts of historical accounting. We also need to release our grip on teaching technologies. Trends data shows that half of the European and North American workforce will have their jobs replaced by automation within the next 10 or 15 years. So, I think a big part of the construction industry technologies will become obsolete really quickly.

We need to think more about the notion of what architecture could do next rather than what it does at the moment. Architectural education often struggles with the idea that its responsibilities towards students should extend beyond teaching one discipline, practice or vocation. The challenges that young people are facing right now are so significant that we have to ask ourselves whether architectural education is enough. And if it is not, what do we need to incorporate into the curriculum in order to ensure graduates can not only survive these challenges but also find solutions to them. How to teach is a modern anxiety for many educators. We cannot just sit within our disciplinary cloister anymore and be complacent about engaging with the critical issues of today because complacency equals complicity. If we do not take steps to reimagine curricula content around this agenda, and even the pedagogies to make them more incursive for many students then really, you are not going to be able to do justice to the students who, in many cases, are making enormous investments to get these qualifications, with little hope of that being a profession to support them through their careers.

SINIŠA JUSTIĆ: Lesley, do you think there is a universal set of pedagogical tools all schools can use in education or are they context-dependent? I have listened to your lecture from some three years ago, about risk, where you conveyed some beautiful thoughts about drawing as an explorative rather than explanative tool, especially where everyday conditions for practising architecture are difficult.

Credit: Miljenko Bernfest

 

LESLEY LOKKO: I would say that to be critical is one of the main objectives of any education system. As educators, it is our job to give students the tools to be critical. But since I have taught in quite a few different countries, I have also come to understand that criticism is culturally specific. In certain places, being critical is viewed as being disrespectful. You do not question your elders, for example, it is considered rude. In the past few years working in South Africa, I have had to work around the cultural connotations and ramifications of questioning: who has the right to question; who has the right and authority to answer? Gender plays a role, too… so, perhaps five years ago, I would have been more adamant about that question of a universal set of tools: now, I am not so sure. But I also know that my own training as an architect has enabled me to think about how to get around these questions. If I had not studied architecture, I think those kinds of complexities would have been much more difficult for me to negotiate. Thinking about things in a spatial, almost three-dimensional way—how you get around questions; how you go over them, under them—that has helped me enormously. It has been the biggest learning curve: how to adapt my training as an architect to fit my current role as an educator. Thinking about the GSA specifically, if there is one thing we are trying really hard to impart to our students, it is that their own education is actually their own design challenge. They need to think critically and creatively about how to adapt their education and training to fit their lives and contexts. If we can teach them how to do that, we have won.

WILL HUNTER: I suppose the real question is: is there a core design knowledge that we would want to impart?

SINIŠA JUSTIĆ: I think we are also responsible for the inherited set of values. We kind of build upon them.

LESLEY LOKKO: I am wary of the assumption that there is such a thing as universal knowledge. I think there are multiple ways of thinking about things. Although the fact that we all have questions about our environments — where we have come from, where we are going, what our place in the world is and so on — much of that questioning is specific to our different contexts, our different cultures. We no longer live in a mono-cultural world — if indeed we ever did — so why should we want our students to study as if it were the case? The real question is how do we train or educate students to think about the world differently, on the one hand, but also to understand that different cultures produce different ways of thinking about being in the world.

WILL HUNTER: We have to try and teach judgement in some way. For students to be able to evaluate the difference between good and bad architecture. In recent decades, the amount of knowledge has exploded; and access to it has exploded. We need to teach how you access the knowledge you need at that particular moment, and evaluate it and pull it together. You cannot teach everything. You just have to teach how to connect things.

Reviews at Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa, 2019. Credit: Sashien Singh

 

HARRIET HARRISS: There is a question about the integrity of architectural knowledge that is available to students via the Internet. Architects and architectural historians have limited curatorial agency over popular, image-based sites like Pinterest and Instagram, yet they have become the most utilized sources of cultural information, aesthetics and style. Students are more likely to look to Pinterest than read a book for inspiration. Despite this lack of professional or academic filtering, these sites are shaping what the next generation of designers think is good and bad architecture. Perhaps educators should think more carefully about how to infiltrate and harness these sites.

Siniša, it would be interesting to hear about what you think the challenges facing schools in Croatia are. What are the regional issues here?

SINIŠA JUSTIĆ: Well, this is a state school with a polytechnic tradition, so we are in that fragile balance between poetics and technics which informs our everyday relationships, teaching discussions. Regional issues of economic origin do have their indirect impact because they often push the importance of architecture behind priorities of everyday life. But this does not necessarily interfere with the quality of lessons in architecture. School has to remain a place where the freedom to explore is larger than in real-world circumstances. If you understand this research as a technical and cultural practice, it is ideas and their interpretations that matter. They reflect our cultural background and inherited values. They build up a volume of knowledge and set up criteria. This school always imposed certain rigour, sober-mindedness and critical stance in approach to creative freedom. It fights superficiality while encouraging the search for clear, downright solutions where a thorough understanding of human behaviour and environment is complemented with rational use of technology. What may seem as a constraint is set in order to sharpen one’s views, to deepen insights and push you to achieve your best even if it means temporary discomfort. We believe this strictness is an appropriate pedagogical tool in preparing one for certain resilience and adaptability needed for practising in different circumstances, quite often far from what one has initially wanted.

HARRIET HARRISS: Sparks fly when hard matter hits hard matter, so whether we call it principles, or core pedagogy, or provocation, there has to be something against which students react in order to formulate a creative position.

LESLEY LOKKO: One of the things that has been very interesting for me over the past five years in South Africa has been the realisation that when you work in contexts that are politically very charged, you have to find a means of expression that is somehow neutral, or at least not tainted by political association. In the school of architecture, that neutral thing has been the drawing, the means of representation. I have found representation to be curiously liberating: at a certain level, we all need to represent something or articulate something. So, in making sure that students have complete freedom in terms of the means of representation — they work in film, multimedia, in models; they stitch, sew, draw, whatever they like, we have unwittingly made room for students to find alternative means of expression that have allowed them to talk about all kinds of other issues: race, identity, oppression, social and spatial justice, issues that in South Africa at least have always been marginal to mainstream architectural education. Almost every other aspect of knowledge production and consumption has been up for critique: whose history? From whose perspective? Whose technology? Almost every single thing that we brought — or I have brought — to the curriculum has been treated with a healthy dose of suspicion, and it has been a really interesting exercise to figure out what I can safely work with.

Studio 2, housing analysis, Faculty of Architecture, Zagreb, Croatia, 2016. Credit: Luka Korlaet

 

HARRIET HARRISS: There has been a substantial shift in what matters most to the students I work with, in both the UK and the USA. What is so astonishing to me is how serious young people have become. We often talk about making architecture schools more playful, experimental and supportive of risk-taking. Yet, these guys are risk-saturated already. They are faced with a dying planet where nothing can be taken for granted, not even their own future. So, they are already overwrought with this sense of precarity. To then ask them to take risks and experiment in order to deconstruct their preconceptions when they are already feeling totally deconstructed by the scale of the challenge — can be deeply problematic.

TADEJ GLAŽAR: In the near future, do you think that, whether as teachers, directors or managers, we should include much more students in our decision-making at schools?

HARRIET HARRISS: Absolutely. I applied to Pratt Institute not because I have a preconceived vision of what the school should become next but because I want to co-design a vision for the school, inclusively and collectively with students and faculty. I think we are entering a time when the old, institutional traditions of top-down leadership or architecture schools led by stylists and starchitects with no real interest in education are being questioned. Alternatively, I am interested in doing something much more inclusive and in recognising and leveraging the talent that is already in the school. Rather than parachuting in an ideology and then superimposing it upon an unsuspecting faculty, I want our future to emerge from our collective rather than individual intelligence. Collaboration is one of architecture’s unsung strengths and integral to successful practice work. Yet, we are always rewarding individuals and not collectives, despite the fact that so much work that we do is entirely dependent upon collaboration.

SINIŠA JUSTIĆ: Any management should help in the development of a study environment which will enable students to delve into architecture. And by study environment I mean everything from space, over administration to the architecture of the curriculum.

LESLEY LOKKO: I mean, for me, the hardest thing over the past five years has been the administration.

WILL HUNTER: I completely concur. I would propose an experiment that would go something like this: Listen, why don’t we stop regulating these 10 schools and come back in 10 years and see what has happened?

For the record, the professional regulators in the UK, such as RIBA, have been really supportive of what we have done because they are invested in the future of architecture. The real challenge for us has been the new government regulation, which fits universities of 1 000 students. It is not particularly scalable to a small institution like ours, which has fewer than 100 students.

SINIŠA JUSTIĆ: I just wanted to ask, do each of you have one quick lesson or advice for students of architecture?

LESLEY LOKKO: It is an interesting question. One thing that I would say is that all of the students who are graduating now really believe in architecture. They passionately believe in the discipline. That is one lesson we tried hard to impart —– that architecture matters — and I think we have largely succeeded.

WILL HUNTER: I would say, design your career as well as your architecture. Design the route you want to take. Be aware of that.

HARRIET HARRISS: Architecture is incredibly epistemologically rich and complex. No other degree offers students the same exposure to so many different ways of thinking and doing; such a range of knowledge frameworks and so many different processes and forms of expression. It is this richness and complexity that enables an architectural skillset to translate across a range of professional contexts and sectors. This is what makes it the most powerful qualification a student could have in the face of an uncertain future career market. Interestingly, students do not talk about wanting a career in the same way anymore. They are more interested in just having a sense of purpose and leading lives of consequence. Their willingness to make a difference, to have some kind of an impact, is not constrained by one professional or disciplinary silo. This sits in sharp contrast to the way most educators were trained: we believed we would only become architects. We did not imagine there were other careers available with an architecture qualification. And that is not how young people see that qualification. What they see is a stepping stone to all kinds of potential outputs and activities and I think that is really exciting.

WILL HUNTER: Peter Buchanan teaches our students that today’s problems in the world result from a crisis of imagination and not resources. And actually, I think that this is the main challenge. Your generation needs to be that imagination. You have to imagine and deliver that future. I think the architect’s special talent — for envisioning and managing the distribution of resources in four dimensions — will be immensely useful to the world, and will be what ends up in Harriet’s 15% of jobs that cannot be automated.

LESLEY LOKKO: Imagination is like a muscle, you need to train it. You cannot automatically expect it is going to be there or that it will perform without encouragement. Live out of your imagination, not just your history. I do not usually go around quoting self-help authors but this one is a gem.