A response to our Architectural Institution.

The pandemic has become destructive to our academic year. Whilst schools enforce the ‘no detriment policies’, it is worrying that both the RIBA and ARB declare no change to the existing standards. The architecture school is heavily dependent on the studio culture: prototyping workshops, examined crits, one-on-one reviews and lectures. Coronavirus has eradicated all forms of normality in architectural education. 

ARB is clear in their approach ‘ensuring every prescribed qualification continues to provide a sufficient basis for registration’. Yet some may say it is nearly unthinkable to demonstrate the syllabus criteria without the school walls that temporarily reduce the disturbances of life at home. University students have been left on the lurch, limited to any news coverage, removed from the end of year summer shows which will create opportunities for networking or graduate jobs, and for final years, discarded from graduation ceremonies. All the while facing the daily anxieties of our new reality. 

‘One of our students raised the question: ‘how can I focus on a window detail when others are on the frontline of COVID?’ – Dr Mhairi McVicar

An architecture degree is one of the most demanding degrees, so it is inevitable that students will be impeded during the pandemic, excluding the demands of their course. Through the challenges of self-isolation, the uncertainties of family separation and financial stability, and the implementation of continuously studying from home, it is probable for a student to face both mental and physical detriments.

Third-year part one student Lorena Malaj from Ravensbourne University London has expressed her difficulties with well-being and access to resources: 

‘The lockdown has uncovered the truth about architecture schools and mental health, we barely coped generally. The only option which is lifted is the production of physical final models, other than that pretty much everything is still the same. […] [A] number of us relied on the internet and software access at university – it’s really been a frustrating period.’

Part two student Tonderai Maboreke from the Royal College of Art articulated similar feelings:

‘It has been a difficult transition to work from home as productivity can sometimes take a hit when you are constantly just working at your bedroom table or kitchen table for over two months every day. Also, the loss of studio culture and an almost organic sharing of ideas was a real challenge and something that is imperative to architectural education.’

The no-change declaration alludes to the idea that every student is on a level playing field. An impression of all students coping without any element of opposition. Yet all have been affected, some much worse than others. International students will be coerced to stay abroad secluded from immediate family, many will remain on campus and others will be forced to stay at home to supervise younger siblings whilst parents become essential workers.

Though without a formal announcement, it is understood that RIBA stands firm alongside ARB’s direction;

Our current expectation, notwithstanding any adjustments, is that any holder of a prescribed qualification achieved in current circumstances will be as suitable for registration just as they would have been under normal circumstances

The standards not only affect students but academics too. Crits and examinations will be assessed in the same way. Nevertheless, it is up to the educators to curate adjustments which will effectively work towards producing RIBA and ARB standard work with the ‘rationale for change’ during the unpredictable duration of the pandemic.

The choice of representation and media submitted by students as part of their final projects and portfolios may have to adapt in the current context without access to more sophisticated software at home, but standards should not drop

If a university needs to change the criteria, they would have to go through ‘emergency validation panels’ to make sure they are in line with ARB standards. 

MArch2 unit tutor and chair Dr Mhairi McVicar explains how Cardiff University and the Welsh School of Architecture has adapted under the pandemic: 

‘The WSA extended all submission dates by three weeks, added four more weekly tutorials, and increased tutorial timings to account for online glitches, ensuring core contact time was increased. Off-campus software licenses were made available and library services converted essential materials to online access. For students coping with more challenging personal circumstances, Cardiff University simplified its Extenuating Circumstances processes, permitting students to self-certify online, and introduced a policy of uncapped resits during the summer for any students who fail or do not submit.’

Lecturer and year two tutor Miss Nana Biamah-Ofosu from Kingston University describes the relationship between students and academics: 

‘…locally with my studio, we just stayed honest with our students. As a tutor there is nothing to be lost from being honest with your students and being open about the fact that this is all unprecedented. We are all new to this. We started our first online teaching session with an open court discussion with the whole studio, just a way of checking in on everyone. I also understand that every reaction to this in an individual way so you can’t assume blanket things for everyone, which is really important. I think treating students as individuals rather than a kind of homogenous set of people is crucial to how we successfully deal with this process. For us, it was about having an honest conversation about dealing with the problem in a human way, that is not just about box-ticking exercises.’

The educational institution exhibits systemic imbalances and some might say the decisions from RIBA and ARB seem to be made without any jurisdiction. Part threes have faced both working and studying from home whilst under irregular conditions.

Though it is likely that the format for your exams and viva may change to an online format, the rigour of the process will be no different.

It is apt that students from year three and five will also be affected the most during the course of Covid-19 and beyond.

However, the article should not take away from the severity of our profession. Ultimately, RIBA and ARBs standards are put in place to ensure a high quality of architects is attained and thus, critical that a person’s degree is not depreciated in the future by the pandemic. On a broader level, a duty of compassion and acknowledgement should be shared across the whole professional board. So thank you to the deans, head of years, lecturers and tutors who have genuinely encouraged their students to keep going, created engaging virtual experiences, used zoom before lockdown, sent budgets to students, provided online crash courses, galleries and weekly webinars, realised that this is not okay, pushed back deadlines and have been patient during the ongoing chaos.

‘The pandemic has emphasised the significance of a broader questioning of the ways in which graduates can contribute to a rapidly changing architectural profession.’ – Dr Mhairi McVicar

‘…being able to pick up a model, in a final crit and talk about the model or point at a drawing really easily, there’s no replacement for that but I wonder how, moving forward. How do we develop some of the things we learned and bring them back into the teaching spaces when we return.’- Miss Nana Biamah-Ofosu

At present, I can only sympathise with the year’s cohort, ones who are completing their part ones and twos but also part threes who have had to have accreditations postponed or rescheduled. Remember, this shortfall will encourage dialogues into the future of how architecture is taught. It is clear, an immersion of studio culture and working at home needs to take a heavier role in architecture schools. The history of design schools and practices are so engrossed in studio/office culture that we hardly speak of the option of working from home. One in which academic timetables infuse substantial home-study, enabling students to easily transfer between university and home-study life. 

I think It is reasonable to say that we are not under “normal circumstances”. The “no change” assertion will be detrimental to not only the graduating years but to first, and fourth years who have experienced only a term of their entry-levels. The norms of early fundamental pedagogy have become non-existent and undergraduates moving onto their next academic year will struggle.

“It’s not just the pandemic, you know people are sick, it might be affecting families in very specific ways and I guess in the end it is about human decency.” – Miss Nana Biamah-Ofosu

However, students know that you are all so close to the end of your academic year. Do not give up. Your tired and strained voices are being heard and have already made an impact. And finally, for many congratulations. You will be one of a rare few who can honestly say “I have obtained a degree during a global pandemic!”