Head Out of the Sand: Where next for YOUR Architectural Education?

Architectural education in the United Kingdom has been trying to innovate for decades and trying to reform itself top-down, bottom-up, left-right and on all sides. Both the RIBA and ARB have been engaged in an educational review for a while which has ground to a halt under the uncertainty that Brexit brings to legislation, the complexity of the stages of the degree and the plurality of agendas. Nonetheless, some amazing initiatives have been developed such as the collaborative practice course in Sheffield University, the emergence of live projects as an educational tool across many universities, the apprenticeship scheme is now up and running and the opportunities to enrol on the RIBA Studio programme. Many books, articles and thought pieces have been written and one should definitely engage with the debate – ‘Radical Pedagogies’ by Daisy Froud and Harriet Harris is a must-read, so is the book ‘Why Architects Matter’ by Flora Samuel.

Holistic approach to educational reform, however, will be slow to materialise in my view. Therefore, the reality is that as of now and in the foreseeable future, your education needs to reform itself. The agency of the student is often overlooked when we speak about architectural education, the myth of the RIBA criteria determining your every move in architectural education ever so present amongst students. Understanding the RIBA criteria as enabling rather than restrictive can unleash a swathe of reform both by students, but also by schools of architecture.

“Business skills are a miss in architecture.”

There are three main areas, amongst others, with which we as students can already engage and do not have to wait for a top-down reform. Those are entrepreneurship, ethics and sustainability and mentorship.

Business skills are a miss in architecture. We tend to think of the course an elevated mixture of arts and sciences, yet rarely as a business and a service that we will end up providing for financial gain. Conversely, courses such as fashion design and fine art incorporate a significant amount of business training. Understanding how the profession works and how to build a business rarely comes from a module running for half a semester with one lecture per week. Stepping outside of the safety net of a course can benefit you by expanding your horizons. Consulting some great resources out there such as the business of architecture website, the Part III app by Tara Gbolade and a Chris Williams Architects Skills website are all resources discussing how the construction industry operates. Taking risks and experimenting with starting businesses outside of the course is a great motivation throughout the long decade of the journey to chartership. Developing an entrepreneurial spirit and applying the skills that you acquire within the course to the wider economy, beyond just architecture, can only be a benefit.

The second area of engagement that you can do now is to develop a personal framework of operation concerning your ethics and approach to sustainability. Engaging with the international and national debate on preventing climate change needs to be a meaningful endeavour beyond the simplistic gesture of adding green roofs to the project you are working on. Understanding what are and why the Sustainable Development Goals exist, what the practical implications of changing climate are and how to balance those with ethical choices as a designer working for the public good, are all questions that you should have the answer ready at any point of your education. The RIBA Ethics and Sustainability commission and its findings can be your first port of call. Thinking in an international mindset about aspects such as the supply chains of materials, the impact of construction on the environment and the international labour market can benefit the design choices that inform your practice and education.

“…the easiest way to develop yourself is to cultivate mentorship relationships.”

Finally, the easiest way to develop yourself is to cultivate mentorship relationships. Seek help from the people you look up to, look for support from your superiors, offer help to your inferiors. Engage with your peers across schools and courses, network with other Future Architects, start a campaign, be kind to your fellow students. Join the RIBA National Schools Program as an ambassador, volunteer for the Architects Benevolent Society, engage with Shelter and raise money for your community. Develop your ‘soft skills’ by contributing to society in a way that can test your own team working and communication skills outside of the narrow constraints of the architectural community.

Reforming architectural education needs to start by tailoring your own choices and enacting your own agency. Extra-curricular activities often are the ones that end up defining your life choices further down the line. The sunk cost mentality of the scale of investment in a long course such as architecture indoctrinates us as students to spend endless time and effort into achieving a better grade, often at the sacrifice of developing the skills that would be essential to succeed outside of the university. The tunnel vision that most architecture students tend to acquire in university due to the pre-determined stages of development pushes us to avoid risky decisions. Overcoming this aversion to failure on psychological level will help you within your education.

Of course, time constraints always tend to restrict a student’s ability to engage outside of the course. My answer to this is to find your course’s credit structure, apply a factor of ten and understand that those are the hours you are expected to work on a project. Anything more comes out of your own volition. Question the design and requirements of your course first, before sacrificing your own time.

Many of those ideas would ideally be incorporated in a revision to the way architectural education operates in the UK. The RIBA is looking to establish the Future Architecture Network (FAN) which will be the students’ and graduates’ arm of the institute, creating the connections and opportunities for the development of the future talent within the profession. The top-down policy change will eventually have to come and reform the way architectural education is delivered in the UK. Shape the change you want!

Simeon Shtebunaev is a PhD student at Birmingham City University researching the topic of: ‘Youth’s perceptions and participation in the co-production of the future ‘smart city’ in Europe’. Simeon is a trustee of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and a member of the Royal Institute of Town Planning (RTPI) general assembly.*

This article was first published in INVOLVED Special Issue on Architectural Education (March 2019). For more articles on the topic, you can purchase the issue through here.  

*the biography of the author is true to the time of the publication of the original article and might not be up-to-date.