Towards a new architecture school (LJMU example)

A new Architecture School? Paul Sullivan May 2010

Discussion paper for a new architecture school:

As with the early activities of UNIT 4 (Static Gallery’s experimental art and architecture studio), the best starting point is always the question of ‘What should an architecture school do?’

I think the answer to this question (in relation to Liverpool John Moores University school of architecture at ADA: Art and Design Academy) lies in a study of both national/international prototypes (general) and also the possibilities inherent at the LJMU architecture school itself (specific).

This research may be a galvanising and democratic way of getting all concerned to face a future that will see LJMU Architecture School emerge as a relevant centre for architectural production and research.

In the absence of this research, I think the key role of the architecture school is how it reacts/interacts with the place/city that it is situated within. This isn’t to say that the school should be insular/regional, and indeed national and international initiatives must be part of the overall balance of the course, but it is to say that the immediacy of the surrounding physical and political landscape offers a more direct theatre of activity.

Although we may say that the city of Liverpool is/and has always been an immediate site for a myriad of student architectural projects at LJMU, it is very often at a superficial level of basic site info, drawings/visuals and a brief to respond to. This type of engagement with the site works on the basis that it allows the student a detached analysis of place in order for them to develop hypothetical projects in the studio (or at home) with a regular series of tutorials to assess or shape the development of the architecture. The important element in this abstractness is the idea that detachment offers the student the ability to operate from a pure position of something like academic safety, and that can work well in the architectural development of particular students in the studio model. However, I would say that in the main, the less involvement with the urban, economic, aesthetic, social and political conditions of the site, the more chance of misinformed architectural responses that are often based on current architectural fashions rather than a considered analysis of site. Of course, hypothetical schemes are the reality (as there are no buildings right? but of course this opens up the argument of where architecture actually resides – in the drawing or in the building [after Robin Evans] which should be an area of continued critical debate at both degree and diploma levels) and there must be the unquestioned ideology of experimentation within the subject, but this must be framed from a position of an understanding of the rudimentary purpose of architecture and the role of the architect in society.

Degree (RIBA PT I)

From this perspective, the degree phase of the architecture school is based essentially on the understanding of place/city and the inherent possibilities within those places.

Therefore, the tutors on the course would be required to have expertise in the role of architecture and architects in society/place/city.

Although this is a very basic outline of the degree, it is essentially an idea for a structural template or ideological underpinning of the three years. Of course, the very act of setting out a framework is not to try to employ a group of clones that believe in it, but rather to engage the current staff where possible as well as a new team who will be in a position to offer further insight and critical responses to the notion of architecture and place. The idea is to essentially activate a discourse across the teaching staff that will become apparent in lectures, debates, tutorials, papers, pamphlets, blogs, publications and perhaps most importantly, the theatre of the crit.

The crit

Rather than being a stifled obligation of the course, the crit should be the place where two things come into a convergence over the three year degree: 1) Students develop an architectural language and visual techniques that will allow them to articulate the full extent of their ideas and 2) Tutors and external critics should use the individual (or group) projects of the students as vehicles to not only assess the work of the student, but also to constructively debate each scheme from their own architectural perspective. As with the Unit system favoured by many of the London schools, the debate within the crit between student, critics and audience (normally students) often leads to a much more fluid and high-octane discourse rather than a tepid encounter between the individual student and the expert critic. By putting great emphasis on the crit, the course highlights the essential requirement of both students and tutors to actually know their stuff and to be able to critically and constructively debate the relevant issues. The importance of this event is that it also develops the essential skills of communication of the student as this is simply a forerunner to what they will have to do in their practices if they are to succeed in a competitive market place. The other positive aspect of this system is not only that students and staff can continually develop, but that crits normally attract an audience from lower and higher years, again adding to the ability of the course to offer a series of informal arenas for discourse and debate which currently don’t exist.

Diploma (RIBA PT II)

The success of any course of Architectural Diploma (or B.Arch, RIBA PT II), is mainly reliant on the success of the previous degree course and also its ability to attract high quality students who have undertaken degrees at other institutions nationally and internationally. Therefore, the success of the degree at LJMU is essential in that it will provide a core group of students for the Diploma. If the Diploma course is essentially the raising of the bar for arriving students, in order for them to begin to work on much more demanding all encompassing architectural projects and the articulation of a set of well thought out architectural investigations in the form of a dissertation, then it would seem logical that the tutors will have to be up to the job as well. This may seem obvious, however, as a result of this imaginary bar, there can sometimes develop a bar between Degree and Diploma staff, an Us and Them.

One way of breaking down this barrier is the fluidity of the crit and the ability to span the architectural demographic of critics/students/audience. The other way is to develop a team of tutors who are as equally qualified to teach in both Degree and Diploma and for those tutors to be acutely aware of the speeds that the different students/years are developing at.

 

LJMU, the RIBA and the City

The current role of the school of architecture is essentially to teach students architecture in order for them to enter into the architecture profession as is evidenced by the external assessment/moderation of the course by the RIBA. The amount of graduates who do go into the architecture profession does of course form an ongoing analysis of the relative success of the course in delivering this fundamental requirement. However, if the course is to emerge as a relevant centre for architectural production and research with an international reputation, then it would need to not only begin to engage in a much more robust and critical relationship with the RIBA, but it would also need to fundamentally engage with the city.

LJMU School of Architecture and the RIBA

There is nothing wrong with the current relationship between LJMU School of Architecture and the RIBA from an orthodox perspective. The relationship is one of mutual respect and partnership. However, there is something very conventional about the set up. The RIBA still assesses the course on fixed criteria that requires the institution to teach its students to communicate their ideas in conventional forms of representation: plans, elevations, sections etc. This is because the RIBA cannot accept the possibility that architecture doesn’t require these modes of representation. The RIBA and the institution also agree on the enforcement of strict building regulations and professional practice both during the course and during the two professional years in practice after PT I and PT II. As stated, there is little wrong with this relationship if the course, including its ideological structure and teaching staff, wish to continue in a pact of what may be considered ‘mutual caution’. Put simply, why teach anything about Michelangelo’s St Lorenzo staircase, or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye when knowing that although the institutions may call it architecture, if we actually applied today’s unchallenged and unchecked legislation on H+S, Building Regulations and Building Control, then none of these ‘prototypical’ examples of ‘high architecture’ could actually be built. This may seem obvious in that the majority of architectural precedent taught in architecture schools is by definition historic, and therefore modern regulations should not be considered whilst assessing the relative values of each typology. If so, we must therefore accept that this is simply about the evolution of architecture across different genres and centuries and what we have actually come to in the 21st century is an architecture that is completely dominated and composed within an incredibly strict set of regulations imposed by both internal bodies (Schools of Architecture and RIBA) and externally agencies (H+S, Insurance Industry, Building Regulations, Planning and Building Control). Furthermore, if we are to even consider that architecture is an artform, we must also accept that it is by definition a regulated artform.

With this in mind, surely there is a good reason for architecture schools and the RIBA to reevaluate what exactly they are teaching and why. Whether or not this can be formailsed in a new course structure or whether it is done as part of an accepted teaching development within the existing structure is the key question. However, to think of a course that does start to re-negotiate its ideological territory in the face of an architecture/construction industry which leaves little room for flexibility is of course the great opportunity for LJMU school of architecture in a period of HE uncertainty in which the more visionary courses may in fact be more effective in defending and controlling their own autonomy within the overall structure of the institution and wider market place.

LJMU and the City

There are great opportunities for the school of architecture to engage with a wide range of public and private partners in the city in order to create opportunities for students to undertake live projects and to also tap into potential funding streams.

The crucial relationship however must be to directly engage in a constructive dialogue with Liverpool Planning Control. The issues of how the Planning Department operates as both a regulatory body and also a pro-active decision maker in the continued renewal (destruction and construction) of the urban fabric is a matter of serious and ongoing concern to society. The shaping of the future city of Liverpool is subject to many economic/political forces, however the vehicle that these changes have to go through is Planning. It is therefore imperative that the school of architecture (staff/students) is informed and where required engaged in a critical dialogue with the key decision makers. There is enormous potential in the school of architecture generating a serious debate about the current state of Planning Control in Liverpool. Namely, the short term publicity/publication/engagement around new ideas and long term, in the fact that if Liverpool Planning Department does take a leap of faith in the possibilities of a much more dynamic and creative partnership and vision for the future, then literally, the skyline of Liverpool will change considerably and the reputation of Liverpool as a city where architects/designers/developers/planners/politicians/academics/society can work within an evolving environment of creative practice will have enormous economic and social benefits. It is therefore imperative that the school of architecture is at the forefront of the debate and that its staff and students are engaged with the shaping of these new relationships and production opportunities.

The Tutor

The role of the tutor is not only to teach architecture but to actively engage on relevant/critical national and international projects and exchanges and to promote the course to national and international students of promise.

Press

The course should begin to think about its own press/publishing arm with the aspiration to eventually have an internationally significant reputation.

Design Bites

Currently a 5th year project, the Design Bite offers a good start of diploma as a short-burst project that challenges the student to condense a large amount of work into a small amount of time. This project works on a number of different levels in that it stretches and tests the level of existing LJMU graduates from PT I and the new graduates from other institutions. It also gives a quick introduction to the course set-up and the required outputs as well as acting as an initial social event after the first crit. I would also add a new dimension and propose that all tutors are to also carry out the project and pin-up and be reviewed by students and fellow tutors. This will again act as a good test of the tutors relevant skills and also demonstrate to the students that the course expects a two way dialogue and critical debate in order for the work to advance.

History and Theory

Depending on how this is structured, H+T needs to engage much more with its audience and this will probably mean that the subjects, especially History, would need to be taught in a reflective manner that allows historical precedent to be understood in parallel with contemporary social, political and urban contexts. In terms of theoretical discourse, the unique asset of the ADA is that students can access other related lectures such as History and Theory of Art etc. Perhaps the course can also develop relevant exchanges/lecture possibilities with the University of Liverpool School of Philosophy and also Town Planning (Civic Design).

Workshops

Again, one of the key strengths of the ADA is the quality of its workshops and machinery, including laser/CNC machines. The workshops act as an essential resource for the various departments, however, depending on contracts, the CNC/Laser machines could be used as a bureau that can be used by associated business’s (especially in summer time) and thus bringing in further revenue streams for the faculty.

Staffing contracts/Proposition papers

As with other leading business, research and academic institutions, rather than staff being given fixed long-term contracts that can easily allow stagnation, contracts should be short/medium term and under periodic renewal based on relevant activity of staff. This would mean that periodically, staff would have to submit proposition papers that would demonstrate the continued relevance of their pedagogical approach. Far from this being a draconian measure in favour of the institution, shorter contracts ensure that the course remains active, relevant and fresh.

Forum

The forum is not site-specific and can be pop-up in nature but essentially it follows the classical idea of the Forum as a place where debate can happen. Of course, one modern forum is the open blog, however, the forum at the ADA can be both discursive and social and can examine the nature of social and public space. With the recording equipment available at ADA, the forum’s (as with all discursive events) can also be digitally recorded and podcast.

Clever Boxes and allotments

In order to offer opportunities to students to engage on real build projects, a structure called Clever Box (working title) could be built opposite the workshops (see drawing). Clever Box will be a covered framework structure that will allow students (either architects or architects in collaboration with other disciplines) to propose projects as part of their final year studies. The chosen design/project will then go forward to be constructed or tested. The proximity of the rear entrance and the workshop will ensure that the build is possible. Furthermore, the structure may be hired by external agencies in order to carry out large-scale installations such as Liverpool Biennial. This will mean that during summer/down times, the space can be active which may also be beneficial to the cafe space. The other idea for the Clever Box is to activate a public space on the existing lawns and that part of this will be the development of a set of allotments/bee hives. The allotments may be run by staff and students of the ADA and/or the local residents of the maisonette’s and housing estate. The produce may also be used by the cafe. Of course, Clever Box and the allotments may be nice ideas but the funding of these programmes (set up and continued development) will be crucial as well as the issues of planning, H+S and Building Regs. Therefore, the Clever Box can really test the students as they will also be responsible for the development of funding partners/sponsors and the negotiations with Planning etc. In effect, Clever Box would become a yearly test bed for ideas, materials, environmental techniques and urban strategies as well as being a conduit for engagement with the neighbours of the ADA and also acting as a unique offer of engagement to prospective students.

More ideas and detail to follow…………….

Paul Sullivan May 2010

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