Guardian architecture critic calls for overhaul
of "stagnant" UK education system



News: Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright has added his voice to calls for an overhaul of the UK architectural education system, accusing it of being out of date and sealed off from the realities of working in the industry.

Architectural education "has been allowed to stagnate in the UK as a hermetic, inward-looking pursuit" based on a three-part system that stems from a 1958 RIBA Conference, he wrote in his Guardian column.

Criticising the impenetrable conceptualism and "fantasy realms" of many final year student projects, he suggested that the major university courses need to be "radically rethought".

"It has never been more urgent to call out the emperor's new clothes, to question those courses that are only there to further the theoretical position of their tutors," he said.

Wainwright told Dezeen that architectural teaching in the UK is too focused on the degree show, "which itself is conceived as a salesroom to lure the following year’s students."

He suggested that "more emphasis must be put on architecture as a spatial practice – rather than only an exercise in flashy graphics and dazzling model-making."

Asked for examples of good practice, he pointed to schools that are "really engaging with the social, political and economic forces that shape the city – encouraging students to interrogate everything from new planning legislation to different models of development, and how they might intervene as architects."

Wainwright's criticisms echo the thoughts of Sam Jacob, who wrote in a recent opinion column for Dezeen that architectural education is the "accidental by-product of educational politics and economics, of demands of professional training and of murkily subjective disciplinary ideas," adding that education should not be the preserve of students, but "something that is present throughout one's career in architecture."

Earlier this year an American university launched a programme to fast-track architectural students through the education system, while the UK government recently backed down on plans to remove design and technology from the school curriculum.

See more stories about design and architecture education »

Photograph of architectural equipment from Shutterstock.

  • James

    I have to say this is something I totally agree with. I am currently between Part 1 and 2 and have found that a project that could be built in reality with a proper budget would been seen as too boring to pass as a design project with the tutors. I felt I was pushed towards this “fantasy realm”.

    I have been working in the industry for over 2 years now before my Part 2 and have to say that everything I know now has come from this work experience. The only thing I learnt at university were which CAD programmes to use, which I taught myself.

    The rest of the building industry (such as structural engineers) critise architects all the time. I believe a strong basis of structural knowledge should be taught at universities similar to a structural engineer, but probably not quite as in-depth.

  • Riccardo

    I totaly agree! The new utopia is built architecture :-)

  • Ben

    Absolutely spot on! We are studying to be architects, not graphic designers.

  • Brian

    Perhaps for an article that talks about UK architectural education, you could include an image that was at least metric? I believe the US is still imperial, but we're not.

  • Richard

    Interesting choice of image to accompany this article: imperial measurements on a hand drawn plan? Not sure this is what Mr. Wainwright was referring to.

  • freckledfox

    I am not a student at either of these schools, but I seem to recall seeing somewhere (and maybe I’m remembering it incorrectly) that students of the Bartlett and AA top the ranks of “most employable students” as voted by practices?

    So, even though much of the work I see coming from these schools exists in the “fantasy realm”, the people doing the hiring voted that they are the best/most prepared students entering the workforce.

    • james

      Indeed, these ‘fantasy’ students appear to so out of touch that they are considered by nearly all poles I have seen for an extended period of time as the most employable. Perhaps architecture firms are just employing them for fun in the middle of a financial crisis.

      • tim

        One should ask what skills the offices hiring these young people are looking for: technical details? project management?

        It is more likely that they are looking mainly for skilled draftsmen/3D artists, and these students provide that, plus they have good work dedication.

        Basically the importance of graphics/visuals in architecture is high and these schools teach it. Maybe the fault is not in architectural education, but in the architectural profession itself.

  • Niai

    To further add to the article, there is an underlying lack of respect for the professional at the end of the education process in the UK – particularly after Part 3.

    I don’t see the point of allowing people in the UK to study Part 3, receive their ARB qualification only to find they are rewarded similarly to a non-UK qualified architect.

    If the current legislation and set-up is supposed to ‘protect’ the title of the architect in UK, why allow other EU architects to qualify as UK/ARB and be ranked similarly? Surely this flawed system is not interested to reward educated architects with national UK professional knowledge but rather they have created an environment where students are financially exploited through a 8-9+ year education system.

    EU and each member’s architectural board should either go ahead and create a unified professional qualification system or embrace each nation’s individual qualification process and rank/reward accordingly.

  • Bob

    I was repeatedly discouraged from my desire to address the more prosaic aspects of architecture at university, with tutors and course leaders placing great value on romantic narrative. I am glad that I was challenged in creative-thinking terms, but my technical strengths could have been built upon more effectively with a more broad-minded teaching approach.

    Having now shaken off feelings of inadequacy brought about by architectural education, my technical abilities are coming to the fore in practice.

  • Will

    I think I'll show my teacher this! Describes the faults in his ideology perfectly. *rubs hands together*

  • Chris

    Though I’ll agree some reform is needed; the fact that British architecture schools are consistently voted as some of the best in the world (The AA and Bartlett being 1 and 2) and with London’s colossal collection of architecture firms; it seems like the problem lies more with the planning system and society’s appreciation, or lack thereof, of architecture than the educational system itself.

  • John

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve just finished my part three, and have to say that I learnt more in the last year (my part 3) about real architecture than I did during most of my previous two degrees.

    The worst waste of time in my opinion was the final year of my part 2 (which I completed in 2011). This is a professional degree, not an academic one, and so should not require a thesis – which is so completely different to life in practice, that it was really effectively useless once I left uni.

    As a side note – my final degree mark was based only on the mark of my thesis – none of my other modules were even considered.

  • Kenneth

    I have my whole life to be practical, profit motivated, and a slave to the bottom line. Let students have a couple years to dream big. Navigating the swamps of code and spec is something that is best learned through repitition on the job.

    But it is very difficult to teach a comprehension of artistry and object-making. In the arguments between consultants and disciplines that inevitably occur it is critical from young designers to understand why the lead architect is fighting so vehemently to keep his details from being run over by HVAC gak.

    If you want your society to be dull and counterintuitive then hire bureacrats and engineers to put up precast boxes. If you want a society where the structures of a city contribute to the well being of human beings then hire architects who can dream, and think, and provide a vision.

  • jay

    It’s amazing how many people can read an article and completely miss the point.

  • Godzilla

    Rethinking architecture education is a far objective. The best start would be thinking about it at all and asking questions.

    For instance, how come every other (under)graduate gets away from debate about sustainability by placing a solar panel on their project’s skewed (or sometimes still regular) roof? How come the majority of UK architecture practices are operating without a business plan? How come engineering firms have broadened their scope of services far beyond calculating beams but most graduated architects are still spending unpaid nights designing facade openings?

    It is about time to stop flipping through image-based architecture magazines and ArchDaily every day while hoping that one’s seemingly unique aesthetic sensibility and understanding of space will give them or their start-up practice any competitive advantage in the near future.

    If there is a debate about architects losing their relevance these days, from my point of view it is largely due to devaluation of architects’ added value. Designing an over-aestheticised, over-fetishized and over-narrativized sculpture for living is such a 1980s thing to do, and is just not enough anymore. Unfortunately, this is still what most schools aspire to.

    PS: Even with a very limited knowledge of architecture history of the twentieth century, I would restrain from dismissive statements about precast boxes by bureaucrats and engineers.

  • Lohen Grinn

    Yes, yes and yes! If the profession is to survive and emerging architects are to stand a chance of being accepted by a cynical and cash-strapped public, then architectural education has to change; it has to stop with these indulgent ideas of the design process consisting wholly of conceptual fondling and “romantic narrative”, as another commentator aptly put it.

    No, studying architecture should not be about learning codes and regulations off by heart either but there really ought be more of a sense that assignments are set in relation or reference to the real ‘issues’ out there. At the end of the day (or the 7+ years, having spent tens-of-thousands of pounds to get there) it’s said ‘issues’ and the harsh actually of things that we have to contend with in one way or another.

  • Moi

    I’m a former female architecture student and I’ve been to three architecture schools in the uk. I couldn’t agree more. Young people deserve a better education than the one that is currently on offer. The fees in England now stand £50,000 for the duration of the architecture course. I got on very well working in architect’s offices and was perfectly suited to being architect but I couldn’t get through the architecture course which bears no resemblance to the type of work an architect ends up doing.

    They do not spend every waking hour theorising and designing weird and wonderful buildings with a limitless budget in mind. Anyone considering training to be an architect in the uk should take a look at my book The Appeal of Architecture as in it I mention a lot of the same issues as Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright.

  • Marco Lammers

    Being a student is an opportunity to push things further. Specifically graduation is the moment to experiment, to research, to create the fresh approaches that fuel future key projects.

    Whether it’s tectonics (real construction in structural, massive stone, brick, rammed earth, massive wood or deliberate banal materials…), urbanism (accupuntural urbanism, public space as tool for urban regeneration, the urbanism of lost space – infrastructural, industrial, post-industrial etc, the industrialisation of the agricultural landscape, shrinking cities, new typologies, strategies for extraordinary places or most importantly simply strategies for extraordinarily normal places …), re-use (the industrial, re-use of last-generation office parks for next-generation housing – one of the most relevant questions in a society that moves around office zones in cities in search for the newest hot-spot, leaving behind ill-favoured and un-rentable zones that’ll be the next great post-industrial cool), new technology (printed architecture, industrial/flexible/demontable, passive architecture and urbanism, low-tech, etc), the potential of the banal (monumental parking, infrastructure, shopping centres, etc). In the end it’s all about hacking the status-quo.

    However, there is nothing as irrelevant as unconvincing utopias by unconviced utopists. I’ve had lengthly and harsh discussions with people defending utopic-fetishism as a didactic tool to ‘think further’, when what it does is the absolute opposite by manipulating people into thinking it’s ok to create work you’re not ready to defend. The disinterest in being relevant has created 15 years of entirely irrelevant english student-work – a cancer affecting both design and architecture – except perhaps for relevance within some irrelevant teaching incrowd.

    It’s not a specifically Londoner cancer, there are many many schools equally breeding generations of irrelevant and uninteresting work in a pretentious attempt to be cool, while the world around them is continuing to push things forward.

  • John

    People tend to forget that architectural education, in its current form, is not designed to churn out architectural drafters and technicians. Many many architect students choose to branch out into other fields such as film, graphics, industrial design, stage design and even that totally non-rational abstract thing called art. The beauty of architectural education is the boundless possibilities it offers its students. Aren't the required intern-years between the different levels supposed to act as a form of apprenticeship in which those seemingly bright, multi-talented students can specialise in their chosen fields?

    • jordanjlloyd

      Couldn’t agree more. Architectural education is a comprehensive foundation for any number of careers, and let’s not forget that only a third of first year students actually move into the architectural profession as an ‘architect’.

      Whilst I share Olly’s view that narrative has gone too far, I think we should be talking about degrees of imagination. From experience, I feel a good graduate project should be firmly based in reality before then stretching the imagination with an alternative trajectory. My problem with many graduate projects is that this stretch of imagination is built on rocky (or non existent) foundations which then leads to their projects to ‘jump the shark’. No matter how well presented, unless it has a real and compelling reason to exist, then all we are left wondering is ‘why?’

    • tonklon

      I think your examples are silly. There are people studying law and ending up in film or music. Le Corbusier never formally studied architecture… Maybe so many trained architects end up in other fields because they have no other chance to do so.

      If you study architecture you should be trained to work succesfully in the building branche. That is where architecutre is made. If you are talented and motivated enough to work in more artistic fields the proper training in architecture (!) won’t be a disatvantage.

  • bill

    There are two crises here and they shouldn’t be conflated.

    The first is a crisis of content, in other words what is taught, and is probably something embedded at the heart of what it is to be an architect; the other crisis is financial – the fact that students cannot afford the cost of education, and the schools cannot afford the cost of top academics and practitioners.

    This second crisis should be seen in the context of a broader social failure in UK society, including short-comings in public health-care, primary and secondary education, housing and so on.

  • charlotte

    The critical and creative aspect to architecture education is simply crucial. Criticism that it is not “real world” is so far sighted.

    Why the best creative design education is important, is because delivering excellent and astounding architecture – when compromised by capital and budget – is actually about being able to have an idea in your head. To modulate and mediate this idea through the difficult and conflicting concerns inherent in delivering projects of all scales, requires critical and creative training not structural knowledge or technocracy.

    In teams of engineers and economists and developers, in my experience, it is only the design architect who has the capability of mediating, steering and directing all involved toward a holistic idea that has resonance to a society.

    Real world knowledge is just a mirage, changing all the time anyway.

  • JayCee

    Mark Twain once said that he "…never let his schooling get in the way of his education". Please do not confuse your architectural education with your practical schooling.

  • laralar

    Architectural education needs to change; it has to become less about the finished image (graphic design skils) and more about the practicality and reality of it, the users, the landscape – climate change?!

    I can only agree that the year out experiences are very helpful and that is where most of my architectural education comes from.

  • Graduating from a prestigious university and having a degree in civil engineering, I believe that the same issues apply to us (engineers). I would love to work with students studying architecture and get a chance to know what their world looks like before working with them in a different and more demanding level (industry).

    I wish you all the best. More than welcome to share opinions on LinkedIn.

  • Bill

    Oliver Wainwright sums up my sentiments exactly. I trained up and worked as a tradesman before going on to study architecture in my mid 20’s. In my life as a tradesman I often encountered architects on site and never felt entirely confident that they really knew what they were talking about, but because they were ‘the architect’ I always gave them the benefit of the doubt.

    Now having just completed my Part 1 I can totally understand my original position – the technology module is nothing more than a bolt on after thought. I would bet that less than 5% of my year could even design and build a water-tight shed, it’s almost embarrassing how little you actually learn about real building technology. As someone else has pointed out above. if I’d known I was signing up to do a graphic design course based around buildings, I wouldn’t of bothered wasting 3 years of my life.

  • Jane

    I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who’s just started out in architecture and paying the inflated £9000 per year tuition fees! Good luck to you, you’ll need it.

  • This is not just an issue for UK architecture schools, but a wider one. I graduated 15 years ago in Bucharest and at least at that time my university had the same problem.

    There is a low interest to prepare students well and in my country the two-year stage after graduation is seen as much more important in order to be able to sign projects.

    My guess is it is a policy to protect older architects with fierce competition from more and more graduates. Despite this problem I see more and more young architects designing beautiful buildings despite the low-ranked educational system.

    I would reply to Mr. Wainwright that being an architect is more a state of mind rather an educational issue and that most of the young architects will find a way despite academic systems or laws that intend to bind the architectural practice.