Dezeen Magazine

Sam Jacob on architectural education

"Architectural education must change"

Opinion: in this week's column Sam Jacob argues that architectural education is in crisis and must become more accessible.

I’m in the throes of launching Night School at the Architectural Association. It is, as they say, pretty much what it says on the tin: an after-hours architecture school. But if architectural education is the tin, that really makes it a can of worms. Its that knot (if you’ll forgive the extended metaphor) of tangled architectural education worms that Night School really seeks to address.

In 2012, university tuition fees in the UK rose to a maximum of £9000 per year before you even think about living expenses - let alone field trips, print-outs, laser cutting, 3D printing or whatever else you’ll need to splash out on along the way to getting qualified. Add to that a year out between degree and diploma during which time, if you’re lucky enough to get a job in something resembling an architectural practice, you're likely to be pretty poorly remunerated.

Though we often imagine the idea of architectural education to be a natural and inevitable phenomenon, it is of course an accidental by-product of educational politics and economics, of demands of professional training and of murkily subjective disciplinary ideas.

The current model emerged from the 1958 RIBA Conference on Architectural Education. It’s clear that this 55-year-old model has been stretched into an uncomfortable shape, impossible for many to inhabit due to the levels of capital required before, during and after qualification. Equally, under the EU Commission's proposal for a revised Professional Qualifications Directive, changes are likely to be made to the duration and make-up of studying architecture.

And that’s before we even begin to look at the current state of the profession, buffeted from all sides by double-dip recession, low fees, the rise of the project manager and design and build contracts, and other erosions of an architect's traditional role. What an architect is and does - what, indeed architecture means - is very different in 2013 to what it was in 1958.

Though, in architecture, we’re prone to describing any small disturbance as a crisis, I think we can really see a structural problem. First, the traditional idea of architectural education is becoming, given the prevailing political scenario, increasingly difficult for students to support. Second, the professional reality to which this form of education is addressed is undergoing rapid change. Well, “never let a serious crisis go to waste" as Rahm Emanuel, then Barack Obama's chief of staff, once said.

The Architectural Association itself has its origins in a previous educational crisis. It was formed as a night school before it became anything we might recognise as a contemporary architecture school. It arose in reaction to the conditions of architectural education in the mid-nineteenth century, which were based around being articled to a practicing architect; the AA’s founders objected to the way this often became a form of servitude rather than education. Formed initially as a club, its members would meet bi-weekly, first issuing a brief then meeting to assess each other's work, sometimes with an invited critic. From these origins the school as we know it developed, with the night school existing into the 1920s.

The legacy of the night school suggests activities that were educationally experimental, practical, social and directly engaged with issues facing the contemporary profession. It suggests something light-footed, responsive and engaged with its audience. It is many of these qualities that the new Night School wishes to resurrect.

Night School, then, is a speculative project dealing with alternative models of architectural education - the chance to conduct timely experiments in other ways of learning, other forms of generating knowledge and expertise.

The programme starts with the premise that education should not be the preserve of students. Education, instead, is something that is present throughout one's career in architecture: as student, as tutor and as practitioner. In an era of rapid technological, economic and disciplinary change, the chance to retrain, rethink and reskill is becoming more vital.

What we hope to do is to turn the amazingly valuable and exciting culture of architecture schools inside out, to offer it up to a wider audience of students from other schools, to recent graduates and professionals buried deep in practice, and to the general public, whose interest in architecture often exceeds what is offered by Sunday supplement profiles of star architects and nice house refurbishments. Equally, we hope that engaging these audiences cross-fertilises with the school to create a dynamic dialogue between education and the profession, between theory and practice, and between the usual roles of student and teacher.

The future of architectural education is currently being debated within the RIBA (the UK’s validating body) and the UK Architectural Education Review Group. The study led by Terry Farrell into the UK’s national architecture policy, reporting to culture minister Ed Vaizey, has also promised to address the issue.

It seems there is agreement that the current model of architectural education must change, and agreement that it should become more flexible towards ways of studying and the amount of time it takes to qualify. What’s important in this debate is to ensure architectural education remains vital, challenging and culturally (as well as technically and professionally) engaged, and to ensure it remains open and accessible. I’d argue that somewhere in this current crisis lurks an opportunity to develop stronger, more vibrant and more relevant forums for generating and sharing architectural knowledge.

Top: photograph from the Architectural Association Photo Library

Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing