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New architecture school aims to change "undervalued and marginalised" profession

Interview: architectural education is too expensive and too lengthy while the profession is underpaid and under-appreciated, according to the head of a new school due to open in London later this year. Dezeen spoke to London School of Architecture's Will Hunter about his plans to overhaul the way architecture is taught.

"Today British architects are undervalued as they have been marginalised in the design and construction process," said Hunter, 34, whose new postgraduate school opens at the Design Museum in London in September.

"The worrying thing is not only the high tuition fees but the low salary expectations," he added. "The interest on tuition fee debt vastly outstrips salary increases for a typical 30-year career as an architect. 'Enter the architectural profession and forever be in debt' is not a great recruitment message."

Students at the London School of Architecture will work part-time for one of 40 architecture studios in their first year. The firms will pay a salary high enough to cover the fees for the school's diploma programme, making the two-year course "cost-neutral" to students.

"We've set up the London School of Architecture to bring academia and practice closer together in order to strengthen both," said Hunter. "The practices that we've spoken to see this as an opportunity to engage in ideas that they can't explore in commissioned projects."

Zaha Hadid buys London's Design Museum building
The Design Museum building in Shad Thames will host the school for its first year

Hunter was formerly executive editor of monthly British magazine Architectural Review (AR) and a tutor at the Royal College of Art. He decided to found the school following a positive response to an article he wrote for the AR in 2012, calling for a new approach to education.

"I started to think about a new model for architectural education in 2012 when the government raised the tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year," he explained. "We want architectural education to be empowering and accessible."

Among the London architecture studios that have signed up to be part of the programme are Grimshaw, DSDHA, Carmody Groarke, Duggan Morris and Haworth Tompkins, winners of the 2014 Stirling Prize.

Architect Deborah Saunt, co-founder of DSDHA, and Clive Sall, one of the founders of the now-defunct studio FAT, will be the course leaders.

Tutors will include Tom Holbrook, founder of Cambridge firm 5th Studio and a studio leader at the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture, James Soane, co-founder of London interior design studio Project Orange, and writer and critic Alan Powers.

Hunter has teamed up with The Cass, the school of architecture and design at London Metropolitan University led by Robert Mull, to obtain official validation for the school's diploma.

"We agree that the role of the architect is not just to serve the world, but to question it," said Hunter. "The world is changing rapidly in so many areas, and the school has been established to explore the spatial consequences of that."

Read the edited transcript from our interview with Will Hunter:


Anna Winston: Why did you want to launch a new school? London has plenty.

Will Hunter: I started to think about a new model for architectural education in 2012 when the government raised the tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year.

The head of SCHOSA [the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture] Alex Wright produced this really scary graph showing the interest on tuition fee debt vastly outstripping salary increases for a typical 30-year career as an architect. "Enter the architectural profession and forever be in debt" is not a great recruitment message.

I was thinking about a different way to view education – a different kind of model for architectural education. It would bring academia and practice together so there would be a kind of financial equilibrium between the two, making a more integrated and relevant architectural culture between the students and the practices in London and creating a much more dynamic, outward-facing architectural culture.

Anna Winston: Is it fair to say that the existing system is a bit broken?

Will Hunter: I don't want say that particularly, we just want to do something different. There are some great schools in the UK and it would be silly to say that we are the only school that's experimenting. But I think what we're doing is completely different.

Anna Winston: Can you explain why this financial situation is more of an issue for architecture than other subject areas?

Will Hunter: It's more of a problem because it is seven years' training, with five years' fees. The worrying thing is not only the high tuition fees but the low salary expectations. Today British architects are undervalued as they have been marginalised in the design and construction process and, since Thatcher's abolition of the fixed fees scales in the 1980s, have progressively undercut each other on price.

We've set up the London School of Architecture to bring academia and practice closer together in order to strengthen both. We're working with London Metropolitan and 40 practices in London, not only to seek a more accessible route into the profession, but to explore – and to shape – the future possibilities for the profession itself.

We agree that the role of the architect is not just to serve the world, but to question it. However, we want our students to combine the critique and the proposal. We don’t believe in fabricating alternative realities to design for, as we think that "real" reality is far more engaging, surprising and fascinating.

Anna Winston: So how have you turned this idea into a real school?

Will Hunter: It really came from writing a piece in the AR. Lots of people got in touch and it gradually formed as a kind of collective. It went from lots of meetings around tables and discussing ideas to more of a faculty, so it's grown organically, really. After we thought of it formally as a school, in October 2013, we started going round to all the practices and pitching to them to get them involved. There's been a real organic mission.

Anna Winston: What are you hoping will be different about your students in particular?

Will Hunter: Well I think I'd like them to have a kind of maverick quality, and to be entrepreneurial and to be experimental. And proactive.

Anna Winston: Do you have a manifesto for the school?

Will Hunter: We want architectural education to be empowering and accessible, and also really relevant. The world is changing rapidly in so many areas, and the school has been established to explore the spatial consequences of that. Architecture is the only discipline able to do this, and that is what makes it so valuable and such an exciting time to be part of it.

Anna Winston: And how is the relationship with The Cass working?

Will Hunter: They're our academic partner. We're seeking validation from them, so our students would get a qualification. We're also seeking ARB accreditation, which would give the students the Part II. But that's a separate process. The London Met process gives the students an academic award so they could go on and do their PhD if they wanted to.

Anna Winston: But you're not seeking RIBA accreditation?

Will Hunter: We are, but you can only seek that when you have a year's worth of work. If you get ARB accreditation then that's what gives you the Part II, and then the RIBA validation is like a gold standard on top of that. It's quite complicated.

Anna Winston: Were you expecting it to be this complicated?

Will Hunter: No. I think I was probably quite naive. There's a graph that I've seen that starts with an uninformed optimist then an informed pessimist then you come out of the other side as an informed optimist. So I've been through the other side of that. I've had some really good people working on it as well, and I think people have been enthusiastic.

Anna Winston: How many people are there going to be in the first year?

Will Hunter: We're looking for about 25.

Anna Winston: So it's quite small – is that a purposeful decision?

Will Hunter: Well I think we'll always remain quite small. The maximum we'll be is 40. You need a certain amount of people for critical mass but we don't want to get too big. We want everyone to know each other.

Anna Winston: Whereabouts is the school going to be based?

Will Hunter: In 2015-16 our spatial partner is the Design Museum. The whole setup of the school is that we're renting spaces where we need them, so our lectures and crits and stuff for 2015-16 will be at the old Design Museum in Shad Thames. I think it's a good fit. They're leaving there in mid-2016. After that we don't know where we're going but we'll find somewhere.

Anna Winston: How is all this being funded and how much do students need to pay?

Will Hunter: The fees are £6,000 per year. The practices will pay a minimum of £12,000 for the first year placement, and that covers both years' fees. The students are working three days a week on a pro-rata salary of £20,000 that takes you to £12,000 that covers both year's fees.

And we're currently fundraising. We're well over halfway through.

Anna Winston: So students will still need to find the costs to cover their accommodation and food and the cost of living in London?

Will Hunter: Yes, in the first few years. We're going to apply for access to student finance once we've been open for a year and had a QAA review. That will take two years to come online, but the plan is within five years that we'll be offering lots of bursaries for people that want to study with us.

Anna Winston: Why did you choose The Cass to work with?

Will Hunter: Just because I thought they were the best fit. They've got some of the best practices teaching there already, so it's kind of a complete roster of people teaching at the school, and they're interested in the city, how it's changing, and the advocacy and the agency of the architects. And I've taught there already as well, so there's lots of cultural overlaps between us. Deborah [Saunt] teaches at London Met at the moment. Nigel [Coates, one of the member's of the London School of Architecture's judicial body] used to teach Robert [Mull], so there's mutual trust.

Anna Winston: Another issue that often arises in conversations about education is a perceived lack of practical training. Will your approach tackle this?

Will Hunter: What we're interested in is how practice and academia can be closer together. The practices that we've spoken to see this as a real opportunity for them to engage in ideas that they can't explore in commissioned projects. So I think it's about actually making a much tighter and integrated culture between the two. You can teach practical skills but unless you know how to think and how to strategise, they become outdated quite quickly. So what we want to do is teach students how to learn.

Anna Winston: And why aren't existing schools doing this?

Will Hunter: I'm sure they are. All these concerns are being discussed at the moment. I'm not saying that we're doing anything completely unique. I think what we're doing is different because it's based in London and what's unique about it is the people involved. Being in London, there's this amazing energy and intensity to the culture.

We're not saying we're a model that can be done anywhere, it has to be in a big city. So you'd only really do it in London, Berlin, Tokyo. It needs to be somewhere there are lots of practices.