Robert Mull on in-fighting between architects
Robert Mull opinion

"The much-trumpeted separation between education and practice is a convenient invention"

Opinion: the farcical in-fighting between architectural education and practitioners – who blame each other for the industry's failures – has to stop, says Robert Mull, dean of the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design.


There is a 1960s comedy sketch in which John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett stand in a row and explain the English class system. The tallest, Cleese, is upper class and the smallest, Corbett, is working class.

Each defines their position in relation to their neighbours. I'm middle class because he's upper class, I'm upper class because he's working class, and so on. Each feels distinct but is entirely dependant on their neighbour. The comedy stems from their inability to see that they are equally prejudiced.

The current – seemingly endless – spat between architectural education and practice risks being equally comic; I'm an educator but practice is so dull, I'm a practitioner rescuing poor students from education because it's so lightweight, and so on.

But behind this farce, there is tragedy. The much-trumpeted separation between education and practice is a convenient invention which allows both parties to duck their responsibilities and blame each other for architecture's problems – or worse, blame the poor graduate caught in this theatrical crossfire.

No such separation exists. Like the characters in the 1960s sketch, we are all in it together. Practices teach, teachers practice, practices carry out research, schools of architecture run practices, and so on.

And of course education is not limited to the period students spend in formal education but it is lifelong, starting in primary school and continuing into practice through formal training, peer review and yes, teaching.

If practice views architectural education as weak, it is partly because education reflects weaknesses in practice, and vice versa. The combative tradition of the crit, the assumption that students will work 24 hours a day regardless of other commitments, sexism, competition and a lack of collective action all feed into and reflect aspects of bad practice.

Similarly education too often becomes lost at the edges of the discipline, working with philosophers, film makers, cyberneticists, etc. At its best this promiscuity helps define and enrich the discipline but often it is an elegant distraction which rightly leaves employers wondering what a job applicant has been doing for five years.

This will be a familiar conversation for almost anyone working in architecture, but the ongoing squabble between architectural education and practice is particularly keenly felt in the UK. A recent survey by the Royal Institute of British Architects found that most employers felt that architecture graduates weren't ready for work.

The new London School of Architecture has been launched specifically with the aim of creating a bridge between the two and the RIBA has also brought in a round of reforms. But despite this, the tension between the two shows no sign of diminishing.

It's tit for tat – but blaming each other really is futile. Education and practice are locked together, like it or not.

As educators we walk a tightrope that reflects this balance. On the one hand, we need to provide students with the practical skills and knowledge to be useful within current practice, and on the other, we need to provide them with the confidence and bravery to question and extend current orthodoxies. Fail to do both and we condemn our graduates to be either frustrated stars without the skills to apply their vision, or worker drones without the confidence to challenge their lot.

So what more can be done to ensure that this productive balance between skills and bravery is strengthened and fewer students fall?

At one level it is through reforming the structures of education and practice and the relationship between them. The list is now very familiar: shorter courses, more diverse routes to qualification, apprenticeships, live projects, earn and learn, and so on. All offer better links between education and practice, and are being pursued by institutions all over the world.

But none of these initiatives are particularly new; there have always been part-time and sandwich courses, there have always been live projects, there has always been an office-based route to qualification and there have always been ways (albeit slow) for graduates of other disciplines to convert to architecture.

It's at a more fundamental level that the interdependency between education and practice needs to be recognised. It is time for the architectural community to do some hard work to define common values and principles rather than snipe at each other. Where would one look for these common values?

At the Cass we are subject to all the pressures facing education and practice and I'm sure we have a lot to answer for, but one thing does work well. We bring together a very diverse group of practices and students.

We host practices as different as the AOC, Peter St John, EAST, Tony Fretton, ARU, Chora, DSDHA and the UFO; in turn they teach students with very diverse backgrounds and life experiences. When push comes to shove they all agree on one thing: that architecture is a social art and that it is defined by its duties and responsibilities to a wider society, not by its duties to the self-referential world of the profession, practice or education.

This duty might be played out by building schools in India, by making carefully crafted elevations, by empowering local communities or by exploring solar-powered housing, but the underlying values remain and can be relied on.

A concentration on common values and responsibilities – rather than differences – would lead to greater mutual respect between education and practice. Part of this would be a more open and less confrontational dialogue about the skills, both hard and soft, needed to practice and a commitment to partner properly in their lifelong delivery.

This might even allow us to work together to address the real issue facing education, which is funding, and lobby governments together to fund architectural education properly based upon its social value in the same way as science subjects and medicine are given additional support. STEAM subjects, perhaps, rather than STEM subjects. So Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture and Maths.

So let's stop the comedy. Our domestic squabble harms us all, not least students whose energy, diversity and bravery is critical if we are to rediscover architecture and therefore architectural education as primarily a social art, respected and funded by all.


Robert Mull is the dean and director of architecture at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture & Design at London Metropolitan University, and a practicing architect. He was previously head of SCHOSA, the organisation that represents the heads of schools of architecture across the UK, and a co-founder of architecture group and magazine NATO (Narrative Architecture Today).