Dezeen Magazine

Architectural education opinion

"We must not allow the destruction of what is still great about architectural education"

The exposure of alleged abuse at the Bartlett must not become an excuse for dismantling how we teach architecture, says Sean Griffiths.

Education is once again the subject of intense debate. Three years ago, I wrote a defence of architectural education on these pages in response to criticisms levelled at its "art school" model by the head of Zaha Hadid Architects, Patrik Schumacher.

Since the publication of my article, a number of momentous events have impacted architecture and education including the increasing urgency of the climate emergency and the effects of the Covid pandemic. But architectural education, in particular, has been rocked by a report revealing abuses at one of its leading institutions.

The reputation of the much celebrated and mimicked teaching practices of the Bartlett now lies in ruins

The reputation of the much celebrated and mimicked teaching practices of the Bartlett, UCL's famous school of architecture, now lies in ruins on account of a litany of accusations from former students detailing instances of bullying, racism and sexism.

In response, high-profile staff have been suspended and the head of the school has resigned. Turbulent waters have since been further stirred by the publication of a letter, signed by several established architectural journalists, practitioners and academics, accusing UCL of provoking a witch hunt against the Bartlett's staff.

It cites the existence of an Instagram account naming and shaming a long list of allegedly abusive tutors. It was followed closely, in what increasingly looks like an extension of the culture wars into architectural education, by an article written by one of the letter's signatories, Paul Finch, seeming to imply that the accounts of abuse are exaggerated.

Students should be entitled to justice and people accused of doing injustices should be entitled to due process

The tone of the letter is, to say the least, unfortunate. It should be possible to acknowledge that abuse has taken place and that the students who have spoken up have in fact, through their brave actions, shone a light upon some unsavoury aspects of educational practice while at the same time criticising the blanket denunciation of tutors on social media – a modus operandi that, as a trade union rep in a university, I certainly cannot support.

It is surely not controversial that students who have been victimised should be entitled to justice and that people accused of doing injustices should be entitled to due process.

Why do I suspect that reported abuses are not exaggerated? Well, because I was subjected to this sort of thing myself. But not at the Bartlett.

When commencing an architecture degree at the not-so-elite Manchester Polytechnic in the 1980s, an architect advised me to expect to stay up all night in return for the honour of being roasted alive at crits in a state of complete exhaustion.

He warned that I should anticipate being constantly interrupted by hostile questioning of my motives and a sneering judgement of my failings, an ordeal that was made to sound not unlike a Stasi interrogation.

This kind of behaviour did not begin at the Bartlett, nor is it limited to that school

Unfortunately, it turned out that the architect's description of the process was only too accurate. Indeed, the hostility of crits was to be a continuous feature of my education. The point is that this kind of behaviour did not begin at the Bartlett, nor is it limited to that school. It has been accepted, by some at least, for many years.

In my experience, things have improved since that time. This might not be necessarily universal, but I have witnessed a substantial dialling-down of the aggression at crits. There is a greater awareness of the need to take account of the wellbeing of a generation of students who face spiralling debts and a more fearful future than those of us who graduated when the evils of neoliberalism had not yet wormed their way into every aspect of society.

Hopefully the Bartlett report, alongside the establishment of training for tutors and proper systems of accountability, will help deliver a kinder and gentler architectural education in future.

I would welcome this. But I'm more sceptical of calls for the abolition of certain elements of the basic structure of education, like the unit/studio system and the crit, which have characterised some of the responses to the report's publication.

I remain convinced that the studio/unit model still offers the best structure for the creation of rich educational experience for students. It offers an array of specialisms driven by deep expertise, which I don't see being replicated by the alternative models I have come into contact with. Not all schools that operate a studio system replicate the highly competitive nature of the Bartlett's.

Alternative systems of teaching are no barrier to abusive methods nor to the flaunting of egos

In many places, rather than being subjected to competitive interview, students select a range of studios they would be interested in joining. This ensures that it is the student who ultimately chooses the studio, not the other way round. Students end up distributed amongst studios equally, and the final grade ranges are similar across all studios making for a more mutually supportive and less competitive ethos amongst staff and students.

And to those who say that it is that unit system that encourages abusive behaviour, as I have related above, alternative systems of teaching are no barrier to abusive methods nor to the flaunting of egos.

Criticism of the unit system also carries with it the very real and present danger that those within university hierarchies who would happily eviscerate architectural education and have students taught in year groups of scores or lecture halls of hundreds, will be encouraged.

Aggressive crits are simply counterproductive

Similarly, crits do not have to be trials by fire. But they are an essential part of an architect's education. At their best, they offer the opportunity for students to gather the disparate threads of a project that is in progress, and perhaps in doing so, to create the project's direction.

They also teach students how to communicate clearly and to advocate – key skills necessary whether your ambition is to become a starchitect or an activist.

On the other hand, aggressive crits are simply counterproductive. They result in students learning nothing as they focus on surviving the ordeal rather than listening to what should be an informative discussion of the ideas their work is provoking.

Apart from the damage done to individual students, the culture of all-nighters and tutor worship is too easily translated at a professional level into the practice of working for nothing for clients and submitting to their, often unreasonable, demands.

This makes for an overstressed, underpaid profession that sees being an architect as a vocation before it is an economic activity. The culture of accepting low fees, endemic throughout the profession, is a form of self-abuse that is passed down the line to an exploitation of young practitioners that is the corollary of abuses in education. The RIBA ought to be doing much more to address both of these issues. Why isn't it?

I propose that we should respond to the Bartlett report by encouraging more collaborative and collective practices in education, challenging the "individual genius" myth that still informs both education and practice. We should teach students about social justice and activism, learning from their experiences.

Perhaps the teaching of collaborative working and organisation could provide the necessary skills to foster the unionisation of architectural labour in the workplace.

We must not allow the destruction of what is still great about architectural education

These approaches will not only reform education, they will also provide the necessary conceptual, organisational and practical skills we require to deal with climate change, social inequality and the making of architecture into an economically viable profession for people from all backgrounds.

In many cases, students and young practitioners are showing the way forward with groups like ACAN leading the charge in climate change and FAF challenging exploitative practices that have for too long been treated as the norm in the profession. In Muyiwa Oki, there is an insurgent candidate for RIBA president who represents precisely these interests.

The studio system and the crit can be great vehicles for the development of new forms of collaborative, discursive and politicised education and practice. But in addressing injustice, we must not allow the destruction of what is still great about architectural education. And let us certainly not open the door to those in educational institutions who would only be too happy to do that for us.

Sean Griffiths is an artist, architect and academic. He practices architecture as Modern Architect, is professor of architecture at the University of Westminster and visiting professor of architecture at Yale University. He was a founding director of the art/architecture practice FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) between 1991 and 2014.