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The Best Article I've Read in the Past 48 Hours
by Katy Purviance on 05/06/08 @ 11:00:26 am
Categories: Articles | 1678 words | 5407 views

I found it. I’ve found The Best Article I’ve Read in the Past 48 Hours!

It’s called “No stars in our eyes,” and it’s written by Zoe Berman in the RIBA Journal.

Thanks, Zoe. I share your struggle. I salute you for your fine article. I can’t wait to see more of your work in the years to come.

Here it is!

No stars in our eyes

Starchitects and corporate icons make this student generation uneasy. They know the future is about multidisciplinary collaboration and ethically aware design.

The student: Zoe Berman

Today’s students of architecture are emerging into a fractured climate of varying design approaches and changeable fashions. They are keen to question the dominant commercial paradigm and the ‘architect as superstar’ typecast. Many want to produce work that goes beyond CAD-driven images in an exploration of a more thoughtful, ethically aware architecture.

Having recently completed my BA at Sheffield, and as a writer for the RIBA student newsletter, I’ve come across a series of recurring concerns among young architects. There is an overwhelming apprehension about the rise of, as friend of mine said, ‘the starchitect celebrity designer drafted in to produce a design icon’. Peter Morrison of RMJM’s recent comments on ‘architects as stylists’ shows this worry is not confined to students. Such a trend might raise public awareness of The Architect, but it is questionable whether this is constructive or beneficial. ‘Architecture lite’ TV shows and magazine articles presenting glossy projects risk creating a public perception of an industry defined by image and fad, while the grass-roots values of architects addressing issues of community, identity, site-specific, brief-specific and deeply sustainable (as opposed to token sustainable) projects are often ‘marginalised to the relative obscurity of architectural press and teaching within architectural schools’. (Dan Tassell, Part 1 student at Haworth Tompkins).

There appears to be a backlash against the commercial tide among some students and young practices, who are recoiling from projects that as a priority seek to satisfy corporate end-goals. Students have a growing preference to immerse ourselves in work that is local, small scale and brief specific, which allows us to pursue our personal ideals as to what architecture should be.

This was evident in the Sheffield BA final year, where students chose to undertake projects such as garden allotments, old people’s homes and boat-yards. Not exactly glamorous-sounding briefs, but should we be here for the glamour? Surely we’re here to produce ‘good’ schemes, and ‘good environment’. Young architects are seeking out what we mean by ‘good’. Tonkin Liu’s Singing Ringing Tree lookout in East Lancashire (right) is an inspiring example of a built project that challenged our sense of value. In its inventiveness and considered use of materials, costing only £60,000 to build, it is a reminder that kudos (and column inches in the architectural press) isn’t just about a price tag.

Beat the stereotype

I know I’m not the only junior who feels uneasy about the stereotypical architect figure, dressed head-to-toe in black, carrying an attitude that says ‘It’s an architectural thing. You wouldn’t understand’. I like to think that isn’t a fair representation of where we are, or who we are, in 2008. If we are to engage with a wider audience, the designer clique’s tendency to take a smug pride in itself will have to go.

“The smug pride the designer clique tends takes in itself will have to go if we are to engage with a wider audience”

Perhaps one of the ways to overcome the stereotype would be through greater acknowledgment of the collaborative relationships that are inherent in the industry. As Ellen van Loon highlighted in her talk at the 2007 RIBA international conference, a project is never one person’s creation but rather a series of copyrights that come together.

On my own year out, I have sought a greater understanding of the marriage between architecture and structure. During my placement with Buro Happold engineers I’ve been struck by how little I appreciated the importance of in-practice working relationships. The course at Sheffield University is rare in encouraging projects that forced us, often reluctantly, to work together in groups rather than allowing us to cruise through the course producing self-referential, self-satisfying projects. At its best the studio group work, with its clashes of ideas, personalities and viewpoints, was both hugely exasperating and amazingly gratifying. With hindsight, the importance of instilling a willingness to work collaboratively, at an early stage in our education, is becoming clear.

The era of the independent ‘lifestyle’ architect is all but extinct. We find ourselves blinking in the fierce light of corporate demands, stringent guidelines, bureaucratic wrangling and a widespread attitude of cheap-build large-profit. If the next generation of designers starting up in practice is to succeed, we’re going to have to become better at working with people from other design disciplines.

Hopefully there will be a greater acknowledgement of the synergy that results from multidisciplinary collaboration – the like of which is so evident when you visit studios at the Royal College of Art or the Bartlett, where projects are explored through film, theatre and product design.

The unveiling of Zaha Hadid’s Cultural Centre in Azerbaijan, dedicated to a former KGB chief, and the ensuing ethical debate is evidence of the concern felt within the industry and by many students about the wider challenges we must face up to: what will we accept, or rather how far are we prepared to compromise? Are we willing to participate in projects that threaten community or environment? Will we design centres for armaments, prisons, zoos, military bases, animal-testing laboratories?

Acknowledge consequences

The brief given to students at Kent University’s School of Architecture to ‘design, construct and draw a full-scale operable prototype torture device based on ergonomic principles’ (with a building for Amnesty International as the final aim of the project) was controversial, but it acted as a shocking demand for students to acknowledge the consequences of their work, and to consider their own ethical stance.

“We want to slow down and develop a deeper understanding of the built environment and its historical roots, as Ted Cullinan has done”

A rise in studies that provoke debate and demand we have an opinion on what we deem to be ‘right’ or ‘good’ architecture can’t be such a bad thing. I’ve come across a handful of students seeking radical new directions in the politics of design, but these explorations tend to be fringe. More often the focus is towards new movements in form-making and computer modelling – for a while, we seemed to forget that the computer can only ever be a tool that we direct, and is not a tool to direct us. CAD creates a veil of perception that can distance us from the realities of a project.

As a generation, we are lucky to have a handful of excellent young practices setting an example with projects that test boundaries and explore new approaches to design, with results that are colourful, playful, explorative but still have serious underlying ideals. Nor are they so avant-garde as to refuse to engage with the architectural community – work by the likes of young practices Public Works, 6a, de Rijke Marsh Morgan, AOC spring to mind, with the more established practices Haworth Tompkins, Fat and David Adjaye demonstrating we can maintain focus without sacrificing our ideals.

However, open up a design magazine showcasing ‘latest houses’ or ‘emerging architecture’ and it’s likely you’ll be looking at projects in Spain, Japan, South America. It is interesting that many of my classmates are taking two years out post-Part-1 to gain experience overseas, in practices in the Netherlands, Spain and Japan.

A wish to experience the design culture of another country perhaps indicates a desire to slow down and develop a deeper understanding of the built environment and its historical roots. Ted Cullinan is an excellent example of someone who has doggedly pursued a go-slow, grow-slow attitude to design: in his Royal Gold Medal lecture in February he spoke of the deep effect visits to Dudok’s Hilversum Town Hall, Corbusier’s Villa Savoie and Van Allen’s Chrysler Tower had had on him as a young architect.

My classmates and I are sheepish about how few renowned projects we’ve seen in the flesh, settling for photographs and reviews. CAD allows us to get away with this, but there is a danger in being seduced by the computer-generated image when we are dealing in a discipline defined by three dimensions. We cannot practise architecture without having seen, smelt and touched much of it hands-on. Not even the best 3D rendering can capture the intangible emotive qualities of a space. In the light of this, it is a shame that funding for events such as Open House and New London Architecture, which provided invaluable opportunities to see behind closed doors, has been dramatically cut.

From nursery to A-levels we are a generation squeezed through a spoon-fed education system that depends on box ticking and grade attainment. It took me the first three years of the BA course to begin to appreciate that in architecture, not only are we allowed to explore, but it is essential that we do so, and credit must go to those tutors who persist in showing us how to broaden our outlook.

No finishing line

Brought up in a fast-response media era where everything is immediately accessible, it took me a while to realise this is a lifetime’s career that doesn’t have one finish line – Oscar Niemeyer is testimony to this. We will not find The Solution but instead will spend forever turning over and reassessing a Rubik’s cube of options. If, after three years’ study, we emerge with the ability to question rather than accept, debate rather than meekly receive, then our universities will have done their job. After all, architectural progress surely relies on our eagerness to challenge and to question.

Zoe Berman is working at Buro Happold as a Part 1 architectural assistant

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