- Words by Finn Harries
As increasing numbers of disgruntled students take to the streets (or group video calls) in defiance of a system that threatens their future, the gatekeepers of higher education remain alarmingly quiet. Despite what they may preach, academic institutions tend to be reluctant to embrace systemic change. As established bodies of knowledge, power and wealth, anything that threatens to destabilise the status quo risks undermining the institution itself. Although many were founded on progressive ideals, the larger and older they grow the more their survival relies on protecting a carefully constructed order of hierarchy and tradition. But there is a balancing act. An institution’s prestige is defined by the public’s perception of its ability to stay culturally, socially and intellectually relevant.
Architectural education has always enjoyed a sense of prestige as an academic and creative pursuit. Its seven-year period of education puts it in line with the vocational commitments required to train as a doctor or a lawyer. It is understood that the goal of this extended tutelage is to produce architects who can engage in a highly complex dance between multiple disciplines in order to successfully shape the built environment.Yet the institutions who provide this education and those that regulate it, such as the ARB and RIBA, have been caught off guard.
Students are alarmingly ill-prepared to navigate one of the greatest challenges they will face throughout their careers
After seven years of dedicated studying, students are emerging alarmingly ill-prepared to navigate one of the greatest challenges they will face throughout their careers as architects. It is no longer a question of whether the global climate will change but how significantly and how fast. These questions will be answered in part by the action that is or isn’t taken by these new graduates. It cannot be overemphasised how important architectural education is to both mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis.The built environment contributes around 40 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint (UKGBC). Architectural education must equip students with the tools not only to understand the challenge ahead of them, but to enable them to help cut carbon emissions to the necessary net zero by 2050 (IPCC). This requires an immediate and significant shift in the way we teach architectural design, from addressing the embodied and operational carbon of our buildings, to developing a deeper understanding of ecology and natural ecosystems.
Most importantly, we must embrace a cultural shift in the way we think about design. There is a sense that teaching ‘sustainable’ design means restricting creative freedom. That advocating certain materials or emphasising environmental sensitivity limits a project’s potential rather than opening up new possibilities.This couldn’t be further from the truth. Designers thrive within reasonable parameters and restrictions.The more specific the brief, the more focused the creative innovation can be. We have to let go of the idea that contemporary architecture is limited only by the imagination of the designer and the CPU of their computer.There are ecological ceilings and environmental tipping points and our failure to address them has led us right to the precipice. It is time for reform.The first step to taking action on climate change for any institution is telling the truth about the severity of the situation we’re facing.This requires a critical and self-reflective process. For architectural education it means putting climate literacy, ecological regeneration and cultural transformation at the heart of a new pedagogy. It means conceding that our current system is failing to provide the most basic requirement of any academic institution, which is simply to best prepare students for the future, no matter how uncertain or challenging it may be.