- Interview by Peter Buchanan & Jason Sayer
James Soane, Kirti Durelle & Kat Martindale
James Soane is Director of Research at the LSA. He leads ‘Critical Practice’ which comprises two modules: Critical Practice Placement and Critical Practice Theory, which both run in the First Year. In teaching the module, James is assisted by Kirti Durelle and Kat Martindale.
What is ‘Critical Practice’?
James Soane: Critical Practice is the part of the LSA course where we ask students to research, reflect on and propose ideas about how architecture is practiced. There are two adjacent Critical Practice modules — Placement and Theory — that generate friction between speculation about architecture and speculating within architecture. This premise is at the heart of the LSA philosophy: that the dialogue between the process of designing and the trajectory of practising is common to the education of an architect at all stages of their career. By examining the activity and outcome of architectural production, we, as a school, are looking to uncover and propose different models of practice and praxis. Why? During these uncertain times and with the Climate Emergency foregrounding our thoughts, we need to develop radical new strategies for a carbon positive environment and to recalibrate humanity’s relationship with the planet.
Why was Critical Practice set up?
JS: Part of the LSA vision is to unite academia and practice. Professional practice is currently being farmed out and disaggregated from university education and this just reinforces the notion that professionalism and practice is outside your education. But there is a move within the RIBA to encourage schools to reintroduce professional practice throughout the whole course, which is what we’re doing. And there is a call for universities to deliver in seven years a final qualification which is fully professional. After seven years you’re a professional architect. At the moment, students leave, and it might take them another three to five years to get their professional practice qualification.
What’s the difference between Critical Practice: Placement and Critical Practice: Theory?
JS: For the placement side of things, we ask students to ground their speculations in an examination of how they, or rather their office, is currently practising. Using their workplace as the primary site of investigation, they’re invited to explore the relationship between process and product, ideas and outcomes. we ask them to critically examine the actual process of creative and commercial decision-making within your practice environment. With a particular focus on the forces that shape client-focused/ commissioned work – from cost constraints and regulation to environmental performance – the module aims to enhance your ability to process and prioritise complicated and competing demands. The end result of all this is a Manual which demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the student’s practice experience alongside a detailed analysis of one or more of the practice’s projects.
With regards to theory, we ask students to articulate an ideal of how they would like to practise in the future. It relates contemporary practice to theories and ideas from within architecture and beyond it, examining the role of the architect in larger contexts, from the construction industry and the creative economy through to humanity and the geosphere. For this, the students produce a Manifesto that articulates a personal statement of purpose about how they might operate in the future.
Architecture goes well beyond buildings and the city. It’s about ownership and other huge economic, cultural and social questions: who makes decisions that affect us and are thereby political? In the LSA’s early days, I worried we were discussing quite activist politics. But as I researched, discussed and thought about it, and saw how it affected students, the more important it became to explain why the political and the architectural are now absolutely entwined. Not to see that is wilful and a lot of architecture schools ignore it as an inconvenient truth.
What is the role of a Critical Practice tutor?
JS: Our role is mentoring, not indoctrinating students. As a team we give feedback and assessments, seeking a balance between being creative and experimental yet being rigorous and demonstrating real research.
Kirti Durelle: We’re there to guide them through understanding different ways of looking at how architects, and practitioners of all kinds operate. They’re opened up to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and it’s about managing that process and making sure they get the most out of it — because this part of the course plays a big part in their LSA journey.
How was Critical Practice set up as something distinct from history and theory?
JS: In universities architectural theory became so separate from architectural practice as to be a different discipline. The LSA’s founding commitment to reconnect academia and practice transcended aspiration; it was urgently needed. Critical Practice’s two parallel modules collide practice and theory to help students reflect upon their work placement — another unique aspect of the LSA. Reflecting upon practice creates a new route into architectural theory.
Are there things left out at the LSA compared to more conventional theory course?
JS: There is no time to describe and share much of current architectural ideas and theories nor penetrate deeply. Instead, we create a map locating ideas so students can link them rather than treating theory as isolated specialisms. Then the manifesto assignment allows students, as appropriate to a master’s level, to range wide and dig deep.
KD: I sometimes wonder whether anchoring theory and history around or within practice places students in a position that (especially the manifesto) makes them think of their own future practice. And I wonder if there is scope to help them widen their definition of what their future practice may be, to include other forms of spatial practices, perhaps or less directly related to the work that they’ve seen in their placement.
Kat Martindale: Where they’re working now isn’t where they will be working in five, ten, twenty years, and understanding different models of practice is really important. And not just different models of architecture practice, but in different fields with a different focus.
Could you give an example?
JS: In Critical Practice Placement, we tell students what technical criteria are pertinent and stipulate they demonstrate knowledge of construction and technology’s role in shaping the built environment. We follow through by requiring a technical case study.
Do you expand the technical aspects into other fields, such as sustainability?
JS: Not specifically, but we encourage it through conversations, books on the reading list and the seminars. We include technical criteria in the theory module, allowing discussion of technology within a theoretical framework, rather than as with other schools confining them to the technology modules.
Academia and conferences always ask the same questions: what should and can we, teach? What is missing? But many teachers won’t look at the whole picture, as something that’s joined up.
However, we also need to change expectations that studying architecture produces genius practitioners. By contrast, the LSA embeds notions of collaboration, sharing, co-creation at the heart of its mission. Collaborative practice is the future and that takes the pressure off. It creates the sense of ‘ok, I don’t know everything, but might know someone who does’.
How do you as teachers begin to teach or introduce that they are going to be analysing methods and modes of practice — not just what is being produced but how it is being produced professionally.
KD: How the seminars are organised is where we try to this, typically by… breaking down the research process. We try to engage the student first and get them to look at their practice placement office, trying to gradually tease out what might be the driving factors. What seem to be the big ideas, the overarching ambition. Once those are identified, it’s about linking those with the everyday things practices do.
JS: The Critical Practice manual is a way to explore the multi-dimensional nature of practice. We’ve had brilliant submissions. One student wrote her whole manual about a gutter detail. This sounds unpromising, but she listed all the iterations of the design and its development, used that to explain all its other aspects. There are creative ways of understanding practice and how it operates.
Citizen Is there a gap in time between the manual and manifesto?
JS: Universities want courses as modules that don’t overlap. We persuaded our provider [London Metropolitan University] to allow overlapping modules. So, we deliver content in the first module and feedback in the second and try to connect them. Students’ final presentations often how the manifesto and manual informed their final project. They don’t see them as separate but as research that is then applied.
How do students respond to this being quite a wordy module?
JS: Many academics said our written requirement was too short. Six years ago when we started, dissertations elsewhere were a minimum of 5,000 words. Yet academic publications were reducing the length of chapters, so academics claiming to have written a chapter for a reputable book found that at only 3,500 words it wasn’t counted as an academic reference. Now there’s a growing understanding that 3000-ish words can be valuable academic research, if well done.
KM: Students are often concerned that 3,000 words is not enough. A lot of the time I talk to them about refinement and focusing their thesis, doing one thing well and comprehensively.
JS: The manual and manifesto are both part of Critical Practice but with different purposes. The manual is analytical and based on students’ experience and their ability to understand an organisation clearly and analytically. The manifesto asks students to argue for a position that is constantly referenced, not just “this is what I think” but plugging into another network of ideas, a piece of academic work rather than a magazine article.
How are practices responding?
JS: We discuss Critical Practice with the practice network twice yearly. The feedback is very positive, describing how their practice is being altered, changed or evolving because of conversations and exchanges with the LSA. An early example: Grimshaw, a huge practice, changed its induction process for Part 1 and 2 students from being part of the LSA for two years.