Implications for architectural education


Thoughts sparked by the competition entry for an extension to the architectural school at Liverpool University by Grafton Architects

What more does the previous essay on evolution, culture and architecture imply for architectural education, its place in the larger spectrum of tertiary education and, if in a university, where it should happen on campus? The following thoughts are sparked by a competition design by Grafton Architects for reworking and extending Liverpool University’s architectural school. The extension was to fit into a new campus masterplan between the existing school and a new open space, the James Stirling Park, proposed as the verdant centre of the university. Provocatively, Grafton placed its design entry on this park, and so was probably dismissed on these grounds. Yet the design, dubbed the Canopy of Light, is explicitly, if abstractly, modelled on a grove of trees, an apt enough substitute aptly evoking the original Academy, a grove outside ancient Athens. Precisely this placing of an architectural school at the centre of a university, with its allusions to history and nature, and heightening of perceptions of ambient phenomena, and then its design as an instrument to be actively tuned and played, all make it significant to our discussion here. Not least of the reasons to admire it is that it is simultaneously typically modern, a functional and flexible gadget, and yet also a cultural artefact evoking connections with the Athenian Academy and its arboreal setting.

Beyond that, other virtues arguably more than compensate for losing part of the park and resonate with the spirit of our times. Although central to the campus, the competition site is rather removed from the larger city. Grafton’s building is deliberately visible and accessible from both city and campus at the head of a broad open space linking it with the prominent landmark of Liverpool’s Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral. Creating a potent new entrance to the campus, this could be used by the university and for more publicly oriented events so inviting in the city and linking ‘town and gown’. As claimed on the competition submission: ‘The school could become a destination point for students and citizens to develop visions for architecture, to attend presentations and debates about the city, about the landscape, about the future of our shared planet.’ All never more pertinent than now.

Shown here, the submission is a dense array of images, ideas and information crammed into the limited space the competition conditions dictated. Even if deemed admissible, it is easy to understand that its promise might not be immediately grasped. Readers are encouraged to zoom into the drawings and study them. More than usual, the design invites, even demands, using the imagination to explore and envisage the various modes of use it promotes and so help come to terms with it. Rather than a conventional building, it is a dynamically flexible system – a structural-spatial, subdividing and climate-modulating system. This mechanistic description is accurate enough. But it is at odds with the abundant use of wood (CLT) and denies the poetry that comes from its evocations of arboreal nature and the presence everywhere of such ambient natural phenomena as shifting sunbeams, spattering and pooling rain, and convection-driven air movement. The building thus hyper-sensitises occupants to these changing conditions and energies that architecture modulates and draws upon, so itself directly imparting a primary lesson in architectural education. All this comes with the provision of highly adaptable space of resonant yet non-determinist character – and the further animation of ever-changing views of the many kinds of activity taking place.

Unlike most buildings, it would not dictate a limited range of use options. Instead, it is an instrument to be played in collaborative unison, inviting creative and imaginative exploration of its enormous range of possibilities while drawing out similar potentials from students and tutors. Just playing with this instrument would be a wonderful lesson in exploring configurative possibilities, modulating relationships between spaces and activities, and perhaps in negotiating users’ conflicting demands. This is a second key architectural lesson the building itself imparts directly. The impression is that, especially with such a crammed presentation, the jury would have lacked time to deeply engage in this spirit of imaginative exploration. Perhaps too it could have been misled by the large plan (usually the first thing architect-jurors study) that gives an unflattering impression of congested and regimented multi-cellularity. Whatever, a radical concept needing time to digest would likely have been seriously underestimated. Readers are encouraged to examine and ponder the presentation boards of the competition design, zooming in to study the drawings and text, and paying due attention to the board with explanatory text and diagrams. It could yet prove to be one of those designs that fails to win an architectural competition but is discussed ever after, even if executing it might have raised technical challenges, particularly in the moving and acoustic isolation of the partitions.

However, being argued here is not that Grafton should have won. The winning design by O’Donnell + Tuomey promises to be a fine building. Rather, what follows are musings that push to an extreme some themes already aired in the previous essay and the possible implications of Grafton’s design, implications latent, not explicit.

Before elaborating these, it is as well to be reminded of the obvious. As architects, we would say so – and most architecture, for reasons often outside the control of the architect as well as constrained by modern and/or postmodern dogma, falls far short of what it could and should be – yet architecture really does differ from other disciplines. In a nutshell: it is a field for generalist polymaths (or teams, to which consultants are intrinsic, that together fuse polymathic skills); and is concerned with the integrative synthesis and effective application of a vast range of knowledge and skills through design and construction – often after advancing, discussing and selecting from a range of propositions. These propositions relate not only to physical, spatial and strategic design, but also purpose, function and decorum.

Moreover, architecture is the setting for almost everything we do from birth to death. Besides accommodating all these activities, it shapes their relationship to other activities, spaces and views, their mood and meaning, and in myriad ways enhances or detracts from activities within and without. It is the creative discipline that, very much more than any other, draws on and synthesises most other disciplines. It is technical and artistic; rooted in and carrying forward the past while addressing the future; draws on human sciences such as psychology and sociology, the natural sciences of biology and ecology, and the hard sciences of physics and chemistry; applies the latter in construction and shaping comfort conditions; combines aesthetics and semiotics; requires competence in finance, management and logistical organisation; and so on – an endless list.

Together with agriculture, it has transformed the planet, now ushering in the Anthropocene (if that term is not problematic for blaming all humankind including Indigenous peoples living in relative harmony with nature). Besides, sheltering us and shaping every aspect of our complex lives, architecture, together with culture, of which it is a subcomponent, has in many ways created our inner worlds, who we are and our sense of belonging in the world. It is impossible to overstate its impact and importance, the constancy and intimacy of our relationship with it. And yet it is not given its due, particularly in academia, which should know better. Precisely the intimate familiarity as the ever-present backdrop to our lives robs architecture of the attention it deserves and so it is the least discussed of the arts, as an art – our relative blindness explained exactly in the familiar water and fish analogy as well as the proverb: familiarity breeds contempt. Even then, considering its centrality to our lives, the architectural faculty’s usual peripheral location on campus and the prosaic design of its typical building is striking. The new Liverpool building is exceptional in its privileged, central location and being subject of a design competition with a prestigious jury including Ken Frampton, Juhani Pallasmaa and Michael Wilford.

An architectural faculty’s more typical location indicates the underestimation of the significance of architecture’s centrality to life, its lowly academic status and that it is often an uneasy fit within academia. Seeking academic respectability (such as by hiring PhDs rather than skilled professionals) tends to be educationally counterproductive, resulting in the current schisms between academia and practice, and the disconnection of history and theory from the studio and the rest of the curriculum. In our ever more complex world, architects must still be generalists, open-minded and multidisciplinary explorers and synthesisers, collaborative and integrationist. Ideally, although often not in reality, this should put them at odds with the world of ever more specialisation and fragmentation into competing, uncollaborative fiefdoms that characterises academia. And if architecture is to be pertinent to our times it must move beyond academia’s narrow taboos. These include those inherited from modernity (such as against anything suggestive of teleology or the spiritual) and postmodernity (such as against hierarchy and so prioritisation – thus even rejecting the empirical because of the unsustainable assertion that everything is socially constructed).

Dealing with a fast-moving real world, architects tend to resist such dogma and focus on the usefulness and immediate applicability of knowledge. But the negative influence of academia makes even architects slow to embrace 21st-century integrative thinking particularly apt to their field, such as Integral metatheory or Spiral Dynamics. Yet precisely such thinking is desperately needed to meet the challenges of our time, particularly in dealing with so-called Wicked problems (multi-dimensional, multi-causal, involving multiple stakeholders and specialisms). In line with such thinking, the architectural school (or better, faculty of environmental and cultural design) should be the central building on campus that applies design thinking to integrate all the ongoing inputs from other faculties. The crit room would now be expanded into a grand central forum to which scholars from other disciplines come and contribute to ongoing research and debate, and participate in the ongoing process of design synthesis resulting in strategic and physical propositions.

Yet doesn’t this stop short of the logical conclusion, one that will be dismissed as preposterous but still worth airing to help move us beyond the stuck states of modernity and postmodernity? What if the entire university and its campus were dedicated to envisaging and bringing about a whole new level of living on and with the planet. We could then consciously and deliberately live our evolutionary purpose of bringing about ever more revelatory ways of being fully human, more deeply and lovingly engaged with and responsible for all that evolution has brought forth along with the dynamic processes that sustain these to bring ever more creative unfolding.

Obviously, such studies are beyond the scope of any single faculty or single course of study, a problem compounded because the forms of environmental design and the ways they are considered and pursued have alone dramatically increased in complexity. In relation to these, current architectural courses are so severely curtailed as to cover only very cursorily many disciplines any serious practice must already command, such as urban and landscape design, ecology, a wide range of engineering disciplines and management expertise. Even in what may be considered more pure architectural design, focus is often only on concept or proposition – barely developed beyond the diagrammatic – at the expense of other matters such as the honing of craft, as well as of sensibility and judgement. Architects need practical knowledge and skills, yet these last, more aesthetic and slowly mastered concerns, are also crucial if architects are to fulfil their potential. Hence architects of enormous talent in their youth – as were, say, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier – only enter their mature phase in later years, these architects being in their late sixties when building Falling Water and Ronchamp.

Proposed then is replacing the current architectural school and university, with their set courses and hierarchy of qualifications, with perhaps a new kind of institution visited at several points through life to study a range of courses of differing length. These might include day or weekend courses while at school, to workshops and CPD courses selected from a broad range and participated in at any age in what becomes a personally curated lifetime of education. This institution would be dedicated to exploring and mastering the specific way of manifesting our evolutionary purpose that each of us chooses as best, drawing on and expanding our talents. By ‘learning our living’ in this way, we creatively participate in and maximally contribute to the ongoing development of people and planet.

More from Issue 03