Citizen spoke to Sixth Formers at the Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney to find out how and why they want to get into architecture

Power to the future

Perhaps you could start by telling me about what you are all studying right now and what you hope to be doing career-wise in the future, and how the subjects you study at uni might fit with that.

David: I am in Year 12, I am doing product design, Spanish and English. I hope to study architecture.

Tamsin: I am studying, English, art and history. I am in Year 12, and I hope to be able to study architecture at Cambridge or UCL.

Louis: I am in Year 13, I am studying maths, further maths and physics, and I have applied to study engineering.

Ruby: I am studying Spanish, geography and art. I am undecided, to be honest, but I like the idea of architecture.

Merve: I am in Year 12 and am studying maths, further maths and physics. I am hoping to study architecture at UCL.

Hamza: I am in Year 12 and I am studying classics, philosophy & ethics and product design.

Why those subjects? Was it just a case of doing what your career advisor suggested?

Merve: For me, I wanted to play to my strengths. Even if that means choosing a ‘hard’ subject. I’m able to stay motivated because it’s something I love doing. For me, physics and maths are a strength, and ever since I can remember, I’ve been creative in some sense. So, when trying to select which career to do in the future, I was thinking, ‘architecture is the best pathway to make use of these two strengths’. I’m hoping that since architecture is something I’m very interested in I’ll remain motivated, even if it’s as hard as I’ve heard.

Are there any other things that led to your interest in studying architecture?

 Merve: I believe that every building has a story to it and I want to be part of making those new stories for new kinds of architecture.

David: I want to study architecture because it’s so essential to the world. You walk into a building every single day, and sometimes you just think to yourself, ‘Well … how did this come to be?’ I am not sure when, but at some point, I started asking questions like: ‘Why are the toilets there? Why do you need to walk through a to get to b and c?’ I know that many people may overlook these kinds of things. But, I want to understand these decisions and then become someone that puts that understanding into action.

David, if I can follow up on that, are you saying that you wanted to get involved to question the process?

David: Sort of, I’ve grown up in London, I’ve seen The Shard and The Gherkin, and perhaps from the first time I saw them I was asking, what kind of shapes are these? Why are they so intrusive? Do they have to be like that? These questions lingered, and after some point, I answered myself: ‘I see why it’s so dominant, because it’s the head of the city, in that sense’. That’s central London! Everyone around the world sees these buildings. I’d say these ideas were floating around my head aged about eight, nine.

Louis, I know you participated in the pre-architecture course at MCA, but now you’ve switched from architecture to engineering, why was that? Can you talk me through that thought process?

Louis: Engineering was always my primary focus really, though architecture was something to dabble in to see if it would sway me. It comes down to what I wanted to design: systems and the mathematical side of things. There are lots of things that I can take from the course though; like knowledge of CAD software and general thinking skills, as well as knowledge of how these two professions work together.

Ruby, Tamsin, what do you think your first years as an architecture student are going to be like? What do you think you will study?

Ruby: I’m not sure what it will be like. I haven’t had the chance to look into it that much, but I imagine over the first year we’ll be doing a lot of measuring and a lot of drawings and developing ideas. I’m interested in the feelings of spaces though, so I am hoping we’ll be able to play around with that too.

Tamsin: I think the same to be honest, lots of introductory stuff, drawing and more drawing. I’ve been looking at the similarities and differences between courses – I think I’m more interested in design than theory, so craft and aesthetics are important to me, both for the exterior and the interior.

Are there any architects or designers who inspire you?

Louis: Buro Happold and Arup definitely, they’ve been involved in so many noteworthy projects.

David: Perhaps Foster + Partners.

Hamza: RSH+P, who designed the school building we are currently based in.

Tamsin: I like architecture when it makes a strong visual statement, especially the late modern architects like Zaha Hadid.

What sort of things do you think will inspire you apart from architecture? Do you think there’s a way to draw on these things or is it just about referencing what’s been built?

Merve: I think we can get a lot of inspiration from nature. This is already being done in areas like structural design and engineering. Sometimes when people can’t solve problems, they find solutions by looking at nature. I think while studying architecture and looking at an aspect that is quite challenging, nature is going to be an important sourcebook for me.

Louis: I guess I want to say nature too, but in a slightly different way. I’m from the Highlands and so the idea of a building being a good fit is important. You can have the most beautiful building in the world. But if it doesn’t fit with its surroundings, then it’s pointless. To achieve a good relationship, nature has to be at the core of early conceptual development.

Tamsin: I’m really into art and I think that is going to be an ongoing inspiration for me. At the moment we are looking at post-minimalism and artists like Tara Donovan who works with sculptures and installations. Her works are a bit weird, with everyday things; plastic wrapping and styrofoam cups, tape and paper plates used to create all sorts of curvy, wavy forms. She plays with texture and transparency in ways that shift the way we see light moving through space.

What do you think the biggest challenge you’ll expect to overcome on your journey to becoming an architect?

Ruby: Having the strength to put forward your ideas even if they sound a bit absurd! Like the Sydney Opera House in Australia, Jørn Utzon had to have incredible courage to get that built. It was just so new. I know that is something I am going to have to work on. Then the course itself … I feel like it’s going to be fun, but 11 out of 10 HARD!

Louis: I can’t see any major obstacles to be fair even though I’m not doing architecture, I think this course at the MCA has helped me feel less overwhelmed about going into architecture/ engineering. Usually, if you don’t know anyone who’s an architect or an engineer, if you don’t have any experience of it and what it entails – then that can be tough mentally to conceptualise what they do, and it all feels a bit abstract. But we got to go into the offices of RSHP and I think that’s made so many parts of the job less of an unknown.

David: I think the most challenging thing will be forgetting what you think you know, to develop a new approach to developing ideas. In some ways I disagree with Louis, yes it’s not an unknown but at the moment, we don’t really know much. We have an idea, but we are going to have to learn how to think in a very specific way.

And when you eventually get there, get into an architecture studio that is, how do you hope to impact the way people live?

Tamsin: I think it’s quite interesting how architecture evolves and changes with humanity, science and technology. For example, our old school was first used as a Huguenot hospital in the late Victorian period, then becoming a Catholic school, then finally a state secondary. At every stage, the way people interacted with that building changed, but there was always a trace of what was there before. I find that quite interesting.

David: Many different things are happening around the world, and there are so many places to make a difference, but global warming and things like that have to be at the forefront. I aspire to keep our environment safe not just for now but for the future as well.

Louis: We’ve worked with Buro Happold as part of the programme and that showed different societal and cultural aspects to consider, as an engineer and as an architect. It really goes beyond: ‘Does this building look pretty?’ We have to look at whether we have the money and materials for it. How will this fit into the landscape? I think the building’s sustainable design is important, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be damaging the environment and the landscape around it.

You’ve all touched on the need to address societal issues, cultural issues and sustainability. Do you see these as the biggest challenges in society today?

David: I would say housing is the biggest challenge, that’s where you see the big environmental, social and economic issues affecting peoples lives, and there are huge differences in what people are experiencing. On a random street, you might see tower blocks congested on one side and, on the other side, you would see private estates or that type of thing.

This sort of divide still exists in London. To tackle that, architects should be looking for ways to make these differences less evident. Of course, there will still be social and economic differences, but I think evening out the visible differences will change the way people feel.

Ruby: Housing is a key issue for me too. I used to go to Clapton Girls School, near the Carpenters Estate and the Olympic Park, and the discrepancies and inequalities are so blatant. It’s something that we’ve discussed a lot in school for geography, it’s a huge issue around Hackney, the ongoing regeneration or is it gentrification?

If you go down to the Olympic Park and Stratford it’s just like a parallel world. Old versus new: it’s quite upsetting when you see one side of the city with tall shiny buildings and shopping centres, and then there are estates where there are broken windows and corner shops that are just … The reputation of areas like that eventually goes down. I think it’s very important to make sure that there’s affordable council social housing provided alongside regeneration projects like the one delivered for the Olympics.

Hamza: I think there are more basic issues that need attention, like how it feels to be walking through space as a pedestrian. We went on a field trip once and experienced a wind tunnel. As we walked around the area we saw that people’s bags were getting blown around, shopping spilling all over the place, and the displays just kept falling over – it was obvious that this was caused by the way the building was placed. I think carefully planning these things is important.

It sounds like you’d be interested in the work of Jan Gehl, he has been working for decades to make cities more liveable and more walkable. Closer to home though, is there a part of your city or neighbourhood in Hackney that you think is a bit of a disaster?

Louis: I think some regeneration projects result in a loss of character for an area rather than an enhancement. I think Hackney Wick isn’t quite a disaster but they could have done more. I think there were so many attractive buildings, but now the ones that stand in their place … They don’t exactly have the most character.

Tamsin: I live in Hackney Wick, Louis! But it’s true. It’s really upsetting to see how they’ve changed everything. Character and personality seem drained away. It just kind of feels like every other place. I feel like a lot of London has become like that. Everything feels and looks sort of samey.

Merve: I don’t know anywhere awful, but I know somewhere that works. Stoke Newington! Yes, I know I am biased because I live there, but the buildings are nicely structured and it still holds its character. There is also a nice balance between nature and the buildings. For example, in the area I live, there is a small sliver of green that threads through some of the streets. It’s not quite a park but it’s enough to add some green to the area and connects the shops and the houses smoothly.

Otherwise, though, the people are a form of architecture in themselves. They are lively, their faces are characterful. It’s uncommon for London.

Extending your idea of people shaping our understanding of space Merve, what part do you think non-architects have in making architecture?

Merve: I think even the way people dress is part of ‘making architecture’. They are a part of that world, after all. So, even the way people dress and the way they walk, the way they interact, that adds character and a structure to the place. It makes it more alive. That’s why I especially like the Stoke Newington area, because people are unique in their own way, including the way they dress. So sometimes I want to go out and see those people and not only the buildings. Occasionally, going out to see new people and new faces is enough to inspire me and boost my creativity.

Ruby: What is ‘architecture’? … You can turn drawings from nursery classes into a theoretical type of architecture or even the basis for conceptual form. You can take inspiration from anything and anyone. I definitely think there is more to the making of architecture than spending six years in training.

Tamsin: When people express themselves creatively, they can make their own architecture and add to their surroundings, they affect the way we view that area. In central London there are a lot of places where people look so dry, go to Liverpool Street and it’s a totally different feel to around here – there are a lot of young workers and that seems to shift the way you read the architecture: everything becomes tough and hard-edged.

Louis: Obviously, there’s a lot of technical skill required to be an architect. But in terms of culture and character, like the others have said people influence architecture. A lot of the character of Hackney Wick came from people. Ordinary people can make a place their own in so many ways.

Thinking back to what we were saying earlier, perhaps one of the reasons why I don’t like Hackney Wick right now is because people haven’t made it their own yet.

And how could leaders be part of helping people to make it their own?

Louis: One thing that I am an advocate for is rather than tearing down old buildings (unless they’re uninhabitable) is to retrofit them. That way, there’s a lot of historical value kept in the area. This should be prioritised over complete new-builds.

Looking forward where do you see architecture going in the next few years? Are there any technological advances that excite you?

Louis: Well, during the pandemic, my family were hoping to move house. We couldn’t go to any viewings, but we were able to use VR and AR plugins online to get a view into our potential new home. I think this will become more common and have even more uses. Architects will put their clients into the new space, instead of a render, they will be ‘inside’ a new building or a new piece of the city. This is already common in product design, so it makes sense that it will shift across to the architectural sector.

Ruby: The future is exciting, but perhaps a little worrying. With more and more CGIs and 3D software tools, it becomes less about model making and more using digital means to shape the feelings of spaces, their interiors and exteriors. That might be helpful in some ways, but also it takes away that aspect of materiality. I like to feel close to what I’m doing. There is something that is gained when the object is created with your own hands.

David: Twenty years ago, we didn’t really have mobile phones as we think of them now. So, in about 10 years, who knows, holograms, digital buildings all those types of things. It’s hard to tell what the future is going to bring. Reality itself probably will change, we can expect to see and walk through the building without it actually being tangible.

Tamsin: It’s quite interesting. Things are changing and digital technology is bringing progress, but there is a subtle feeling of disconnection as well. I don’t want to get to a point where we can’t touch and sense anything any more, or where I can’t feel the space around me. If we look at fashion, they’re moving to a high-tech space too, with things like digital dresses.

But where does one wear a digital dress to?

Tamsin: Well you’ll be emailed a digital code, and then you put it on different virtual websites.

So, soon I could put a picture up on Instagram of me wearing a digital garment, on the terrace of my digital penthouse?

Tamsin: Something like that.


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