- Interview by Peter Buchanan & Jason Sayer
First things first, how, when and why did you get into teaching?
I came to the UK in 1985 and, as an Irish passport holder, couldn’t afford to study full-time. You had to have resided in the country for three years to get a grant in those days. Studying part-time, I saw that how people were deployed in practice was very different to academia. People like Jonathan Hill, Jeremy Till and Neil Spiller at the Bartlett told students to do all the things not allowed in practice. Madness and misbehaviour as a student was embraced, and later you learnt to behave as an adult practitioner. It was very strange to emerge from education into the real world, to question what you were taught and why you knew so little of real applicability.
In 1991, I began teaching at the Bartlett, forced to do so through economic need. I was teaching and studying different creative disciplines that were somewhat related, fine art and architecture, applying learnings from one to the other. Kevin Rowbotham and David Greene had been my tutors.
After studying, Kevin and I set up a company, FAT, intending to provoke and disrupt architectural discourse. FAT wanted to dissect the anatomy of architecture and see what role to play, not from the outside, but by interrogating from inside, yet consciously not belonging.
As students, we initiated projects incorporating fine art to take over the city: turning bus shelters into three-dimensional audiovisual installations or picketing the Turner Prize to contest the Justice Act. It was a way to gauge cause-and-effect relationships and whether teaching should match what we preach. That first taste of teaching brought an awareness of the relationship between what’s taught and what is practised.
Was the relationship between practising and teaching different for you back then?
Yes, they were less aligned at the time. In the late ’80s and ’90s, teaching was often seen as a separate profession. At that point, what was taught in academia had very little relationship with what was practised in the profession. That dichotomy or dialectic was fascinating to analyse. I was constantly aware of the relationship between the ‘institution’, whether that’s RIBA, or the gallery, and the practitioner — the person making the work — and the audience. That kind of triptych was something that, as a teaching platform, always had a certain consistency. It then fed into FAT, where there was a clear intent to be didactic in how it affected the profession, but also to be disruptive in setting its position in opposition to popular consensus or conservative academia.
After UCL, I taught with Nigel Coates for 19 years at the RCA. He then had quite a successful practice yet taught, seeing them as almost inseparable. When you teach, you learn how to not only understand methodology, but how to deliver. And so you become quite strategically economic, spending what time you have, doing as much as you can. It’s a frugal, but disciplined teaching where to have impact you have to be effective — as measured by the output of your students. There’s a direct correlation between your effectiveness, how it’s absorbed into an academic profession and how it’s assessed internally.
I’ve never stopped teaching. I enjoy it; you are constantly aroused by the enthusiasm and the discovery of problems: like a child learning to read or forming a first sentence, discoveries you forget as an adult.
I’m not one who wants students as copies of themselves, imposing a doctrine or an ideology. I do not insist there is a way to think in order to succeed. When teaching and when in practice, you start realising, particularly when you’re looking at practice from academia, why it’s good to fail.
What was missing from your education?
I was never formally taught the normative processes of what a practice should be and how it’s managed or governed and its fiscal relationship to best practice. Yet you have to know these if you’re running your own office. What do you do if you don’t have a guaranteed workflow? You have to make your own work. You have to learn to survive.
There’s still a lot missing from architectural education today. In architecture courses everywhere, there is a lack of business management skills — which are touched upon at the LSA, arguably more so than other schools. Architects are given budgets of millions without an education in any business-related field. Often, I’ll ask a student, how big is the building you are designing and what will it cost per square metre. They just don’t know.
Even stranger, architects don’t know how much a window costs, or how much does the door plan costs, they’ve got no idea. And so you think, ‘if you’re practising and you don’t know the value or the price, how can you ever perform the job adequately or professionally?’ And then clients have to value engineer their project, as if you would buy a suit and then have to make it fit. That’s what you should be taught to navigate.
Furthermore, the best thing about teaching is enjoying design — every architect loves to design. But compare the profession with teaching; the obvious difference is that as a student, 100 per cent of your studio time is designing, whereas as an architect, maybe 10 per cent of your time is actually designing. The rest is spent on construction packages and a whole range of other administrative processes which are designed, but are not ‘design’ in any pure form.
Working in the private sector, not knowing how to deliver something on budget and on time is, I’d say, the horror of our profession. Which is why you have to bring in project managers and development managers. Although architects used to be concerned with this, as they used to be surveyors and managed the whole project, now different elements are given to another profession. So, the architects don’t manage that aspect, and it can lead to projects and budgets spinning out of control.
Some practitioner-teachers, Louis Kahn, for example, clearly found themselves as architects through teaching. I get the feeling that with you, although heavily committed to both, they’re somewhat different worlds, chiefly because you run more than just an architecture company.
Along with CSA, I run a construction business. I thought I’d short cut the whole process and have more control over workflow, and now I get to procure sites for development. Along with this, we have to find someone who’s got funds and get them on board by demonstrating that we’ve done enough due diligence to show that the site’s potential use classes will be something that gives them a return.
So, we help initiate our architectural work. We are the architects for those projects, and can then directly engage in shaping the city. We participate more fully in the project as key decision-makers, while being able to provide – I’m not going to say ‘solutions’ – but the outputs that recognise and realise the project’s ambitions. It’s satisfying because you don’t become someone who value-engineers all the architecture out of the project.
It forces you to realise that a design must be fit for purpose, in how it’s used and how the city benefits. This influences every aspect of project as you’re now liable for each single element.
In the office we teach the basics, such as putting a grid on the plan, or how to look at an elevation with a structural understanding, or understanding the purposes and size of a core — these are pure, hard, mechanical things that must comply with the basic requirements of a viable and legal building.
Making a wobbly shape is easy, but the things that fail in architecture are obvious things like just being compliant. Teaching that it in a joyful way is probably the hardest thing to do in architecture school. Teaching students what you learnt in practice, how to design, comes through from having done it yourself. You can’t teach someone to design a successful typology unless you’ve done that yourself in practice.
How has managing multiple companies, all related to the production of architecture, influenced your teaching?
There is a direct relationship between that form of practice and teaching, because at the LSA we ask students questions about what comes before and after architecture — questions I have to ask myself to get work. Who’s a user? Who’s going to fund this? How does it operate in its relationship to the wider city in terms of context, culturally, socially, politically, economically, environmentally and what’s its legacy?
Developing as a professional, you mature, though not necessarily age-wise. Teaching as well as practising is a pause for reflection, even if you’re not looking at your own work. Issues students struggle with, how to choose a site for example, is something architects rarely have to do. But we (CSA) will find sites we think have a value, much like a student chooses a site, analysing it to see how economically, socially, culturally, politically valuable it is, because it gives us the opportunity to find investors etc.
We’ll often try and find sites that have meanings or possibilities for us, perhaps because in an undeveloped area. So, we can instigate placemaking and development where we think it will have significant and direct benefit.
We understand that, because of economic pressures, registered providers will always try and reduce amenity for social housing to a bare minimum to contain. That’s a business-orientated view, and for me, architectural practice is at a primary level a business.
Architectural practice is about money and if you understand how money works and how much some things costs to build per square metre and so on, you understand that commerce will remain dominant. You can launch a career knowing who you can provide a particular quality of architecture to, because understanding the relationship between costs and sales price dictates how much leverage you have. The tighter the budget, the more creative you must be to beneficially impact the city. How will it change behaviour and add to what is currently there?
What key lessons remain with you from when you were a student?
David Greene said the three things you needed as an architect are the three A’s: affable, available and affordable. The other thing he said was, you know, A-grade students teach and B-grade students work for C-grade students. David Greene and Kevin Rhowbotham were people who lived their lives on their own terms and what they said and did was almost inseparable. That idea of integrity was probably their best lesson.
What’s missing in architecture is people who not only learn from the students, but who have a highly formulated way in which they open up a project. That’s hugely useful. Many of the best practices are actually run like architectural schools. You come in and they teach you how to do architecture and one of the first things they teach you is to generate lots and lots of ideas and alternatives. Students in schools can have an idea and stick with it, which would get drummed out of them in a week in a good office. Many would say, well, architecture school is just a way to get into a good office and that’s where you learn architecture. Talking with successful practices, schemes are explained with extreme clarity because arrived at through an investigative iterative process. That’s something that’s insisted upon. Questions are answered in a very disciplined way. Architects also learn not to invest too much of themselves, their love, into any idea at any stage and so hang onto it. Instead, they generate and compare lots of ideas, not invested in anyone.
Absolutely. You can’t teach that methodology so formally: you basically stress-test a proposition, generating many iterative solutions to a problem. That’s how we work in practice. Analysing a site and trying to understand how best how to deliver the scheduled accommodations, it is not just about shape making, about efficiency, but also about its relationship to the cityscape, to the groundscape. As a student, you have to learn the methods to interrogate something and then revisit it to make sure that you’re always conscious of how you got to that point at the end, if it’s correct or not, in terms of its vision or its solution.
Architectural education must change because the full complexity of contemporary architectural practice cannot be covered in five years. I’d advocate now that it become a set of modules done over time. I wonder how useful being a ‘disruptor’, as you mentioned with FAT, is in the context of that.
We don’t want them to be disruptive in an anarchic sense. At the LSA we want the students to be disruptive in a structural sense, to look at governance and so on. The logic is to start architecture at a point where most academic institutions don’t. They typically start with the site, whereas we’re more interested in what are the rules that govern society and what makes us a human being, and how this can be affected through propositions. So, students are taught to think before they jump. That’s where we can be a big disruptor, beginning the journey long before most other academic institutions ever start that level of enquiry. We definitely encourage that.