Interview

Thomas Bryans and Sarah Castle, who founded London studio IF_DO with Al Scott, spoke to Citizen about how teaching has informed their practice — and vice versa.

Practice what you teach: IF_DO

We first encountered If_Do when Sarah talked at the Design Museum. She started with your clear, strong three-point manifesto. Do you still stand by those three points in your teaching and your practice?

Thomas Bryans: We had a very clear manifesto, a statement of intent. It set out what we wanted to do; what architecture should do, yet wasn’t necessarily being done – and still not done by many. Setting up the practice we had no clients, no work; nothing but this idea, maybe foolish. We put the idea on the website and I think that benefited the practice. It helps to be clear for those looking at our website – for potential clients. In teaching, it helps too, it’s a mindset, a guiding approach.

It’s good to be clear where you stand and why you launched. For so many, it’s just about ‘what the client asked for and how we responded.’ Architecture becomes just a reaction rather than coming from a particular position.

TB: I read something recently on the launch of New Architects 4, reflecting on the first volume from 1995 and the difference between then and now. The introductory essays in the new volume are about Black Lives Matter, climate change, and so on – all immensely important. But back in 1995, the selected practices talked about responsibility, ability to deliver, listening to clients. This was because following the experimental 80s, the corporatist mid 90s stressed responsibility to the client rather than to society at large.

Yes. After the academic games of the 80s, which were about total irresponsibility and risk-taking and all that nonsense, architects in the 90s were trying to prove their responsibility and seriousness. Before the LSA, had you taught before?

TB:Not really, just occasional tutoring and critting, although I was once a tutor for a whole year. But Sarah though had taught at Brighton before the LSA.

What prompted you to begin teaching?

TB: There are two answers. One is the LSA itself – we really believe in the values of the school and its ethos. I’d say, and hopefully you would too, that the LSA is unique in terms of its social position, and in doing something very explicitly based on its progressive architectural position. So we have an affinity with the school’s ethos, and we also had a desire to teach – to give back – in that we feel we’ve got a certain amount of knowledge and experience.

What do you see as the benefit from teaching? It’s an obvious question, but it’s good to note your answer.

TB: It’s the clarity you have to develop. When teaching, you may get subconscious promptings that must then be articulated more precisely. So teaching is a clarification process for my own thinking. Then there’s the student feedback – they are amazingly talented, intelligent, thoughtful and have read all this stuff. The conversations there are really stimulating and they spark thoughts about what we are working on.

Sarah Castle: Our teaching prevents us getting complacent or relying on the same old precedents and theories, so it’s a form of CPD. These amazing passionate students, reading all around every subject, really pushing you as well. As practitioners, it keeps us sharper, more up to date. It’s a reciprocal relationship – as they are learning, we are learning too.

Practice what you teach: IF_DO

You hosted a student as part of the practice placement, didn’t you?

TB: We had a few. Raphael Arthur was our first employee. He was part of the LSA’s first cohort, so it was a number of firsts.

A couple of questions relating to  Critical Practice: its manual and manifesto. Given the questions that students ask about practice, did that change your practice or the way you teach?

TB: It would be interesting to hear what Sarah thinks, because I feel that Critical Practice is different for us compared with other practices.

SC: I read the students’ drafts, and Raph was an interesting example. He was in my tutorial group, and then came to work for us as our first employee. Although I can’t exactly remember what he wrote about us, these reports make you scrutinise closely how you run your practice. You think more carefully about your concern for the welfare of the people on your team and about how you organise and train people within the practice. And there’s perhaps some elements you could improve on, so it’s a good opportunity for a student be more frank than they would be if you were sitting down face to face

TB: You are describing it as a bit like an exit interview – a really thoughtful, extended written exit interview.

SC: He was quite sweet about our practice, saying that it was nice and exciting, which is wonderful but I’m also wondering how honest every section of it is!

TB: For the student, it’s probably also quite tough being our first employee, our only employee of a three-director practice. Being in a huge practice the relationship with management would be very different.

We imagined a more free-and-easy interaction with whoever was the mentor within the office. Most of the better practices I know recognise they have to teach new staff.

TB: To go back to the benefit of teaching, one is our recognition as founder-directors that a big role in the practice is to be teachers for the staff and team. Learning to do that in an academic environment and then taking it back to the office has affected how we relate to the more junior staff in terms of mentoring, the problems of poverty, and so on.

SC: I

think there’s always a difficulty getting newly graduated Part Twos from any university because it’s tough going from an academic environment into a practice environment. For a Part One student, it can be quite different doing your year out. From our perspective as a practice, it takes an awful lot of time, because there are so many elements to training. Even very basic things like using the software. But actually, it’s more the etiquette of being in a practice environment, so those elements of teaching that happen within a university are really useful. There’s also a whole other set of skills to learn in an office – simple things like how to write an email to a client. How do you actually speak to a consultant or subcontractor on the phone? That’s not something that would necessarily come up at university, so there’s this whole new teaching role you take on when they transition between those two different worlds.

A really good thing about the LSA, and the reason why we joined it, is that it was never a university that was just teaching the aesthetic criteria of architecture. That is what you find in other places and what I certainly found growing up in a slightly different generation of architecture students. At the LSA, the proactive, social theoretical agendas that all of these students bring with them are helpful because a lot of them are proactive in terms of making phone calls and speaking to people. That means when you mentor an LSA student in your practice, they are further ahead than students from some of the other universities.

An intention of the LSA is to be integrative, blurring the distinctions between study and practice, aligning with practice earlier on to smooth out the transition and be inducted into the profession progressively. Architecture has exploded in complexity since I was a student, so that less and less of it is taught in the course and more and more of it has to be learnt elsewhere. In fact, the idea that you can learn architecture in five years is no longer viable. Five years study now gets you into an office where you really start to learn architecture, and architectural education will need to be modularised and spread over a more extended period. The current model doesn’t really work, and the LSA recognises that. Yet it as a work in progress because to be just an architecture school, without ecology or a landscape department, without intensive urban design training, is not a long term solution. Once established, the LSA will have to expand to include more of the larger world.

Has your own education influenced the way you teach today?

TB: When Sarah, and I, along with Al [Scott, fellow IF_DO co-founder] studied together, our undergraduate degree at Edinburgh was very Constructivist and that now feels quite antiquated. Yet that particular influence has been a consistent thread, certainly in being rigorous in analysis of place and context. Edinburgh is such an amazing city to study in, each site is so extraordinary with so much richness, and that influence continues with us today.

Then, because the three of us went to different places, further richness comes from the broadening of our experience as a trio. Al went to Westminster, I went to the GSD in the States, and the breadth of teaching, and experience and ideas coming from those places is quite amazing. And although the GSD is quite broad and without a specific pedagogy, some teachers there had a huge impact in terms of my thinking – Toshiko Mori, for example, whose architectural work might be quite pure Modernism, yet her thinking in VisionArc, her separate design agency, follows a very big-picture social and environmental agenda.

SC: I studied with Thomas and Al at Edinburgh University and stayed there for my second degree, which was still very Deconstructive; lots of models made out of smashed pianos. All looked very nice, but nothing had a toilet in it. I would have thrived in an LSA-type environment, because the LSA is much more aligned with my way of thinking and designing. But there was an amazing learning. Vicki Bernie, an artist, was my tutor for the final years. I was trying to design some gigantic monster of a building and she said she didn’t see me as that sort of architect. She used this phrase: ‘irrigation of territories with potential.’ it’s the way I have approached architecture ever since. Basically, you don’t dump a big architectural vision on a spot and hope to change the world; rather you create moments within a landscape that give people agency to change and to develop their communities.

It’s a helpful way of thinking about architecture, part of a generational shift away from the stock culture of big, shiny buildings. There’s also something magical about creating things of beauty, and trying to work out how to best knit them into a social landscape or environmental landscape. We produced beautiful drawings with an incredible reliance on craft, whether drawing or modelling, an amazing workshop. The output was very beautiful but not very practical.

TB: I think Edinburgh in terms of specific tutors. There’s a practice called Metis ­– fundamentally a theoretical practice – run by Mark Dorrian and Adrian Hawker. I learnt a lot from Mark, particularly the mapping. The mapping process and the production of the architecture were kept distinct. Mapping was inherently contextual and about grounding ourselves in that place and context, whether Edinburgh, Madrid, or wherever. And then there was the architecture which had a Deconstructivist aesthetic. The first part, the mapping and the deep research that goes with it, has fundamentally affected us.

Was the mapping purely formal or did you deal with issues like land values and social dynamics and things like that?

SC: It’s interesting how it evolved. During my time, we didn’t consider things like land values. It was an aesthetic and historically oriented class. It was certainly topographical with lots of layers to it, but it didn’t tackle the social and economic criteria. Those have since been added as extra layers. If you looked at student drawings now they don’t look vastly dissimilar. But the way of talking about the projects is different, talking also about things like climate change and social value. The university is moving forward, but retaining the drawn craft as something they value.

TB: For us, there was much discussion about the palimpsest of the sites and the historical layering and, yes, we clearly have added many other mapping layers since.

You mentioned Raphael (Arthur) … have you hired students from your school? Could you expand on that perhaps?

TB: Yes, we hired Jack (Banting) as well. When we’ve had a placement, students such as Raph and Jack understand us as a practice, all our systems, all that straightforward stuff. Many of the LSA’s interests are the same as ours; there is a shared ethos.

SC: Interviewing  LSA students, they talk about the projects in a certain and engaging way. You know that they’re excited about how things should develop, and want to work on the office’s more socially driven projects. So, yes, we hire from the LSA, but a conversation can happen across different schools in the UK when they come together.

As an employer, what differences do you notice?

SC: Every university has an aesthetic but when teaching in the LSA’s first year there wasn’t established precedent. At every uni, students look at previous years of their modules. They look at drawings they particularly like and try to emulate those with better marks, thinking tutors will like it. There’s a danger, but you’re getting somebody who knows how to produce great drawings, a massive benefit to a practice. Not everybody has every skill, so you want those who produce beautiful drawings to show off your architecture, but you want other skills too.

Because the LSA is only five or so years of old and developing, there isn’t an aesthetic to follow; you know it’s an LSA project not from how it looks but from how it explores ideas. The Critical Practice manuals show how somebody thinks you run your practice. Then you can reflect and say, ‘Is that what we want to do?’ or ‘Yeah, that is exactly what we wanted to do!’ or ‘We should really work on that or enhance this’. We’re right at the beginning of our journey. And there’s a lot that we take from students and employees in terms of their aspirations for how we manage.

If you’re in a tanker, just changing course takes a huge amount of effort; but we’re still nifty and can listen to our students and talk to bodies like Architects Unite, and try and design a practice that’s not just top down. That book that we might write about how we practise wouldn’t just be Thomas, Al and myself writing it. It should be something that includes everybody and their critical comments. (I changed this, don’t know if OK PB)

Something in your last intervention was interesting, that having students in your office introduced a higher level of self-reflexivity to your practice. It makes you much more conscious of what you’re doing and why.

TB: Yes, that’s very true. And to go back to the question of the practice manuals, Raph and I had three or four conversations as he was going through it. And I remember talking to him about the process and structure of how we pitched for work and what different roles Sarah, Al and I have and, of course, in those conversations a certain amount of self-reflection takes place. Even if it’s not immediate in terms of Oh, that’s a good point, we must change this’, it inevitably registers somewhere in the back of my mind that we need to shift something.

You have also led a Design Think Tank – has that affected your practice?

TB: The first DTT that I taught two years ago on loneliness and isolation was clearly something of interest. That process actually gave us as a practice the luxury of thinking about such issues to a far greater extent – work that has gone on to inform so many of our projects since. It’s not a direct thing, but an intellectual sort of line that clearly runs through.

It’s an even more important topic after the lockdown, when so many people are talking about learning.

SC: It has been really useful to us as a practice, because you tackle subjects together with the students and go into more detail. And I loved being second year tutor. It’s so exciting discussing various streams, thoughts and ideas and with students who are already dipping into each different world. The DTT is more focused and has much more chance to become embedded within our practice.

The DTTs are a very smart innovation, and a real strong point of the LSA. Do you have any reaction to the feedback that your group was given?

TB:  It was through that process of iteration, that constant feedback that it achieved such a level of richness. I really enjoyed it, but I think some students occasionally got a bit frustrated with each other – but that’s the nature of group work.

SC: I haven’t taught a DTT but being a second year tutor and paired with somebody I’ve never met before was interesting. Whether we shared similar interests in architecture didn’t matter. The arguments you end up having were wonderful, in the most positive, possible way, sparring off each other with the student. So the student can’t rely on you saying, ‘This is exactly how it should look and this is what it should be’ when your teachers are constantly discussing what it should be too. It’s a healthy relationship, to constantly question the design with your fellow teacher as well as with the student. I think there’s a better outcome as a result.

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