I’m collaborating with Mike Dring, the MArch Course Director at Birmingham School of Architecture this academic year to help run a studio for years 5 & 6. Over the last few weeks we’ve been crafting a studio agenda which is less about the question of how we should build and more about questioning why. We’re examining architectural practice itself and hoping to encourage our students to see this final stage of their education as an opportunity to fully understand their many possible roles and – just as importantly – foster some bold optimism in what is increasingly described as bleak times for the future of the profession.

We’ve begun in the traditional way by proposing some key pieces of writing to set the studio ethos. We hope we’ve been non-traditional however in our choices of text. They are: Future Practice by Rory Hyde and Dark Matter and Trojan Horses by Dan Hill.

Alongside these examinations of broader, strategic actions we have also begun to acknowledge an interest in how one should act at a more intimate, immediate scale through references to books such as Jeremy Till’s Architecture Depends; and in what field we might ultimately take action by setting suburban housing areas as our proposed sites (Shard End in Birmingham and Almere in the Netherlands) and considering the new resurgence of interest in the custom or self-build home.

We’ll be taking the topic of future practice both literally and metaphorically by finding excuses to experiment with digital tools ranging from Arduinos and Minecraft through to Grasshopper and BIM, acknowledging that the profession is increasingly part of the digital economy and future graduates must be able to use it to their (and their client’s) advantage.

With that in mind Mike and I have of course launched a web site and a twitter account. We’ll be sharing links to wider reading and and ideas that we see elsewhere, as well as student work in the future as the studio develops. If you’re interested in any of the topics described here, feel free to follow or comment.

Finally, here’s the studio agenda we’ve kicked off with and the full book list as it currently stands:

PLASTIC_studio briefing

95% of buildings are not designed by architects
83% of architecture is not about design

  1. investigating the challenges and opportunities of future practice and strategic design
  2. exploring ‘infrastructure fictions’ and ‘dark matter’
  3. speculating on the latency of new towns and urban extensions

“Architecture’s core aim may still be the application of spatial intelligence, but if that outcome is not seen as valuable by the wider culture, then it doesn’t solve two problems, one small, one big. The first problem is architecture’s marginalisation. This is not necessarily important in itself. Or at least, if the debates as to its value cannot be meaningfully resolved, it will only be of importance to architects. But the second problem concerns how to access and deploy the considerable potential of architecture to solve genuinely meaningful and significant problems beyond the building. This one is important.”

Dan Hill in the foreword to ‘Future Practice’, Rory Hyde, Routledge 2012

The studio will examine both the method/process/product of architecture as described by Hyde et al, and theories and concepts around the future of established ‘planned communities’ within the contested (sub)urban field. The idea of operating at the ‘edge’ of existing professional and physical boundaries demands enquiry into diverse fields from politics to product design and beyond, and the chapter titles of Hyde’s ‘Future Practice’ suggest some ambitious and engaging new roles; whole-earth architect, historian of the present, urban activist, contractual innovator, strategic designer.

Our study sites this year are Shard End, a suburb in East Birmingham, built to satisfy the critical housing shortage in the immediate post war period, and Almere new town built on reclaimed polders east of Amsterdam in the 1980s to alleviate pressure on existing urban centres with extreme densities. Both represent ‘communities without propinquity’, a term coined by Melvin Webber in 1963 to describe the new town communities (in this case of Milton Keynes). Propinquity describes continuity and evolution; whilst these places were once ‘new’ (and we include Shard End in this as a large scale urban extension), they have reached a critical point in their existence having established themselves within the wider urban construct and grown histories of their own. They face serious challenges but also offer huge potential. Often described (by those external to these communities) as monocultural, monofunctional, and monoformal (sub)urban space, these spaces have a latent character, a hidden opportunity to adapt and evolve.

The overarching challenge for studio is to explore these opportunities through excursions on density, diversification, and growth (the ‘matter’), and the ‘meta’ that surrounds it from the role of regulation, legislation, political agency, public/private sector supply histories and future models for ‘civic enterprise’ and ‘intentional communities’.

Book list:

  • Architecture Depends – Jeremy Till
  • Future Practice – Rory Hyde
  • Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Dan Hill
  • Recipes for Systemic Change – Helsinki Design Lab
  • Around and About Stock Orchard Street – ed. Sarah Wigglesworth
  • Out of the Woods – Borer and Harris
  • The Architecture Machine – Nicholas Negroponte (copy available online)
  • Cohousing in Britain – Diggers and Dreamers
  • Cohousing – McCamant & Durrett
  • Rural Studio – Samuel Mockbee
  • Landscape Futures – Geoff Manaugh
  • Form + Code in Design, Art and Architecture
  • Urban Maps – Richard Brook and Nick Dunn
  • SUB_PLAN – Finn Williams/ Architectural Association
  • Explorations in Architecture, Teaching Design Research – ed. Reto Geiser
  • White Night_Before a Manifesto – Metahaven
  • After the City – Lars Lerup
  • FARMAX & Metacity Datatown – MVRDV
  • Non-Plan – ed. Jonathan Hughes and Simon Sadler
  • Slow Space – ed. Michael Bell and Sze Tsung Leong
  • The Cultivated Wilderness – Paul Shepheard

Personal note:

I’m genuinely delighted to be back at the school that raised me for almost a decade. I’ve done various bits of visiting tutor work before over the years since I graduated but this is the first time I’ve had a hand in shaping a studio program. The decade of education of which I speak is perhaps one of the reasons that we’re considering the topics described. My generation needs to acknowledge that the luxury of time and funding available to us is now sadly long since vanished. To propose teaching it today as if those days remained would be a mistake. Whilst the future of architectural education is perhaps uncertain, to begin by looking inwards and questioning practice itself seems like an appropriate way to start.

The ideas and writings suggested here are unashamedly just a list of people and projects that have inspired me over the last few years. My personal interest in digital tools is also clear to see but I believe appropriate on many levels. Access to such ideas is so often made possible thanks to the smartest people sharing the smartest stuff in smart places – making them accessible, shareable and hackable to the wide-eyed student in all of us. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know some of the main protagonists in this story (hello Dan Hill) thanks initially to shared interests on blogs and twitter – long may it continue and long may the newest students continue to do likewise. Also, in the midst of the debate about what an education should be about we should remember what an education should cost. My interest in digital tools such as Arduinos, Minecraft and fairly priced e-books for example is also about money.

Thanks to BCU for inviting me to take part and thanks also to anyone appearing in the references above. If you fancy making a star appearance for a lecture one afternoon let me know.

1 thought on “Plastic Praxis: MArch teaching at BCU

Comments are closed.