Without great design, quality is lost

I t is fashionable at the moment to talk of elephants in the room, but in Britain there are pachyderms outside as well. All too often architecture is the elephant in the city; an all pervading but unacknowledged influence on our daily lives. The lack of recognition of the importance of design in the built environment throughout the United Kingdom can inhibit the appointment of great designers to building projects that could transform our cityscapes and enhance our lives.

So why is there this antipathy towards architecture? I suggest that one of the reasons is that whilst the fine arts are part of the curriculum, schoolchildren are given a very limited introduction to the applied arts and architecture in particular and that it becomes a graduate specialism, and as a consequence an expensive extra in the business of building not an inevitable consideration in the commissioning of construction work.

I also consider that the lines of communication between the educators and the profession could be improved and we could all be better in explaining what architects and architecture can achieve in improving the quality of life.

Importance of good design

Elsewhere in the world, as I saw in the Gulf, the importance of corporate and civic image promoted by landmark buildings is more evident so what can we do to reinforce the importance of good design here in the UK? As an academic, it is perhaps not surprising that I consider the solution lies within education.

Beginning with school children, we could do more to make the design of buildings a participatory process. Greater take-up of the architects in residence scheme within schools and similar initiatives would encourage active participation in the design of imaginary and real projects. The procurement of education buildings here through the private finance initiatives (PFI) process distances the designers from the stakeholders of the new school including the school children. Their participation in the briefing process for their new accommodation has value for all parties; their unfettered imaginations can inspire the architects and by participating the children will have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for the finished building.

In later life, the knowledge and understanding of design and architecture gained through school education will result in informed clients and decision-makers, as well as a more appreciative public. The values of good design – intangible benefits such as better place-making and cultural value as well as tangible increases in monetary value will be better understood.

The incorporation of architecture into the curriculum has an additional benefit; a wider and more diverse pool of talent will present itself as applicants for schools of architecture. The profession needs to be representative of the society that it serves. Raising aspiration among minorities is an important outcome of an inclusive education system and aspiration to join the profession needs to be encouraged.

Once enrolled, the student enters one of the best design educations in the world. This has been successfully exported through the international architecture schools validation system, with many architects who have graduated from British schools working all over the world, including the Gulf and international students a significant proportion of the cohorts here in Britain.

The global nature of architectural education today, creates a melting pot of cultural influences and creativity. The opportunity of a career in architecture is open to more young men and women across the world than ever before. If we increase this inclusivity the profession will be well prepared to meet the increased globalisation which will be a key characteristic of the 21st Century.

The system is, however, not without its critics. There are some who feel that the academic approach to architectural education diminishes its relevance to practice, that an unfettered approach to the brief for studio schemes is unrealistic and does not teach students to design within the constraints that of the realities of practice such as building legislation, cost or materials supply.

It is interesting that having had such a liberal environment in which to give free reign to the imagination our diploma courses do not fail deliver practical architects, however there is a problem with identifying and articulating what has been learned.

Many of the students that I tutor in their preparations for the final qualification within the British system, the Part III (which examines ability and knowledge of professional practice) are at a loss to explain the relevance of what they learned in the design studio when faced with the realities of practice.

Unappreciative employers

Many practitioners faced with a portfolio of exploratory schemes that go beyond buildings into realms of ecology, social science, even science fiction cannot appreciate what skills the potential employee is bringing with them. We need to give both student and employer more confidence in the education system to give them a greater understanding of the strengths of architectural education but also be prepared to give positive criticism and feedback to improve the courses.

Key to developing confidence is being able to understand and promote transferable skills; generic problem solving is the greatest asset that the graduate brings. It should be appreciated that the intellectual enquiry that underpins the diploma projects can equally be applied to the more grounded projects within the architect's office. The lateral thinking that is developed in the student can be brought to bear on real construction projects and other decision and design processes throughout life. Students have also learned team working and a variety of communication methods, but they need to know that they have acquired theses skills and be encouraged to demonstrate it in their applications for employment so that their employers understand it as well.

There are two areas in which I consider recent graduates from under-graduate and post-graduate courses lack tangible evidence of acquired skills, and which the schools should consider addressing: non-technical communication skills and perceived lack of resource. Like all professions, architects protect their identity and specialism with the use of jargon. The crit system in particular teaches us to describe our schemes verbally and graphically in the language of the profession, ill equipping us to present schemes to clients and planning committees once in practice. More exposure to non-architects during academic education would improve this.

The second is the loss of confidence by professional clients in particular in our ability to manage the resources of design and construction, which has resulted in the rise of project managers and the widening of the scope of the quantity surveyor. Resource is not just about the financial cost of building; architects also have to understand the limited availability of natural resources, such as energy and materials. While this should not constrain all-studio design, an understanding of the limitations is necessary.

It is not too late for the rest of us to fill the gaps in our education. The third stage of the education cycle after school and university is life-long learning. In fact, we could argue that there is an unrealistic expectation of what a recent graduate should know, because we seem to expect them to come out with the knowledge and wisdom of many years in practice.

A good personal development plan should identify a programme of learning across design, technical skills and practice. It should be education as well as training and it should go beyond the boundaries of architecture into personal skills such as languages and other professional skills such as teaching.

Strength of profession

Finally the strength of a profession is that at its core it has learned societies that receive and promulgate the acquired learning of all practitioners and academics in the field to the greater benefit of the profession and the wider public.

Education is at the heart of the profession starting in the schools, developing in the universities and carried on throughout life. It is strengthened when it subject to critical review and is both reactive to the changing nature of practice but also leads development in technical and design thinking. We need to focus everyone's attention on the elephants, we all need great design.

- The writer is the first female president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), the UK body for architecture and the architectural profession. The views expressed are her own


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