A Pair of us In It – on teaching and learning in architecture

Get Real.

The discussion on education in architecture is again a rather lively one, at least in the United Kindgom. Dezeen, the popular online platform of architecture and design, is but one home of this discussion with architects now regularly writing polemical opinion pieces on the matter. Whatever the points of view offered, the same topic emerges – are students being prepared enough for professional practice? Do the live and learn in the ‘real world’?
Recently Patrick Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid architects, declared and lamented that graduates are not market ready [i]. Sean Griffiths countered that the role of the University is “emphatically” not to set up scenarios that literally mimic practice. Instead, he argues that what must emerge from University are new ways to form and remake our professional practices. [ii].  Phineas Harper, in 2018, conceded things indeed needed to change in aspects of education. But, he also cautioned against the continuous use of the education system – and the humans in it – “as a punching bag for industry”, with education being blamed when things are considered wrong in the domain of professional practice [iii].
However, we are rarely offered a definition of the term ‘real world’ at the outset. Arguably, the dominant meaning of “real-world” resides too comfortably in the now exhaustingly, binary narrative that pervades much contemporary discourse; that is, University life is ideal, idealised and a soft shade of ivory with the world outside where actual issues and challenges are faced and met, at the bleak black-coal face, down the front line and so on. I guess I understand this as a concern. But what it is, in fact, is a position, and, because it concerns the structure and order of large groups of people who are part of society, it is, I suggest, a political one. To reach such a position and to hold and defend it with regard to architecture however, a few things must be ignored.
Firstly, it must be forgotten that a University itself exists in, for and is partly funded by, society. If you choose to believe the University is somehow ‘not real’ then what you are saying is that a University is an institution so magical and precious that no questions are ever asked of it, it is never held to account by that society. You also have to believe that a University is under no pressure whatsoever to compromise and to align education with neo-liberal market forces. You are saying that a University has no financial or other limits to its ability to provide services to students and has it all worked out when it comes to that healthy work-life balance advocated for staff and students alike. If only.
To think education is ‘not real’, you must also choose to ignore that teachers exist, work and participate in the ‘real-world’ on a daily basis. In fact, most teachers of architecture in Ireland thrive in the world of professional building or spatial practice while teaching, and, very often, are leaders in that field. This is why Universities employ such architects in the first place. Perhaps most outrageously, most chillingly of all, to consider the ‘real-world’ to be something a student only faces on graduation is to deny her or him of any agency, any voice or authority while being educated. To say pipe down and learn how to do your BIM or door schedules better and faster to get ready for market, is to effectively consider an individual’s day-to-day interactions with infrastructures of transport, housing, health, finance, personal ambition or anxiety, a collapsing natural environment, the creative world or just plain growing up to be utterly incidental, irrelevant or useless in their formation as citizens, their achievements as graduates or their lives as future architects.
We can dismiss this position as one held by a rather controversial figure such as Schumacher or laugh it off but variations of it continue to exist, they are pervasive. You can sense it when you walk into a school of architecture and see design studios in which all students draw and are therefore being encouraged to think in exactly the same manner. This is individual agency suppressed to maintain some party line. It is, you see, a position of power, hierarchy, and determined intent to maintain a system where architecture is considered and protected as a very singular practice carried out by a very specific kind of architect and where students and graduates are some kind of cavalry, needed to act to keep the system going, no questions asked. If you stop and think about it, all of this is a rather radical, rather worrying view of what might constitute a ‘real-world’ in architecture.


Get Out.

I have not been immune to this interest in the ‘real’. Indeed some years ago now, as a teacher of architecture in U.C.D., I became very occupied with the notion of the ‘real-world’ and where it might support or intersect the learning processes of students of architecture. I and other colleagues, most especially Orla Murphy, set up several ‘live-studios’. In these studios students worked in collaboration or partnership with individuals or agencies outside the University who had no access to architects, on a specific architectural issue, for mutual benefit[iv].
Over time, my role as a teacher partly developed into one of broker, managing the learning of both student and outside partner, and, ensuring the skills, intelligence and authority of both parties was acknowledged, valued and exchanged. We built, conceptually at least, collaborative bridges between the University and outside, bridges across, through and on which learning developed in new and exciting ways.
Working around Ireland on housing, rural bog landscapes, energy infrastructures and the collapse of the social and economic structures of towns, students became visibly more confident, articulate and assured in their work. Over time I realised that each bridge built was not just a design brief or project but in fact, an enabling device through which everyone involved could learn to do things in new ways, with a palpable sense of in-it-togetherness. Each bridge, like RISING HOMEor OUT.POST.OFFICE[v], was a ‘thing’, a ‘bridge-thing’ if you like. Students grew in skills of presentation, design, negotiation, budgeting, and outside partners often affected local political change and action learning and using the necessary language of built-environment, development and architecture to get work done[vi].
These ‘bridge-things’ – resourced with documents, lectures, talks, exhibitions, workshops, and humans – allowed us to work more effectively on complex issues and to do so with others outside the discipline of architecture. Taking architecture out of an isolated silo of lonely, solitary and therefore often impotent practice on complex issues such as housing allowed others to gain insight into our values, practices and skills as architects. It allowed students and teachers to get out and draw strength and clarified to all involved the role and potential of architecture. This was often a messy, often imperfect process. But there was learning in that too.


Get Even.

Of course, no education system is perfect.  To be simplistic, systems of education will always have flaws, as humans do. A system will always need to adapt and change to survive, as humans do.  All education systems primarily involve two human cohorts – students and teachers – there is a pair of them in it. Each cohort is also always in flux and developing, sometimes slowly, sometimes urgently. In recent years there has been a welcome and growing public articulation of students priorities, most notably around the climate crisis[vii]. Students are confidently talking of their concerns about both their education and the world in which their architecture will exist. They deserve to be heard. The education system will need to respond and adapt to their input and quickly. Given this alone, it seems peculiar and futile to defend education as a set of fixed views and immutable processes. It seems especially odd in architecture given the endless complexity of the subject. The message, communicated intentionally or not, when positions are held firm without debate, without question, is that teacher knows best. This establishes unarguable hierarchies, and where does that leave students in the system of education?
It would take some elaborating here, but it has been thoroughly and rather convincingly argued that hierarchical methods of education in architecture contribute to maintaining a profession that is dominated by middle-class white men more than anyone, where women remain outrageously under represented and where ethnic, economic and other minorities are routinely excluded[viii]. This hierarchical, patriarchal culture may also assist the continued exploitation of graduate-interns by the world’s most celebrated architects[ix]. Perhaps it is changing. Unpaid internships are being publicly named and shamed. Students and young graduates are arguing for better early-career representation in the profession. Young architects are also asking for what seems reasonable – that the diversity apparent in schools of architecture among the student cohorts is sustained within the wider professional culture of architecture from building to writing[x]. It is, perhaps, a call for architecture to be checked with a different kind of scale, with different weights and measures that more accurately identify and represent all those involved with teaching, learning, practice and our growing diversity of citizens more generally.


Get Down.

Hierarchy in architecture education seems most inappropriate of all in a final, thesis year. Such students occupy a kind of a unique middle ground, an in-between, almost too smart to need teaching – almost – each of them full of different kinds of intelligence and skill, material and spatial magicians, but somehow not yet architects, in the professional sense at least.
Being in-between, being ambiguous, being neither student nor architect, their voice, and therefore their concerns and ideas are often lost. I think students feel this, even if they don’t know it, even if it is not always articulated, it is in the thick, expectant air. It can thus be ambiguous for whom one designs ones thesis. Thesis can be like a holding position, students waiting to land on the ‘real-world’ runway, anxiously circling, hoping they don’t run out of fuel. Somehow it seems to me to be far more interesting to teach the students how to fly, and how to be pilots, rather than watch them worry from the outset about the style, the form or reception of their landing.
But it is not enough to just recognise the students’ authority, you have to actively, consistently, afford it to them. Last year I met each of forty-seven students at least three times each for conversations on their work. Inevitably, into these conversations crept their individual “real-worlds”, woven in and out of their architecture, real and imagined. While always respecting the staff-student contract and its associated formalities, the aim of so much discussion is to achieve and build some parity of esteem across our collective teaching and learning in studio. The intention is not to make friends, it is to build solidarity and an alert network of peers. Emerging from philosophy and mental health, ‘parity of esteem’ is broadly taken to mean mutual respect for each other’s skills and work, intelligence, biographies and humanity. Work is work, be it yours or mine, my experience does not trump yours; it is just different. As a teacher, you must enter into every conversation, every review, with the expectation of teaching but also learning something. This, in itself, places some responsibility back on the student to actively communicate and share their work and point of view with you and their peers so they assist learning. Parity works both ways. It only works if students wish to achieve it too. When they do, it is potent.
At the final discussion of the thesis projects last May, on the last day of formal teaching and learning, students presented their work one by one as usual. Then each was offered a chair, encouraged to sit down. I observed a visiting architect whisper that he had never been in a school where the presenting students were asked to sit, rather than to remain standing during the discussion of their work. At times that day, the University felt like I imagine it should. Teaching and learning practice and practitioners on the same level, building new knowledge that both challenges and empowers society but is of real value to it. Parity seemed possible, and with it a renewed energy to kick back against all who would seek to undermine-by-tender for what and for whom the University should exist. Sitting down for something became a subtle act of resistance, a new position, and a political one at that. It felt real enough to me.






[i]Schumacher, Partick (2019), Opinion, Dezeen (online). Available from: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/07/09/patrik-schumacher-crisis-architectural-education/


[ii]Griffiths, Sean (2019), Opinion, Dezeen (online). Available from: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/08/02/architecture-education-opinion/


[iii]Harper, Phineas (2018), Opinio, Dezeen (online). Available from: https://www.dezeen.com/2018/03/16/phineas-harper-opinion-architecture-schools-punching-bags/


[iv]It is important to note here that this process of ‘live-studio’ does not aim to reconstruct the professional architect-client contractual relationship where architects are commissioned to provide design services. The premise is instead to place students in a collaborative and equal relationship with outside agents. Students are not working pro-bono.


[v]See for example http://emmettscanlon.ie/portfolio/risinghome/


[vi]RISING HOME, for example, was a research and design studio in housing which ran for four years as part of the Masters Program at UCD Architecture. Students from Ireland, Europe and around the world worked in partnership with Peter McVerry Trust, NGOs, Housing Activists to make a variety of housing responses. RISING HOME resulted in three exhibitions, three publications and a housing seminar.


In 2015-2017 students worked with PhizzFest / Reimagining Phibsborough Community and Arts Group to make propositions on the public realm, work which was presented in TATE LIVERPOOL in April 2018 as part of OUT.POST.OFFICE (with Laurence Lord). In 2019 students, led by Orla Murphy, worked on the Big Chapel in Callan with Callan Workhouse Union and Studio Weave. Studio Daingean, conducted in 2015 was with Alice Clancy.


[vii]For example see Architecture Declares (2019) (online). Available at: Architecture Education Declares Manifesto: https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/271857/open-letter-to-the-architectural-community-a-call-for-curriculum-change/


[viii]A good starting point is Stevens, Garry, (1998), The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. MIT Press

[ix]Hilberg, Jonathan, Ishigami Ordered to Pay Interns (2019) (online). Available From: https://archpaper.com/2019/03/junya-ishigami-ordered-pay-interns-serpentine-uproar-elemental-internships/

[x]See for example: New Architecture Writers at http://newarchitecturewriters.organd for similar work at U.C.D. http://architectureireland.ie/gender-an-architectural-agenda-2