The well-established and ongoing debate about the distance between architectural education and practice is perhaps most clearly highlighted in the uneasy relationship, in many student projects, between architecture and serious and complex social issues.
When writing the perfect project brief, finding an area of social conflict to tackle has seemingly become an essential component. However, no matter how much time a student genuinely invests in intelligently researching the problem, the principal outcome of any project is (rightly) to design a building.
This formulaic format too often renders a naive picture that architecture alone can solve these issues. Worse still is the emerging correlation between the socially charged aspect of the project and the provocative nature of the final drawings, often leading to a triumphant trivisualisation. Subsequently I’ve experienced seeing students struggle to contain their excitement when they discover the enduring social issue that will unlock their project.
Amongst the most popular of these typologies is the homeless shelter. It’s a sad irony that whilst they feature consistently in student awards, in practice these projects receive very little publicity.
A few weeks ago, at a talk organised by the London chapter of Architecture for Humanity, three designers talked of their involvement in socially engaged projects; revealing that the practice-based equivalent, despite being risky and sometimes unglamorous, is arguably just as creatively challenging.
One of the biggest challenges is securing funding in the first place. Peter Barber commented that despite a shortage of funding, there is more money available in this country than most of Europe.
Johanna Gibbons talked of the entrepreneurial attitude her practice had to take to realise Making Space in Dalston: 76 micro-projects matching local residents’ requests for more green spaces with a variety of public and private sponsorship.
A further issue that can arise is the need for the client — often a charity — to become institutionalised to qualify for funding, as was the case in Studio 54’s design for the Branches Hostel for Rough Sleepers in Waltham Forest. This process is often at odds with the initial ideology of all those involved in the project.
These are projects that appeal to a select type of practice looking to be rewarded with a sense of purpose rather than large profits. Similarly there are many students who would rather use their, time, energy and skills to engage with the issues their projects cover on a less superficial level.
From producing images to attract funding, to gaining construction experience on small projects, these activities could form part of a further speculative project. It’s an improbable marriage of education and practice but something must be done to establish serious social issues as something other than an excuse to produce provocative imagery.
The talk was organised by the London chapter of Architecture for Humanity as part of its Ideas on a Postcard, Please exhibition at Space Fiftyfour in Shoreditch.