“I’d like you to join me in hell” declared Catherine Slessor, the first female editor of The Architectural Review in her opening speech for the design debate series Turncoats in late November. What followed was a blistering, hilarious and poetic assault on the world of vanity publishing confided to an audience of 200 critics, architects and designers in SelgasCano’s Second Home. Normally a review such as this one might be accompanied with a film of the event itself, but in this case that is impossible due to Turncoats’ blanket ban on digital recording equipment (including phones) - one of numerous theatrical twists which have made this unassuming project one of the hottest tickets in town.
Turncoats is the creation of former AR Deputy Editor and current Deputy Director of the Architecture Foundation Phineas Harper, Studio Weave and Interrobang founder Maria Smith, and esteemed educator Professor Robert Mull, backed by the Cass architecture and art school. The series is like a hedonistic mash-up of an old school debating society and a ritualistic drinking game. Vodka shots, comedy warm up acts, sexy venues and mischievous polemical propositions make every Turncoats event a surreal and thought-provoking evening. The masterstroke is that not every invited panellist is speaking their mind – some are purely playing devil’s advocate. This reality-bending twist naturally invites a theatricality which blurs the line between argument and arguer, enabling a frankness of architectural debate rarely seen in our nervously polite industry.
Even putting the ubiquitous non-disclosure agreements aside, the world of architecture is a small one. Nepotism works both ways and it would be a foolhardy architect indeed who spoke openly without first pausing to consider who was listening. People talk, rumors circulate and gossip can too easily sour a professional relationship. Turncoats therefore creates a safe space for debate – not the kind with a prescriptive list of banned language and unacceptable opinions but one that is genuinely free. Alcohol helps lubricate tongues but it’s the touch of deceit around whose position is whose on the panel which ironically allows for a more honest discussion.
Turncoats’ punky attitude and embracing of play make it the perfect tonic for those tired of dry formulaic panel debates. But read at another level Turncoats can be seen as riposte to the recent events threatening the future of the Cass.
The Cass is, surely, one of the strongest graduate schools of architecture in the UK. It has in recent years struck a wily balance between real-world concerns that are near-to absent from the Royal College of Art, Bartlett or Architectural Association while still producing ambitious and politically propositional work. This sophisticated mix is thanks in large part to Mull, who as Dean developed a Bauhaus-like interdisciplinary ensemble of courses and teaching spaces in Aldgate. Under Mull’s leadership the school attracted world class architects like Peter St John and Tony Fretton to teach, hit upon the widely copied model of an in-school practice to support live projects, and has broadly set pedagogical agendas far beyond its east London base. Glance through the 93 best British firms to have set up in the past decade published in The Architecture Foundation’s new book New Architects 3 and you’ll find practice after practice who’ve come through the Cass. Even the new London School of Architecture is ultimately accredited by the Cass, which also hosts the rekindled Architecture Foundation.
Yet all this, all this work, all this energy, seems poised to collapse as the Cass’ abusive parent institution London Metropolitan University (LMU) steamrollers through a rushed plan to sell off its Aldgate sites, doubtless making way for luxury residential towers while transplanting the school and its community to a less central campus. Vague grudging promises have been made about retaining adequate studio space but, given LMU has already begun culling smaller (less profitable) Cass courses, they ring decidedly hollow. Demonstrations were mounted, galleries were occupied, questions were even raised in the House of Lords. Finally in the week before Christmas Robert Mull resigned in protest. Whether his departure will provide the wake up call LMU desperately needs to change tack or whether it will precipitate a slew of high profile artist and architect resignations hangs in the balance.
The Cass’ plight is pertinent for architectural education globally. As neoliberal governments in developed nations push market logic on universities, architecture courses will face a struggle for their survival against cheaper-to-teach subjects. Mull’s departure suggests that even the most respected and successful individuals in architecture education are ultimately powerless against the machinery of market-led higher education, raising questions about how we as an industry support our schools. Is this sorry chapter in part the consequence of the endless bullying architectural education has suffered at the hands of its own profession? Rarely does a week go by without some article, symposium or book accusing architecture schools of being out of touch with practice or attacking some other perceived failing. We criticize the gender balance of tutors, the western-centricity of the canon, the detachment from building sites, the high fees, and the “voluntourism” of live builds in developing world locations. Mull himself wrote in June last year on the endless sniping: “behind this farce, there is tragedy. The much-trumpeted separation between education and practice is a convenient invention which allows both parties to duck their responsibilities and blame each other for architecture's problems.” But now he is gone and whether we accept it or not we, the profession, are in part to blame.
The penultimate stanza of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s famous lament on mortality runs:
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
These poignant words seem to capture the tragic truth that it is only at the darkest hour, when fate has dealt its final hand, that we see with full clarity the splendor of creation. So too it is only now, when the Cass is plunged into turmoil that we are finally waking up to the crisis in higher education and its impact on our profession.The creation of Turncoats, which has been gathering momentum just as LMU have been closing their net feels like a valiant charge against an insurmountable force. It demonstrates a spirit and vitality from Mull and his collaborators which will “not go gentle into that sweet night” when bullied but will blaze still more brightly.
Turncoats has three remaining events in London, Ornament is Crime is Crime on the 27th of January, The Gender Agenda on the 11th of February and Toss Posh Tosh on the 25th of February. Turncoats is supported by the property development and place making firm U+I.
Theo Jansen is a designer based in London. The sketches in this article were provided by Andra Antone and Peter Cross, who attended the Turncoats' "Vanity Publishing" debate in November.