On February 19th, 2014, Odile Decq, the world-renowned French architect, announced the launch of a new private university - the Confluence Institute for Innovation and Creative Strategies in Architecture - to be built in Lyon this year. Decq has promised that the school will break from France’s “strict institutional system of education ill-adapted to change” and thus offer an architecture education fit for the 21st century.
In France, however, public opinion on the new school has been far from unanimous. The Union of Architecture (Le Syndicat de l’Architecture) even went so far as to respond with an open letter to the Minister of Culture and Communication, expressing concern over the project’s “openly mercantile and elitist purpose.”
France possesses a free and public educational model that sets it apart from the rest of the world. Out of twenty-two schools of architecture, only one is private: l’Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris (where Decq was once Director). And, while certainly not perfect, the quality of architecture education is, across the board, of a particularly high standard — the Agency of the Evaluation of Research & Higher Education (AERES) has given a rating of ‘A’ to twenty of the schools and ‘B’ to the other two. This means that regardless of a student’s economic background, he or she has the opportunity to receive an excellent architectural education.
So, no matter how radical or forward-thinking Confluence may be, is it really a good idea for France to start emulating the model of expensive, private architecture schools we see across the rest of the world?
In France today, there are around 18,000 architecture students and about 2,000 graduates of architecture a year. Although the percentage of architects in the population is rather low compared to the rest of Europe (45 per 100,000 inhabitants, as compared to 87 on average in the rest of Europe), is there a need to train more architects? Why should we create more competition within the discipline — particularly when the current unemployment rate for architects is around 10%?
Moreover, why should France align itself with the Anglo-Saxon model? Decq says she was inspired to create an internationally renowned, theoretically-progressive school, something in the vein of the AA in London or Sci Arc in Los Angeles. But at what cost? By creating competition between our schools, France would be jeopardizing what makes its universities unique: an education that is - more or less - equal.
It is of course interesting to want to “shake up the system,” to promote the synergy of disciplines and experiences beyond architecture’s traditional purview, to provide courses in English and orient teaching towards a humanistic culture — but not through the creation of a private institute that costs 12,000 Euros a year.
Perhaps it would be better to introduce these changes within the existing, public universities, to ensure that everyone has access to the same quality of education. It would be unfortunate if expensive private schools began to flourish in France, as they have in other countries. We should protect the uniqueness of our educational system and recognize that we would be better off trying to change the system from within, rather than taking a radically different path.
This article was written by Solène Veysseyre in French and translated by Vanessa Quirk. Solène Veysseyre is a French architect who graduated from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture of Lyon. She has worked in Brussels, Belgium and Santiago de Chile.