The great schools of architecture have been around since time immemorial, or at least that's how it can often feel. In London, a city particularly dense with institutions of this calibre, this is perhaps felt more acutely. How, then, do you develop an entirely new school in this tightly packed environment which has the potency and capacity to compete? Will Hunter, former executive editor of the London-based Architectural Review, began a process to do just this with an article in 2012. Following this, he set up the ARFA—Alternative Routes For Architecture—in order to explore different models for architectural education, calling upon professionals and academics to contribute to a series of informal discussions.
“When the tuition fees in the UK escalated to around £9000 per year in 2013, it got me thinking about different models for architectural education,” Hunter recalls. The casual meetings held around this time gradually become more serious until, “at a certain point, we decided to test them: to make a school.” The project gathered momentum from that point on and now, two years later, the London School of Architecture (LSA) are preparing to take in their first ‘trailblazing cohort’ of postgraduate students.
Unlike many British schools of architecture, each faced with their own independent issues alongside a collective uncertainty against what the European Union directive will ultimately mean for UK-based students and educators, the LSA are, as Hunter puts it, “quite on the money when it comes to how architectural education is changing both nationally and internationally.” Relatively disconnected from the debates of the RIBA, Hunter and his assembled team recognise that architectural pedagogy needs rethinking.
The core to the LSA’s model is simple. Similar to a conventional Masters course the LSA’s diploma (which is in the process of seeking accreditation from The CASS Faculty of Art, London Metropolitan University) will take two years to complete. For the first year, which will begin with a group of twenty students to stretch to forty in time, those studying will work for three days per week (leaving two for study) in one of forty pre-selected practices in the capital. Their salary, which will be a minimum of £12,000 (around $18,000 or €16,500), will mitigate the £6000-per-year tuition fees thereby making the entire course ‘cost neutral.’ In the second year students will be expected to spend the majority of their time in the LSA’s studio environment.
According to Hunter this model “forges new relationships between practice and academia, which empowers both.” In so doing a more relevant culture will be nurtured and, fuelled by a more financially reciprocal relationship, is intended to encourage broader access to the school. After the initial twelve months, the LSA hopes to be reviewed by the Quality Assurance Agency which would be the first major step in enabling access to SLC (Student Loans Company) finance. This would mean that applicants would be permitted to apply for all the standard loans and grants other students in the UK qualify for, alongside the financial support from their first-year employment in practice. Furthermore, Hunter anticipates that “within two or three years [the LSA] will be in a position to be able to provide bursaries of our own.” At this early stage, however, the finer details of this arrangement are a little ambiguous.
The school’s connection with London is not only correlative, but necessary. “Our model relies entirely on using other people’s resources, and using the city in a new way,” Hunter states. “To do this, you need a big city to operate in and for us London has the space, the intellectual resources, the people, and the practices.” With regard to the latter, a great deal of practices are on board. Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), Assemble, Carmody Groake, DSDHA, Duggan Morris, Grimshaw, Studio Egret West, Terry Farrell and Partners, and 2014 Stirling Prize winners Haworth Tompkins have all—among others—signed up to the practice network. Exactly which of the forty practices will be offering placements in 2015 will be announced soon.
In spite of its large professional network the LSA’s peripatetic, almost nomadic, existence in its debut year might be seen as a disadvantage. By its very nature, and based on the fact that it hasn't yet received its first students, the organisation feels insubstantial in comparison to other London-based schools. Not only can they offer late-opening studios and decked-out lecture halls, they also afford locally situated workshops, the benefit of a student union, and access to centrally located accommodation. In contrast, the LSA will be housed within the Design Museum in Shad Thames for it’s first academic year, as the hunt for a more permanent central base begins. For Hunter, this is not necessarily a drawback: “we think that the studio culture is important,” he states, “but you don’t necessarily need a big building to startup in.” Each studio project will be based in a different borough of London each year making the school’s migratory position, or ‘nimble network’, more of an asset than a handicap.
Where does Hunter see the LSA in five years time? Small in comparison to its larger London-based cousins—capped at forty students in each year—and, most probably, starting to shape what the future of the profession will be. “I think that we’re really aiming to change the critical culture of architecture,” he says. “We’ve got to be preparing students for the profession of tomorrow rather than the profession of fifty years ago and, in the process, offering a lively proposition about what the profession should be doing.”
The stakes are high and, at first glance, the risks for the students substantial. What's clear, however, is that the greatest risk that could be taken at the LSA is a creative one. “What you could see as its biggest weakness—that it’s new—is actually the biggest opportunity,” Hunter believes. “The first students can get in a ground level and help to shape the culture of the school. I think the real risks are quite minimal in the end.” Ultimately, students of the LSA will leave with an academic award and, if all goes to plan over the coming years, RIBA Part II exemption granted by the ARB (UK Architects’ Registration Board).
Fundamentally, the LSA is about the coming together of interesting people to “make something happen.” Hunter and his team, which includes a number of esteemed practitioners and teachers, are positioning themselves to forge and curate a new sort of architectural culture in London. As Hunter puts it, “when you put the culture and the people of the school first, that’s when interesting things happen.”
The intrepid educators behind the LSA have taken a compelling concept and made it real. Its model, which seeks to pedagogically realign the discipline with the professional world in a way which is visionary, as opposed to idealistic, feels both appropriate to the climate and receptive to its needs. Existing schools and institutions, many of which appear to be sat on a bed of shifting sands and failing to respond will, I predict, have a great deal to learn from this start-up school.
If you have a “good” degree in architecture and RIBA Part I, and are able “to demonstrate your talent as a designer as well as your ability and motivation to complete the course successfully,” then you are invited to apply online before the 22nd April 2015. You can find out more about the specifics of the academic programme here.
Key figures who will be involved in the day-to-day programme of the LSA include:
- Will Hunter, Director
- Dr. Deborah Saunt, Inter-practice Year Director (co-founder, DSDHA)
- Clive Sall, Proto-practice Year Director (co-founder, FAT)
- Dr. Tom Holbrook, Leader of Urban Studies (co-founder, 5th Studio)
- James Soane, Leader of Critical Practice (co-founder, Project Orange)
- Dr. Alan Powers, Leader of Historical Studies (editor, curator, educator)
- Lewis Kinnear, Leader of Technical Studies (associate, Carmody Groarke)