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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Reading: Architecture – art or profession?

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In the quiet rainy afternoon I had set aside to prepare a critique of Mark Crinson and Jules Lubbock’s 1994 book Architecture – Art or Profession? we repaired to our favourite Southside Glasgow café for potent coffee and delectable freshly baked scones. My output was low, however, as I foolishly picked up a copy my preferred newspaper the Guardian, and become incensed once more at the nerve of a certain royal who likes to express his opinion about modern architecture rather aggressively. This follows a similar such article relating to another such incident, which subsequently inspired said newspaper to churn out a fairly predictable piece critiquing said royal’s pet project, a badly-built haven of kitsch-dom that was designed without consideration for crime reduction or contemporary living requirements. The architectural press has also picked up on the story. This reponse to this flurry of investigative journalism has been trenchant and opinionated, descending into unfounded statements that generally miss the point. For example: “Prince Charles speaks for most people’s ideas about buildings, towns and cities, and architects can’t stand that.” It’s true that architects can’t stand Charles’ opinion, but not because Charles even has the slimmest clue of what “most people” think. In the beautiful, eloquent and razor-sharp words of one Guardian reader, Prince Charles is “a none too bright, semi-unemployed middle-aged man, who by an accident of birth, has been brought up with the impression that his views actually mean something.” I, however, am more than willing to chip in my £0.69 per year to pay for the Royal Family, and will also gladly pick up the tab for a couple of republicans, but I feel aggrieved that a Royal thinks he can push a largely accountable planning system around to his taste. Architects generally “can’t stand” Charles speaking his mind because architects never get the chance to air their opinions as freely and as widely as he does. And most architects have substantially more qualifications to comment on architecture than 5 O-levels, 2 A-levels and the lowest possible degree classification the University of Cambridge offers short of a fail (that wasn’t even in architecture).

Why the tirade? Architecture – Art or Profession? is a detailed, rigorous and appreciably complete history of architectural education in Great Britain. However, it features a laudatory forward from HRH the Prince of Wales, and the authors benefited from a research grant offered by the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. The nature by which a piece of research is procured and financed should always be considered in relation to its content. [ Please see the comment immediately below this post for an important correction. ] But to clarify, do not confuse the Institute with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment: the first evolved into the latter. The Institute became the Foundation, after it failed in its original mission: to establish a new school of architecture that would educate architects in a purely classical and traditionalist manner. The Institute would have been Britain’s only style-specific school of architecture, and it understandably failed to attract enough students or get exemption from RIBA examinations. That the RIBA should be so opposed to Prince Charles’ opinions on modern architecture is no surprise, but that it should continue to carry its royal charter with such pride is somewhat amusing.

So we have – and I must stress this – an excellent piece of historical research here. There is no book that offers such a detailed and well argued narrative about the history of architectural education in Great Britain However, from the point of view of my study, it frequently descends into a problematic and unhelpful tone that leads to a somewhat conspiratorial interpretation of history. I do not expect to find in such a scholarly work the problematic term ‘Young Turks’ to describe the mid-twentieth-century modernisers of English architectural education.

Crinson & Lubbock divide their history into four chapters, covering the periods 1660-1830, 1834-1938, 1938-1960 and finally from the sixties the early nineties. These timeframes permit an elegant narrative to be constructed, discussing firstly the many routes into architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the early-industrial-era professionalisation of architecture, the post-world-war-two modernisation of architectural education and finally the concept of a Kuhn’s scientific paradigm to explain why one system can replace another so quickly and completely. The book becomes increasingly and unapologetically conspiratorial as it builds towards the third and fourth chapters.

I worked hard not to colour my reading of the book with my own opinionated preconceptions about HRH Prince Charles and any history associated with his viewpoint, but Architecture – Art or Profession left me with a lingering suspicion that Crinson & Lubbock prefer the notion of a pre-Industrial-Revolution architectural profession which may be entered by any number of different routes. Chapter two is entitled ‘The Design of Professionalism and its resistance’, and to my mind is perhaps unfairly forgiving of pupillage, the entirely patchwork system of apprenticeship that saw aspiring architects and their families pay established practitioners for office experience and tutoring. The most famously cited criticism of pupillage as a means to acquire an architect’s training is by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), a damning caricature of lazy apprenticeship. While the faults of pupillage are acknowledged, Crinson & Lubbock are eager to emphasise that this portrayal is only an ‘extreme example’ and that it only served to fuel the ‘scientifically-minded radicalism’ (p.46) that would contribute to the downfall of informal education through pupillage. Likewise later in the book pupillage is defended once more from ‘its myths of neglectful and corrupt practices.’ How Crinson & Lubbock can vouch for such an unregulated system is difficult to conceive.

Of most interest to me is the description of the twentieth century. It was during this period that, under increasing pressure from the RIBA and modernising figures within schools of architecture, that architectural education moved away from being located in the profession to within the universities. This is very much a delayed and arguably tardy reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and the changes in the construction industry that threatened architects’ previously undisputed leadership of the building team. As larger and larger construction firms began to sub-contract various elements of their work, the building designer became less and less important, especially in an industrialised society in which mass production of standardised elements lessened the need for a unique design solution in every instance. Ulrich Pfammatter discussed this reactive nature of British design and engineering with particular reference to the 1851 Great Exhibition, at which Britain’s position at the vanguard of the industrial revolution was suddenly undermined by the discovery of greatly advanced machinery and products from abroad, and which the foundation of an entire generation of regional technical schools. (Pfammatter:2000, pp. 293-296) I agree wholeheartedly with Crinson & Lubbock’s assessment of architecture in Britain as being an extremely weak profession. (p.2)

The twentieth-century process of modernisation is described in mildly militaristic terms, with the ‘modernisers’ forming a ‘coterie’ that ‘hatched’ ideas as part of a long ‘campaign’ to ‘infiltrate’ the RIBA and it’s Board of Education. Crinson & Lubbock admit that they are not content to believe in solely evolutionary changes (p.165) to explain the remarkable shift of the nineteen-fifties and sixties from a system of architectural education that was predominantly influenced by the École des Beaux Arts and historical continuity to one that was favoured a blank-canvas approach to teaching design. Chapter four describes their interpretation of Kuhn’s theory of pardigmatic change, which they cite as an explanation for the total manner in which ‘modern’ architectural education replaced the largely Beaux Arts inspired system that preceded it.

The modest but highly influential 1958 Oxford Conference on architectural education is – wisely – debunked as a clean turning point between chaotic and inconsistent routes into the profession and a modern university-centric system. But again and again I was frustrated by a language that sought to view this key period through a conspiratorial veil, referring repeatedly and disdainfully to the conference organisers as a ‘coterie.’ Traditionalists did indeed view it as a ‘rigged’ conference, with only fifty-three invited speakers and a programme that carefully focussed on modernising issues. But why did advocates of Britain’s classicist and traditional (École des Beaux Arts derived) architectural education not protest or respond? I read Architecture – Art or Profession? with the sinking feeling that Crinson & Lubbock are reluctant to admit that before the changes recommended by the 1958 conference, and the gradual shift of architecture courses into universities that were monitored by the ever powerful RIBA, that British architectural education was inconsistent, exploitative and generally of poor quality. Pupillage and Beaux Arts teaching died out so cleanly because it was a staid system of learning-by-copying, that allowed no room for reflection on process and practice. There was, I believe, no adequate response to the 1958 conference from traditionalists because they genuinely had no convincing alternative to offer. At both the 1924 International Conference and in the 1946 RIBA Report, the aspiration was voiced for architecture to be taught within the university context, thereby conferring the profession with a status equal or similar to that of law or medicine. A key matter for exploration in my study of architectural education is understanding why this happened, and to an extent whether architecture continues to suit the university setting. Crinson & Lubbock’s book is, unfortunately, suspicious of research in the context of architectural education. I would like to believe that the authors were simply dissatisfied with the ‘modernisers’ concept of research, but the tone of the book unfortunately suggests that they simply regard all research in architectural education as a waste of time. For example:

At this point it is worth broadly signalling the consequences for British architecture of this emphasis on a particular, and apparently innocuous, notion of research. It was not, of course, an idea limited to postgraduate work, but permeated the ideology of modernist architectural education … This necessitated the recruitment of specialists who could teach a range of non-architectural subjects as a grounding for future research. This in turn had the effect of limiting the time spent on design as well as on professional, drawing and building skills in favour of an orientation towards new subject areas in the pure and social sciences. Such a conception of research picked up on the Bauhaus notion that all assumptions should be questioned and research as if no satisfactory solutions had been reached previously. This led to that most airily ‘systematic’ of 1960s pursuits, systematic design methodology, in which the inductive methods of science were to be applied actually as methods of design. (pp.142-143)

Heaven forbid that students of architecture might be taught the skills to research and question establish ideas for themselves, and that anyone from outside the profession might have something of value to teach these architects. Sadly being able to associate these notions with the understandably mixed results of the Bauhaus’ Vorkurs teaching means that Crinson & Lubbock construct an anti-academic view of architectural education, regarding the shift to university-level education as a trick played by the modernisers to exert greater control over the content of what was being taught to architects. This distrust of all things modern does have its comic moments though; on page 134 Crinson & Lubbock are quick to point out the symbolism of the RIBA Journal adopting a sans serif typeface as a key moment in the modernisation of the Institute. But Crinson & Lubbock are frankly sloppy in their criticism of the socialising practices of the ‘modern’ architectural education:

Both the avant-garde and the founding fathers shared the premise, enshrined in the Vorkurs, that the fledgling architect needed to be thoroughly laundered of his or her lay culture so as to be able to set themselves throughout their future career against the likes and dislikes of ordinary people, because that had been initiated innto a higher and more creative form of wisdom. (p.174)

This attitude seems blind to undeniable socialisation practices of the architectural education that preceded the modernised Vorkurs or academic vision. Any applicant to an architect (through articuled pupillage) or student of a Beaux Arts derived school was submitted him or herself to an equally overwhelming process of formation and socialisation.

At the time of publication, in the early nineteen-nineties, Crinson & Lubbock seemed deeply concerned by the continuing dominance of the ‘Official System’ (as they name the post 1958 Conference university-based system of architectural education) and bemoan the ‘triumph of a professionalised vision of the architect that was both narrowly focused and extraordinarily powerful.’ (p.38) Britain’s economy was far from health and the government were investigating the possibility of removing the legal protection of the title ‘architect.’ Into this context, Prince Charles’s attempt to found a school of architecture that plugged a ‘hole in the market,’ with a ‘course where those who wished could study what might broadly be termed ‘traditional’ architecture’ (p.6) seems to have been both overly optimistic and simplistic in addressing Crinson & Lubbock’s concerns with modern architectural education. And it is somewhat sad to have this book associated with that attempt and that standpoint. The authors’ critique of the RIBA’s questionable quasi-governmental position as a regulator of practice and entry to the profession is astute and coherent. Likewise their postscript suggestions for the future of architectural education are eminently intelligent. As I continue with my studies, Architecture – Art or Profession will provide an invaluable point of reference for the history of architectural education in Britain. But to do so, I will have to carefully disentangle an excellent history from an often questionable narrative.

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3 Responses

  1. Jules Lubbock says:

    Interested to read your comments and glad that you found our book useful. One simple but important correction. The research was NOT financed by the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. As we state on p xi the research was funded by the totally independent Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. The PoW’s Institute made a grant towards the costs of publication, a very different matter. The research was conducted as a serious academic study to understand the history of architectural education in this country at a time when the Prince of Wales was preparing to launch his own school of architectural education. As the inaugural director of the summer school which preceded the foundation of the school itself and as an academic architectural historian, it seemed to me to be essential for us to be able to provide scholarly justification for what we were doing. I was also insistent that the book, as it became, should be as objective as possible. And I am delighted that you seem to think we succeeded. In the nature of things, however, we cannot be totally objective and I am delighted that you are taking issue with us, joining in the debate.

  2. James says:

    Jules – thank you for your kind comments and correction. I hope to be in touch with you shortly!

  3. david ashton says:

    Good review of a great book…

    what about the cover though?!

    The real conspiracy to me is how can such an important and interesting book have a cover with fonts, photos and a layout that seems to have been specifically chosen to offend and disengage architects?!
    Add to that a mention of the profession’s public enemy no.1… ?!

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