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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Out and about: Sheffield live project reviews

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For the second time in two weeks, I’m at University of Sheffield School of Architecture. Cue much joking from staff and students about me not being able to stay away from my alma mater.

I’m here this week to do some research and to attend the 2009 student-led Theory Forum, which starts tomorrow. I was here last week to witness the end of project reviews of the 2009 live projects. With one of the live project teams proposing short and medium term solutions to problems surrounding Sheffield’s stalled £600,000,000 city centre ‘Seven Stone’ redevelopment, the event was held in a vacant department store just off the Moor, a once thriving street of low-end value shops and stores that has been earmarked for gentrification. With the financial crisis causing most of the money associated with the Seven Stone plans to evaporate into thin air, the city is now laced with empty shops, many of which were compulsorily purchased and/or vacated before it was realised there was little or no ready money to demolish, rebuild or refurbish. It is hard not to subscribe to the theory that there is some greater being who has decided that Sheffield should be forever trapped in a cycle of being shat on from a great height every decade. Who knows how long it will take for the city to solve this problem, especially as the only solution seems to be to wait for the end of the recession and then start building more shops. No-one has seemed to question why Sheffield needs so many shopping centres and chain stores. It’s not like the country needs another Birmingham.

Still the faded and (because the building was unheated) frigid ground floor space of the department store made for an interesting venue to present and review architectural projects. Not that much critical reviewing took place; the programme had compressed fifteen projects into a single day with only ten to fifteen minutes for each. It was hard to engage with this current crop of real-time student projects because there was not much room for dialogue or discussion. The presence of some project clients also suggested that this was not the time or the place to critique or probe deeply. The recognisable spirit and atmosphere was there, and the modular wall mounted suspension panels (once used for displaying electrical goods) made for a tolerable exhibition space. Two silent and non-functioning escalators sat in the middle of the building, leading up and down to dark unknown voids.

There was something particularly poignant about the display of student work in a derelict department store. Every year Sheffield (and most of the other forty or so schools of architecture in Britain) churns out about fifty final stage graduates in architecture. Nascent careers that are already counter-weighted by five years of student debt (now often unsecured as well as secured) begin as blurry eyed students enter the real world to find a job.

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I was not the only person present to notice this old notice about the doors to the street. Thank you for buying your architectural education from us. Good luck out there, and remember that you generally only get paid when provide something in exchange that the market is prepared to pay for.

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