Architecture schools’ yearly exhibitions offer flights of fancy, sci-fi visions and things of beauty from those destined to shape our built envi
Around this time of year, all over the country and at no charge, the public can wander into various seats of learning and get a glimpse of the future. For this is the season of the annual shows of the nation’s schools of architecture, where students at every stage of the five-year academic part of their training (there are also two years spent working in offices) present the best of the visions and designs over which they have been sweating since the previous September. The aim is to show their work to the world and, it’s hoped, catch the eye of a future employer.
Mostly, the public pass up on the opportunity for enlightenment, the shows being mostly visited by parents, loyal but a little bewildered by the “urban breathalysers” or “aeroponics institutes” that their offspring have produced. Indeed, enlightenment is not exactly what you get, the experience being more to witness a flurry of creative energy of uncertain direction, sometimes dazzling imagery, a maelstrom of suggestions of ways in which the world might be different.
There is not one future on offer, but hundreds. At the most factual level, most of these students will end up working for practices that design the buildings that will surround us. But there is also the belief held by almost all schools of architecture that their job is not only to train students to do their job, but to incubate new and better ways of creating buildings, which they might eventually put into practice. Students are typically grouped into “units” or “studios”, run by two or three tutors who will have their own ideas of how the world should be. The shows are displays of their ideas as well as those of the students.
At best, the work in the student shows is committed, hard-worked, brave, skilled, thoughtful and/or imaginative. At worst, the exhibitions offer bad sci-fi, lazy politics (“Let’s all hate America”) and cod poetry. There are cliches that have been going round the schools for decades, such as the idea that the student’s work is a quasi-science (a “surgical operation”, a “laboratory”). Certain buzzwords float around (there’s a lot of “liminal”). Well, the students are young and not all geniuses, but too often their teachers seem to be steering them towards rather than away from these traps.
Influences from real, practising architects tend either towards the extravagant computer-generated form-making of Zaha Hadid or to the reflective, crafted manipulation of masonry and timber practised by Peter Zumthor. Nothing wrong with looking to leaders in your field, but in running the gamut from Z to Z, more nuanced approaches tend to get left out.
At root is the central question of architectural education: is it about preparing students for the realities of practice or is it about taking a freedom they will never have again, to dream and speculate? The obvious truth is that it should be both. Educated with too much fantasy, students become disempowered when thrust into the machinery of the profession; with too much pedantry they will never raise their horizons.
Some of the architecture school shows have already closed, but many stay open for a week or two. There could well be one near you. A visit could be revelatory and diverting, as long as you don’t expect to understand too much.