The Bartlett


Essay 06: The future of practice

Where does architecture education go from here? The Bartlett School of Architecture believes there’s no single answer – and that’s the point.

At a certain point, the core concept of a profession becomes outdated – we’re at that point now

We have to remember that ‘professions’ are fundamentally a concept, and certain concepts that pass through centuries need to evolve. At a certain point, the core concept of a profession becomes outdated – it reaches a point where it needs to be reformed. Within the architectural profession, there’s a strong case to suggest that we’re at that point now. The terms that define the architect and the educational criteria that meet that definition are too narrow in comparison to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. On that basis, architectural education, particularly accredited architectural education, needs to be more flexible; it needs to open the door to others who have chosen a different but complementary pathway and broaden its expectations on where great architecture may be imagined, researched and delivered.

In many ways, this is about shifting the emphasis that presently lingers over the individual towards increasing the emphasis on a collaborative discipline, made up of diverse individual talents and expertise. In the past, the dominant myth was of this ideological figure that would set up a practice, win lots of building projects, publish monographs, and win medals. In reality, the discipline, and indeed the subject, is very broad – and it’s not always about building buildings. It is engaged with urban design, innovation, engineering, computation, history, theory, manufacturing, performance, theatre, film, gaming, policy-making, material science, environmental design, landscape, and the many worlds within writing, drawing and making. We have students now who are able to flip between these different modes with ease, and still regard all of it to be architecture. They are the generation that will redefine the profession and fulfil Donaldson’s analysis of 1842, which described architecture as “wandering in a labyrinth of experiments”.

As a long-established and a highly successful school, we have an obligation to be vocal and active where we believe changes need to be made. Schools are not training grounds, they are testing grounds. They exist to open minds, to envisage the future and to provoke the world to respond and interact. In part, that’s what our new programmes starting in 2017/18 are getting at: the MArch in Design for Manufacture, the MArch in Design for Performance and Interaction, the MEng in Engineering and Architectural Design, and the MA in Situated Practice, all reflect the many different ways that architecture and the architect can be defined.

Look at what’s happened in the past two decades. The construction industry is notoriously vulnerable to boom and bust, but the design professions have survived these cycles by becoming much more diverse and entrepreneurial. Most successful design agencies now have a mixed portfolio of projects and clients – they’re not all occupying the same space at the same time. What this reveals is the architect’s capacity to adapt and augment their expertise across many fields, and The Bartlett has been a highly influential testing ground for graduates in this regard. Our strategy has always been to approach architecture as a living subject, one that is intimately involved with and relates to the world outside the campus – from engagement with the arts as well as industry, from exploring histories of the past to narratives of the future, and by experimenting with all forms of representation and making.   

At The Bartlett, our programmes are structured so that students feel that the way they operate here in academia has a legitimacy in the world outside the campus; that they will have the skills to contribute to the direction of their profession, not just be a servant to it. We are very lucky that, thanks to our position in London, more than 50% of our 260 staff work in practice. So it’s not a case of ‘practice’ being ‘them’ and ‘academia’ being ‘us’. We’re all a bit of both.

Employers have welcomed the new programmes; they think it’s been a long time coming. Take the four-year MEng in Engineering and Architectural Design, for example. We involved industry from the beginning in creating the strategic proposal for this course. This will appeal to students who feel their motivation for getting into engineering is because they like design, and because they want to experience the subjects of engineering and architecture bouncing off one another from the first year onwards.

Professor Bob Sheil is Director of The Bartlett School of Architecture. He is a founding partner of sixteen*(makers), whose work in collaboration with Stahlbogen GmbH ‘55/02’ won a RIBA award for design in 2010. @bobsheil