UCL News


Spotlight on Alan Penn

5 February 2019

This week the spotlight is on Alan Penn, who steps down from his role as Dean of The Bartlett this year as the faculty celebrates 100 years.

Alan Penn

What is your role and what does it involve?
I am Dean of The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at UCL so my main role is making the whole faculty greater than the sum of the parts, by working with everyone in the faculty, including staff from every imaginable discipline, to articulate a narrative and define a set of values that we can all agree are central to our identity; that say why we are all together rather than somewhere else. 

I also sit on UCL’s Senior Management Team (SMT) along with the other 10 Deans, the Provost and Vice-Provosts and the Directors of Professional Services divisions. The SMT is a real collaborative effort, delivering our combined goals by nurturing and curating the cross-disciplinary culture at the scale of UCL as a whole. The autonomy of UCL’s departments and faculties is pretty unusual amongst universities and is probably why UCL has innovated in developing new subjects and disciplines more than any other university in the world. 

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I have been at UCL for an embarrassingly long time. In fact, I started my time here as an undergraduate in The Bartlett School of Architecture in 1975, in the first cohort to study in Wates House (now known as 22 Gordon Street). After my MArch, I worked for the NHS in a health authority architecture department, and post-Diploma, decided to do an MSc part time and got hooked on research. After a few years self-employed, as a contract researcher and occasional tutor at the School of Architecture, I secured a lectureship in The Bartlett School of Planning. I founded the Space Syntax network in 1987, and was Director of the Virtual Reality Centre for the Built Environment (part of a collaborative project with The Bartlett and UCL Computer Science) before starting my Deanship of The Bartlett Faculty, in 2009.
What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
There are so many to choose from, new buildings, new institutes, new programmes, an outstanding REF result, a new sense of identity and culture in The Bartlett. But it is easy to choose, The Bartlett Promise. This is just getting under way and doesn’t actually start until after I step down as Dean, at the end of this academic year, but it has taken the best part of the last ten years to get the Faculty into a position to be able to promise that 2% of students will study free of fees and with a living stipend. This is how things were when I did my degree, but the high fee regime we now have makes it extremely hard for those from less affluent backgrounds to study at university at all. In the subjects we deliver, that plan, design, construct and operate a built environment for everyone to live and work in, it is essential that the people we educate are as diverse as the communities they will build for. This is what the promise is all about - creating a truly diverse set of professions. We will start with 2% - about sixty students - but I hope that partners will step forward to match that and that over time we can increase the reach of the scheme.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?
This year, we are celebrating 100-years of acquiring the name The Bartlett, from our benefactor, Sir Herbert Henry Bartlett. The Bartlett name, and faculty, has grown to be one of the most competitive built environment faculties in the world. So, we want to give an insight into our unique ecology and how it has allowed us to adapt and grow, to embrace uncertainty rather than recoil from it. We’re showcasing our radical thinking over the past 100-years with 100 stories over 100 days on Bartlett100.com and a number of events across the year. But we don’t want to just dwell on where we have come from, we want to start mapping out where we might go from here – working to understand the structures shaping society and making them fairer and more prosperous. 

Another project I am excited about at the moment is ‘Architecture Beyond Sight’. Thinking not just about diversity, but also about changing the rules of the game, we are developing an access programme for visually impaired people through workshops involving blind and partially sighted artists, architects and craftspeople, to challenge the visual excess and hegemony of the design profession.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?
In the Court of the Crimson King - that dates me! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - I grew up in Bolivia where the final scenes of the story are set. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson - a truly gripping, uncomfortable and tortuous story that as a former climber and mountaineer gives me goose bumps.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
I can never remember a joke - it is clearly a deficit of some kind - sorry!

Who would be your dream dinner guests?
Just at the moment? Winston Churchill, Theresa May and the European Research Group represented by Jacob Rees Mogg - just imagine - but I would love to hear the dressing down the architect of post war Europe would give to the pair of them. It might be a short meal.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Listen before speaking - thinking about it, my older self too...

What would it surprise people to know about you?
My great grandfather was the first PoC pastor to be ordained in Jamaica. I know - anyone that knows me knows that religion is not my thing!

What is your favourite place?
Weekends walking in Walberswick.