Last year’s degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone was notable for the work of one student in the Masters Year, Sam Wilson.  I ended up writing a review of the show as a whole for the AJ, and an in-depth feature on Sam’s scheme at Brymbo Steelworks for Urban Realm.  His striking drawings were printed in both magazines, and here’s hoping he capitalised on the coverage he gained to find himself a job.

This year’s degree show forces the visitor to dig deeper, though.

The walls on Level 6 of the Matthew Building are hung with examples of polite rationalism, and sensitive conservation schemes.  Evidently, there are a few Asplund juniors in the Masters year, amongst whom are the authors of an ironically po-faced Cartoon Museum, and a sub-Seagram scheme for Dundee’s main railway station.  The restoration work tackles Slains Castle and the fortress at Dunnottar: both schemes are well-mannered but a little tentative.

By contrast, Magnus Popplewell’s drawings outline his idea to create an inhabited bridge spanning the Tay.  Rather than dropping another “icon” on Dundee’s central waterfront, he proposes a three kilometre long megastructure.  This is the one piece of ambitious architectural thinking on show at Dundee in 2013.

The bridge springs from a northern abutment above Seabraes, with student studios slotted into the frame, then flats for the general run, and retail units, leading to a hotel.  By then, we are hundreds of metres out into the Tay and the accommodation thins out.  Mid-river, there’s a jetty and – bizarrely – a basilica on an artificial island, founded on the kilometre-long Middle Bank, one of the Tay’s many sandbanks.  Further south, there’s a navigation span over the shipping channel, known as the South Deep, before the bridge sweeps onto its southern abutment at Tayfield, between Wormit and Newport.

Popplewell’s clean, simple pen drawings owe something to Frank Ching, but present his concept coherently without any tricks of presentation.  Neither is there the baggage of theory, phenomenology or mytho-poetics which often accompanies student schemes.  It would have been nice to see a model, though…

Many folk have proposed a modern version of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio or Venice's Rialto Bridge - including Rem Koolhaas’ scheme at Rak Jebel, high in the mountains above the Persian Gulf, and Laurie Chetwood’s proposal for a modern “London Bridge 800”.  Unlike previous examples of Living Bridges with huge towers filled with luxury flats, shops and restaurants, Popplewell’s bridge is linear and flat-topped.

The Thames is a small, sluggish river bounded by a city.  The Tay is many times wider, and the volume of water which flows down it is greater than the three largest English rivers combined.  As a result, the three kilometre long pedestrian deck crosses the Tay in one constant slow arc and evokes Corb’s “Project Obus”. Anything less would be gestural.  It works on a variety of scales: the largest of megastructures; the public apparatus of a city; the structural gird; down to the domestic scale of rooms, and their fittings.

It seems ideal territory for a student thesis.

This course of action, choosing a hypothetical brief then allowing it to run to its conclusion, opposes “The Challenge of the Ordinary”, a brief which academics elsewhere have set students.  That proposition was apparently brought about by a juror’s remark a propos the 3D Reid Student Prize - "We saw a crematorium, a monastery/ brewery, a "cidery‟ in a tower, a bench, a theatre and an exploration of the caverns of Naples.  We did not see a house, an office, a warehouse, a hospital or a supermarket.  Where were the schemes pushing everyday architecture down exciting new paths?”

This remark, as rational as it seems, betrays a lack of insight.  This is not the intellectually sophisticated line which James Gowan took when he noted drily that, the more complex the brief, the more banal the solution; whereas the more banal the brief, the more sophisticated the solution.  Rather than a challenge to think in a more sophisticated way, it sounds like a mere call for novelty.  After all, what is “excitement”?  Wouldn't resolution, sophistication, or articulation be more fitting? 

Paradoxically, students in their final year should pursue unlikely ideas and unusual typologies – the so-called “unbuildable” schemes – whereas they should only tackle “straightforward” things like houses, offices and shops after 15 or 20 years of experience.  The subtleties of the latter are learned by doing, whereas opera houses, monasteries and wineries will almost always be one-offs.  As a consequence, their design will be informed by the study of precedents, operational research, and brief extension – the very activities in which students are well versed.

Unconvinced?  Each modern opera house is a prototype; yet consider trying to design mass housing from scratch, without practical experience and hence without exposure to the norms applied by the firms who help you to realise it.  Why not try to impose your own personal module on the ceiling, floor and partition grids of offices – or argue in the face of the British Council for Offices’ (BCO’s) logic about net lettable areas (NLA’s).  Perhaps you could subvert social housing by trying something which ignores the prescriptive standards driven by the Housing for Varying Needs (HFVN) guides, and paid for by Housing Association Grants (HAG’s).

Do you already have a grasp of the concepts hiding behind those acronyms?  If the answer is yes, it will undoubtedly spring from direct experience.  A measure of that experience would be hard, although not impossible, to apply in a degree course, because we can’t properly replicate how buildings are born.  The interaction of people and firms is just too complex, and both time- and cost-intensive.  Crucially, much of the design process comes about as a result of actors offstage, and given that student architects are assessed as individuals, pitching them into a bear pit would not serve any real purpose.

Let’s return to The Challenge of the Ordinary.  Since people never set up propositions for no reason at all, this one must spring from a considered attitude towards the world.  For example you might take a narrow, vocational view of architectural training, one aim of which is to produce fodder for the big, commercial offices.  That implies you should only learn to design what they design, build how they build, and have your ambitions delimited by their experience.  Consideration of “everyday architecture” shouldn’t be restricted to certain typologies which the big commercial practices churn out.

An alternative is to consider a broader education which seeks to open peoples’ minds and offers them a fresh perspective on the world.  Provide the intellectual tools and you have set them up for life, so that they can follow their curiosity where it leads them, and the more ambitious you are at this stage, the better.  I’m with Mark Twain on this one – “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition.  Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Exploring the caverns under Naples is a perfect example of an opportunity which should be seized with both hands.  Imagine being offered the chance to engage with history of the tufa quarries, find out how southern European urbanism works, and live for a while within another culture, society, language and climate.  This isn’t just an “academic” point – I can speak from experience, having taken part in an ERASMUS exchange to Athens during my 4th year.  In Athens, I learned a few things about architecture, and far more about people.  I owe much to that opportunity.

My conclusion is that the course should build intellectual equipment, and broaden cultural horizons, rather than trying to reflect what happens in practice too closely.  The vocational part of training an architect will come later, from the experience of practice.  Ambitious briefs will help to stretch the mind; unambitious briefs may lead to a bounded imagination.

All that said – at the other end of the school, first year, is Hugh Ebdy’s habitat for an artist, at Kenmore on Loch Tay.  One beautifully-composed sheet of pen-line plans and elevations, and a gouache perspective of the habitat, cutaway to show the warm cocoon of the habitat surrounded by the enveloping blue twilight of the mountains.  Made from SIP panels, the habitat seems like a good place to be during the Scottish winter, a place to return to after a day’s exploration, to write up notes and fill out sketchbooks.

Between these two students, there are some well-resolved ideas and the promise of more to come.  Underlying them, is a lesson about didacticism and how to equip students for practice.

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