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Kids these days

18 Jul 2005

Pairs of puzzled parents, anxious graduates, frowning academics: it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the symbolic overload of a degree show. For some it’s a rites of passage ceremony where architects make a statement, which will propel them forward into the world of employment. For others it’s a flock being herded into the final pen before they are carted off to the slaughterhouse. The significance is only amplified if you are taking part, of course. If it goes well, it is a superb launch pad. If it goes badly, it feels like the moment when the supports were kicked away from underneath you. It’s the symbol of an end and a new beginning.

This year as we wander around the degree shows, smiling either because we are sincerely impressed or because we know something the student doesn’t, we know that this year’s group is going into a employment market that, in the North of England and Scotland, is as healthy as it has been in the past two decades. We also know that they will be replaced by a bumper stock of applicants. According to universities, the applicant rate for architecture courses has never been as high as it is this year. More pressure than ever is being applied to architecture schools to accept higher and higher volumes of students, while still contending with the same budgetary squeezes of old. With some of the most interesting work in sometime appearing on the walls of schools, certainly those in Edinburgh and Glasgow, it would be tempting to see that a hard fought battle is being won by academic staff, pupils and the wider profession.
However, rewind to April this year to a show with a narrower remit but a far more revealing overview, the Young Architect’s category of the Scottish Design Award’s are being judged in Glasgow, by Penny Lewis, Peter Wilson and Graham Ross. As a body the judges were able to compliment individual schemes submitted on their technical ability, but there were very few competition entries among the submissions. As a body of work, the schemes submitted were largely domestic projects or run-of-the-mill commercial projects with a great deal of technical proficiency but limited ambition. In the space of a few years a section of the professional body that should be its most exuberant element, its young graduates, has apparently become its most embattled. According to a recent poll, architects have the least job satisfaction of all professions. Young architects are not exempt.
The temptation is to blame academia for the plight of young architects. In an overview of the Scottish scene in Building Design recently, Andrew Pinkerton of Keppie Design directed blame towards the Scottish schools for producing graduates that are not of a high enough standard. “I don’t believe that the output from architecture schools is as good as it has been,” he said. Others are quick to defend the schools. “There is a debate within the profession that we are not turning out office-ready candidates, but personally I don\'t want that. If we can get them as thinkers then we can turn them into office-ready participants,” says Gordon Murray, past president of RIAS and director at Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop.
Gordon Smith, convenor of the education committee for RIAS, scotches too the idea that the quality of graduates is in anyway inferior. “Entry standards have gone up considerably. You’ll find that graduates today have a conspicuously higher number of A grades at Higher or A Level than ten years ago,” he says. Gordon Murray agrees. “I don’t think the quality of the graduates is anyway lower than previously. The best are still the best; but there are now more students coming through the schools and there are more of them in the less able categories. So, I suppose, statistically there are more less able students,” he says.
Of course, there is definitely a problem in the funding of universities. It is not in the universities best interests to preserve statistics on this matter, but a straw poll across academic staff puts the decrease in time spent in one-on-one tuition to be at around 50 per cent. Since students today finish their Part II with a debt of between £5,000 and £25,000, many are taking time off to work and this isn’t always in architecture offices. “You ask yourself whether this is a particularly good idea. You ask yourself does the part-time model work? The Mack has a part-time course but there’s been no dramatic increase in uptake. But we are still faced with the need to make a more flexible route available to people joining the profession,” says Gordon Smith.
It would take a social revolution of unprecedented dimensions to halt the underlying trends that are producing this steady process of atomisation, including a return to direct taxation as the only source of paying for education. The profession can respond by providing more part-time work in offices, but it can’t overcome an academic model, which encourages students to treat their place of learning not as a school but as a resource for helping their own private study. This however is the atomisation to come, and doesn’t readily explain the views of the judges of a student body which was taught – how strange this must sound– during a time of relative comfort in academia.
Yet if we become too preoccupied with the transition from academia to the working environment, we miss the real pressures that are being felt by young architects. Ask most architects in their 30s with their own practice what was the bigger transition, leaving the academic world or the salaried job you got afterwards and they’ll tell you the latter, every time. The first salaried job is an extension of being a student, except you get paid – a bit. The hours are long. You live in a communal flat. You drink lots of beer. Okay, the authority figure is no longer your lecturer; he’s your boss. (Although he might actually have been working part-time as your lecturer once). Not much socially has changed. Not even the balance of your student loan, unless you get really lucky.
The transition to a self-employed environment however is a shit-storm. Self-employment, insurance issues, even the Social Charter: legislation governing these issues have all increased in volume and complexity in the last decade. Is it any wonder that architects take their eye of the ball for a few years? All their idealism, all their imagination has been swallowed up in the fool’s errand of establishing one’s own business. It is conspicuous that among the current crop of lucky participants in NESTA’s Creative Pioneer course, the element most valued by its participants was not primarily the encouraging of creative skills but the business courses and the reassurance given by a support structure.
One of the frequent complaints made by students is that standards of teaching in the schools is patchy. Some staff are accused of concentrating on star pupils, leaving those identified as less able to fend for themselves. The professor of a new course in architecture announces that the quality of his students has been commended by a large local practice, before he tells you that said local practice teach at the school regularly. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. But it is a problem if school’s become a trove from which they can pluck the polished articles rather than a school. Asked for one reason to account for the continuing success of the University of Sheffield’s School of Architecture and Sarah Wigglesworth, herself a practicing architect, points to the first term of the first year. “We send them out into the community to complete a built project. They design and build it together. That sets the trend,” she says, acknowledging that it is getting harder to maintain an esprit de corp all the time.
The judging panel for the Young Architect award were at pains to point out that there was no shortage of ability, what is lacking is a sense of ambition and a sense of collective endeavour. Or to be more accurate the sense of community is sorely tested. As young practices struggle to find work and fight back the fear every time they read an article in which the ARB boast of laying waste to an architect’s career for some indemnity oversight, as the wunderkinds in young practices determine just how to make their ability best serve themselves, their paymasters and others, we may have to wait a few years before they get their heads up and realise that they have the chance to make a statement. There is a choice: either we try to shoehorn lessons in business and office skills into already overstretched schools, or we acknowledge that young architects are getting older all the time.

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