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Fire in the Belly

TEXT Alykhan Neky, Anna Pavia, Adryanne Quenneville and Rebecca Tsang

“Architectural education should be an unforgettable and incendiary experience, where all concerned are restless, curious and committed to putting out fire with gasoline,” says David Gloster, Director of Education for the Royal Institute of British Architects. Gloster was one of four panellists who participated in Designing the Architect: Reshaping Architectural Pedagogy for the Information Age, a recent symposium hosted by Ryerson University’s Master of Architecture class. The evening event brought together educators from Europe and North America to re-examine the notion of the architect and her education in the face of a rapidly changing world.

The widespread availability of knowledge has reoriented society around information production and synthesis. Furthermore, students are facing an urgent sense of obligation to mitigate climate change. How will architectural education empower students to participate in this information age? In particular, how will it embrace digital means of representation and fabrication? How will architectural education embody the breadth of ideas beyond design? Lastly, how can schooling adequately prepare students to operate responsibly in professional practice?

In response to these questions, moderator Zahra Ebrahim, founder and principal of the design think tank archiTEXT, opened the discussion by asking, “What does it mean to be an architect in the digital age?” Gloster responded by emphasizing the importance of design through making. “The old adage ‘beware of technologies bearing gifts’ I think still stays true,” he says. “The reality is that students’ engagement with materials and technologies is at best fair, and at worst pretty tenuous.” As more digital tools become ubiquitous in architectural design, the tie to the tangible remains necessary. He cautions, “We have to form a better, deeper and more profound understanding of what technology can offer architects.”

Like technology, the panellists asserted that the notion of sustainability is futile without its thorough integration into the design process, and therefore it must be inherent to the way design is taught. David Covo, FRAIC, past president of the Canadian Architectural Certification Board (CACB), likened the topic to the issue of accessibility that was, not long ago, a challenge for architects. Today, barrier-free design is so ingrained in architecture that it is simply common sense to the average designer. Likewise, sustainability, he says, “has to become pervasive.” Michelle Addington, professor at Yale University, voiced her perspective of sustainability very precisely: it’s about simply knowing how building systems work. She says, “If you understand how things work, [they can be designed to] work at the most effective and efficient scale.” In her approach to environmental design, an understanding of material, process and method will ultimately ensure that buildings function at their greatest efficiency.

The notion of collaboration with other expert consultants was also raised. The panellists recognized the soft skills required to communicate with a wealthy client just as easily as with a tradesperson. One of the challenges of architectural education, remarked George Baird, FRAIC, former dean of the University of Toronto and partner at Baird Sampson Neuert, is when the intellectual integrity of design is compromised for the mere sake of being provocative. This self-indulgent manner of designing may reflect what Gloster deems a “curious internal paradox” that exists in the current model of architectural education: students are often taught individually whereas practice works in teams. Further considering reality outside of the classroom, Covo advocated for co-op education and suggested that the school and the profession should aspire to operate “in partnership to actually improve the discipline.”

Despite the potential for a symbiotic relationship of this nature, it is academia that has the robust capability to truly advance the boundaries of architecture. “Architectural education can lead to the subversion of practice,” says Gloster. The extensive breadth of subjects addressed in architectural education is one of its primary appeals. However, the ability to think in terms of greater territories and domains becomes curtailed when it meets the realities of present procurement processes. By detaching architectural education from practice, students can explore architectural ideas beyond the strictures of market demands. Architectural education thus has the capability to re-establish the ideals and cultural role of architecture.

Over the course of the evening, it became apparent that architectural education is far more versatile than it is often perceived to be. When our Master of Architecture Class 2016 designed the symposium, we anticipated that the discussion would seek to reorganize architectural education to better align with practice. However, the conversation instead suggested that architectural education is not intended to solely serve the profession. Rather, it plays a significant role in the advancement of the discipline itself.

The value of knowledge and skills learned in academia goes beyond architectural practice. For instance, the practice of architectural critiques in school gives students opportunities to engage in academic conversations as advocates of their own ideas. Both the confidence and rhetoric instilled in students through studio courses are valuable currencies within the professional marketplace. Through design thinking and the rigorous pursuit of the associated skill sets, students become equipped to engage with a wide spectrum of disciplines not limited to the built context. It is the power and versatility of evolving architectural education that will truly enable architects, regardless of their position in the professional world, to advance the knowledge into new territories.

Architectural education should truly, then, continue to be “an incendiary experience” set alight by students’ aggressive intellectual curiosity and passion to impact society through design.

Alykhan Neky, Anna Pavia, Adryanne Quenneville and Rebecca Tsang are Master of Architecture candidates at Ryerson University.