Alternative Routes for Architecture, part III

A different business model for a school

Clearly a new school would have to operate not only on a different pedagogical model, but also a different business model, and there is now opportunity here as the British coalition government has shown determination to let private universities compete with their public counterparts by allowing students to borrow their fees for both. So far, however, the most notable private alternative − philosopher AC Grayling’s New College for the Humanities − plans, when it opens this month, to charge students fees of £18,000 per year, double the fee cap. This is along the Ivy League model where high fees are needed for high-profile world-class faculty members.

Any new British architecture school should play the opposite game of undercutting established institutions to make becoming an architect cheaper and more accessible. To do this it would have to radically rethink what it offers. A primary purpose of any 21st-century school is to develop a student’s intellectual creative capital, and one place where you wouldn’t want to cut costs is on the teaching staff. The ‘good news’ for any such start-up is that studio tutors are relatively cheap. One leading architecture course in London, for example, pays its tutors £160 per day. A new school prioritising its tuition fees for tuition should significantly raise this pay, in order to attract the best possible tutors from busy lives in practice and into the studio; and even to encourage the idea of teaching as a form of practice in itself that can benefit a whole office.

But there are plenty of savings to be made elsewhere. To start with does a Part 2 course really need to be two years? Other institutions in the UK − such as Cardiff and Cambridge − are experimenting with different time models. If you offered a 12-month programme it could mirror working life with only four weeks’ holiday per year, and this would give you two-thirds of the teaching time of a two-year programme. Some students would say that they need the holidays to earn money, but using the school’s spatial resources more intensively allows it to pay one year’s rent instead of two, and these savings are ultimately passed on to the student. The same, of course, is true for the students themselves: they only need to pay for a year’s living costs instead of two.

And, of course, there are other models, such as two-year programmes where students undertake paid work in a practice two days per week, not just as a job but as a formalised part of a networked learning set up.

Physical resources could be dramatically reduced. As one leading global technology company discovered when it recently redesigned its headquarters, all its employees want is strong wireless connection and good coffee. Architecture students (most of whom bring their own laptops) might want to add to that a really good plotter. The new school should offer large studio space, and little else. All other physical resources − libraries, workshops, lecture theatres − can be sourced in other ways, in the local community or as part of the professional network you could create. With the pace of change, investing in fixed resources within an institution is difficult when they can so easily become obsolete. Furthermore, pushing students to find − beg, borrow, or steal − what they want to use in the wider world equips them with the network of expertise they will want to use as young practitioners. They could also rent as and when they needed to, and this could be budgeted for as a discretionary voucher as part of their fees. Other models from outside architecture could provide inspiration. The idea of ‘meanwhile businesses’, which go into London Boroughs that are in the process of regeneration, could be one option; an architecture school that only intended to operate for four years would have critical focus and wouldn’t become stale.

Also the precedent of a think-tank, which delves into policy issues and makes proposals, could provide the model for group research, which could look at local problems or typological precedents, creating shared expertise within the school from which individual projects could spring forth. All this might sound like it misses the point of education as a ‘pursuit for its own sake’, and one that undermines universities as ‘places of research’. But architecture isn’t just an arts degree, it is a professional training too; and the recherché nature of much research would be better married to architectural studio concerns.

There are many obstacles to such a proposal − not least the pending EU ruling on the length of architectural training across the continent. But, still, the idea of a 21st-century form of apprenticeship, which redefines the relationship between master and apprentice, might be just what the profession needs. When the Architectural Association started,5 it united articled pupils who were separately grafting away under different masters. But today, a reinvented form of apprenticeship could provide a vital reciprocal relationship that benefits both the ‘teacher’ and the ‘taught’, and ultimately this would strengthen the profession as a whole.

via Alternative Routes for Architecture | Essays | Architectural Review.

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