Practice Makes Perfect: Our First Year with the London School of Architecture
By Rae Whittow-Williams
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In October last year we welcomed our first student placement as part of the brand new London School of Architecture (LSA); a new campus-less university offering a two-year postgraduate programme situated in the ‘real world’ of architecture practice.
In the face of rising tuition fees and the ever-changing nature of the architectural profession, the LSA provides an alternative and affordable route to professional qualification. The financial model is certainly competitive when compared to £9,000+ per year standard university fees; with no campus, and thus lower overheads, the LSA not only offers a reduced fee of £6,000 per year but it also offsets the fees completely with the salary the students earn in their practice placements, making it an effectively cost neutral.
Our student for the 2015/16 academic year, Ian Campbell, worked for three days a week in the Park Crescent West team and was immersed in the world of PDP London for 12 months. As Practice Mentor my role was to guide him through the practice based outputs of the course and provide a point of contact for the LSA through the Design Think Tank. Alongside his practice work, Ian was tasked with writing a ‘Critical Practice Manual’ in which he had to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the way PDP London operates within the context of a project. This evolved through an ongoing dialogue between the two of us where we analysed the organisational structure of the practice and the way in which various design processes and procedures affect project outcomes. Despite being a student project, this opportunity to explore what it means to practice architecture in the 21st century on another level proved invaluable for both of us; as how often do we get to take a side step and critique our own processes in the busy day-to-day world of the office?
By situating a proportion of the course within the practice environment the students are immediately engaged with contemporary urban and architecture issues, preparing them much more appropriately for the ‘real world’ of business once they graduate. However, it is the school’s commitment to research and collaborative working methods that makes their educational model unique to other architecture schools and really sets them apart. Alongside their practice work and associated assignments, the students are also grouped together with practices from the LSA Practice Network to form ‘Design Think Tanks’ in order to explore a shared research question. With ongoing input from practices, the students work collaboratively on the project from January until July, culminating in a group publication involving written research and architectural propositions.
Along with Carmody Groarke, Haworth Tompkins, Hûtt, Interrobang, IF_DO, Liddicoat & Goldhill, Mikhail Riches and Studio Octopi, PDP London formed the ‘Architectural Agency’ Think Tank, tasked with the overall aim of exploring the agency of the architect in the 21st Century and addressing the wider responsibility for those we act on behalf of, we collectively decided to situate our Think Tank’s research within the capital’s housing crisis, and encouraged the students to seek out the edges and limits of our discipline to find new ways of operating within the political and economic contexts of the sector. Crucially this meant the students would not just develop alternative design propositions, but also critique and re-work the often-convoluted processes, mechanisms and policies that affect the delivery of housing from the outset.
In response to the mammoth task we set them, the seven students in our Think Tank decided to focus on millennials who are trapped in the ever-narrowing gap between escalating house prices and eligibility for social housing. The research they undertook was incredibly thorough, albeit somewhat overwhelming at times due to the vast quantity of information to wade through. They analysed existing policy bias and critiqued extant funding models, amassed their own body of quantitative data through surveys and interviews, researched the history of domestic life, and evaluated spatial precedents both in the UK and overseas. Over the course of the project they established ED/GY: Ethical Dwellings for Generation Y, which proposes a new spatial and financial model of collective ownership responding directly to the evolving daily rituals and living patterns of millennials. The concept allows residents to build equity at an affordable rate by pooling resources between larger groups and placing importance on economies of sharing and strong communities.
We were blown away by the high quality of work and research that the students produced, which has since been featured in Architect's Journal as the stand out project from the school.
The collaborative working methods of the Design Think Tank proved to be incredibly successful and provided us as a practice the opportunity to make new relationships with other practices, share experiences, and learn from other architects. The process has also allowed us to build upon our own research agenda to channel into our work; we have gained a wealth of research and practical knowledge on emerging domestic environments and typologies, as well a renewed understanding of funding models and expertise that we can apply to future projects.
Establishing and supporting affordable models of professional education has never been a more pertinent issue as we continue to address the diversity of our profession and the society it represents for today and future generations. As a practice we are incredibly proud to be part of the 50+ strong Practice Network, and more importantly one of only seven Founding Practices for the school. As we mark our first year of involvement with the LSA and welcome our brand new placement student, we look forward to another year of collaborative working, learning from our peers and students, and continuing to bridge the gap between practice, research and academia.
By Rae Whittow-Williams
(Project Architect & LSA Practice Mentor for PDP London)