Maverick Architects: A Thing of the Past?


29 February 2016

Is there any future for mavericks in architecture?

This was the question behind a debate hosted at the Royal Academy of the Arts (RA) last week. Moderated by Kate Goodwin, the head of architecture at the RA, the evening discussion considered the triumphs and flaws of the current architectural education system and questioned the degree to which maverick approaches to architecture can exist, primarily in the context of young architects embarking on the first stages of their careers.

The talk featured four speakers: Harriet Harriss, senior tutor in interior design and architecture at the Royal College of Art and co-author of the 2015 publication Radical Pedagogies: Architecture and the British Tradition; Alex Scott-Whitby, founder of architecture and creativity consultancy Scott Whitby Studio and lecturer at the Architectural Association and the University of East London; Robert Mull, the former dean of The Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design (who recently resigned following his opposition to the school’s relocation); and Will Hunter, founder of The London School of Architecture.

While the talk became a discussion between all five panelists, the evening began with each speaker briefly summarising their views on the topics of architectural education and maverick architecture. Below Disegno is delighted to publish an edited transcript of each speaker’s opening statement.

Harriet Harriss

As an educator, it is a chance for me to question what schools are really doing to facilitate mavericks – whether they create or curate or actually curtail maverick enterprise. Looking at UK architectural education, my view is that it has been quite static for the last 100 years. We have justified this in loose ways as a commitment to tradition and a traditional body of knowledge, but in a way tradition is the architecture school’s equivalent of comfort eating: you do it when you are feeling insecure or you are not worth much.

I am sure that there has been flashes of radicalism but we only really shift in our seat when the practice world stumbles. Mostly we only really like to hint at a responsive, relevant curriculum. So we might found an archizine or take some students to a war zone on a field trip but for the most part we run a business-as-usual business model. Of course our traditional binge diet of choice goes back to the Parisian academy des Beaux-Arts. An institute whose curricula was entirely defined by mimicry and hierarchy with reams of students judged by their ability to imitate and not innovate. And it suits us actually, schools of architecture, and it also suits a largely unimaginative practice world. To keep peddling a curriculum committed to graduating subservient mimics who can only prop up the practice rather than teach young designers skills needed for future practice such as innovation, entrepreneurship and commercial enterprise.

We have got a lot of excuses about why we do this. We say it is because we follow a professional curriculum. We say it because we have university standards, such as the need to offer student feedback so transparent that it practically tells you what an A looks like and thereby removes any room for risk taking, speculation, or authentic innovation. We focus on educating employees but not employers. We graduate students geared for practice that is treadmill work and not those with the confidence needed to graduate as directors of small enterprises and practices. Schools don’t really take the lead in setting agendas for practice alternatives. Perhaps we are simply too afraid to do this or too afraid to consider what an alternative is. But we need to.

Why? Firstly the average qualification time in the UK is eight years, eight whole years. And this “learning experience” will cost you around £100,000. £100,000 is actually around the same as your average deposit on a flat in London. It seems to me beyond irony that in tasking architecture students with designing buildings, they may never actually get to own the buildings that they are designing.

Of course schools throw stones at practice instabilities, yet for every 15 first years joining an architecture BA, only one will ever become an architect. So what are the other 14 doing? If that isn’t a broken business model then I don’t know what it.

So really what can schools do to create the conditions for the next generations of mavericks? Firstly, we need to stop thinking that architectural education exists in the political vacuum and instead assume a more active role in pushing back the policies that undermine our ability to nurture and support our fledglings and future pioneers.

Secondly, we need to rethink what an architecture maverick really is in today’s transient times. We need to think beyond these people who are pioneers, stylistic and formal flourishes, the starchitects or even the hipster arts collectives cushioned by bank of mum and dad money.

Third, we need start pushing back the standards-driven, homogenisation culture operating within our higher education system that curtails an architecture school’s ability to graduate the bohemian, the eccentric, and the dissident entrepreneur of tomorrow.

Fourth, our practices need to work on their hyper-sensitivity to economic turbulence that is increasingly corroding an appetite for experimentation and risk taking outside of using keyboard shortcuts.

As architecture critic Reyner Banham once pointed out, schools of architecture operate like a kind of black box; relying upon an ambiguous and unspoken set of codes that keep us all in check. Some 25 years later and here we are, still struggling to think outside of that old black box. And it is not getting any easier for us to do this. In asking young architects to be more maverick we issue them with an impossible brief: to articulate a future that the rest of us are simply too conservative and too complicit, or too risk-adverse to even attempt.

The University of London's Senate House, designed by Charles Holden. All the buildings pictured in this article features in the Royal Academy of Arts' current exhibition Mavericks. IMAGE courtesy of View Pictures Ltd

Alex Scott-Whitby

A few weeks ago at the AA we had a particular instance that reminded me that our duty as tutors is not about creating the next generation of architects, but actually nurturing talented, interested and eager minds. It is about students being the best that they can be in whatever future career path that they will take.

Going back to what Harriet said about 1 in 15 first years actually becoming architects and questioning the role of those 14 other people, I disagree with you. I think that is the fundamental point about education. I think the reason that we have architecture as a degree course is because those 14 other people all go on to do incredible, amazing things. I have a real problem with this idea that we all need to become architects.

One of the things that I reacted against when I was studying architecture in my first degree in Newcastle – that has a very conservative “we are going to teach you how to be an architect” approach – is that it took these amazing, incredible students and turned them into these unready part ones who would go and work in these boring practices in London, the Midlands and Scotland and just become irrelevant CAD monkeys.

I feel that it is a real issue because aren’t we here to teach people how to think better? Let’s just take a few examples of those 14 in 15: Ice Cube studied architecture, he’s a rapper and he is amazing; Seal studied architecture, you can tell by his songs; the guy who designed the inside of the Apple Watch and all the technology behind the watch actually happened to be David Chipperfield’s son. He left the Bartlett after being absolutely vilified for being David Chipperfield’s son and studying at the Bartlett, so he decided to go into the world of tech.

It is amazing because we teach people to think really creatively and to do things in a way that is different. The fundamental problem about architectural education at the moment is this idea that our duty of care as educators is to a profession and not to our students. We should be nurturing students to be the best that they can be and producing talented, proactive agents of change who think creatively about the big problems that are in the world out there.

Shouldn’t we actually care about creating over-ready graduates that turn up on day one of their employment to become thoughtless CAD monkeys who have no ability to think and come up with, or even question, basic solutions on their own?

The actual numbers from the RIBA are: 3,000 students of architecture register on a part one course; 1,800 then go onto register on to a part two course; and only 600 applicants apply each year to do part three. Some say this is problematic. As you can probably guess, I think it is fantastic. I think it is a celebration of our architectural educational system.

The Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. IMAGE courtesy of John Peter Photography

Robert Mull

For as long as I can remember, the conversation about mavericks, both in education and in practice (those who fund it and those who police it), has been divided between this rather comic idea of the role of the architect being divided between individual creative hero and the third sphere carrier in the back row of somebody else’s play, be it education, the client, or the employer.

This comic spat would be entertaining if it weren’t so problematic and so divisive. I think the degree to which it is divisive is because it defeats the possibility of architectural culture and education developing common values and common principles. This lack of common values and principles is particularly important if we start to talk about “maverickness”, if such a word exists. Because it renders the idea of the maverick completely unstable. The maverick must by definition be maverick in relation to some perceived sense of orthodoxy. If everyone is maverick then being maverick is the orthodoxy. And like that scene in Spartacus where everyone says I am Spartacus, it relinquishes everyone from blame and responsibility. They are all rebellious, they are all mavericks.

So being maverick is entirely dependent upon the context against which or in which one is asked to be maverick. If you don’t understand context then you are in trouble. I will give you two examples.

Is the student who breaks the rules, extends the boundaries in a school that overtly – or more often covertly – values this, a maverick or the ultimate conformist? Conversely is that same student, in the same institution who chooses and insists on acquiring conventional skills to guarantee their employability, the maverick or the conformist? In practice, is the rebellious young practice working largely unpaid at the margins of convention the maverick, even if its ability to do so depends on their social capital and the economical security that guarantees? Or is the practice that quietly fulfils its obligations and earns a living maverick, or is it just plain dumb?

So if it is about context and we are here to talk about education then we better understand the context in which education is operating before we can reliably talk about whether any educational model is, or could be, maverick. The issues in relation to education are now very familiar and I will just go through a list, quite a harrowing list but a list none-the-less.

Fees, debt, the fear of debt, 5,4,3,2,1 and the length of our courses, parts 1,2 and 3 and the role of validation, and prescription, and title, the euro, the privatisation of higher education and the total removal of public funding, the primacy of metrics like the NSS and league tables, the death of participation and diversity, the green paper, the growing elitism in education and the profession, the cost of delivery, studio culture, the unit system, sexism, and so on and so on. And of course why do women still leave architecture some 10 years after it was highlighted as the most important challenge facing us.

If this is the context, what are the current solutions and the trajectory they imply for the future of education? Again I would say the list is now quite familiar. Shorter courses, more diverse routes to qualification, earn and learn apprenticeships, projects-based learning, practiced-based education, distance learning, private providers, study in Europe, and so on.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku, Azerbaijan by Zaha Hadid Architects. IMAGE courtesy of Iwan Baan

Will Hunter

When we think of mavericks we tend to think of lone individuals – an independent minded person, as the dictionary puts it. Indeed it can be rewarding to depict the history of architecture, as the Royal Academy has done, as a story of individuals who come along and upset the apple cart. It chimes with Thomas Carlyle’s 19th-century view that the history of the world is but a biography of great men. No doubt Carlyle would now include women too, certainly the maverick architect Dame Zaha.

But when you look at calamities like the Walkie Talkie, who wouldn’t feel sick about the role of mavericks today? Architecture’s star system is studded with these fading rock stars. They started out as genuine explorers but success soon freezes them into a signature style. Or as William JR Curtis puts it “the radicals all became conservatives putting their flamboyant gestures and fractured shards in the service of the unfettered forces of the market." Freedom or slavery? he asks. But I think it is all changing. As Malcolm Gladwell said, the 20th century was about lone geniuses, but the 21st century is about smart people working together.

We are definitely seeing that in architecture. Today’s mavericks aren't Howard Roark but collectives like Assemble and 00. Tellingly both of their names hide rather than celebrate individual identities. Also tellingly, both have created opportunities for themselves rather than waiting for the patron to ring. Assemble famously self-initiated their first project, building a temporary cinema in a petrol station. Whilst 00 developed a WikiHouse, an open-source building system. Instead of fetishising form, these two intrigued by rethinking the process of design rather than its appearance. I’d say both are more interested in ethics than aesthetics.

Sales pitch starts. We opened up the London School of Architecture last October to offer an education geared toward these new models. We are an independent school for the independent minded. We offer a cost-neutral, two year diploma. We don’t own buildings, we use the city as our campus. The institution has no defined edge.

We see architecture as the nexus of all disciplines, as fundamental as language. We want all our architecture to be connected, relevant and collaborative. Students work part time in placements creating a continual feedback loop between the school and practice. We see the architect as somebody who can synthesise complexity to make propositions. As an institution we want to also explore the spacial consequences of how the world is changing in the 21st century: climate change and fragmenting cities, merging networks, lifestyles and rituals.

Mavericks I think remain hugely important, perhaps now more than ever. It is imperative that they expand the territory of the discipline and connect it to wider culture. They must be entrepreneurial, intrepid and disruptive.