The 2014 Graduate Shows Review: Architecture


22 July 2014

Following on from our earlier review of the UK's graduate design shows, Disegno is proud to present a review of London's graduate architecture shows. The review has been written by Chee-Kit Lai, the director of architectural practice Mobile Studio and a teaching fellow at the prestigious Bartlett school of architecture. Lai's review is an account of a Sunday he spent touring the city's architecture shows and offers his account on not only which projects stood out, but also on the state of architectural education.

Nick Elias from the Bartlett's Pooh Town, a reimagination of 1920s Slough

My favourite Saturday of the year is the last one in June. The portfolios are marked, architecture students have caught up on some sleep, and the exhibitions and showcases have opened their doors. The morning after this I always embark upon my annual architecture marathon. I aim to visit as many student showcases as I can within a single day in London. It is a pilgrimage I have embarked upon since the late 20th century, when I too was an architecture student.

The first stop this year was The Bartlett Show at The Slade Galleries. It’s a handsome building in the UCL quad, and inside the work from the MArch postgraduate students was particularly noteworthy. The MArch programme is strong not simply for the sheer high quality of the work on display, but also because of the diversity of design units catering for different student interests. Unit themes include architectural sci-fi film, parametric, craft and manufacturing, epic drawings, augmented landscapes and robotics. There is even a fully working cyber-arm. 

Louis Sullivan's The Living Dam

RIBA Silver Medal nominee Louis Sullivan proposed The Living Dam; a self-sustainable new typology for a hydrological infrastructure. A student from Unit 12 (led by Jonathan Hill, Elizabeth Dow and Matthew Butcher), Sullivan's project was an impressive depiction of the future. Another Silver Medal nominee Nick Elias (Unit 10, CJ Lim and Bernd Felsinger) proposed Pooh Town. For this project, 1920s Slough was revisited to capitalise from the economy of “happiness" as an alternative industry, with Winnie the Pooh used as a metaphorical protagonist. Pooh Town re-evaluated covert responses to sociopolitical exclusion by introducing “happy" architectures in a nostalgic make-believe pilgrimage around Slough, ultimately for financial gain. Pooh Town reflected on the potential of today’s cities in prescribing policies of happiness alongside familiar amenities. It was clever, fun and highly political, all illustrated with very engaging drawings.

Imagery from Harry Kay's Jīngjù-on-Sea project

The next stop was The Architecture Association (aka The AA), which is a short walk down Gower Street. The AA showcase occupied the terraces of several beautiful buildings facing Bedford Square. The show setup itself ws simpler than that of the Bartlett but, again, each design unit was uniquely identified by its own mode of representation. Yet the work on display was seemingly less concerned with end product, more with processes and manifestos. 

There was a captivating film by Harry Kay from postgraduate Unit 6 (Kate Davies and Liam Young) entitled Jīngjù-on-Sea – a Peking Opera that performed an act of consumerism on a planetary scale. Echoing the quantities and trajectories of the existing rare earth mineral supply chain, thousands of tonnes of earth were removed from the central Chinese landscape and through the tools of the opera - as makeup, costume and set - brought to London to be deposited in the Thames Estuary. The project proposed that our connection with these landscapes is deeply intimate; we smear them on our faces, we use them for lighting our streets; they are in the technologies we love. A new conception of place, site and culture is atomised across the face of the earth as this Chinese earth is reformed as a new territory in cities around the world.

The third stop was the University of Westminster in Marylebone, where there was good work on display. The undergraduate units that stood out were those that produced mature and controlled architectural designs. Prize winner Sear Nee Ng from undergraduate Unit 3 (Constance Lau and Claire Harper) proposed The Arts and Crafts School of Cabinet Construction in Camden Lock Market. They were beautifully drawn and sublime spaces, negotiated with workshops, a gallery and a central hall, all in a very tight central London site. 

As with most other schools, postgraduate work at Westminster is divided into very specialised interest groups. But there was one group that really stood out, postgraduate Unit 18 (Lindsey Bremner and Roberto Bottazzi). Here the students collectively explored the relationship between architecture, energy and matter, a theme that was highly topical in view of the current debate surrounding gas fracking. The work of the unit was coherent, but without the feeling that the tutors dictated the language. The exhibition also included a beautiful large landscape model, something I suspect had been painstakingly cut by hand.

Charlotte Baker's project examined architecture created to facilitate the demolition of the wreck of the American cargo ship SS Montgomery

The penultimate stop was southwest London for the Royal College of Art. It is a fantastic space for a student showcase. The entrance faces the main road and the two front galleries on the ground floor are both dedicated to architecture. Yet their curation was slightly different to other colleges. Only graduating students’ work is exhibited and it is not arranged according to design units. True to form, the work is of the usual quality one has come to expect from the RCA, with strong narratives and thorough research throughout. 

A highlight was Charlotte Baker's proposal from Unit 5 (Jon Goodbun and Victoria Watson), a carefully controlled architecture that lasts just ten minutes. Baker proposed to create an architecture to facilitate the demolition of the shipwrecked SS Montgomery (filled with unstable TNT) to make way for the inevitable mass re-development of the Thames Estuary. It proved a poetic negotiation between the spectacle of creation and destruction.

Material from William Young's Albury Sands project

Elsewhere it seemed that the spirit of Étienne-Louis Boullée was alive in William Young's Albury Sands project from Unit 2 (David Knight, Charles Holland and Finn Williams). Young’s project proposed an alternative and visionary new planning strategy that declassified Guildford Borough Council's 56 landfill sites to create enough developable land to support the town's housing needs for the next 25 years. Yet beyond the student projects what was uplifting at the RCA was to see students standing by their work enthusiastically explaining their ideas and designs to visitors. This is how I remember architecture showcases used to be. As a young student I would always stand by my work and talk to anyone who would stop by and listen. It is a culture worth nurturing, creating as it does the opportunity to connect and communicate with figures in the industry and the wider public in general.

Fiona MacDonald's final model of a community-orientated Nobiru made by 90 London 8 year olds in exchange with 20 Japanese 6 year olds

My final stop was the Sir John Cass building of London Metropolitan University. Here, much like in the other schools, there was a rich display of work. Furthermore, as a practising architect myself, I was encouraged to see highly established practising architects running the London Met's design units. The influence of their design language was clearly visible. 

Postgraduate Unit 13 (led by architectural practice AOC) in particular put together an effective show space that communicated with ease, much like their practice portfolio. Truly outstanding work came from RIBA Silver Medal nominee Fiona MacDonald, a student on postgraduate Unit 10 (Signy Svalastoga, Jonathan Cook & Nina Scholz). Titled Learning Through Renga, MacDonald’s project was a series of education spaces designed specifically for Nobiru, Japan and other similar coastal villages that suffered from the devastation of the 2011 tsunami. This was an ambitious live design project developed and led by Japanese architects in conjunction with school children from Japan and London.

Work from William Haggard and Josh Carver's Undergraduate Studio 8 course

There were other impressive studios tackling difficult issues. Postgraduate Unit 11 (Deborah Saunt, David Hills and Nicola Ibbotson) investigated infrastructure projects with delicacy and poetry, while Undergraduate Studio 8 (William Haggard and Josh Carver) had an interesting take on shopping/supermarket architecture, where mundane data was turned into fun research and infographics. Quite fantastic.

The work of London’s 2014 architecture students was good as any and better than many that have come before. But I hope the students find the work and I hope the work finds the students. The architectural market has picked up recently, but the profession as a whole remains in recovery from the economic crisis. Despite this, architectural education has withstood the test of time and it continues to stand strong, proud, resilient and tall. If there is a positive to draw from the recent recession it is that student projects have become even more creative. The briefs and narratives they take on are complex and unafraid of "real issues”, while the solutions they propose are highly inventive. The optimism, energy and faith the students invest in architecture knows no bounds.