She stood paralysed, frozen in front of a wall of immaculate drawings of impossibly elaborate visions: airships dragging contraptions across moon-rock landscapes, fleets of hover vehicles gliding to and fro. It could have been the storyboard for the next 3D superhero extravaganza from Marvel Studios – but it was in fact the final diploma project of a student at one of the UK's leading architecture schools.
The question I had asked, which sent the student into dumbfounded shock, was: "Why have you done it? What does it mean?"
It is a mystery that has recurred in recent weeks, as I've sat on panels of external critics at a range of schools, watching students present their projects for feedback. It has been an illuminating experience, seeing the mesmerising display of graphic ability and modelling skills – but not one without frustrations.
Time and again, the projects seemed intent on fleeing the real world of people and places, scale and context; retreating instead into fantasy realms of convoluted forms with no seeming purpose. There were scaleless worlds of splintered shards and riverine landscapes, in which forlorn mechanisms had been implanted like post-apocalyptic ruins of a distant-future race. Clouds of lines and layers were regularly employed as a smokescreen to disguise the fact that there wasn't really an idea at all: visual complexity masking conceptual thinness.
Elsewhere, data was the order of the day, with sinuous blobs generated by computer-scripted commands, wrenched into algorithmic oblivion then squirted out on a 3D printer. This was generally a process so tortuous that students had forgotten quite where their starting point was – or even what their building was for.
Other projects were staged in near-future scenarios of such complexity – with new legal, social and political structures – that after half an hour of explanation, the assembled critics were none the wiser as to what the student was proposing.
Bizarrely, architectural education – the discussion of places and spaces, cities and landscapes, a discipline of engaging with the world around us – has been allowed to stagnate in the UK as a hermetic, inward-looking pursuit for more than 50 years. The extended three-part system, which takes a minimum of seven years to complete, is still based on the model that emerged from the RIBA Conference on Architectural Education in 1958.
With tuition fees now standing at £9, 000 per year, as well as the added costs of printing, laser-cutting, field trips and living expenses, students can expect to graduate with debts of £100, 000 or more – at a time when there are few job opportunities in the profession. It has never been more urgent to call out the emperor's new clothes, to question those courses that are only there to further the theoretical position of their tutors.
The architect's role has also increasingly diminished since the days of the 50s maestro sitting at his drawing board dreaming up brave new towns for the postwar world. Architects' position at the top of the pyramid has been eroded by the proliferation of sub-consultants for every stage of the process, as well as the rise of contractor-led forms of procurement, in which the architect is often sidelined altogether. Faced with all this, a retreat into the world of arcane academia must be enticing.
But there are signs that long-awaited pressure for change is gathering momentum. A recent report by the UK Architectural Education Review Group recommended scrapping the three-part system altogether, and has suggested shortening the length of courses, as well as letting students carry out their studies alongside paid work.
This is a rallying cry Will Hunter, of the Architectural Review, has taken up with his campaign for Alternative Routes for Architecture, or the "promotion of architecture as a problem-solving spatial discipline engaged with the challenges of the real world". Launching this academic year, it is conceived as a 21st-century apprenticeship, with a reciprocal relationship between practices and students, focusing fees on tuition by reducing the overheads of a fixed school.london for christmas london chop house cities beside london london underground london without petrol london cook in front of you london tipton london cook in front of you london at night wallpaper london from paris london near city london to tier 2 london marathon london about mask london ky uk london covid cases london pro golf london ky london outdoor food market london xmas bandeau london evening tours london road rental london on da track london evening standard crossword london until further notice london by land sea and air london pound cake strain london behind vaccine london evening standard archives london underground shoes london up and coming neighborhoods london weather november london contra london near city london under cover building in front of london eye london after midnight found london since until london london fog trench coat cities beside london london zillow london up and coming artists london between cleopatra's needle london underneath 2am london but first prosecco science museum london london river name london at night best buy london london evening standard business london for kids london into lockdown london brown london jeans london milano london via rail robert q london through time london at night london on weather london skyline london apartments london under roman rule london without petrol london is made up of two cities london for men burberry uk london time london around places visit london outdoor market london from suite life on deck london west end london out of petrol london near toronto london xmas bandeau london victoria london since 1900 london gbr london yearly weather london before it was london uk london zip code london time zone london against brexit london york london victoria london ontario london before sewers london heathrow london england map london evening dresses london on da track age london versus manchester london map london england map london out of petrol london of tower oli london next to jimin london weather london dry gin beyond london london beyond sight