A Conversation with Jeremy Till

For many students of architecture transitioning into the early stages of their careers in practice, it is often a discomforting process reconciling the idealism of architectural production in the design studio with the reality of practice, where the majority of design decisions are determined by external forces.

Rooted in the internalised and exclusive tradition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of the early 1800s, the design studio architecture is professed as an art form with the agency to shapes the world as it pleases. Whether it be poverty, disease, lack of education or climate change, the hubris of a pure architecture leads us to believe that these can all be solved by four walls and a roof. However once thrown into the frying pan of practice, one quickly realises that it is a profession whose outcomes are largely dependent on clients, politicians, builders, project manager. “Design” is now euphemism for making pretty commercial interests, and “Ethics” is often compromised to sustain the bottom line.

According to Professor Jeremy Till (Pro Vice Chancellor of Central St Martins, London), this lack of agency is largely self-inflicted through pedagogy. To face up to architecture’s external forces - or contingencies - he says, is “to stare into the mirror of one’s fragility, to see one’s shared impotence at the wheel of the juggernaut”. Perhaps we should re-examine the way architecture is taught and embrace the reality of these external forces, in order to see within the gaps where chance meets opportunity. Amanda Sun (M.Arch USYD) correspondent for AGENCY2017, the upcoming Australia+New Zealand Student Architecture Congress, sat down for an interview with Jeremy Till ahead of his keynote.

 

Architecture Depends

AS: This is a time when university rankings and reputation are significant factors when considering which university to study at. In this climate, is the student seen as a consumer of education and simultaneously is their work merely a commodity for promoting the university?

JT: There is some interesting work coming out of Peggy Deamer, who wrote the book ‘The Architect as Worker’ which looks into architectural labour. There is one chapter in the book which explains how the educational system sets up this culture of sacrifice. The sacrifice is staying up all night which is stupid by the way. And this then rolls out in practice. The sacrifice of internships, the sacrifice of long nights, the sacrifice of low fees. The brand of the institution is dependent on the product that students are producing, so the student is paying for the brand but also making the brand. They’re losing on both accounts. The culture of architecture school is preparing students for the exploitative culture of the workplace.

AS: In a design studio environment, it is often acknowledged that you should heed your tutor’s advice and essentially adjust your design and presentation to align with their tastes. There is a clear power imbalance in this relationship, how do you suggest a student assert their rights in this exchange and how do you suggest, as a tutor, you avoid this authoritarian approach?

JT: It’s not for student to address this issue, because they don’t have the means. It’s up to the tutor to take it seriously. Be clear about advice – empower and enable the student to better their design in terms of what they’re trying to achieve, to guide the student down certain pathways determined by themselves. The Bauhaus model should be abandoned, especially at the post graduate level. Not just the Bauhaus model but the Beaux-Arts as well, where they have this master-servant relationship with expectations which the students then have to follow.

AS: What is the impetus for educators to put such pressure on their students and how can this pressure be steered towards a more nurturing approach that fosters a student’s individuality?

JT: It’s up to educators to behave responsibly and ethically. It is a lot driven by the competition between architectural schools, and the way they present themselves. Bartlett’s show is an extraordinary phenomenon. You kind of have to wear sunglasses, because of the brilliance of the surface. Students are pressured to produce it. When you look at the Bartlett and AA shows, you know what has happened, the students have worked on behalf of their tutors. When I was teaching at the Bartlett, if I didn’t have a distinction, in my cohort, then I’d have trouble marketing the studio the next year.

AS: Having participated as the student member on an Interim Review Panel for the AACA, I’ve seen firsthand the rigour of the accreditation processes. Do you think university curriculums are overly prescribed by legislation?

JT: The way by which accreditation boards run is partly to do with curriculum but they are much more obsessed with output. I don’t know how it works in Australia but in the UK, they are obsessed with the lowest pass portfolios. This is the lowest mark you gave, which means you think that this person is ready for the world.

The person who gets the top mark may be a fascist. They may have really sexist views of the world. But as long as their work looks lovely it really doesn’t matter. That’s the strange thing about architectural education, students have become dependent on being brutalised. The most popular studios are the most brutal. If they go through the bootcamp, they will get the results. If it’s an open studio that doesn’t have brutality, or obvious anger, the students have to fall back on themselves.

Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture

AS: Often in studio projects, the ‘client’ is an illusory figure whose needs are secondary to the architectural concept or even post-rationalised to support this concept. How can design studio be taught to prioritise the end user?

JT: It is super super difficult to involve the user in architecture school. One has to accept the artificiality of it. Architectural education does not mimic the real world. Projects have a linearity to them, they have a beginning and end – there is no accident in them. The only accident is self-generated, through students screwing up, or tutor’s changing their mind. The user is more complicated than can be incorporated in. Architecture in the end is outside an architects control. In my book ‘Architecture Depends,’ the end result of an architect’s work would not be acceptable in a school. How do you draw user engagement? You can do it in live projects, but as I said, the outcome of a live project is often a failure.

AS: How should universities encourage ‘reflective intelligence’ or multiple modes of thinking in students rather than the model of rule-based learning?

JT: It’s difficult, universities are so dependent on assessment of output, assessment predicated on the portfolio. The portfolio is not a good means of showing multiple modes of learning. Of showing where you made mistakes. Of showing methods of true communication with others. What a portfolio does as a method of assessment is to keep perpetuating the idea that architecture is bound by issues of form and aesthetics. This becomes an issue. Little Johnny’s fascist tendencies are not revealed through modes of assessment.

When I was at Sheffield, we did try to do a whole set of other experiments. I don’t think you should experiment on students. But we put into place other value systems, when I was at Sheffield. We had some trouble with the RIBA, they didn’t understand that the outcome of a live project is often a failure. A live project is one with clients, with real people, and a real project. It often fails because the students don’t deliver, yet in that failure there is a huge amount of learning. There is a sense of the students building their own ability to cope with their later career.

AS: What is your view on the use of digital fabrication labs and new technologies within architectural pedagogy?

JT: One of the things that [technology] does, is it accelerates the idea of prototyping. It allows one to be more agile. The bad side of it is when it simply becomes deterministic. Because I can now make a great big blue blob, that’s what I’m going to do. You see that quite a lot. The whole aspect of technological determinism is everywhere in architecture. I’m not saying burn all machines but whether it’s Rhino on a computer or a 3D laser, technology does begin to determine outcome. 

 

From a student’s perspective, the inner workings of the university machine are often shrouded in mystery. Jeremy Till has shared with us his own hard-earned knowledge about the nature of architectural education and why some problematic habits have become entrenched in our pedagogical tradition. Fortunately, with a better understanding of the established systems within architecture faculties around the globe, we as students can take agency over our own learning styles and prepare ourselves to become the next generation of educators.

To hear more from Jeremy, he will be presenting on the Friday 01.12 at UTS.

AS

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