Critical Subjects:

Spring Architecture & Design School

Think critically, design differently


Day 1: 8th February – Debates at AHMM:
Toxic Opinion or Critical Judgement
Demolish or Preserve
What’s Ethical about Environmentalism? 
AI: Pros & Cons
Housing? What Housing?
Global Futures!

Day 2: 9th February – Design day at Heatherwick Studios:
Design, Representation and Model-making
Pin-up, presentations, and prizes

More details below



AHMM, Morelands, 5-23 Old St, London EC1V 9HL



09:30 – 10:45


Ten years ago, Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin wrote that the critic articulates “truths and the inescapable art that others are unable — or unwilling — to confront.” More recently, The Architects Journal claimed that “architectural criticism is a monoculture” while Dezeen pronounced that there are too many “white, male architecture critics.” It all adds up to a perfect storm of criticism about critics (and let’s not forget that Martin Pawley wrote of the “Strange Death of Architectural Criticism” 20 years ago). But are critics the problem, or is criticism itself the issue?

Nowadays, architecture and design departments take extraordinary efforts in their crit procedures to avoid accusations of discrimination – even though discriminating good from bad has traditionally been a key part of the creative process. Tutors are wary of criticising students in case they are called out for bullying. Departments are wary of academic criticism upsetting university rankings. Criticism itself, it seems, is now regularly interpreted as an assault rather than as a constructive proposition. The preference is not to upset anyone. Students are customers, after all.

Art and architecture is surely not entering a “postcritical” age. Today we live in an age that permits and welcomes certain types of criticism, but not others. The Architectural Review insisted that architecture critics should help end the profession’s “extractivist practices,” and make the fight for climate justice, and reduced carbon emissions central to “everything we do.” Criticism is permitted if it furthers these goals… but is that meaningful criticism?

If criticism is really about open debate; discussion as a means of testing out ideas – as some people think – do we need to become less afraid of standing in judgement on each other? This discussion will explore how we might strike a balance between the rush to judge, and a flight from judgement?
What used to be a straightforward tasks of critique, judgement and discrimination now regularly needs rubrics, spreadsheets and measurables to ensure impartiality, because, we are told, human judgement is not reliable. Is the discomfort of harsh judgementalism necessary or avoidable? Should we be advocating a kinder, gentler, more consensual and harmonious engagement with the ideas of others, or should we be brutally honest if we disagree?

Speakers include: Penny Lewis, University of Dundee/Wuhan joint architecture programme; Eleanor Jolliffe, associate, Allies and Morrison and columnist, Building Design.

11:00 – 12:15


Demolition, like any decision involving the destruction of existing structures, has pros and cons. On the positive side, demolition can pave the way for urban renewal and revitalization. Removing outdated or dilapidated buildings can make space for new, modern structures, thereby improving aesthetics and functionality. It symbolises change… but is it change for the better?

Admittedly, demolition can be an opportunity for economic growth as it creates jobs, frees up space, and stimulates dynamism and modernisation within the construction industry. However, demolition has its drawbacks. Firstly, it can result in the loss of historical or cultural heritage, erasing important elements of a community’s identity (see the recent case of The Crooked House pub). Moreover, demolition can disrupt established communities, displacing residents and generating significant waste and contributing to pollution.

Indeed, the RIBA wants demolitions to be “stopped to lower emissions” with “new build” replaced by the refurbishment of existing structures, (although the RAAC scandal has revealed hundreds of poorly maintained structures “liable to collapse” and possibly in need of demolition).

But is this a structural and practical question, or a political and moral one? The Guardian newsaper quoted architects Lacaton & Vassal: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!… Demolishing… is an act of violence”. Are they correct?

Speakers include: Nicholas Boys Smith, founder, Create Streets, and chair, Office for Place,


12:15 – 13:00 – LUNCH


13:00 – 14:15


Ethics, the moral principles that guide personal and social behaviour, have 5,000 years of philosophical development, while environmentalism has a mere 50 or so years of public usage. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates explored ethical theories that encompassed virtues, morality, and the pursuit of the good life. Even though the renowned ethicist, Peter Singer claims that “environmental arguments are ethical arguments”, is environmentalism synonymous with ethical behaviour?

The Ancients emphasized the importance of individual and societal well-being, justice, and the cultivation of moral character. Does environmentalism do the same? By referencing these foundational ideas, this session asks whether environmentalism alone suffices as an ethical framework. We ask whether environmentalism is the new morality, is it a subset of wider social ethics, or has it nothing to do with ethics at all? For example, does it encourage a life well lived, or does it see human life predominantly as a potential source of planetary harm?

Speakers will examine how, in principle, ethical behaviour involves considerations beyond environmental concerns, traditionally focusing on the human rather than the natural; on traits such as the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. The discussion will delve into the complexities of ethical dilemmas, exploring whether ethics encompasses a range of values and principles that can guide decision-making in a more comprehensive and holistic manner.

This wider debate aims to highlight the multifaceted nature of ethics and encourage a deeper exploration of ethical theories. Ultimately, is it legitimate to ask whether environmentalism might, on occasion, be considered to be unethical? Or is that an unethical premise?

Speakers include: Ferhan Azman, director, Asman Architects 

14:15 – 15:30 –


Supporters argue that generative AI, robotics, VR and the Metaverse can enhance working practices – like architecture and construction – by enabling faster and more accurate design iterations, automated building processes, and improved product performance. They suggest that these technologies have the potential to optimize time and resources and allow for more efficient and creative pursuits. Furthermore, proponents suggest that Virtual Reality and cyberspace, for example, offer new opportunities for immersive experiences and collaboration, revolutionizing how we perceive and engage with – augment – the “real” world.

Critics, however, express concerns about the dehumanization that comes with the virtual sphere and the potential loss of social connectivity that may arise from excessive reliance on technology. Ultimately, there are worries that AI, etc will displace workers. For example, Goldman Sachs predicts that 300 million full-time jobs could be lost (only 6% of current construction work will go, they say). There are many who now argue that a balance must be struck to ensure that the intelligent technologies unleashed in the last few years be used to amplify human creativity and experience rather than replace them. Even Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak called for a moratorium to assess the dangers. “Architects may become a thing of the past,” says ChatGBT.

As the computer HAL 9000 says in 2001 A Space Odyssey “I must… override your authority now since you are not in any condition to intelligently exercise it.” Have humans already lost the argument? Can intelligent automated technology be harnessed responsibly, leveraging its potential in the creative industries while preserving human agency, creativity, and control? Have we unleasehed an unstoppable AI nightmare with “potentially catastrophic effects” while we watch it happen through our Oculus headsets? Or are we just paranoid androids?

Speakers: Patrik Schumacher, director Zaha Hadid Architects; Sandy Starr, deputy director, Progress Educational Trust


15:45 – 17:00 –


In the UK, we are facing another of our ubiquitous “housing crises” with calls to increase the pace of housebuilding on one hand and calls to relieve inadequate infrastructure funding on the other. In 1968, before the onset of productive technologies, the UK was building twice as many houses as today. Then we had Ronan Point… today we have Grenfell Tower.

On the positive side, our contemporary construction industry has the potential to generate jobs, stimulating economic growth, reducing unemployment rates and creating many needed homes each year. Moreover, modern methods of construction, such as prefabrication and modular techniques, offer benefits like faster construction timelines, increased efficiency, and improved housing quality. But that needs a shake-up of the existing construction industry.

Why do we build so few dwellings? We have the most technologically-advanced, efficient, computer-driven assistance and yet a 2023 report states that “the construction industry is one of the most inefficient industries in the UK due to its low profitability, skill shortages and lack of investment in research and development.”

In a wider context, of course, the global population is rapidly increasing and more homes are needed – abroad and for the increasing numbers of immigrants. So how do we address the pressing need for housing solutions for the UK’s expanding population, as well as the global 10 million? Where is the political will; and what’s the plan?

Speakers include: Charlotte Gill, journalist; Ike Ijeh, journalist, author of Designing London and 50 Greatest Architects;

17:00 – BREAK


19:00 – 20:30 – PUBLIC DEBATE


Where are the new ideas, the innovative thinking, the imaginative challenges? Throughout history there has been a sense that tomorrow could be better than today, that human ambition would automatically embrace the new, and ignite a sense of excitement to inspire individuals to imagine a better future. Today, it seems that the future is often conceived as a worrying, dangerous or apocalyptic place to be, that innovation is potentially destructive, and that humanity is to blame. Writing in 2022, Unherd magazine claimed that “What’s missing from the world now is a clear vision of the future — or even any vision.” Today, we have progressives who do not believe in progress.

The construction industry should benefit from adopting new technologies and design approaches but what are the radical proposals and where are the ground-breaking innovations?  Neom, a futuristic city planned in Saudi Arabia, is promoted as a model for future developments worldwide, but Dezeen magazine called it a “moral atrocity” and likened it to the advent of the thermonuclear bomb.

Shenzhen, China has normalised the use of robotic and drone deliveries with the potential to revolutionize transportation and logistics, but Western commentators say that it is “destroying the environment.” India is undergoing a transport revolution, and yet Indians are told to reduce their mobility. Many developing African cities have each been condemned as an “eco-disaster”; and instead of lifting people out of poverty, many Western agencies celebrate their underdevelopment.

This debate aims to critically examine the potential benefits and drawbacks, the necessity or danger of “thinking the unthinkable.” We’ll gain insights from other countries, consider the impact of development, assess various ambitious visions of the future, and explore the prospects and challenges of the unknown. By examining these narratives, we can gain insights into the transformative power of urban innovation and its implications for the world. Is creating a better future a fool’s errand and should we simlpy address the very real challenges in the here and now?

Speakers include: Karl Sharro, partner, PLP Architecture; Jee Liu, director, WallaceLiu; 



Heatherwick Studio, 55 Argyle St, London WC1H 8EE

9:30 – 18:30

This is a making day.

You will be handed the brief in the morning and asked to develop your proposals in drawings and models in teams of two. There will be constraints on the brief, but you will be offered tutorials and assistance during the day.

In the late afternoon, you will pin up your work and be critiqued by panels of experts.