Think critically, design differently

‘Critical Subjects: Architecture & Design Winter School’: Organised by mantownhuman, 17/18 November 2010

Alastair Donald | 23 December 2010

Last month, 26 eager young architecture students from cities across England, Scotland and Wales converged on central London, only to find themselves held in a windowless, basement for 24 hours, where they were engaged in eight consecutive hours of discussion; kept up all night; and then asked to sing for their suppers (and breakfasts). Contrary to those who patronise youth and warn of the harmful effects of such challenges, the students enthusiastically embraced the experience, declaring their intention to come back for more of the same as soon as possible.

The students were attending Critical Subjects, an educational experiment organised by mantownhuman, and the first ever 24-hour Winter School for architecture and design students. From 157 postal entries, an international jury selected the 26 students (representing 22 different universities across the UK) to participate in the 24 hour hothouse: a day of debates facilitated by leading names in the field. This was followed by an All-Night Design Challenge: from 9pm until 9am the following morning, they designed a entire project and presented their work to an eminent panel of architectural commentators, academics and practitioners. Admittedly, the students were tired, but nevertheless they seemed genuinely invigorated by an educational experience centred on acquiring knowledge, thinking critically and exercising intellectual judgement.

In recent years, the idea that education should be about engagement with difficult ideas has been out of favour. Many promote the dispiriting idea that university life is merely the path to securing a job. The failure to defend the value of education per se has significant consequences and the recent announcement by education minister David Willetts MP that the future of higher education would be ‘more two-year degrees, more part-time students, and more courses with placements in business’ has been met with little controversy.

Government cuts in funding should be resisted, but it should also be recognised that universities themselves have failed to defend education from instrumental attacks. Architecture schools, which sit within the Arts and Humanities have, for some time, recognised the potentially harmful impact of cuts to the teaching grant and the reorientation of research funding towards social policy objectives. Unfortunately, instead of mounting a stout defence of the subject and academic freedom, schools have instead accommodated to the current anti-educational climate. Some choose to downplay what is felt to be an elitist concern for aesthetics, and instead emphasise the interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary nature of architecture. Out has gone the emphasis on the rigorous mastering of history and theory with many schools reorienting themselves around those themes judged more ‘relevant’ – such as building and environmental science, sustainable design or, the role of design in meeting the numerous social policy objectives (from building communities to the promoting well-being). This is not to deny that architecture has a social and political dimension, but actually we never (except for “community architects”) used to rely on those aspects to justify the value of our work.

Unsurprisingly when education becomes mandated to deliver environmental and social objectives within the academy, then an open, inquisitive, critical approach to knowledge come a poor second, or worse, is discouraged as a barrier to the student acquiring the ‘right’ answers. As Roger Scruton argued recently, what is expected of the student in many courses in the humanities and social sciences today is ideological conformity, rather than critical appraisal. The problem is that a university does not exist simply to convey information or expertise, but provides an environment for the discovery and the pursuit of truth through active discussion and engagement with difficult concepts and ideas.

In this spirit, the students at Critical Subjects were offered the opportunity to explore topics such as critical thinking, the nature of beauty, visionary architecture and design autonomy. Rather than organising lectures, the sessions throughout the day were debates with speakers from the world of architecture and beyond. Each was designed to stretch the students intellectually and to force them out of their comfort zone. To give them a chance to hone their critical faculties they were encouraged to challenge the speakers, ensuring, as one panellist remarked afterwards, that the speakers also left with more thoughts than they brought with them.

In the evening after the sessions finished, the students were issued a design brief and given the night to develop a response before pinning up their designs and for a ‘crit’ at 9.00 am with a panel of expert judges. As students, they were given free range to explore ideas – imaginative flights of fancy if they wished – provided that they could convince a jury of the merits of their design intent and their thought processes.

In an architecture school, the crit is a vital part of the educational process, where students display their work and explain it to a panel pf critics. The panel’s job is to critique and probe not just the outcomes, but the ideas behind the project, ensuring that the students become engaged in a thorough defence of their ideas and forcing them to rethink and rework them. For this process to work, it is also important that the critics are open-minded. As John Berger wrote in 1972, “the more closely I, as a critic, examine a work, the more I have to say about the world, not about it.”

In recent years, the crit has become much more technical and students are less likely to be engaged in a thoroughgoing exploration of the ideas behind their project. Simply resorting to empirical data to vouchsafe a project is often jokingly referred to as ‘post-rationalisation’ but is a serious problem: instead of forcing the student to become self-relective is allows them to resort to instrumental “justifications”. For instance, it is common to hear students regurgitate the mantra from the real world, that their scheme proposal is ‘good’ because it deals with sustainability, tackles carbon emissions or engages the community. Reduced to little more than a challenge to the validity of the student’s “evidence”, it shuts down the educational content of a crit rather than opening it up through daring intellectual engagement. It is important to note that the university sector, and the tutors within it are to blame for allowing this to happen – although students arrive at universities seldom having had to argue for their beliefs either. Unsurprisingly, confronted with such a formulaic process, many students grow weary of – or accommodate to – such narrow criticism. In a telling comment, one Winter School student revealed that it was the first time in his experience that a crit had not included Health and Safety criteria as a major point of discussion.

Another danger is that schools become reticent about putting students under academic pressure, and even tend to limit their freedom to engage with the educational experiences of their choice. In many universities these days, the ‘All-Nighter’ studio session is often frowned upon, with some schools shutting down 24 hour access to studios. One tutor at Northumbria University refused to let its students have the details of Critical Subjects on the grounds that it that was “inhospitable” to the healthy “work-life balance” the school wanted to promote amongst their students. In a heated debate at Central St Martin’s School of Art a few years ago, one tutor closed down a discussion – which the assembled students seemed to be enjoying – by saying that they “looked really tired” and it was time to stop(at 7pm!).

Such a censorious and patronising attitude is bad enough, but the real damage comes from the impetus to downgrade the critical process itself. In its assessment of the architectural reviews process, the Centre for Education in the Built Environment (CEBE) criticised the way that ‘pressure’ put students in an ‘emotionally weak’ position. It worried that having to present in front of critics made students feel as if they themselves were being assessed. That, of course, is actually the point.

CEBE may be right that sometimes an adversarial relationship between presenters and judges brings out the worst in both parties, in that defensive attitude from the student sometimes encourages an aggressive inquisition from tutors. The problem though is not the format of the student review, it’s the reduction of education to a narrow technical affair in which student and tutor argue the toss over how well a design meets certain tickbox criteria. This undermines the student engagement with ideas, and deprives the crit of its crucial exploratory dynamic. The solutions suggested by CEBE – for example to make crits ‘student led’ so that tutors are either not present, or are required to remain silent during the review – is a worrying illustration as to how the cowardly approach to education ends up destroying it.

Confident that students would prove the nay-sayers wrong, the emphasis in Critical Subjects was to challenge the students. In the crit they were asked to defend – rather than justify – their work using the armoury of argumentative styles and ideas garnered over the previous day’s debates. And just as they had done in those discussions, they rose to the challenge. Bleary-eyed, but determined, the common sentiment was that the event had been inspiring, both in terms of its ambition and content. As one remarked: “it may not have been the easiest 24 hours, but (he’d) certainly do it again”. Another suggested that he had “never been so energised by such a tiring experience”.

No doubt the government has a point when it says that many students now view university as merely a route to a bigger pay packet – merely because it would be surprising if they proved immune to the current degraded notion of education that it espouses. CEBE may also be right in saying that some students are stressed by the pressurised arena of the crit. But funnily enough, when they are given the chance, they are very able to cope. More importantly, they seem to thrive.

The most refreshing outcome of this experiment was that while educationalists busily downgrade what they think students are capable of, when offered the opportunity for something demanding, intellectually challenging and even unsettling, students happily confound all expectations.

Critical Subjects was sponsored by Eckersley O Callaghan Structural Design and supported by Blueprint magazine, DACS (Design & Artists Copyright Society) and RIBA Bookshops.

Further details at

This article first appeared on Culture Wars


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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