Critical Subjects:

Spring Architecture & Design School

Think critically, design differently



Registration: 7th February, 6:30pm – Registration and Drinks at Amin Taha and Groupworks
More or Less: Utopia Today

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

BDP debate: 8th February – Global Futures!

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

More details below


7 February: Groupwork, 15a Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R 0AA

Registration & drinks:


Since the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia marked the dawn of modernity, utopian thinking has been a means to imagine how society might, in the future, be radically, wholly different. Successive revolutionary moments in history were accompanied by reimagined worlds to come. By the turn of the twentieth century, Oscar Wilde could confidently assert that ‘a map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at’. ‘Progress’, he declared, ‘is the realisation of utopias’.

Yet in recent decades utopia has found itself on trial, tarnished by association with totalitarian ideologies and a casualty of the ‘end of history’ and with it the demise of the possibility of imagining a different future. But while many condemn as dangerous the aspiration for transforming the world, others regret the demise of genuinely transformative ideals. In our times of paralysing malaise and disenchantment with the future whether through the environmental emergency or artificial intelligence apocalypse, should we seek a revival of utopian thinking?

Speaker: Alastair Donald, convenor, Living Freedom.



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


09:30 – 10:45


150 years ago, Matthew Arnold said that the function of criticism is “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” Nearly 20 years ago, renowned journalist, Martin Pawley wrote of the “Strange Death of Architectural Criticism.” More recently, The Architects’ Journal claimed that “architectural criticism is a monoculture” while Dezeen pronounced that there are too many “white, male architecture critics.” For some, critics are the problem; but is there a deeper problem with the idea of criticism itself, beyond just the arts ?

Nowadays, many 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 and so only certain types of criticism seem to be permissible.

What used to be a straightforward tasks of critique, judgement and discrimination now regularly need rubrics, spreadsheets and measurables to ensure impartiality, because, we are told, human judgement is not reliable. This discussion will explore how we might strike a balance between the rush to judge, and a flight from judgement? For disinterested critique. Or should we be advocating a kinder, gentler, more consensual and harmonious engagement with the ideas of others, and avoiding being brutally, critically honest even if we disagree?

Speakers include: Penny Lewis, University of Dundee/Wuhan joint architecture programme; Eleanor Jolliffe, associate, Allies and Morrison and columnist, Building Design; Paul Finch, programme director, World Architecture Festival and former chairman, CABE.  Chair: Austin Williams, director, Future Cities Project.


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 newspaper 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; Helen MacNeil, Consultant architect, shedkm, and principal, Honest Architecture; Catherine Croft, director C20 Society; Chair: Alastair Donald associate director, Academy of Ideas and co-convenor, Battle of Ideas Festival.


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. 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. For example, does it encourage a life well lived, or does it see human life predominantly as a potential source of planetary harm? Even though the renowned ethicist, Peter Singer claims that “environmental arguments are ethical arguments”, is environmentalism synonymous with ethical behaviour?

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 and moral 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, Azman Architects; Paul Crosby,  head of Part 3, Architectural Association; Piers Benn, philosopher, author “Ethics (Fundamentals of Philosophy).” Chair: Martyn Perks, digital business consultant, co-author, Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation.


14:15 – 15:30 –


It is exactly 20 years since Facebook was launched, and the world has changed beyond recognition. Now we live in a world of generative AI, robotics, VR and the Metaverse. Supporters argue that these techological interventions enhance design and construction practices 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 ChatGPT.

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; Chair: Timandra Harkness, author “Big Data: Does Size Matter?; presenter, BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing.  

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-assisted design and construction sector, 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. 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; Lord Moylan, Conservative peer, chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Built Environment; Karl Wallasch, chartered engineer, director, TrigonFire; Chair: Austin Williams, director, Future Cities Project.

17:00 – BREAK


18:30 – 20:00 – PUBLIC DEBATE at BDP’s offices, 16 Brewhouse Yard, Clerkenwell London EC1V 4LJ


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 doubt 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 feeds “an all-seeing digital system of social control.” India’s air transport industry is one of the fastest growing in the world, and yet Indians are told to “reduce their mobility footprint“. Many developing African cities have each been condemned as an “eco-disaster“; and instead of lifting people out of poverty, many Western agencies seem oblivious to underdevelopment. Degrowth, after all, is the new big (or small) idea.

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, can we gain insights into the transformative power of urban innovation and its implications for the world. Or will it show that creating a better future a fool’s errand and we should simply address the very real challenges in the here and now?

We hope to find out why visionary Saudi proposals are viewed in an apparently negative light compared to the west? How rapid transportation development in Africa is often overlooked. Whether bureaucracy and social hierarchies limit the success of Indian urban projects? Why China’s large-scale interventions and masterplans are frowned upon? The question for this session is to look at what is happening in places outside the UK and ask whether this moment in history symbolises a shift in geopolitics. If so, is there anything that the UK can offer, or learn?

Speakers include: Christos Passas, director, Zaha Hadid Architects (referencing the Middle East); Jee Liu, director, Wallace Liu (referencing China); Jide Ehizele, The Railway Consultancy (referencing Africa); Alan Dunlop, founder, Alan Dunlop Architects, artist and writer (referencing UK/Europe); Palak Jhunjhunwala, co-founder of Beyonddesign (referencing, India)

Chair: Austin Williams, director, Future Cities Project.




VENUE: 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.