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Fulfilling the Purpose of Architecture in Higher Education


by Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in the Royal Fine Art Commission, Design Quality in Higher Education Buildings, 1996 published following a seminar held on 21 November 1995


What makes architecture fascinating, controversial and inescapably part of our lives is that, exceptional amongst the arts, it lies between the practical and the aesthetic, between the commensurate and the incommensurate, the material and the spiritual.

There is a tendency, particularly English or perhaps Protestant, to see such dualities in opposition to one another, requiring an either/or choice; to see necessity as opposed to enjoyment, the essential in opposition to the aesthetic and everyday life as separate from art.

The argument that I want to make is that the fundamental obligation of architecture is to resolve such dualities. This is at the heart of the matter which we are considering. It is something that is quite difficult to explain or make credible. This is because there is a deeply engrained supposition that the need for a building poses a practical problem, of a quantifiable kind, that can be solved first, and then the architecture, perceived as an extra and separate ingredient, can be added on if the budget allows. This is, of course, a manifestation of the duality I have described.

Sophisticated clients, including certain commercial developers who are close to architectural thinking, know otherwise. They understand that design, that most complex and elusive of intellectual disciplines, is essentially about creating arrangements in which the practical and the aesthetic are coincident, rather than additional, to one another. All creative activity is like this, resolving complex and seemingly contradictory factors by inventing or discovering formal propositions. One thinks, for example, of the ‘architecture’ of the double helix of DNA.

It seems to me that universities, of all the commissioning institutions, have a special obligation to this idea. This is because architecture and higher education share equivalent ideals and face similar difficulties. Both have a commitment to nurturing and promoting particular kinds of public value and to enabling people to achieve the fullest experience of life. The universities, within limited budgets, have to balance training with education, science with art, and the needs of a productive society with intellectual fulfilment. Architecture involves analogous judgements within equally limited resources and, of course, a similar commitment to the pursuit of excellence. It should serve as the visible expression of educational values. At a more prosaic level, it must be true that, in the competitive market place of education and in a milieu of ever-rising public interest in architecture, new buildings are going to be an increasingly important factor in creating the image of a university. Some are going to find themselves deeply embarrassed by shoddy commitments. There is no escaping the mind’s eye.

In developing my arguments, I want to discuss impediments to achieving quality, which I believe to be institutional. We live in a world in which accountability must fall back upon the quantifiable and in which cost is easier to deal with than the incommensurate aspects of quality. I choose my words carefully, for I am entirely aware of the financial imperatives under which higher education operates. I simply ask that cost and the methods of procurement, which ensure cost control, be set in the context of what is worthwhile so as to arrive at a definition of value. This is surely what happens in decisions about the curriculum; there is an objective which has to be achieved within a budget. The budget does not define this aspiration, although it may affect how it is to be achieved.

I suggest that universities need to establish their architectural aspirations as clearly as their academic ones. They can do this through an institutional structure such as an architecture committee, which can support hard-pressed buildings officers.

Such a committee would not only oversee the commissioning of designers but would set an agenda for architecture, including lectures, exhibitions and debates, as an integral part of the university’s intellectual and cultural life. It should face the implications for quality of new forms of procurement, such as private finance initiatives, which could mean that design and build becomes the norm. A number of universities, such as Warwick, have thriving Arts Centres and the way they are managed provides a model. The programme at Warwick Arts Centre already encompasses architecture. The London School of Economics is establishing, and CambridgeUniversity has established, postgraduate architecture courses which are not essentially professional and vocational; they are to do with setting architecture into a much wider academic framework.

Such a programme can work on several levels. It can be of general interest as well as highly specific, keeping abreast of the ever-developing evolution of different building types libraries, laboratories or student residences. It is arguable that the distinctive characteristics of late twentieth-century architecture are not fundamentally stylistic, but are due to the acceleration of the nineteenth-century phenomenon of special building types generated by new requirements and changing technology. The impact of information technology on the design of libraries is just one example of what I mean. It is for this reason, rather than the ‘modernist’ ideology of severance from history, that new buildings are often surprising in their form and appearance.

This makes it increasingly difficult for clients to know what to expect and consequently how to select an architect. To overcome this, there has to be a re-establishment of trust between clients and architects, because together they have to undergo an unpredictable and creative journey. Trust should be explicit in the selection process. But what seems to be happening is that uncertain and sometimes frighteningly unqualified clients demand ‘proof’ through elaborate pre-quaIifying and qualifying procedures, which have little relation to real professional experience and performance.

This is making selection processes of all kinds increasingly arduous and expensive. Senior people in architectural practices are spending up to 50% of their time qualifying and competing. This is extraordinarily inefficient by any standards. It is said that one of the fundamental inefficiencies of the West in comparison with the emerging economies of the East is the high standing cost of servicing production because of the complexities of accountability, competition and contract. The paradox is that, as in the National Health Service, this increasingly grotesque inefficiency seems to be a consequence of extending the methods of the marketplace into the professional world.

Clients, understandably, have an urge to know what they are going to get from an architect, even to get initial sketches of how the scheme is going to look. ‘We don’t want you to do much work’, they say, ‘but we would like you to do some sketches’. This, of course, presupposes that the appearance of the building can be separated from the conception and is not inherent in the way in which the design has been conceived. Of course you can separate appearance, particularly with simple building types such as speculative offices. That is what makes so much design and build instantly recognisable and superficial. The elevations are a kind of make-up that has been pencilled on to something which is often 50 mm thick or 25 mm thick if savings have to be made. There is no intellectual depth. This is not architecture, for architecture should be a marvellous manifestation of intelligence – engaging, challenging and drawing us out, exactly like education itself.

A way in which clients can feel secure with a design at an early stage is to hold a competition. There are all kinds of ways of setting up competitions and the RIBA is the best source of advice about finding the appropriate kind. Many higher education clients hold limited competitions, after a pre-selection process. If the brief is really well-considered, and there is a prospect of going ahead with a funded scheme on an available site, the system is good. The client not only gets a design quickly but, because the chemistry of competitions can be intense, may also get a design of unusual distinction.

I say ‘may’ because there is a feeling in the profession that, in a buyer’s market, the competition system has been misused, with poorly considered briefs and too many competitions making the system expensive and arbitrary compared with the rewards. But good competitions still attract good architects.

There is also a feeling, amongst those of us who compete against each other, that competitions are sometimes a way of postponing decisions; that they are perhaps a substitute for making an informed judgement about the appointment of an appropriate architect based on that architect’s past record. That, again, involves a matter of trust, but trust is the bond which must unite client and architect from the inception of every project.

The process of selection which seems to me to combine the evidence of track record and achievement with an opportunity for the architect’s team to demonstrate their expertise and commitment and to advocate an approach to a project without the resource expenditure of producing a design, is the competitive interview.

It will work best if there is a good understanding on the client’s side of the functional and architectural implications of the project. It reaffirms the opportunity for trust and allows the architect subsequently to evolve a design in conjunction with the client, recognising that the particular value of a design solution often does not become apparent until quite late in the process.

I do not want to dwell upon that other procedure for selection, the competitive fee tender, except to pose a rhetorical question: what would happen if academics were selected on an equivalent basis and what would be the consequence for quality in higher education? Again, there is a similarity between the two professions: both are vocational and the value they produce is the sum of two variables, quality of thought and time spent thinking. Fee tendering minimises time spent thinking and redefines architecture as a private contract without wider obligation. It denies the ethical imperative, which we share with higher education, of maximising quality of thought within an agreed financial framework.

Universities depend for their funding upon perceptions of value, for it is value which attracts the students who ensure the flow of funds. Architecture is an expression of value, and the reputation of universities will depend, at least in part, upon the extent to which their building programmes fulfil that concept of value and project visions of excellence.