Comment: studying architecture

Wednesday 09 July 2008 17:14 BST

Architecture offers a heady mix of art, science and work-based learning says Sunand Prasad, the President of Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Studying architecture can seem a daunting prospect, what with five years of university study and a minimum of two years practical training in an architect’s office before the final qualifying examination. But the sophistication of both the subject, and the structure of architecture education more than compensates.

Over 40 schools of architecture in the UK recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), offer a spectacular diversity of views and curricula on what constitutes architecture for the early 21st century.

A three year full-time degree in architecture offers a heady mix of art and science, and the frisson between the creative and practical attracts a wide range of individuals. The considerable mix of skills students themselves bring to the schools means this is a subject that few involved feel indifferent about.

After completing the first degree (RIBA Part 1), a graduate can decide if she or he use the acquired knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, habit of thought to work in an area closely related to architecture, or migrate to another from a wide range of other careers that will open up: work in the media, writing, web design, visualisation, or product design, planning, public affairs and international development; anything that needs problem solving and creative skills.

However, the majority of graduates elect to study for a further, second degree in architecture (RIBA Part 2). This is normally a two year full-time course that develops greater specialisms. These include the impact of digital modelling on design, the role of architects in developing sustainable communities and considering architecture as an influence on urban cultures.

A key feature of architecture education is that individuals are not locked into an inflexible pattern of study. They can attend university full- or part-time, combine distance learning with more traditional classroom based delivery, and get involved with work-based learning, which is being piloted by a number of universities. Some first degree holders choose to work for some years after RIBA Part 1 before returning to study; many students combine work in a practice with their architecture coursework, and others devote their skills after Part 2 to academia, journalism, and criticism.

Apart from the transferability of skills, architecture graduates can work in any construction markets in the world. Drawing is an international language, and architecture an international career.

Developing both group and individual work, the design studio is the catalyst for creativity in the university schools. The lofty toplit studios of our collective imagination still exists, but more likely, it will now be a buzzing local area network where students download digital files to share and plunder in expectation of tomorrow’s design presentation. E-learning is an everyday reality with tutorials just as likely to take place online, as in physical space.

Preparing for presentation of design projects is a vital part of architecture education. At both interim and final stages of development, students talk about their work to a peer group of students, tutors, and invited guests. These guests will often be well-known teachers and practitioners of architecture; many architects working in practice have close links with academia. The commentary at a design presentation is often very frank, with students likely to recall details of those conversations long into their professional careers!

This kind of exchange is an invaluable way of gaining the personal and professional confidence to negotiate the many aspects of architectural study, whether these are to do with smart materials and construction techniques, the villas of Palladio, or theories of the postmodern city. Architecture reflects and serves the societies that inhabit it, and being able to offer an articulate defence of one’s work is an effective preparation for championing your values in the commercial world.

Students of architecture will be expected to develop the ability to form structured arguments in dissertations and shorter essays. This in itself is another springboard for a career outside the mainstream of practice, with architectural historians and theorists developing high profiles in both the media, and other academic communities.

More commonly this kind of perceptive, forensic approach to research data assists candidates with the final hurdle to chartered membership of the RIBA: the examination in professional practice (RIBA Part 3) taken after two years of practice experience. This examination, which requires preparation through a structured course of lectures and seminars is the test of professional competence and judgement that, when successfully completed, allows legal use of the title of architect.

Described in the recent RIBA careers leaflet Think Architecture as “the white knuckle ride your life and career needs”, architecture is one of the most flexible and rewarding options a student can commit to.

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