[My UK Path] Episode 5: Wars of minds

For 10 years, the MArch in Environmental Design has been topping the taught master’s mark chart of the DABE at the University of Nottingham. “I tell you: this has never been easy” – said my course director, Benson Lau. He actually delivered the line multiple times. At first, it only came to my mind how hard-working the students had been. However, as things are revealed in due course, they echo a piece of truth implied by the Hongkonger-born man that there are wars on untold grounds.

The painful dilemma

Architecture is academically considered to be the premier art by Hegel in 1818, yet cannot survive without functionality and engineering. So, architects walk the slim line of agony between their poetic imagination and solid pragmatism. On the one hand, one may draw wild ideas from his creative ego to the extent that he could be fantasising them. On the other hand, he has to deal with “concrete things”.

These are nothing of merely said words, but rather an officially endorsed path. In the UK, chartered practices must abide by a standardised design and supervision process provided by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). As luck would have it, I have got the chance to acquire and study some design reports of a critically acclaimed architectural piece from a RIBA gold medalist. To tell briefly about their work, it is a step-by-step development of an unlikely concept justified by hundreds of precedent and case studies, simulations, tests, and other sorts of evidence.

Reasonably, the UK’s higher education has tailored some courses to cater to the industry. My master course of M.Arch in Environmental Design offers a settled track formed by two design projects, one module of environmental design approach, one module of research method, one case study project, and a dissertation. Ideally, students can learn how to design by research and should excel in both in order to join a practice.

Which would be close to unlikely.

Truth be told, architecture students usually prefer playing with their imaginative sides of the story to ensuring its feasibility and logic. They can thrive on approaching project deadlines while sculpturing aesthetically pleasing building blocks and get away with at least Merit or Distinction grades. Yet a minor number of them can cross the threshold from Pass when it comes to reports and research essays. It is the fact: only 3 out of over 30 environmental design reports, stood out as Distinction graded at my school last term. Others just clustered around the mark of 56%. A much similar case was seen for the Architectural Research Method module as 18 out of 21 students fell in the Pass bracket.

Provided such programme and preferences, academic success in architecture schools means working out your inner conflicts. Students have to put up with working what they do not love so much, sometimes utterly dislike, to support and achieve better design concepts which they are passionate about but do not have much time to devote to.

One may question why people should accept such compromise to be good at both design and research in the first place. Of course, there are points to it.

Our clients never joke

As a matter of fact, English clients do say funny things, but American ones rarely do. “They are always serious and never joke.” They mean it when they state to bring an architectural firm to the law court. As trials are disgraceful situations for any firm to talk about, I consider myself lucky to be given a factual account of one such incident.

It took place sometime between 1997 and 1999 in the UK. An assistant architect was called by his client to the site. “Come here and see what you have done”. When the architect and his senior arrived, what they saw was a gloomy dark ground floor which had been proposed by them to be full of daylight brought in by atria. Atria are always costly because unlike floor areas by which the rent or sale price are multiplied, they add structural costs while not being directly profitable. Without any pragmatic studies, the chief designer really suggested his atria natural lighting plan would work. Undoubtedly, it failed.

The design team stood trial for fraud because of their ignorance. As suggested by evidence, the assistant architect actually had little charge over the main concept and was not aware of the outcomes. Thus, he walked away with a clean track record. His senior was not so fortunate.

Back then, the assistant, who had got two master degrees including a RIBA Part II from the University College London, realised his lack of a pragmatic approach to architecture. Therefore, he enrolled himself in a master programme in environmental design at the University of Cambridge. Years later, he got a post at the University of Nottingham with a desire to transfer his skills and knowledge to prospective practitioners, hence the introduction of my course. This year of 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of the programme, and Benson has been its only director.

This war of minds

Benson’s story gives a stark example of why the design should be informed by research. It also explains the hard work that his students have to sustain. It is a fight against one’s inner self for his future career. The harder the grinding is, the sharper the edge becomes.

If only the fight could just ensue in our minds.

Benson knows too well that skills and knowledge are not the two determinants of one’s employability, particularly in the UK. Without outstanding scores, his international students will not stand a chance against their English counterparts in any recruitment of UK-based firms. It is ironic, yet true that hard work does not necessarily means high marks. Because there is a competition between one-year master courses at the Department of Architecture and Built Environment.

There are five M.Arch courses at my school. Each is directed by its respective module convenor and presents an original 30-credit studio project. Module convenors are responsible for the preliminary marks of their respective studios, i.e marks given by them are not final. After the initial marking, all module convenors gather in what is called ‘moderation’. They revisit every single project in a ‘blind’ review, seriously criticise students’ works from other courses, and finally agree on certain mark ranges. This is to ensure that no directors can make subjective and autonomous decisions on final evaluation.

Actually, the moderation is more or less a debate between markers, all except Benson having got a Ph.D. Given the situation, on the one hand, Benson has to push his students to a steep learning curve. On the other hand, he defends his mentees against criticism from other directors whose students are literally imagining their architecture instead of keeping their feet down to earth. My colleague, who sweated over her physical models to grab a 70%, was pissed off to know that her housemate’s Distinction 3000-word essay was about elaborating a completely imaginary vision of the architecture world in distant future. Benson would love to have students capable of writing well, just not this kind of essays.

In a sense, my course director is a perfectionist. He could just give up neither designing nor researching skills nor good grades for his students. Every time the man talks about his time at Cambridge, it spreads a sense of admiration that Benson wishes to be like his mentor – professor Dean Hawkes. This Cambridge emeritus fellow, whose career is established with practice, teaching, and research, turns out to show no differences from other architects when he writes: he walks the slim line between architectural poetics and pragmatics.



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