LETTER TO THE AR  -  Thursday March 8th, 2012

Mr. Schumacher has certainly never received so much public support as following his article “Slamming British Architectural Education”. Though what is perhaps most shocking is how long it has taken someone to publicly admit to what so many of us think — that academic projects are increasingly using “improbable narratives” as entries into superficial and “ironic allegories”. The accusation of avoiding reality is both blatantly true, and painful to accept. Privately, we all die a little when confronted with yet another monochromatic “atmospheric” render, incomplete without the obligatory flock of birds.

Nonetheless, I can’t support Schumacher unequivocally. Using his own distinctions (marked out in Autopoiesis Vol. 1) of “mainstream” and “avant-garde”, there seems to be some confusion over the role that RIBA prizes occupy in the dichotomy. If we are to believe what he says about avant-garde schools — that they are the Petri dishes and experimental laboratories where architecture evolves to better meet society’s needs — then they are inherently incompatible with the aims of the Royal Institute, which can only be understood as the cornerstone of the “mainstream” profession. By this reasoning, “avant-garde” schools — like the AA, Bartlett or Westminster — have no place at RIBA. Rather, they should be the least accepted.
Schumacher can’t have it both ways, decrying experimental projects as “naïve (if not pompous)” while also telling us that architects in general are “neither legitimised nor competent to argue for a different politics”. This statement is indicative of the apolitical projects that Parametricism has thus far produced, and is also typical of the late-neoliberal ideologies that transformed the architect into an agent of a deeply flawed and ethically dubious economic model (which has now spectacularly imploded). The result of excusing architects from public political discourse has been to create a whole generation of meek and apathetic students. In any case, if we accept that architecture is a social sub-genre (sui generis), even Plato tells us that all citizens have the right to speak as equals about politics and philosophy.
I think, and quite correctly, Mr. Schumacher underlined the prevalence of students’ insincerity (or lack of sophistication) when attempting to tackle political aspects of their projects. However, I should hope he is not suggesting we should abandon the idea that architecture can make change through political or polemic statements. As the late director of the AA, Alvin Boyarksy, once said: “Rise above your situation… look at the scene around you, the context in which architecture is made, and introduce a political note to your work.”

Jack Self
LONDON 16/2/12.

This letter was published in the March issue of Architectural Review.
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