ALF 06

A new school of architecture which is fair to everybody. Will Hunter interviewed by Andrius Ropolas

Will Hunter is the founder and director of the London School of Architecture (LSA), before which he was the executive editor of The Architectural Review (AR). In 2012 he wrote “Alternative Routes for Architecture”, an article in the AR in which he raised ideas for a new type of architectural education. At the same time, he started a research group to explore different models and three years later, in 2015, the LSA opened. Today the school has around 60 students on its two-year postgraduate programme, which offers a unique cost-neutral financial model–compared to an average of £18,000 in tuition fees for programmes at the majority of the other schools in United Kingdom.

Andrius Ropolas: Was it necessary to have one more school of architecture in London?

Will Hunter: Yes, because we are offering something different to the other schools. Our first year is much more urban, collaborative and practice-based, and our second year is an ideas-driven individual design project that sets up a career-long critical trajectory. The school offers a tuition-fee neutral way of studying, where the total fees balance with the practice placement salary.

Were you not worried about the number of architects produced today?

We care about the type of architects that are produced, not the number. We need to anticipate how architects will operate in the future, and make sure our school is preparing our students for that. We want to attract the most talented candidates–with no barriers, financial or others–to come to the school, and prepare them to go on to shape the future of architecture and the city.

The LSA sees London as its campus. What was the reason for limiting yourself to this geography, why don’t you want students to do projects in such popular destinations as Seoul, Hong Kong or Shanghai?

If you’re the low-cost model, then you’re the low-cost model across everything you do. We didn’t want to add the extra expense of field trips, which can become more extravagant as units compete by going to China or Las Vegas. Field trips are brilliant for seeing different cultures, but you might see your site for only a couple of hours, which can give a very superficial understanding.

We also felt that London is fascinating as a metropolis and a world-city. You can spend your two years studying to really understand the people, the mechanics of how the city works and go into real depth. As a cohort you can talk about the same issues, share lots of information, and have an intense dialogue. All the practices that we have in our network are based in London as well, so there is a cross-pollination of people who are designing the city.

It is a fairly big city, south is different from north, east from west and it is hard to really know the context well, even if you live and work here for decades. Is it a challenge to be an architect in London?

What is good about London is that it is multi-layered and you could spend your entire life and never get bored here. Some cities, like Paris, are much more homogeneous. In London there are all these different conditions that provide a huge range of opportunities for a student and practising architect.

What do you think of contemporary architecture in London: is it responding to local needs or is it more a by-product of global economic forces?

It’s a real mix. The effects of global economic forces with big towers backed by foreign investment are certainly evident, but then there are examples of community-led projects in different parts of London. The most visible part is the one people find the most noxious, but there are still beautiful things happening.

How is the LSA reacting to that?

We are interested in both–in how architecture can have an effect at all scales of operation, from infrastructure to an interior. But we definitely shy away from the ‘icon’ building that has predominated in the city, and are much more interested in how you make architecture that can stitch together to make proper functioning urban fabric.

Students for their first two years at the LSA work on a specific site in London. Does this mean that in the age of globalisation and standardisation, you encourage locality?

The intensifying pace of globalisation makes it more important that we find new ways to frame the local, which could include the subjective and the objective, the personal and the collective. However, we are not a hyper-contextual school, where everything has to be polite and quiet. It is important that we are not parochial. We are operating in a world city and are open-minded about the forces that are shaping how we need to live in the future, and in particular how to live sustainably.

What is the role of the architectural practices at the LSA? How does it benefit student education?

Students in their first year work three days a week at the practices, as both active participants and critical observers. They must reflect on their decisions in the office to make them more conscious, so they can be more empowered about how they operate and how they design. We are trying to build the intellectual apparatus for students to connect their own creative model to a business model in a mutually rewarding way. Like an MBA, we ask students where they want to get to in their life, so they can start to make a strategy for it.

We did not want the school to be an autonomous institution with an internalised set of values, where students learn to design in a particular way that has little leverage on reality and which ultimately isolates you from the world. Operating between the two creates a continual feedback-loop between the practices and the school that is really enriching. Practices are also critically engaged and lead what we call ‘design think-tanks’, where about six students and six practices collaborate to create design/research that address pressing architectural or urban issues.

One of the key themes of the school is ‘The City as a Campus’. How does this campus operate?

In our first year, we were at the Design Museum and Second Home, which is a co-working space by Selgas Cano in the East End. Now we are based at Somerset House, and have a studio where the faculty and second year students are in the same space. In the basement is Makerversity, a maker-space for professionals, full of woodworking, metalworking, CNC, everything really. However, we do most of our lectures and reviews at the practices, which is really great, as we both get so see what each other is doing and it is a further way to keep the connection alive.

It is very trite phrase to say ‘networking’, but this is really a network.

It genuinely is. We are looking to expand, to also connect with associated disciplines of engineers, developers and other people who make the city. We want to bring them into the conversation.

How do students engage with the locals while they work on their projects within a specific site? How important it is?

It depends on the student. We say that the second year is the first year of your career and not the last year of your education, and you decide what you want to do with that. Some students are really interested in the local community and interview dozens of people; others have another critical agenda. Different students are driven by different things. However, fundamentally we believe that architecture is for people; it is about human behaviours, how they might change and how lifestyles might change.

The LSA provides affordable architectural education in London. Does this fact influence the composition of your school? Do you feel you have students who are more focused on social issues, because this theme might be closer, more personal to them?

We do have quite a mix of backgrounds and offer significant bursaries from a range of fantastic supporters to help those with the most financial need. To reach our mission and make sure that no student leaves architecture because they cannot pay will take few more years. We are not quite there yet, we need to get state funding for loans and raise more bursaries. It might take 2-5 years, but we are well on the way. I think more generally, in terms of the social and environmental agendas we are pursuing, it is in part a generational thing. Millennials are interested in this; not just architects. These are things that drive everyone in our generation.

The LSA was started as a reaction to the London context and the programme of the LSA is based around issues characteristic to London. Do you think this school model could work elsewhere in the world?

It could work somewhere in a place like Los Angeles or another big city.

If practices are the key for this model, was it difficult to find enough of them in London who would be interested in taking 40 first-year students?

We have 55 practices in our network at the moment and it is growing. The school is completely sustainable in London. In some places you could not do it, not only because there are too few practices, but because you also need a richness and saturation of culture. It could work in a place where fees are really high, like in the United States, where they are tens of thousands of dollars a year. You would not do it in Zürich, because you can study there for a few hundred euros a year.

Last year you discussed the future of architectural education at the roundtable discussion of the “Learning/Doing/Thinking: Educating Architects in the 21st Century” symposium at Yale School of Architecture with the deans of such schools as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University. What do they think about the approach of the LSA?

On the whole, I had more reactions from the students, but former dean of Yale School of Architecture, Robert Stern, was very positive about it, and the former dean of Cooper Union Anthony Vidler has always been very enthusiastic and encouraging. The new dean of Yale, Deborah Berke, has been interested in it and we’ve stayed in touch.

Inequality is increasing all around the world. Populism is on the rise. Do you see the LSA as one of the possible answers to this situation? In other words, do you think this model could be adapted in other professions?

The government is pushing apprenticeships really hard, and they are not dissimilar to what we are doing. We are a part of a big discussion on such initiatives–relating work and education is really important. Education is the most fundamental driver of gaining equality. What you really want is people being supported to use their talent to reach the point they should reach in life and not let anyone who has the talent not get there, because they did not have the opportunity. We are definitely trying to give people opportunity. And beyond that, our educational mission about architecture and the city is to do with improving the quality of how we live. We try to inculcate in our students this idea of being proactive, being responsible, being the people who make the changes.

The LSA does not have a typical unit model, which is used in other London schools of architecture. Was this one of the ways to make students more proactive and more critical?

Students have more responsibility for what they are doing. If you go through units, you can learn to design like your unit master, but you might never be given opportunity to really say how you want to design, and explore your design approach. There are millions of design approaches and it is for you to decide, to have that opportunity. It is really important that you can take ownership of it. We support students by giving a methodology to find the things they are interested in and to critically interpret them.

Of course, there is this individual thing about finding your purpose as a designer, but we balance that with doing a lot of collaborative projects. We really think it is important that students learn to work collaboratively; and actually working with others you also realise what your own strengths and weaknesses are. The future is not about lone geniuses designing buildings that standout and show-off. People have to work together to really progress the future of architecture.

You have a growing network of practices, but what about the academic network? Do you know other schools who employ similar approach?

Yes, definitely. We have London Met as our London Academic Partner. We are in touch with such international allies as Confluence, a new school of architecture in Lyon, Strelka in Moscow, and IE School of Architecture and Design in Spain.

What did you learn from the first year of LSA?

For the most part, things went according to plan. We adjusted some timings and tweaked the design think-tank projects to give them agile working methodologies from business schools, to design and test at the same time, to front-load the risk and gain insight earlier. We are now mid-way through the second year, and we could do more to improve the interface between the two years and involve practices more in the process.

There are probably around two hundred people involved and that is a lot of voices to bring in and make sure everyone is facing in the same direction. But we think it’s really important that every year the people come together to make the institution afresh, rather than the institution making the people in a predetermined image. We want our students not to become mini versions of us, but to become better versions of themselves.

36