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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 28-Jan-2006

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum


Page: 27

Wordcount: 1291

If it ain’t broke, why fix it?



Mixing academic study with real work has produced world-class Australian architects. Now, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY, the University of Technology, Sydney is rewriting that winning formula.

‘Don’t teach me!” a young Erno Goldfinger once snapped at his mother. Goldfinger, on whom author Ian Fleming modelled his villain, went on to become one of the leading modern architects of post-war Europe. Although a reputation for flaring arrogance hardly marks him out in architectural history, Goldfinger was eventually taught a few things: first at the stiffly academic Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and then, more importantly, in the studio of the august Auguste Perret, an engineer whom Goldfinger revered.

Education is always contentious, as it should be. Especially architectural education, since architecture is neither science nor humanity in the traditional university mould, but a curious hybrid with a thick craft underblanket and thin theoretical overlay. Torn, thus, in various directions, architecture in academia usually settles somewhere between engineering, planning, building and fashion design; none of them, arguably, true ivory tower material.

Add to this mix the unforeseen consequences of education-funding starvation and an increasingly architecture-resistant construction world and you get a strange creature indeed. The crisis in the school of architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney, provides an instructive instance.

On the surface, the “change management proposal” convulsing the school looks harmless enough; a simple conversion of six part-time or “fractional” teaching positions into three full-time posts. For the proposal’s author, Dean Desley Luscombe, and her recently appointed head of school, Professor Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, it’s a simple structural shift: managerial, uninflected, innocent. For many students, however, not to mention staff and practitioners, it’s a deal breaker, generating dark mutterings and impassioned rants about betrayal of the student contract.

To understand this chasm, you need a little history. Until the 1990s, UTS was the NSW Institute of Technology; it was then shotgunned into union with the Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education and re-badged as a university by the Keating government, determined that everyone be above average. (They were pollies, after all, not mathematicians.)

UTS therefore entered university-hood with a pronounced vocational emphasis. In architecture, students were required to work four days a week in practice. On the fifth day, and evenings, they’d attend uni, being tutored by both full-time academics and practitioner-tutors in fractional (rather than casual) teaching posts.

This was a principle, not just a hangover, and it suited the craft nature of architecture just fine. “Co-operative education”, as it was called, meant that students, by graduation, had become seriously useful in practice. It also allowed their fractional tutors to develop real teaching expertise while maintaining active practices, shaping the course to act as a stiffener for the students’ practice-acquired skills. It also gave UTS a point of difference from the other three NSW schools.

Gradually, though, the university came to feel ashamed of its tech-roots. In 2003, the architecture course became full-time. It dropped the practical requirements, switched its six-year undergraduate degree to a two-tiered five-year version more like the other schools and swelled its numbers (and coffers) with overseas students.

Now, under professors Luscombe and Kaji-O’Grady (formerly of Melbourne), the anti-practice shift continues apace. You might see it as overcompensation, or Melburnisation, or the career-academics’ resentment of practice, or a simple Pavlovian response to a government funding regime that favours postgraduate students over undergraduates, and “research” over practice.

Whatever its real motivation, though, the current proposal, launched in December and due for ratification by the vice-chancellor any moment, restructures the remaining fractional staff out of existence. Luscombe insists there is nothing personal here and no educational import (though why else do it?) and, of course, incumbents are free to re-apply, should they be inclined. (They won’t, probably, since it would mean marginalising their practices and competing in an environment where incomprehensible doctorates signify more than design awards or fine buildings.)

Among the school’s clients, both students and the profession, the move is widely seen as ideological; designed to cement the dominance of career academics with little or no practice experience and reify an academic regime that, says one staff member, “makes the Beaux Arts look extraordinarily socially engaged”.

Distinguished practitioner Lawrence Nield, for instance, describes the move as “unfortunate” and bound to “lower both the perception and the real standing of the [faculty]”. Richard Francis-Jones sees it as a “backward step for UTS”.

Chris Johnson is a former government architect and the son of the late Professor Peter Johnson, a leading practitioner for more than 30 years, a head of the University of Sydney school and a chancellor of UTS who exemplified the gentleman architect in Sydney. Johnson describes the change as a “shift away from practice” driven by a “definition of research that is totally opposed to people like Richard Florida’s work on creative people as the energisers of global cities”.

All three speak with deference of Philip Thalis and Peter-John Cantrill, two prize-winning architects who are among the endangered fractionals. “At this time, among the three schools in Sydney,” writes Nield in a letter to the vice-chancellor, Professor Ross Milbourne, “Philip and Peter-John are the most important studio teachers in the final years.” Francis-Jones describes them as “very highly regarded [with] a proven track record in both the profession and the academy”, and Johnson predicts that schools of architecture will soon be “desperate” for such intelligent and scholarly practitioner-tutors.

Over and above the individuals involved, however, is the educational principle. Luscombe, defending the restructure, cites the 2001 report of the Architects’ Registration Board National Visiting Panel. In fact, though, the report argues that UTS’s work-based learning makes it “unique within Australian schools”, and that any change must ensure “the co-operative learning model that distinguishes this course is not compromised”.

In some ways this is a re-run of the old town-gown split, of which a possible outcome is the evolution of a new discipline, architectural theory, quite distinct from architectural practice; pretty much as happened in the fine arts a decade back. Why bother? Most people prepared to spend five years studying architecture do it because they want to practise. This makes it especially ironic that, just as real-world architecture is forced increasingly to fight the three-pronged death-rays of quality assurance, project management and rampant developer-dominance, all driven to clip architects’ wings, architectural teaching should retreat so far the other way, into the equally dead hand of esoteric theory (fresh from its stranglehold on the fine arts) and digitally designed screen-blobs.

I try, and fail, to imagine a fruitful relationship between a bottom-line cookie-cutter developer and an architect fed on five years’ belief that digital ephemera will do as architecture as long as the narrative is sufficiently arcane. At least co-operative education told students whether they liked the game or not, without wasting five years.

There’s another irony. As Sydney Uni’s Professor Tom Heneghan points out, architecture is now an international game and a significant Australian export. Our architects, though, are already hampered in this since they receive up to a staggering 56 fewer contact-time weeks over five years than their counterparts at universities such as Harvard. That the Federal Government’s determination to fund “research” over teaching, and to define that research on a scientific rather than creative model (so that architectural achievement doesn’t qualify), should increase the disadvantage by further reducing student contact with intelligent practice is sad to the point of comedy.

Then again maybe the feds are just more cluey than we thought. They’ve been swotting up on Goldfinger and have taken his plea to heart. Whatever you do with the education dollar, don’t teach ’em!




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