Polyark II “The Railway Project”– Celebrating the visionary concepts of Cedric Price
This afternoon John Lyall kicks off an important day for the Polyark II project – a fantastic national architectural education project, culminating in the SuperMegaCrit – in which 8 schools of architecture will present the work that they have achieved in collaboration with one another over the last year. Polyark II draws inspiration from the great Cedric Price’s original 1970s Polyark concept – where schools came together in exchange and collaboration – and which kicked with a touring London double decker bus, specially converted for the purpose.
We’ll blog more after the SuperMegaCrit itself, but here John Lyall gives a short introduction of Price’s visionary position on architectural education. This essay was written in 2003, appearing in the book “Cedric Price – OPERA”. The topics discussed are just as relevant, and in today’s even more connected world of social media and web2.0, they are even more tempting to implement!
John Lyall is an architect and Managing Director of John Lyall Architects. Lyall worked as a recent graduate in the offices of Cedric Price Architects in the1970s. In 2000 he was the RIBA Vice President for Future Studies and is current chair of their Education Validation Taskforce.
Constant movement: Cedric Price and education.
For an architect who has often eschewed the role of being a regular design tutor, Cedric Price is a naturally good teacher, a challenging critic, and someone who thinks profoundly about the future of architectural education, and has done so since the 1960s.
The training of young architects has received the same degree of strategic, lateral thinking as any of Price’s projects. The starting point for such strategies is the defining expectation of what future architects will be capable of. Far more meaningful than throwing up attractive award-winning buildings is an evolving responsibility to help society change with or without technology. In this respect, in Price’s world, the architect takes on many roles with many talents so that it is counter-productive for each architect to have the same education.
One of the earliest and best examples of this approach was formulated in May 1966 (a week when the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’ was NO. 1 in the British pop charts and the first unmanned spacecraft had just landed on the moon). It was published in the Architect’s Journal under the title of The National School Plan’.
The proposals are:
A. All schools of architecture in the UK should be co-ordinated to produce a range of architectural educational investigations far more comprehensive than that now offered by any single school.
B. Students should be enabled to move from one school to another during the average five year full-time course.
C. The value of such movement would lie in the advantage gained by the student from the particular quality of any one school at any one time. The particular quality must be clear in the content of the school’s curriculum.
D. The particular quality of a school would be enabled to develop far beyond present possibilities through an established and agreed exchange and joint usage of primary information and instruction. A Joint Schools Commission (JSC) would be established to prepare and administer such programming. It would offer full and part -time employment as at present offered by individual schools.
E. The uniqueness of any school should be accompanied in every case by the shared courses, and such shared courses would primarily be determined by the advantage to be gained from mass participation.
F. There would be realistic acceptance of the shortage of ideal staff and money would be spent, not in hiring second-rate replicas, but in enabling as many students as possible to come in contact with the good ones.
G. The possibility of development of the unique qualities of individual schools would require an increase in student mobility (see B) and at the same time permit concentration and reinforcement of particular staff at any one school.
In the small, dense print of the (then) stuffy AJ, Price’s radical, but always sensible, ideas did not receive the exposure they deserved. However, his article was run coincidentally only a few pages after a long-winded report about a conference of the University Heads of Schools. It was a useful reminder of how painfully slow any real changes happened in architectural education (then, as now!), and that according to the conference certain schools, the Bartlett (University College London) in particular, were considered to be more “experimental” than others in the sixties. However, in his National Schools Plan discourse, Price comments:
Schools are becoming increasingly nervous of experiment and, in some cases, are using ‘technology’ not as a springboard but more as an unchanging corners tone on which to base some form of bastard classic education pattern. On the other hand the profession, groggy with the attention being paid to it, is totally directionless and prey to the short-term overtures of a derelict building industry.
Thus it is proposed that a fuller awareness of the state of the Business is beneficial for a school since it is in this formative period that the embryo architect is best equipped and serviced to take a long, slow first look at things and start to order priorities to his own satisfaction. The school must provide an ordered framework in which varied directions of architectural development are put to exacting tests.
The real issue was that all schools generally adopted the same methodology and had the same outputs. There seemed to be an inevitable homogeneity of purpose for all the UK’s graduate architects to come out with the same skills and outlook. They would then fit nicely into a profession that knew exactly what it wanted.
In spite of the newer, confident looking post war architecture resulting from socially driven building programmes and the Festival of Britain (1952), architectural practice in the UK was about providing a ‘service’ and fulfilling a ‘need’, The exciting and busy period for architects in the 1950s and 60s left them little time to think about real social futures and possibility of the architect’s role changing from the traditional pre-war model. The arrival on the scene of an individual like Cedric Price and a group like Archigram must have been a breath of fresh air to students and young architects, and a damned irritation to established academics and practitioners who had previously felt in control and unassailable.
It has been assumed that the immediate demands made by one of the most archaic industries, building (translated into gentlemanly terms by the Royal Institute of British Architects and pipelined through to the schools by the Board of Architectural Education), are a direct concern of embryo architects, but also and more important, that as the industry as it is constituted today is the rightful heir to the attentions of architects of the future -that five years ahead IS the future in relation to healthy progressive artifactual endeavours. Similarly, while the trials and difficulties encountered by the profession today require to be overcome, the solutions adopted, often through expediency, require careful scrutiny before being translated into educational theory. Also there is something extremely unhealthy in the ‘holier than thou’ professional grafting demands of the RIBA on the public and private patronage at large. Society does not owe architects a living and not necessarily attention either. Finally, too close to a liaison -often for urgent, if not admirable reasons -between a group of the profession, a branch of the building industry and a collective of clients can result in particular ‘band aid’ solutions being reinforced ad absurdum (an example of this is the contrived, even if ingenious, uses being discovered for the CLASP System ‘).
Price’s work was influencing a small, but growing number of architects who were also teaching. His time-based urban projects undoubtedly affected the more stylised, but similarly optimistic outpourings of Archigram. By the late sixties and early seventies, the strategy based and process-based work was beginning to take hold in the UK schools because of the direct influence of Price and teachers who were taken by his work. Occasionally Price would appear to run a workshop, give a lecture or sparkle at a crit that was exciting, unforgettable and transforming for students. As a student myself at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, I was encouraged to believe that everything I designed was a political act and that there was great joyful optimism that the world would change, that it was changing now and that we had all better keep up!
It was inevitable then that Price’s National Schools Plan should be conceived rather like one of his urban strategy projects -logical and uncompromising in its design for future adaptation or obsolescence.
One of the main premises behind the plan was that no student need have the same education as another. The education would not necessarily be based at one institution but the student would be free to travel the country between teachers and schools and to configure the creative learning that suits him or her. This would produce a cohort of graduates with a wide range of skills but still under the umbrella of ‘architecture’,
Useful education feedback is talked of, but in general the most likely effect of such a move is to increase the tail’s capacity to wag the dog. It is considered extremely unlikely that a single standard five-year course can ever be the ideal preparation for a variety of specialisations. The five-year period can be cut and specialisation take place earlier (as at the Bartlett School of Architecture), but even this is considered a ‘band·aid’ action since there is still a marked division of intent implied in the midway changeover. The dog and tail situation should be eliminated and at any one school a totally co-ordinated curriculum evolved for four to five years.
Cedric Price’s National Schools Plan is still relevant and still necessary more than 36 years later, there is more student mobility now in terms of foreign exchange and the growing trend for changing schools after the first three years in education. The American system of earning ‘credits’ and pacing the duration of one’s education to suit the individual (and becoming more accepted in the UK) is also echoed in the Plan. But the constantly interactive bubbling firmament of architectural education that I think that Price envisaged would never be permitted on a national scale. Would it not be too uncontrollable and unpredictable for the government and universities to encourage? On close examination the only real headaches would be those of administration forty years on. In today’s world of cash strapped higher education and acute student poverty, the sheer economics of the Price Plan is tempting. The overall quality of education received is raised by allowing all students access to the best teachers. It is useful to note that the National Schools Plan was conceived at about the same time as Price’s POTTERIES THINKBELT which proposed a system of higher education based on unlimited student mobility via the external rail networks. Study of it gives an interesting physical framework for the Plan. By 1970 Price’s demands for change continued but the tone was even more direct. As students we particularly enjoyed and were encouraged by the ‘Cedric Price Column ‘ in Archigram Nine magazine’. The major justification for the existence of any form of advanced voluntary organised education should be that it enables its users TO DISTORT TIME AND LOCATION IN THE LEARNING PROCESS. Whilst students are at present one of the most mobile social groups of technologically advanced societies, the nature of their own particular production plants -schools, colleges and universities, is static, intro spective, parochial, inflexible and not very useful. Architectural students suffer from this rotten servicing system as much as anyone. The result -apparent in every school of architecture -is boredom and/or discontent of students and staff alike, lack of conviction follows. In fact the maintenance of the staff/student concept in architectural education is one of the major causes of its accelerating impotence.
Definitions for PSEUDS,
1. Those who pay to learn other people’s mistakes are called STUDENTS.
2. Those who are paid to learn by their own mistakes are called PRACTITIONERS.
3. Those who imagine that the repetition of mistakes In an ordered well-defined way is intellectually beneficial are called TEACHERS.
There is no reason to suppose that it is best to receive between the ages of 17 and 25 and to dispense at any time beyond that age. The receiving) dispensing equation is one which should never be written. CLASSIFICATION OF PEOPLE RELATED TO PARTICULAR OPERATIONAL MENTAL PATTERNING IS FALSE. However, it is bloody convenient for lazy administrators and cowardly academics. U.K.I970. 6,000 architectural students with an expensive 4/5 -year ticket to work -waste. 10+ schools of architecture showing signs of advanced decay, The remainder of schools concealing such signs. If learning value distortion of time and location is to be realised in time, then we must move FAST -all of us -on feet, by phone, tape, film ESP, with credit cards, coins on a string, other people’s birds or fellows -even local authority money.
JOKE -Q-If a single student occupies 9 sq. metres of static school space for five days a week, what has he lost? A-£200+ per year travel money spent on rental of that dust covered drawing board space.
By MOVING to a better scene we not only show constructive discontent but reinforce the value of our chosen node. Even some existing schools of architecture could become useful, uneven, unbalanced work centres for people in a hurry. A dynamic control problem for the administrators is created. No longer can they ask -’how many students for how long” Rather they must budget for the continuous servicing of nomadic activists -of all ages. HIT THE ROAD FOR A 50 -YEAR JOURNEY
Imagine The National Schools Plan now and how it would work today. It was written before the availability of fax machines and predates the World Wide Web. Now you can plug in your laptop on the train -mobile learning is a reality. On the whole British schools of architecture are excellent and thankfully each one maintains its individual character, in spite of an all-pervading need to control output by the Architects Registration Board. This ‘control’ destroys precisely what lies at the heart of The National Schools Plan, making it all the more important for architects and educators to be reminded of it: freedom, choice and self-regulation, all leading to greater creativity and diversity. ‘How would Cedric Price have tackled this” is a question that I know many people who have encountered him personally or through the work, ask themselves -some of them currently heads of schools and practices in the UK and abroad. With any scheme, whether at college or in practice, it is worth asking the same question -now and in the future.