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Adrian Lahoud Sets Out a Trajectory for RCA Architecture

Head of Architecture Dr Adrian Lahoud firmly believes that, for students, a great school of architecture is a place of profound existential transformation. He adds that tomorrow’s designers will have to learn to work with a more complex sense of scale, from the architecture of a detail to the architecture of the earth itself.

Reflecting on what attracted him to the RCA’s Architecture programme, he cites the maturity, autonomy and independence of the students alongside an educational model in which the studio is a shared platform for individual, project-based enquiry. The size of the school is also a powerful advantage – it feels intimate and agile – an environment where mistakes can be made, and risks can be taken.

‘There is a level of restless energy and intelligence at the RCA that I have never seen anywhere before. I believe this is because the School has always fostered a supportive and generous studio culture. Ideas are seen as precious and are respected by academic staff. Students are given space and time to think new thoughts. RCA students are fearless, they can be anarchic, modest, extravagant; what unites them all, however, is a desire to formulate an original, powerful intervention,’ says Lahoud.

Two histories in architectural education are fundamental to understanding Lahoud’s plan for the Architecture programme. Some long-standing divisions and habits simply no longer make sense and architectural education must respond.

The first is the persistence of a split between humanistic and scientific traditions. Lahoud believes it is relevant that modern architectural education has not only failed to reconcile these two histories but also continues to embody this unresolved legacy.

Lahoud’s excitement at starting to imagine what architectural education could be like if it were liberated from this old historical burden is infectious: ‘This distinction is now over a century old, and it’s time to ask whether it is still relevant. It’s time for a more intelligent approach,’ he says, ‘if education is to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. For the generation of students entering into postgraduate education now, social questions cannot be separated from technical ones, because – today – the social is manufactured by technical means. Science and finance shadow each other. The impacts on cities and our lives are already here. Architectural thinking has to catch up.’

The second means to understanding the present moment involves the historical split between postmodernism on one side, and on the other, an engagement in emancipatory social movements like environmentalism, feminism, civil rights and later post-colonialism.

Lahoud believes Architecture’s engagement with issues like environmentalism was coloured by an overly optimistic view of technology, which it saw as a panacea, countered by a very classical view of nature, as something separate from human activity. Today however, when there is nothing on earth that human beings have yet to touch, the earth becomes a design problem of planetary proportions, and we know that technology has played a more ambivalent role.

For Lahoud, understanding these two histories is crucial because they structure so much of what we do today. The framework of our education plays a critical role in the kinds of questions we try to address, of the knowledge that we can produce, and the kinds of design projects and graduates that emerge.

When asked what are the most urgent questions today, Lahoud says that too many schools are proud to be ‘diverse’, which means a little bit of everything, but ultimately committing to very little. ‘It’s the model of education as a market place,’ he says, 'but this is not what students really want, it’s not what best serves their interests, or the interests of the public.’

Continuing this thread, Lahoud describes the RCA’s Architecture programme as a platform for meaningful distinctions rather than mere diversity. In practice, this means a series of projects with differences that are vital and alive; projects that identify urgent questions, strategise their research and teaching, and mobilise new communities of interested parties around them.

This is evident already in the themes for the Architectural Design Studios (ADSs) for 2015/16, and in the personal investments of the teachers and students involved. There is far more than a studio brief at stake: they look beyond the institution to ask some very fundamental questions about what it means to be alive at this time in history and what this signifies for practising architecture.

The suite of projects in the ADSs are like a portrait of the programme’s character and its motivations. Architecture’s contribution to city making will be one priority. ‘There is a vast space of potential innovation opening up here,’ Lahoud says, ‘and we plan to look at these issues very seriously, I want to position the programme at the very forefront of thinking on these material, social matters.’

Cities are the materialisation of a specific form of politics (see ADS2: Sprawl); today this process has become very challenging and is often violent. There is profound process of social reinvention (see ADS5: Postcapital – Platforms, Structures and Spaces) taking place at a very deep level: the total commodification of housing, the burden of increasing personal debt, the growing importance of knowledge and service economies, the demand for mobile flexible labour markets, ageing populations and their isolation from structures of care and support (see ADS1: The Domestic Imagination), work travel times, the imminent arrival of on-demand automated transport, the concept of the key workers, new modes of productivity (see ADS6: The Deindustrial Revolution – The Lore of Making), new ownership and rental economies.

Another priority will be to return to the question of social movements through a new idea of ecology. Lahoud explains, ‘From my own work on climate change, it is clear that technical transformations in sustainability and energy use must be accompanied by political and social transformations. Conceptually, we need to think about architecture as an open system.’

This is already clear in the link between scientific models (see ADS4: Super Models & Supporting Actors), climate forecasts and patterns of urbanisation, mass population displacements, migration, risk assessments, insurance, investment patterns, etc. Ecology is always a social, technical and environmental challenge (see ADS7: Ecologies of Existence: Architecture and Modes of Living). Lahoud wants to use design to bring these aspects together, to invent new habits of life, new ways of being productive and being together, acknowledging that first we need to restructure the way that institutions are organised (see ADS9: Institutional Forms and Urban Logics – New Subjectives), to better make sense of these complex realities.

The key to all of these projects is the richness of the cultural and pedagogical setting that is under development in the RCA’s Architecture programme, in which no single format or forum will be adequate. The environment has to allow for complex questions that need different entry points and multiple modes of enquiry, and for the maturation of ideas and projects in a way that is both organic and strategic.

Lahoud sums up, ‘It’s a confident programme, which does not need to legitimise established voices in the field. It will always be about making spaces for new voices to be heard. Our students will graduate having learned to see the world in a new way, to have opened an expanded set of possibilities for what it means to practice architecture today.’

Read more about Dr Adrian Lahoud and the Architecture programme.