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School of Architecture Work in Progress: Socio-political Challenges as Built Environment

In the Architecture Work in Progress 2017, disciplinary experimentation in approaches to space, material and organisation is combined with a consideration of pressing socio-political challenges as built environment questions. 

'The students are working across a much broader range of scales than you would normally see in an architecture programme, from the geo-political to an examination of architectural detailing’, explains Dr Adrian Lahoud, Dean of the School of Architecture. ‘That we can connect thinking between those two scales is very, very fundamental to us as a School.’

In Interior Design the first-year students present their Proximities project, a multilayered intervention into a site under development in Victoria. This is the first of three stages of engagement, what Graeme Brooker, Head of the Interior Design programme, describes as the ‘three essentials or fundamental aspects of the interior: Proximities, Inhabitations and Identities’. These differently focused projects applied to the same site over the course of the first year provide the students with the tools to approach their second-year individual projects.

Proximities is about understanding place – a study of an existing site with the aim of learning from it in order to rework it. Working with Grosvenor Developers on one of their biggest developments near Victoria Station, the students began by examining the current realities of the space. The first models on display show a concern for understanding the volumes in play and how they relate to each other. Some students trace the voids and peel back the layers of the space, while others consider mass, presenting solidity, or detail structural characteristics. 

Familiarised with the nature of the site, the second layer to the project pays specific attention to what have been happily named the ‘Giraffe Sheds’, two structural voids whose original purpose remains somewhat mysterious. Creating individual proposals for a small contemporary art gallery within this space, the wall of students’ project work, paired into 2D and 3D form, shows breadth but also a shared permeability to people, air and light, and therefore use.

This reuse of existing spaces is an important critical theme that can be traced throughout the second-year platforms. Responding to the potential loss of history and character we are familiar with in the process of urban regeneration, students on the Interior Urbanism platform worked with developers Soho Estates to redesign and reintegrate the remains of old Soho to resist gentrification. Conversely, in Interior Obsolescence, students repurpose abandoned sites that have fallen into complete disrepair. Sarah Rahmen creates a Memorial of the Forgotten from a disused pier in Greenwich, situated at the last point in the river where the body of a suicide can be retrieved, while Khusali Chawda poetically reworks a subterranean reservoir to become a Cloud Observatory. Rami Kanaan turns his attention to a derelict pre-war structure in central Lebanon, rejuvenating it through both practical public spaces, such as a market square, and spaces of memory and memorial that unify the sites’ past with a future vision.

Rethinking how we dwell in urban spaces is also key to the Interior Matter platform. Students proposals vary from a ‘market of urban living rooms’ for rent, intergenerational housing and a climate change sanctuary. Braelyn Hamill considers how clever surface material interventions, such as the use of different kinds of tile as presented in her display, might alter the way we navigate the space of the London Underground. Such reflective journeys through scale between the city, the building and the interior occur across Interior Design.

‘There is a preconception that the interior is very surface orientated', says Brooker, 'but you don’t get to have that discussion until you have a really good idea what the context is; you will look at the scale of the city in order to make decisions about surface'. This strategy is clear from the first-year students’ Proximities project through to the second-year students’ individual research. As are shared concerns for the environment and sustainability, and an understanding of the changing context of urban living in order to regenerate the existing city. 

Both the social remit and that critical movement between different scales is clear in Interior Systems, where students seek to disrupt tired thinking around issues such as repeat offenders and over-crowded, expensive incarceration, as in Agnese D’Amore’s imagined prison system which moves prisoners through a series of sensorial therapies.

These shared preoccupations emerge from the framework of a course diversified into platforms and different briefs that serve as provocations for the students. One such brief is Interior Display’s brief for the Museum of London, which is moving to a new site. This relocation provides an opportunity to rethink our understanding and expectations of a museum. Using the Museum’s collection as inspiration, the students propose commercial partnerships to create a combined approach to the presentation and consumption of objects. Hybridising the design of museum display and retail, Katarzyna Dubec proposes a collaboration with Swatch via a history of timekeeping, while Jessica Wang connects our fascination with the personal stories of preserved objects with those we can purchase today from independent makers.

It is the process between these initial provocations and final projects that the Work-in-progress Show seeks to productively externalise. ‘We want to see the things that are critical to their process’, Graeme explains. ‘I think it gives the students confidence to expose that, to show that the rough stuff is as important as the finished work.’ At the same time as exposing the raw concepts, the exercise of exhibition encourages a level of polish in order to articulate their thinking and get critical feedback. As Head of the Architecture programme Beth Hughes states, the Work-in-progress Show is ‘the moment where design and research coalesce’.

In Architecture, the Work-in-progress Show occurs at the point when the second-year students have spent a term engaging in research and are commencing with their initial tests. This process takes place within the seven different Architectural Design Studios, to which groups of both first- and second-year students belong, and which have a broad thematic defined between the students and tutors. While the second-year students translate this into a thesis proposition, the first-year students engage in a live project. Beth Hughes comments, the ‘definition of the live project has really opened up this year’. 

Within ADS1: The Shape of the City, The Shape of the Home the first-year students are working with British Land on prototypical apartment typology and will eventually build a 1:1 piece on-site. Alongside furniture manufacturers Ercol, British Land are also working with ADS6: The Deindustrial Revolution first-year students on a co-working space, while those in ADS7: Collective Equipment have been collaborating with the Centre of Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University and a series of NGOs to address the blockade of Gaza. 

Students are developing a series of systems to simplify the construction and planning application process in Gaza, such as the information pamphlets on display. Perhaps more unexpectedly, ADS5: Architecture and World Systems are producing competition entries for Burning Man, framing it as an emerging world system, and ADS4: Characters are collaborating with Oliver Alsop of Squint/Opera to produce a short film for the Renewable Futures Conference, 2017.

This broad range of approaches to architectural engagement is echoed by the different modes of display. In ADS3: How Much is Nature Worth? students have created a hanging maze of complex but richly illustrated mapping exercises. This method of display allows for a tangible understanding of say, the content of pollutants in the air or the importance of a type of fig tree within an ecosystem, in quite a different way to how the first-year ADS1 students’ impressive large scale-model of an apartment complex projects the viewer into a proposed space. 

This is an important consideration of this year’s Work-in-progress Show, as Beth explains: ‘We are trying to make the Work-in-progress Show an understanding of what exhibition and display means in architectural practice. It’s becoming a critical question as architecture is becoming more and more about exhibition work.’

Display also allows students to reveal and better understand their own agenda and processes. While in ADS1 second-year students have approached this through drawing techniques, ADS6 show material tests alongside film documentation of their research into how traditional craft methods can be adapted in the light of digital technologies across a flickering row of vintage, mini-televisions. In previous years, film was a less conscious but habitual part of the design studio’s approach, which has become not only more integral but a more critical and sophisticated presentation. 

Also exploring design methodologies is ADS9: Units, Scales and Measures who present models from a structural workshop that they have called ‘Disruption’, a title suggestive of how structure can be a space of innovation within the studio's concern with how scales and measure have become institutionalised and ubiquitously inform our spatial surroundings. Such exercises propose avenues for intervention, crucial at this stage of the students’ process in a programme that stresses the potential agency of architecture.

To the extent that architecture can intervene, there is clearly a shared concern across the School of Architecture of understanding the context into which that intervention takes place. ADS5 students are particularly reflective on this topic in that, within seeking to understand capitalism as a world system, the studio considers how architecture can sustain and perpetuate that system as well as disrupt it. Deciding that a trans-disciplinary working method was the correct critical approach, the second-year students have elected to work collectively across ten different sites that deal with diverse systems from shipping infrastructures in Central America and the Caribbean to problematising the dream of house ownership. 

Overall, the Work-in-progress Show underscores that architecture is not an isolated practice, and that equally, neither are its practitioners. The platform and studio models are intrinsically collaborative. As the Dean of the School, Dr Adrian Lahoud, points out, the encouragement of interpersonal skills and the ability to mobilise collectively is a fundamental part of the education of an architect or interior designer.

‘It’s exciting to see the Work-in-progress Show come together this year’, says Lahoud. ‘It feels more "in progress" than before, and it’s encouraging that the students are confident enough to be raw, to be more open. There is a generosity suggested by that.'

 Find out more about the School of Architecture and how to Apply.

The Work-in-progress Show is open Friday 3, Saturday 4 and Sunday 5 February, 12–5pm.