A focus on research and testing was apparent among the students at University College London – from experimentation with materials and drawings to exploration of unfamiliar contexts
The question ‘what is architecture’ is subject to eternal debate. The dictionary defines it as the practice of designing buildings – but many would argue that architecture extends infinitely beyond construction. The Bartlett teaches the importance of the design process, as evidenced by its summer show, which, just like buildings once they are completed, only represents a fraction of the effort and thought that went into its creation. The exhibition, however, gave a thorough overview of the school’s educational tenets by displaying samples of work from all different levels, enabling visitors to gain a new appreciation for the complex process that is design.
The exhibitors treated architecture as a multidisciplinary field of study, merging data analysis with experimentation. Some aspects of urban and architectural environments are evidence-based, and therefore measurable – but many aspects, such as design, instinct, ethics or wellbeing, are not. It is vital to combine research (the quantifiable part of architecture) with practice (the non-quantifiable part) because one is useless without the other – instead of an exact science or a random intuition, architecture is located somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.
The drawings on display at the exhibition highlighted this research effort by incorporating as many mediums and methods as possible – ranging from digital computation, hand-rendered perspectives, collages, paper cut outs overlaid to create depth, photography, and materials varying from fabric to acetate to rubber. Behind this enthusiasm towards investigation was the idea that drawings are a way of widening rather than confirming architectural knowledge and ideas. Since so many aspects of architecture are intangible, exploratory drawings are a more efficient way to convey the sophisticated development of a project, and drawing serves as a two-dimensional translation of the elusive qualities that characterise a space.
In addition to this trial-and-error approach, Bartlett students often take field trips and design for sites located throughout the globe. Obviously every site presents its own difficulties, but if all projects were limited to London – as diverse as the city is – then there might be some overlap in terms of site response. Broadening the locations to places such as Mumbai, Rome or New York challenges the students, forcing them to adapt and learn from different urban contexts. Fourth year student Sam Coulton’s project, for instance, was set in Germany – his design for the Berlin School of Environmental Policy directly referenced the city’s rich history, citing Bundestag immateriality and Russian constructivism, but integrated his research about climatic conditions. This interest in looking beyond the university’s location also reflects a will to keep up with the ever-evolving world of design – travelling abroad is an opportunity to observe the current state of architecture in other places.
Students also addressed contemporary social issues, such as gender work imbalance or labour automation, though architecture and technology – fifth year students like Grace Quah or Dionysis Toumazis projected themselves into the future. Quah’s feminist design drew attention to the gendered division of domestic labour by exploring the spatial possibilities of automation – following these ideas of mechanization is Toumazis, who set his project in the context of the transitional period between contemporary work culture and the anticipated period of full automation in an attempt to help people find a purpose despite the lack of work.
But technology is just another way in which the Bartlett is staying up to date. Computer programs have become vital to architecture students and perpetually allow them to expand their abilities – digital animations, software generated geometries and realistic renderings symbolise just some of the ways in which technology has revolutionised architectural education. The entire show demonstrates that the school remains at the forefront of architectural teaching, continuously pushing itself – and consequently all other schools – towards a better future.
Emma Le Leslé