Just imagine Candy and Candy developing the space of the architecture studio at the RCA, each square foot would be worth £8,000, a potential £32 million would be produced from the space the students occupy. As a company it has created a brand that produces space without ever talking about space. This year 20 students will leave the RCA; if they enter the profession they will be lucky to earn £25,000 per year in London. For those new students entering next year, the introduction of student fees and the cost of studying in London will create an annual debt that would be higher than their annual earning potential. A condition that is already affecting the decision to consider entering the subject.
The RCA studio offers a view that no other school in London can compete with, from Hyde Park to Harrow, RCA students have a millionaire’s view of the city. Under Nigel Coates choreography, a unique space has been created in London to speculate on the subject of architecture. A culture that has sought to consider the social and cultural opportunity of space in preference to an obsession with the object. The approach demands an engagement with the social life of the city.
The expansiveness of the schools speculations was brought to me while attending a recent talk at the studio of a young London Practice. Tipped to follow the career of a recent Stirling Prize winner, their talk was engaging, considered, but devoid of an interest in the relationship of space with the social culture of the city. On leaving, I felt hungry to resist what is a growing neo-conservatism in architectural practice in the UK. The RCA studio by contrast is a feast of possibilities, full of speculation.
In Dave Hickeys Air Guitar (Arts Issues press Los Angeles, 1997) he describes what drives his interest in art and the stories he writes about the culture of the everyday. In the introduction he describes being at a road side bar in Mexico, across the square he notices three people standing in a row. A boy of seventeen wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie. Beside him, a beautiful girl in a white lace dress. Beside her, a duenna in full black battle-regalia with mantilla there to observe the first date. Set against this moment of fresh white lace, and stopping their progress were two dirt-brown dogs fucking in the street.
I always enjoyed this juxtaposition, and often considered its relevance to the moment students enter the profession, removed from the studio the subject of architecture is naked.
Those students that leave this year will enter a world of practice that will have to adapt to radical shifts. Three key conditions are informing practice; a significant reduction in public spending, an end to boom time debt led development and the procurement of space being colonised by contractors under design and build contracts. In the recent report The Future for Architects produced by Building Futures, it notes that “Currently, over 50% of the construction value of UK architects workload is for contractor clients.” (RIBA Future Trends Practice Survey Sept’09) and since 2008 there has been a 40% reduction in demand for architects’ services in the UK.
This points to a radically different environment that is emerging in the UK. Set against this, the space of global production provides a very different opportunity. In the same report it points out:
— “70% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050.” (The Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook, 2010.)
— “The global population is projected to have grown 46% from 2000 - 2050.” (The Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook, 2010)
— “By 2020 45% of global construction is projected to be within emerging markets. “ (RICS Global Construction Forecast 2010.)
For those students leaving the RCA there is an opportunity to speculate on these expanding urban centres. The schools interest in the strategic, social and cultural structures of cities should find a space to produce within.
Against this global opportunity the structure of procurement in the UK is creating a transition in the role of the architect. Design and Build as a structure forms a space between architect and client. It uses time and money as the primary driver, it resists innovation, it resists experiment. Traditional procurement allows the possibility of shared vision between client and architect. They jointly battle against planners and contractors and convince one another that the building is more than just an asset. Design and Build by its nature creates a reductive process, seeking the middle – given this context in the UK what opportunity is there for our graduates who are entering a world where global construction spending is rising and more people than ever are choosing to live in cities?
The practice of architecture needs to make a radical shift to re-position its opportunity. In the same way the construction industry re-designed the deep structures of how production is controlled, architects have to re-design the business of architecture.
In the film When We Were Kings, the story of Muhammad Ali’s fight with George Foreman - The Rumble in the Jungle - is portrayed. The promoter, a spiky haired, Shakespeare quoting Don King invented the fight from nothing. He went to Foreman convincing him he could achieve a record pay day if he agreed to fight Ali in Africa. Following this he went to Ali, offering double Foreman’s wage if he agreed to a fight in Africa. After the fighters both agreed he brought the vision to president Mobutu in Zaire. Mobutu and King came together to produce a two week celebration of African American music and dance and one of sports great televised events. King’s genius was taking the fight to Africa so that the television rights could be sold back to American networks.
The choreography of something from nothing is carried out by architects with space, programme and identity everyday without even understanding the value of our vision. We create the vision and the opportunity for the Don Kings. I sense this year’s students however will have to start to apply strategic design to the structure of practice. Simple shifts could reposition the architect allowing them to be more innovative in the way they control the production of space.
My challenge to this year’s leavers is to step outside the profession and be the Don King of Space. Maintain the flexible network of the studio, its capacity to share, to produce jointly and to develop visions. Resist becoming a cell in an AJ 100 top practice, resist being pushed into the outer tier of a contractors supply chain. The RIBA will not give you the answer but the spirit of the RCA studio will make your voice relevant in the world. That voice and vision distinguish you, no other person in the design team can move until you mark the page. But remember, the perfect white lace of architecture is a sensibility that makes cities unique.
Tom Teatum of ADS2 and Teatum+Teatum
Image : © Holger Keifel