Emma Tubbs is crouched on scuffed lino in a bleached-white corridor outside her tutor’s office. She’s not alone. The corridor is crammed with students, each hugging work bound in portfolios, or complicated squiggles on cardboard purporting to be the future of architecture. It’s freshers’ week at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London.
For architecture students up and down the country freshers’ week is rather more tense than for other undergraduates. They are not just coping with normal fresher stuff — making their own bed and learning how to neck pints in ten seconds. In most architecture faculties students and tutors alike have to submit to the gruelling process of hustings — like Dragons’ Den, only here the dragons get frightened too.
The previous day, sets of tutors competed for students in a series of 20-minute pitches delivered in the lecture hall. Now the students compete for places with the tutors in a string of interviews over 48 hours. Tubbs is about to have hers. “I’m a little frantic, you could say that, yes,” she laughs. “I really want this tutor.” “It can end in tears,” says Nic Clear, the Bartlett’s director of fourth and fifth-year students. “I mean for the tutors. They worry about it all summer. What if no student picks them?”
This new bunch of architecture students, though, has added reasons to be worried. The recession has decimated the construction industry. Unemployment among architects has risen more than in any other profession. Architectural firms are in the red. Even Norman Foster’s fêted company has had its losses double in a year, from £8.5 million to £16.1 million — and that after laying off 400 staff. Fifteen years ago I graduated from the Bartlett during another recession. That was bad enough. This one, though, is a lot worse.
To cap it all, Britain is producing more architecture graduates than ever — more, some say, than the construction industry actually needs. A decade ago Britain’s universities were churning out 1,000 a year. Now it’s 1,400. The Bartlett alone attracts 1,800 applicants for 90 places. Five new architectural schools have opened in the past decade. And, after seven years of training and tens of thousands of pounds in debt, the average graduate is competing with hundreds of others for not many jobs. “What I find most insulting,” says Tubbs, a fourth-year student, “is that after all that training I’ve got friends who are starting on salaries of under 20 grand.”
David Melia, queueing next to her, joins the chorus of disapproval. “You go to parties and people say, ‘Oh, you’re an architect, you must earn loads of money.’ Er, no.”
Average salaries for architects are about £40,000 — £70,000 less than doctors or dentists. “You don’t go into architecture for money, stability and a job for life,” Tubbs says cheerily. Laura Allen, who runs the bachelor course, puts it another way: “Architecture’s still dominated by the well-off, the privately educated.”
So, what do you go into architecture for? Iain Borden, the head at Bartlett, puts much of the rise down to the Grand Designs factor. “Architecture is much more visible nowadays,” he says. “It’s on the TV. Icon projects are a factor. Students see them on adverts or on holiday. People such as Norman Foster are household names.”
Allen agrees. “We get students at 18 who all like Foster and the Guggenheim in Bilbao and Santiago Calatrava. Architecture is a bit cool. But it’s also a career, so the parents like it too. Everyone’s happy.”
The students I meet prove the point. Thanks to a more box-ticking, exam-orientated system — and the prospect of debt — they’re far more focused than my generation was. Even 18-year-olds here talk about the “edge” a Bartlett degree will give them in the jobs market. “I enjoyed art at school, but I wouldn’t want to be an artist,” says Alexander Holloway, a confident third-year. “The art market is flooded. Here you get to see a tutor every week. Some places you see them once a term. After all, we’re paying for the education.”
“Architecture students aren’t like other students,” Allen says. “They’ve always worked a damned sight harder. You won’t find them living up to the student stereotype. “Hundred-hour weeks are quite normal,” Allen says. “Flatmates never get to see them. They’re strangers in their own home because they’re here working till dawn day after day.”
It has to be like that, she adds. “Architecture is an immensely broad subject. It straddles arts and sciences. You have to learn the past 200 years of knowledge about building, cities, landscapes, sociology. And you have to have designed — and come up with the brief and the site for — five or six buildings by the time you leave, right down to the smallest detail. And then you’ve got to learn actually how to be an architect — the law, the business, the contracts, running a team. You just can’t do it in less than seven intense years.”
On the plus side it fosters resilience. On the minus, architects live in a world hermetically sealed from the rest of us. “Architects marry other architects,” Allen says. Arrogance — as with the medical profession — is all about. What gets them through it, the students say, is the camaraderie of the unit system — the whole point of this week’s hustings. The system, by which students are divided into “units” of 15 or so, run by a couple of architects, was introduced in the early 1970s by the private Architectural Association school, in part to mimic the centuries-old atelier apprenticeship system. The reason hustings are so feverish is because which tutor, and student, you end up with matters. “Your unit will be your life for the next few years,” Clear says. “You work with them, you go drinking with them, you stay up designing night after night with them and, when you graduate, you’ll often end up in a job with them.”
“Units are a bit like football teams,” Borden explains. “They’re all playing the same game — but each plays it differently. And you can be on only one side. Loyalty matters. It’s intensely competitive.”
Each unit has a different take on architecture, just as each architecture school has a different ethos. Some schools, such as the one at the University of Bath, are big on engineering and practical skills. Others, such as the one at the University of Cambridge, are sticklers for architectural history. And the Bartlett? “They do the crazy stuff,” says David Melia, a fourth-year student. “But that’s why people like me come here. For the creativity.” Clear puts it more diplomatically: “We like to encourage students to go off at tangents, to question things.”
Some blame the Bartlett’s reputation for pushing creativity for the rise in iconic architecture obsessed with original forms. Out in the “real world” building contractors, developers, even some architectural firms, often accuse architecture schools of nurturing creativity over practical skills. Sit in on the hustings and you see where they’re coming from. One unit will design an “embassy for cyborgs”, another a toy factory that questions consumerism. Clear’s own unit teaches film-making, heavy on J. G. Ballardian dystopias.
These, Clear admits, are at the “esoteric end”. But all the Bartlett’s units are defiantly experimental. Last year’s work is on show in the entrance hall. There are animated films encapsulating the notion of uncanny space, sophisticated computer drawings “made of complex algorithms that blur and intensify space”. Incredible work. But nothing you or I would recognise as a bona fide building with a front door and a roof. Leave the future to Bartlett students and we’ll all be living in car-crash spaces that occasionally come into focus as giant mechanised spindly crustacea. But “you’ve got to teach them how to think about space first and foremost,” Clear says. “Under what might look like the most far-out project real-life themes are there.”
Themes such as the “grand challenges” that underpin every course — health, sustainability, intercultural interaction and wellbeing. The architecture degree also has to comply with subject areas laid down by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architects Registration Board . But each school can determine exactly how that’s done. “And think what else we teach them,” Clear says. “Software skills, computer design, imagination, how to conjure up from nothing a building with integrity.” If it were left to architectural practices alone to train architects, Borden says, “nobody would learn about the Italian Renaissance, just how to put together tender packages.”
You do wonder, though, about this year’s graduates. The Bartlett’s have fared better than most. This is, after all, the Oxbridge of architecture, though many end up nowhere near architecture. Some of Clear’s graduates now make promo films for Björk and Audi. Two from the experimental Unit 14, Harry Parr and Sam Bompas, make architectural jellies for A-list clients. “We teach students to be flexible, and optimistic,” Clear says. “I bet you architects have a low suicide rate. There’s always the next project.”
So what’s the point? I’ll leave you with a third-year, Alexander Holloway: “At the end you think, ‘Yeah I did achieve something, I created something. And it’s all mine.’ What a feeling.”