Yesterday I attended the RIBA’s annual Royal Gold Medal Student Crit. The event consists of the winners this year’s President’s Medals presenting their work to a panel of important RIBA people; RIBA President Jane Duncan, recipient of the 2016 RIBA Gold Medal Zaha Hadid, as well as David Gloster and Peg Rawes. Sadly Zaha couldn’t make it today due to sickness so her practice’s Director Patrik Schumacher deputised in her absence.
The President’s Medals were first awarded in 1836 and according to RIBA are ‘the most prestigious international awards in architectural education’. Each year one award is given for a Part 1 student project (bronze medal), one for a Part 2 student project (silver medal), and a third for a student Dissertation. The winning projects are selected by a group of reviewers headed up by the RIBA President from among hundreds of entries from all the RIBA accredited schools of architecture. Each school is invited to submit two projects per category, making for a rich and diverse array of work and ideas from around the world. The bringing together of such a vast quantity of high quality work allows for the creation of a fantastic resource for students, providing the most recent examples of some of the world’s finest architecture work for free on the website: http://www.presidentsmedals.com .
Yesterday’s event saw presentations from Marie Price on her winning dissertation ‘The Overlooked Back Garden: Voyeurism In The English Back Garden’, Boon Yik Chun explaining his Part 1 project ‘Space As The Third Teacher: An Alternative Classroom Typology Promoting Creative Learning and Play’, and Finn Wilkie talking through his Part 2 thesis ‘The Heteroglossic City: A Polemic Against Critical Reconstruction in Berlin’. Each student was given 15 minutes to present, with 5-10 minutes for questions from the panel and audience.
Marie Price, University of Westminster – The Overlooked Back Garden: Voyeurism In The English Back Garden – http://www.presidentsmedals.com/Entry-14570
The dissertation looked at the back gardens of hundreds of North London terraced houses. Marie spoke of her interest in back gardens being triggered by the ‘legitimate intrusion of privacy’ which occurs when looking into private gardens from a passing train. From what I gathered from her talk, the dissertation focused on four different relationships between privacy and intrusion; the more abstract/city level, neighbourhood, household, and garden. Each scale offers a different threat to privacy, with the nature of curiosity also varying. The research went on to suggest that this ambiguous relationship between privacy and curiosity is simply accepted rather than challenged. Marie also suggested that the conventional divisions between these little patches of private land would be better removed, allowing us to ‘embrace the garden plots’ connectedness as corridors of communal activity’.
One of the main points taken from this study was the extent to which information can be gathered using publicly available resources such as Google earth. While this was the enabling factor for Marie’s dissertation she was clear to state it wasn’t ideal. She explained how satellite imagery such as that used by Google offers us a voyeuristic opportunity, but one that is not as truthful as it may appear.
I have always struggled with the written coursework required for my degree. Being able to hear a more personal account of a prize winning dissertation was incredibly insightful and relatable. I’ve spent many an hour on trains looking into gardens, taking note of the rise and demise of the garden trampoline. To see how an everyday observation such as this can have so much room for debate and research around it is extremely exciting for me. I like how it questions the role of architecture, and even highlights its absence. I felt that the dissertation was left very open ended which is also reassuring. It sows that a great piece of work can be done without coming to a revolutionary conclusion. It has also made me think a lot more about the importance of the privacy back gardens offer, but how voyeuristic opportunities can be an ambiguous but valuable source of social cohesion.
Boon Yik Chung, UCL – Space As The Third Teacher: An Alternative Classroom Typology Promoting Creative Learning and Play – http://www.presidentsmedals.com/Entry-38471
This undergraduate project, based in Florida, set out to create an architecture which is as enabling of creative behaviour as a toys, in particular Neinhuis Montessori’s toys. What was interesting about the way Boon presented this project was the lack any substantial architectural talk, instead focusing on the behaviours and lives of children. The research looked at interpretations of abstract art, toys and spaces, then looked at them through a child’s eyes. Ambiguity was the key theme throughout the design. The creation of non prescriptive spaces with varied soft boundaries, open to all kinds of inhabitation, but most importantly open to creative and thoughtful inhabitation, were the designer’s response to conventional, restrictive, ‘slave’ learning environments.
The images used to represent these ideas and the research behind them were perfectly in tune with the design and its ambitions. Heavily populated drawings emphasised the importance of human life and activity over architectural authority. The finest drawing, in my most humble of opinions, shows the groupings and inhabitations of the space with the architecture removed. It demonstrates the success with which Boon has created a physical manifestation of an abstract theory based on ambiguity. This is not an easy thing to do. Best of all, however, is this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgDlkUr1dFw – which shows the kind of thinking that has gone into the project. It brings to mind a ‘method designing’ approach which I think we could all learn a lot from.
From the three projects presented, this was the most relatable for me. My final project (http://www.presidentsmedals.com/Entry-37041) looked into very similar ideas of spatial abstraction and ambiguity of boundaries, but to see these ideas explored with this much rigour and beauty was astonishing. I have been truly inspired by the concentration on the lives of the building users. This was a subject which was raised in the questions following the presentation. Patrik Schumacher quizzed boon about the paradox of creating an architecture of ‘total openness’ and about whether he considered using algorithms to create possible spatial variations which respond to the order and structure required by the contained activities. A short but thought provoking discussion ended the presentation in laughter as Boon highlighted the constraint of having to ‘pass the exam’ as the primary decision maker.
Finn Wilkie, Mackintosh School of Architecture – The Heteroglossic City: A Polemic Against Critical Reconstruction in Berlin – http://www.presidentsmedals.com/Entry-39151
I feel I will only make myself sound stupid if I try to say too much about this project. Divided into three parts, the project was very heavily focused on research into the critical reconstruction of Berlin. The first part examined the failings of Berlin’s current urban development strategy and its ‘impotent pluralism’, arguing that the ‘totalising ideology’ was creating a ‘culturally sanitised’. The second part of the research made suggestions of how to combat the ‘formal, metaphysical, and programmatic consequences of Critical Reconstruction’. A framework for emergent architecture was established and used for the final third of the project which was the design of a physical architectural response. The architectural proposal, named ‘Bauforum’ was represented in a subtle, restrained, and mature manner, reflecting the nature of the sober architecture. The links between the different stages of research and design require a deep understanding in order to fully appreciate the depth and meaning of the project. Unfortunately 15 minutes, despite a very considered and well prepared presentation, could never be enough to communicate the layers of this thesis. I will nonetheless add a quick comment about the beauty of the models and images used in the representation. Every part of the project seems so consistent with the next, and all to a bewilderingly high quality. Although the the whole piece of work exudes simplicity and quality, the most enthralling characteristic isn’t dissimilar to that of wise grandparent whose every word both informs you and leaves you knowing there is still more to know.
After the presentations I was left with a mixed feeling of inspiration and excitement for architecture, however, I couldn’t help but question where all this energy, enthusiasm and commitment goes when it is absorbed into industry. The debate surrounding architectural education and the profession will and should never end, and such thought provoking student work should be at the centre of the debate. More specifically, why is the profession apparently incapable of taking full advantage of the rare qualities found in the youngest and brightest designers as the emerge from architecture school? The event was wrapped up following a battlecry-like plea from former RIBA President Rod Hackney for architects to stop thinking there are only a few people who can call themselves architects when in fact ‘there are 7.3 billion architects in the world’ and we should embrace every single one of them.