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January 28, 2006 || 9:27 pm
Life update; and the decline of my alma mater

Apologies for lack of posts. This was not due to anything exciting - rather, the fact that the office has been busy and I had an interim portfolio hand-in on Thursday that caused considerable panic and the use of every free minute in working, if not on actually producing drawings, on rather terrifying sessions of 'architects block' where I realise why I always hated being a student designer. However, hand-in is over and I've given myself a day and a night off. So its soup, wine, the footie on the radio and update blogging for my Saturday night. I'm really, really getting old.

Last night was the architect's equivalent of a high-school reunion, being the opening party for the Cambridge Compendium - a backslapping session to 'celebrate' my alma mater, which is sadly but surely sliding down the pan in terms of quality and vision. So much repeating of 'what are you up to these days' and the whole of Cambridge's alumni who are unsuccessful enough to bother, crammed into a tiny pub off Great Portland Street after the booze ran out at the RIBA.

I'm being a little harsh: it was very nice to see former tutors and others, but I don't have much optimism about the school. Many worthy, heart-in-the-right-place architects have come out of the school, and many running relatively solvent and interesting practices. But that fact is that there are no real high-fliers out there, a lot of frustration and struggle (the patented architect's 'business is fine, yes' complete with gritted smile seen far too often) and a lot of people haven't really moved very far since I last saw them, five years ago. Everyone is producing decent, well-considered buildings but there's a lack of people with real mouthy guts with radical positions, or even radical ways of promoting the approaches they already have, most of which are sound and, as I said, decent, which I think is a much undervalued quality in architecture.

Of course, most of these people graduated a long time before the recent well-publicised problems - but many are still sticking around the school, teaching or otherwise. At the risk of getting horrendously spammed by a lot of people who are good mates of mine, the school really needs to cut off from a lot of these people. Of course, there is absolutely no chance of this happening while Marcial Echenique is head of the department. I have no qualms at saying that he is the worst possible candidate for the job. Total lack of architectural vision, public profile or engagement with the world of practice. Someone who cites 'Computer simulation models of cities and regions' as his principal research interest - and having seen his work, he doesn't mean something more innovative than it sounds.

Well, rant over and enemies made. I was glad to be there and see some lovely people who I rarely bump into, but glad that my path since I graduated has led me to interesting, challenging and genuinely innovative work; the opportunity to engage with the real world, high-level clients and influential projects, rather than the world of slightly depressing small architects full of complaints. I respect them for their commitment to something that must be pretty hard to get up for, many days and I'm not saying that I'm somewhat magically superior. But Cambridge influenced my thinking in important ways and I think the fundamental tenets of its approach, underneath all the cruft, are important and valid. If the school wants to start producing more ambitious graduates who advocate these principles in public and influential ways, something really drastic needs to happen.

3 comments

3 Comments:

"the world of slightly depressing small architects full of complaints" - I can't agree more. I am sure that the problem exists not only in cambridge (I have seen many!!). Although I am not quite sure what you meant by 'small architects', it seems most of 'us' are lacking of somewhat sense of reality - so, complain. Is it the institution's miss-guidence? or is it up to individuals to bite the bullet and face the reality? In the end of the day, not everyone can do what they want.

Well, I guess we can talk about this next time in the Pride.
It is a one depressing subject.

By Anonymous Je, at 11:30 am  

i happened to catch a documentary on bbc2 a couple of nights ago called 'Homes for Heroes', it was a repeat and i think it's a few years old, but it was really lovely. it was about post-war british architecture, mostly housing, a bit on the festival of britain. you're right, decency is far undervalued, and that was what struck me most about the programme - it was a jumble of clips, some archive stuff from the beginnings of harlow town, some contemporary and more recent interviews with the Smithsons, Lasdun, Leslie Martin - that the intentions were so good, even if inevitably not all the realised bulidings could match them. while 'public space' still arouses passion and ambition, mass housing rarely carries the weight of ideals that it seemed to then. i was watching it with my boy who is resolutely non-architect ("normal people dont like concrete. it's too grey" he tells me) and he, too, was fascinated.
slightly connected in two ways - firstly it made me remember that a regret i have about my time at cambridge is that i didnt really pay attention to the lectures. i wish i had taken studio a little less stressfully (it dint do me any good anyway) and been awake/present for more history and theory...
secondly - i think it takes individuals of unusual strength of character/self-belief to be mouthy and high-flying in the name of decency. the by-product of being taught to check your ego in deference to worthiness, of being hyper-aware of the potency of the built environment, is a pervasive self-doubt that too often nibbles away at radical positions. some ambitions survive but you can't expect many to.
high-fliers either don't look down or have a belligerent head for heights.

btw what's 'cruft'?

By Anonymous another h, at 9:37 pm  

me again.
i can't think of the right word though there must be one - but i agree about you being glad with the interesting work you do /have done. fortunate definitely isn't the right word, and nor is it that i think you should be glad. that sounds like i'm telling you to be grateful. which i'm not. but what you're doing _is_ really good. stay choosy and demanding (and mouthy?!) and you may end up being one of the few with your ambition intact.. wiffle over

By Anonymous another h, at 10:47 pm  

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