Architectural Blatherations

British Architecture Dons Piss Their Pants

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The Good Oil

British architecture dons {professors, academics} are outraged at being held accountable. Their angst derives from the United Kingdom's periodic Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a research audit of the universities of fair Albion.

Auditing the British architecture schools

The United Kingdom government pours billions into its public and private universities each year. The RAE audit is an attempt to find out where that money is going. When the results of the first survey of 2001 were published some years ago, the architecture dons fell to their plush carpets gagging at their throats. They didn't do so well.

The United States has a solid tradition of assessing and evaluating architecture schools, which, whatever its defects, at least keeps everyone on their toes. Australian architecture schools are regularly assessed. But the Brits were aghast: no one had ever dared assess their competence before: it was an affront to their very sensibilities.

British architecture dons have ever since filled many of their waking hours writing to journals (or anyone else) with tales of how unfair the RAE is, how their brilliance is unappreciated, and how no one is competent to judge them except themselves. And they're still wetting themselves about the current 2008 RAE. This has only just been released, so it will take a while before the dons bleat once again to the journals. When we get some feedback from the 2008 exercise, we'll let you know.

The British government whacks the architecture dons

Just who is doing real academic work, and who is just coasting? What is the taxpayer getting for their pound? Where should postgrads study? Where should government funding go? That's the point of the UK's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Seems fair enough to us: after all, the British government pours billions into its universities. Why shouldn't John Bull know where his taxes is going?

The 2001 Research Assessment Exercise pounded the UK's architecture schools. They simply weren't up to their academic colleagues, said the report, no matter their pretensions to scholarship. Here at Architectural Blatherations we've been saying that for years!

As one, Britain's architecture academics gagged on their afternoon sherries. They went into apoplexy when the University of Cambridge used the RAE as justification for closing its own school, regarded by many as one of the very finest in the United Kingdom. The architecture dons began vomiting blood and maiming harmless rodents. Not Cambridge! Some of the professors ended their days as extras in 28 Days Later, never breaking character.

The dons fight back

The British academy had two problems: save Cambridge, then save themselves. The main battles were played out in the pages of ARQ: Architectural Research Quarterly, purportedly Britain's foremost academic architectural journal. Ha! We've given up on locating a decent URL for this coy journal. We've been googling for weeks, but we still can't find a decent home page for the ARQ beyond its publisher's trade catalogue. Perhaps the British dons are too employed in working Augustan bon mots into their discourse to think about a decent site that lays out the objectives, history and philosophy of this flag-bearer of Britannic architectural theory. Or maybe they are just too dumb.

Saving Cambridge

The short term problem was to save Cambridge's school. No expulsion could have been worse to the pretensions of Britain's architects nor to its teachers. The University of Cambridge: older than Magna Carta, venerable seat of empire, demesne of the upper classes for over eight centuries, consistently and without dissent rated in the top five of the world's best universities.

Cambridge protest
Students protest against the closure of Cambridge's architecture school in 2004. Photograph by Michael Clifford.

British architects could forgive Oxford spurning their profession as long as glowing Cambridge held the fiery torch. Cambridge validated the occupation: in spite of all the other evidence to the contrary, the architects reasoned, we can't be too dumb if Cambridge teaches architecture. And Cambridge validated the dons' social status: they could regard with disdain the crudities of their pretended colleagues in vulgar and gauche disciplines at lesser institutions as long as mighty Cambridge gave them an entré to the circles of the proud and the powerful. That the university pondered closing the architecture school because it fell below the university's research standards was an insult not to be taken lightly.

Easily solved: a few demonstrations by the upper-class scions attending the school quashed that idea quick smart. The ruling class was not about to let age-old Cambridge take a hit.

Would the threatened closure of a British architecture school at the lower end of the social scale have produced such a response from the great and the good of the British architectural professoriate? Of course not. Closing a school for those they regard as the lower orders would have only enhanced their status. Architecture schools attended by poor people were reasonable targets-but not Cambridge!

Saving the discipline

The long-term problem was to demonstrate to the bureaucrats that architectural research was of the finest. The dons needed a strategy for the next RAE in 2008. What to do? Say how wonderful you are: in the years after 2001 the dons paraded their research credentials in a long series of self-congratulatory letters and articles in ARQ.

All the stars of the British architectural firmament had something to say: Brian Hatton, Alan Short, Richard Coyne, Phil Steadman, Bill Hillier, Christine Hawley, Koen Steemers, Alan Bridges, Bryan Lawson, David Porter, Florian Beigel and so many more. Here's their MySpace page.

All were in the balmy golden twilight of their careers. They could cheekily bite the British government hand that had paid for their cosy lifestyles decade after decade, safe in the knowledge that their generous pension benefits were beyond reach of any retribution. The RAE kerfuffle provided one last photo op, one last place to show themselves. They could then retire with reputations intact as the doughty defenders of academia, yet foisting the consequences of their actions to younger generations.

All of this would be solved, of course, if the British schools left the universities, as we've been arguing since Vitruvius was learning his declensions.