The architecture school at Cambridge is a world-class institution renowned for the calibre of its ex-students (ahem). Only the Brits could think of shutting it down
You can tell that Tony’s mantra “Education, education, education” is really beginning to work well when they are talking about closing down the most oversubscribed course in tertiary education. That is to say, the degree course in architecture at Cambridge University, housed in Scroope Terrace. Now this may be oversubscribed because the dons are looking for attributes other than the 10 As at A-level that students need before they can think of applying to read any of the other courses, or it just may be that it is a subject that people are keen to study at the highest level.
The whole point of reading architecture at a university rather than a school of architecture is that trainees meet other students who are reading other subjects. The collegiate system at Cambridge further encourages this melting-pot of intellectual ideas.
As a prospective undergraduate in the late sixties, I was interviewed by a college for whom I’d sat a scholarship exam in English to read economics. “Why do you want to read economics?” queried an ancient don peering over his half spectacles. I gave him my carefully prepared cleverdick answer: “Springboard into advertising.” There was a sigh of disappointment. “You seem to be arty. Have you thought of architecture?”
“But I haven’t got any maths.”
“Nobody in Scroope Terrace has got any maths”.
I thought it would be fun to compare and contrast French and English Gothic Cathedrals, so I said okay. Six weeks later they offered me a place if I read architecture. University meant three more years before I had to get a job, so I was delighted.
Practising architecture requires a long gestation. I am not alone in thinking, ‘I’m just about getting the hang of this’
When I pitched up at the school of architecture after nine months teaching in Guyana, I was surprised to find myself stood in front of a drawing board with a T square on it. Pinned under this was an A4 piece of paper headed “Function as a Generator of Form”. Oh yeah? “Design two identical or mirror image objects that interlock in three different ways”. WHAT? I looked around at the other students trying to come to terms with not being at school. “Are you learning to be an architect?” I asked a couple. “Yes, aren’t you?” So, as making mirror image objects out of balsa wood seemed a lot less like work than anything I’d done for A-levels, I thought “why not?” It’s never really seemed like work since.
What made it stimulating was interacting with those peers studying (or not) other subjects. Indeed, I’ve always thought it would be a good thing if more people took degrees in architecture, but went then into other fields, where they could become decent clients. There were 35 people in my year. Though there were stars in the year before and after, most of my lot are out there doing not much harm.
Of the big practices that are Cambridge-trained, Colin St John Wilson (British Library), MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (BBC, top university buildings including Oxbridge colleges) and Edward Cullinan Architects are probably the best known. Allies and Morrison and Feilden Clegg Bradley are probably the biggest of my generation. The buildings are generally designed with an approach that is careful, humane, reasonably witty and well-behaved. Not very flashy and not a turnbuckle or a neoprene gasket in sight.
Practising architecture properly requires a very long gestation period. A lot of people my age or younger in other professions are retiring, whereas I am not alone among my contemporaries in thinking “I’m just about getting the hang of this”. So it’s not possible to measure the effect of a school of architecture in less than about 30 years, as this is how long its alumni will take before clients give them the sort of work that people sit up and take notice of. It’s not as if the city of Cambridge itself does not benefit from having a first-rate school of architecture in its midst and, like San Francisco, Cambridge has disproportionately more architects per head of population than anywhere else in the country.
Top-ranking universities in the US and Europe seem to see the benefit of offering architecture courses, so with the UK becoming more dependent on intellectual skills, and less on manufacturing, it seems bewilderingly narrow-minded to shut down a world-class institution that is only just getting into its stride.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London