29 October 2019

Timber Focus Theatre highlights: The role of education

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One of TRADA’s most popular features at UK Construction Week is the thoughtfully prepared seminar programme held within the Timber Focus Theatre. It brings in a range of well-known and experienced speakers from across the timber industry and, through various formats including panel discussions, case studies and CPDs, enables them to share their top tips and expertise with an engaged audience.


One popular session was the panel interview on approaches to learning that develop great talent. The guests included Toby Maclean, UK Director, Entuitive; Graham Farmer, Professor of Architecture, Newcastle University; Maria Vogiatzaki, Professor of Architecture, Anglia Ruskin University; and TV Presenter George Clarke.


Led by TRADA's University Engagement Manager Tabitha Binding, what began as a discussion about the role of design and make projects at university level ended as a broader commentary about the role architectural and engineering education should play in the development of our architects and engineers today.


Toby Maclean made the first distinction, highlighting the difference between technical proficiency and softer skills such as creativity. He said: ‘It is really important [for engineers] to have a good grounding in the technical side of things and that is what engineers are hopefully taught at university. However, what we weren’t taught is how to guess and that’s even more important – because that is where the creativity comes from. Those creative activities like making things out of timber in the woods, as in Studio in the Woods, are essential for helping you refine those guessing skills’.


Professor Graham Farmer scrutinised the role of architectural education itself, noting the discrepancies between what architectural education does and beliefs about what it should do. Discussing the skills it develops beyond professional proficiency, he stated: ‘I don’t think, as part of my education, we did very much that was about professional competence. I think that architectural education is fantastic for building a set of critical skills – i.e. problem solving skills, ability to collaborate – all of which put you in really good stead when you do go into practice. Education helped me identify what I needed to ask, and how to find the information to make that possible. I think that aspect of architectural education, which is expansive, which picks up on a whole range of issues other than technical competencies, is actually one of the most valuable aspects of it’.


Professor Maria Vogiatzaki largely agreed, commenting on skills such as negotiation and compromise, but highlighted: ‘[some] practical knowledge you will never acquire no matter how many lectures you attend, or how much you watch. [Some things] you only learn if you do and that has a lot to do with your idiosyncrasies’.


George Clarke, TV Presenter and Architect, added: ‘We’ve all got different life experiences, and – as a result – we’re all different kinds of designers and makers. My grandfather was a builder and I probably did more with materials with my grandfather than I did in formal education. And I think that’s why we’re all very different designers and very different makers, because we’ve all experienced very different things.


‘I got a job working for a local architect when I was 18, yet when I went to university for an architectural course I really struggled. I had been doing technical specifications for joists etc., but, when I went to university, they would ask us to think about the “internal space” … When I later studied at the University College London, I was in one of the only units that actually designed a building – so there were about 14 of these units which didn’t design buildings at all. And this was an architectural course, you know.


‘One of the problems with some designers is that we can draw beautiful things, but we don’t necessarily know how those beautiful things come together – and we don’t really understand what they are. While working for an architect before university, I would have drawn a damp proof course for two years, but I don’t think I ever actually saw one. I do think that anything you draw – and I’m not saying you should physically make it yourself – but you should certainly have an understanding of how it’s made and how it’s put together. That might just be spending time with someone on site to get a full understanding of it. For me, spending time on site was a massive learning curve.’


Another thing discussed was the importance of multi-disciplinary working – and from an earlier point of their training.


George Clarke admitted that ‘it’s mad because that’s the way the world works. I was at university quite a while ago, but it was quite isolationist in some ways. As architects, we just talked to architects. It’s mad that we didn’t work with engineers on our design projects, you know, and we didn’t work with a quantity surveyor. Then, after university, we go out into the world and we’ve got to work with engineers and quantity surveyors – but I think things have changed a lot in education since then’.


Professor Maria Vogiatzaki clarified: ‘I think the right word to use is trans-disciplinary, as opposed to multi-disciplinary. That’s because we have reached a time where innovation can come to us from very different disciplines’.


Professor Graham Farmer added, ‘I’m quite lucky that I work in a school alongside other disciplines. We have a number of programmes which crossover between these disciplines. For example, our design studios also bring together students from our school of fine art, our civil engineering department – so we are creating opportunities to engage. I do think the problems that we’re facing are cross-disciplinary problems, particularly in relation to things like the environment. They are exactly the sorts of problems that require knowledge from different fields and, unfortunately, I get the sense that professional bodies are moving more towards narrowing down the definition of the profession – particularly in the field of architecture – precisely at a time when we should be doing the opposite’.


If you or your University would like to continue the conversation, please email Tabitha Binding on tbinding@trada.co.uk