The Meritocratic Vision; article published in Architectural Review October 2012.

Perhaps at this time, in the earliest years of a new millennium, and with considerable respect to the subject matter of this journal, it might be apposite to review, however briefly, the conditions of contemporary education within the state in general, thereby, and subsequently, architectural education in particular. 

Certain issues are clear enough. A considerable re-assessment of the role of education and its appropriateness has taken place since the end of the sixties. What was once understood to be a common entitlement and a state supported opportunity; a means by which a more appropriate distribution of power might be secured among disparate social classes, has after four decades of monetarism, globalism and free market revisionism, been covertly devolved into an instrument of capital; a position, ironically, it once held at the ignominious end of the nineteenth century. The twentieth century after the Second World War, supplied a context in which the plight of mass education experienced a double reversal of its fortunes. Having severed its ties with market capitalism by establishing ‘a right to education[2]for the general population, affording access to tertiary education on the basis of a meritocracy[3], a post-seventies return to late nineteenth century economics[4], not to say to its fin de siècle empirical positivism and Victorian social values, has re-established a social imperative at the heart of mass education based on relative wealth (the rich get the best education). To this extent, and it carries on apace under the present conditions of a reconditioned faux Blair-ism, education is now fully instrumentalised, within the political machine (the consequence of ideological manipulation). 

The apogee of this former turn to a purported meritocratic (only the ‘best’ advance) enabling of education for the masses (not the rich) at the tertiary level (university) was reached in the sixties, and with it, the last decisive manifestation of any social transmogrification in the UK (last time people moved significantly between classes). Access to higher education was expanded with substantial consequences, not least for architecture itself (leading to its partial liberalisation). Wider social access, both then and now was never a catalyst for academic restructuring. Pedagogical paradigms remain tethered to an inappropriate past; conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and within the economic context of the industrial revolution; driven by the economic imperatives of the time, a compulsory public education system paid for by taxation, free at the point of delivery was conceived as a civil right[5]. At the heart of this social vision was an intellectual model of the mind which, a priori, divided society between academic and non academic classes and valued them hierarchically (the smarter you are the richer you can become). Meritocracy was the ill conceived ideology which promoted this social partitioning under the guise of social engineering. The problem was and remains that the terms for this structured ideology of values (the way we value people who are ‘smart’) rest on the prejudices of an arcane and anachronistic pedagogical system. 

The American philosopher and social critic John Dewey was perhaps the first to illuminate a division of fundamental pedagogical ideologies at the heart of education systems and to call them into question, identifying an anti liberalising tendency in education which fostered the disempowerment of students. Dewey’s insistence upon the strategies of active learning were magnified by critics such as John Holt, Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich who identified a ‘hidden curriculum[6]’ in the educational strategies of state structured education which forced upon the unwary, not a critical education at all but rather a prescription for the reiteration of state values and norms. 

Plus ça change, plus c’east la même chose[7].

Richard Llewellyn Davies in his inaugural acceptance speech as Professor of Architecture at the University of London, 10th November 1960, a speech entitled ‘The Education of an Architect’, draws a clear distinction between what he characterised as a Beaux-Arts education and one he imagined to be more suitable to modern demands upon the profession. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts he found unrealistic, closed, myopic and self-referential in dire opposition to an empirically based architecture, – of which, one presumes, he felt himself to be an adequate if not exceptional representative – equipped with the latest demographic techniques to determine the nature of user need and client demand.  

Declining to directly engage the point himself, Llewellyn Davies makes the argument by means of a quotation from the 19th century architect and teacher Viollet-le-Duc, who pilloried the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for the production of architects who …;

‘ involve private individuals and public bodies, who entrust works to them, in enormous expense; who are disinclined to study the material requirements of the programme for its practical execution; whose aim is rather to erect buildings that will do honour to themselves rather than to fulfil all the conditions imposed by the needs and habits of the day’

He continues the quotation, ‘ to make architecture a mystery, an art shut up within certain conventional methods, which the profane can neither see nor comprehend, may be (it is true) the means of preserving a kind of monopoly to those who enjoy it; but is it not to be feared the initiative will be left alone with their mysteries?’  

Ironically and perhaps despite rather than because of his erstwhile commitment to a general empirical ground for knowledge (positivism) those aspects of an architectural education, which Llewellyn Davies desired, remain at this juncture, in the new millennium, almost wholly absent. Since the nineteen-seventies, the trajectory of architectural education, at least in his terms, has taken a distinctly 19th century Parisian turn.  

For those of us who were, and who remain teaching within the state sector, the removal of what Llewellyn Davies would have regarded as ‘Vitruvian essentials for the education of an architect’, have been systematically cut by embattled educational bureaucracies in the name of greater efficiency and their own baleful survival; a kind of surgery that has left the body of architectural education sadly ailing. Oddly its empirical spine has been all but stripped out, together with other non-essential organs such as structural engineering and building construction, in an effort to save the allegedly ravaged educational carcass.  

I say oddly because empirical positivism-rather than dialectics or hermeneutics – is the primary paradigm of professional knowledge insofar as it remains its most authentic and effective form. Oddly also, because in the direction of empirical knowledge lies the path to greater influence, a point illustrated powerfully by the relatively feeble position that the timorous profession of architecture currently holds with respect to empirical giants such as law and medicine. 

Whatever the formative politics were, Llewellyn Davies’ argument was an attempt to reposition architectural education and thereby architecture itself, within a stronger, and from his point of view, more relevant political position.  

He remarks for example:

‘The need for good architects has never been greater than it is today.’

‘It is certain that we must come out of the narrow private world of nineteenth-century architecture, divorced from science and practical life.’

‘The techniques for study are those of the social sciences, and the architect’s education must equip him to use these methods.’ 

Certainly from the perspective of the contemporary political economy, an education and subsequently a profession that might supply its ‘consumer’ with greater self-determination, including the power to object or even to refuse, on the basis of empirical knowledge, seems strangely anachronistic and seriously out of step with the fuzzy positivism of current social and political consciousness. Although Llewellyn Davies insists upon a professional empiricism dedicated to the materialisation of a socially dedicated demographics, he ignores the contradictions imposed by the teleology (end cause) this infers. Any empirical demographics might indeed underscore a more apposite and attuned architectural practice and may undeniably deliver a world better designed and accommodating to its erstwhile inhabitants, but the fulfilment of such a strategy assumes the world and its economic masters act rationally and consistently. Recent political and economic events have shown this assumption to altogether mendacious.

To a market based post-Fordist political economy Vox Populi, or any empirical determination which is not at once overridden by corporate interests, is far too close to that aspect of political radicalism current neo-liberal political tastes like to think they saved us from. Whatever socialism implied for Llewelyn Davis his pious ode to architectural education smacks sufficiently of disingenuousness for one to feel that its prognosis was an act of political correctness before its time, and, given the year, the institutional context, and the progressive weakening of the Tory party at the time, a feat of calculated necessity. 

To say that not one word of what he hoped for has come to pass would be a remark of singular understatement. For architectural education, the bitter pill of economic necessity has taken it by the throat. The house of empirical architectural knowledge has not been constructed and under the present circumstances never will. Architecture has rather built quite another house, much closer in style to the kind Llewelly Davis repudiated. Ironically what has come to pass is a return to the fripperies of the Ecole des Beaux Arts at a time when the political economy of the state mirrors that of fin de siècle Europe, as its history approached the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 

After all, surely now it stands to reason that a totalising market economy would make little space for an architecture concerned with the construction of the city democratic, not to say the city beautiful, or even the city useful or sustainable, since such a city must be forged in opposition to determinations of unfettered corporate capital. What opportunities could such an approach possibly supply a market economy driving only for the maximisation of profit, the minimisation of production cost, the avoidance of litigation and complicity with generic, one size fits all, statutory regulations? In such a climate architectural education has found it perilously difficult to establish a direction. 

In Laudem Creativa.[8]

In some quarters there seems to be much consternation concerning the ARB prescription of undergraduate and post-graduate courses in architecture, most especially from those who assume that architectural education should concern itself primarily with the delivery of pertinent subject matter. The regulation of architectural knowledge is directly prescribed by professional architectural practice though it’s statutory mechanism the ARB. It’s prescriptions, only recently revised, are increasingly reflecting a general tendency in corporate educational institutions for standardised testing and for proscriptive benchmarking; and to a large degree this seems to be understandable, at least on the face of the matter, given the tendency of architectural courses, most especially those in the capital city, to contrive a pedagogy of sorts which seeks ever more marginal points of contact with traditional architectural concerns. Increased regulation is a response to a growing loss of faith in established institutions and their ability to deliver pedagogical product pertinent to professional concerns.

The work at these schools is now, almost too perverse to talk about, exhibiting, to the profane, what must seem to be an acute spatial dyslexia, having little if anything to tie it to issues of moment or to substantial points of relevance, bearing upon contemporary community life or beneficial co-habitation. A comprehensive modesty of outcomes is altogether absent giving way instead to a display of identity and distinctiveness played within a competitive market (schools compete with each other). Such a view, consistent with the muted monetarism of the state and the values it generates, disqualifies any possibility that schools of architecture might recognise, as a group of questioning institutions, any need to grapple with the grand problems of the moment and attempt, by means of co-operation, to identify and pursue such issues beyond the fettered territories of commercial practice. 

To an increasing degree schools of architecture have become directionless; struck mute by the overwhelming difficulties of the global context they have chosen a closed and limiting formalism, indecipherable to the uninitiated which promotes an arcane discourse. But a private language is no language at all; an isolating agenda which regards architecture as an auto-poetical play of self referential concerns, risks leaving life well out of the picture; and if there is no social product to teaching, there is little social benefit. To wish for an isolated art, without social determination, is to wish for solipsism and ultimately for extinction. 

Whatever the general case might be for a coincident approach to architectural education across the board; no matter how popular this might be with the rank and file and no matter how this might ultimately benefit communities at large with a determined and co-ordinated effort to solve current problems, little, if anything at all, has been done to make such a case. In truth the prospect of schools of architecture acting together is risible given the current taste for market competition and  would fly in the face of the corporate ideology schools of architecture have so gaily arrogated from their parent institutions, making of them competitors and not confederates. Joint projects between schools are not encouraged. Indeed schools wilfully engender a contrived economy between themselves in which their products (works of students) are compared and ultimately ranked; upon this destructive structure of co-habitation their isolated survival now depends. 

Kevin Rhowbotham August 2012


[1] A meritocracy is firstly a division of individuals on the basis of an arbitrary value. It is a ranking and a class division proscribing the opportunities of those who do not reflect the values of the dominant class.
[2]  Article 2 of the first Protocol of 20 March 1952 to the European Convention on Human Rights states that the right to education is recognized as a human right and is understood to establish an entitlement to education.
[3] A system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.
[4] Laissez faire, telle devrait être la devise de toute puissance publique, depuis que le monde est civilisé … Détestable principe que celui de ne vouloir grandir que par l’abaissement de nos voisins! Il n’y a que la méchanceté et la malignité du coeur de satisfaites dans ce principe, et l’intérêt y est opposé. Laissez faire, morbleu! Laissez faire!!  (Trans: “Leave it be, that should be the motto of all public powers, as the world is civilized … That we cannot grow except by lowering our neighbors is a detestable notion! Only malice and malignity of heart is satisfied with such a principle and our (national) interest is opposed to it. Leave it be, for heaven’s sake! Leave it be!)
[5] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U
[6] See Benson Snyder et al.
[7] The more things change, the more they stay the same.   
[8] In praise of the creative.

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