Crit Club #1 (part of Night School at the AA)

by dufblog

Last week I attended the first Crit Club at the Architectural Association, part of a new Night School initiative being directed by Sam Jacob. The crit posed a question to the architects presenting: what can be done about the post-retail town centre? In other words what do architects think they can do to help tackle the dying high street and its boarded up shops?

The ‘crit’ is an integral part of architectural education, a format which – as long as a certain standard of discourse is attained – has the potential to offer as much to onlookers as to participants. With its panel of experts, aspiring talent and opinionated audience it’s a bit like a reality TV format. You can learn a lot, watching a crit, but on top of that there’s plenty of scope for humour. And then there’s the compelling cringe-factor.

The discourse at this crit was at professional, rather than student, level. The panel consisted of developers Nick Johnson and Martyn Evans, FT journalist Claer Barrett and architect/educator Sam Jacob. The architects presenting schemes were Christophe Egret, David Kohn, Holly Lewis of We Made That and Tom Holbrook of 5th Studio.

Several of the schemes presented were street-scene enhancement type projects commissioned by local authorities, perhaps with the aid of centralised funding. Others were residential developments with ground floor spaces that a more enlightened type of developer was trying to bring to life. Both types of scheme tended to involve elements of consultation and community engagement in some form. Most but not all of the schemes were in or close to London. None was in the North.

It was interesting to see how the different architectural generations responded to the question. Christophe Egret, the most experienced of the presenters, painted beautiful word-pictures of a vision for living. David Kohn, a younger architect, was highly engaged with the reality of a specific set of circumstances, a brief and the client. Holly Lewis, also a young architect, was firmly focused on the process and outcomes of engaging communities with their spaces. Tom Holbrook, middling in the age context, wanted to embark on a more fundamental conversation about the origins of the funding mechanisms of development.

One of the developers on the panel made the point, in relation to a street enhancement project, that it seemed wrong to ask an architect to design the setting for a series of events without also getting them to curate the programme. No-one except the architect in the spotlight seemed to disagree with this at the time. Thinking about that afterwards, it seemed that what I had witnessed at that point in the crit is perhaps symptomatic of what’s happening to architecture in the wider world: an unravelling of boundaries so that it’s increasingly difficult for not only the architect but everyone else to define where the role of the architect begins and ends. This could be a good thing, or it could not. It seems there’s lot up for grabs in architecture at the moment.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if a second series of Crit Club inverted the roles so that the developers were questioned by the architects.