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Why aren’t architects and planners trained to understand the social context and impact of design?

“I’m delighted to report that we and others have been taking steps to rectify that and we can report on some progress!”

Covid-19 has served to highlight the role of local communities and people’s sense of belonging; yet also the divisions that exist between those living with or without adequate indoor and outdoor space, or adequate local amenities. So as talk increases of ‘building back better’, how are built environment professionals going to learn from and apply their knowledge of this lived experience. The reality is that however heartfelt these aspirations, we do not have the education tools to do so (quite apart from the policy ones…).

Even before the pandemic ftwork was all too aware of this challenge. In the drive to build 300,000 new homes a year, designers and planners can play an important part, but in order to achieve this professional training must acknowledge the social purpose of architecture. Future built environment professionals must learn to understand how places work, how people relate to their physical and social environment.

A year ago I wrote the following in a previous blog on this theme:

“The UK‘s architecture schools are credited with being among the best in the world, with the RIBA validating courses across the globe, yet student architects and planners are not taught about this. One of the competencies required to qualify as an architect is a demonstration of ‘the architect’s obligation to society’. Nowhere is this defined; and undergraduate and diploma courses do not include modules that consider the social role, context, or impact of architecture and design”.

Well that’s still true, but I’m delighted to report that we and others have been taking steps to rectify that and we can report on some progress!

  • Before the first lockdown ftwork was already in discussion with RIBA Education about a series of practical workshops to take to Architecture Schools – a pilot to explore the potential of extending the undergraduate curriculum to encompass the profession’s social role. As with so many things that is temporarily on hold
  • However meanwhile the RIBA has been rewriting the validation criteria for Schools. These are yet to be adopted but I’m reliably informed that they do address social purpose and that ftwork’s ‘Social Design Principles‘ are formally referenced
  • Then at the end of 2020, the RIBA updated their Core CPD Curriculum – the 10 mandatory topics that Members must study by way of continuing development. Newly added as the very first core topic is ‘Architecture for Social Purpose’!
  • Finally I discovered just last week that the Part 3 curriculum – the training that all student architects must undergo to develop their professional ‘competencies’ and gain their qualification – now includes the same 10 mandatory topics

It has become increasingly evident that students of architecture and young professionals understand the importance of their social role and are beginning to demand its inclusion in their training. They can see more keenly than many what is happening in the world around them.

Within the profession some practices already see their social purpose as a core driving principle,  just as a number of design tutors combining teaching with practice are setting a very valuable example. But they’re in a minority. Meanwhile ftwork will continue to assert that it must become a requirement for all architecture and planning courses to include obligatory modules on the social purpose and responsibilities of design, within an accredited syllabus.


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