Friday, June 17, 2005

Threatened Closure of Cambridge University School of Architecture

By Peter Sparks
On Monday 29th November there were two thousand people trampling the forbidden grass outside the University of Cambridge Senate House. The University School of Architecture supported by the student union and all the faculty were protesting against the administrations recommendation that the School be closed. Television presenter of Restoration, Gryf Rees-Jones, theoretician Rowan Moore, head of the Sheffield School, Professor Jeremy Till, practitioner Sunand Prasad and the Cambridge Member of Parliament, Ann Campbell MP all spoke of the folly of the decision.

Cambridge's teaching is consistently the most highly rated of any school of architecture in Britain but two years ago the government rating of the research carried out by the members of staff dropped from 5 to 4 on the national scale of 1-5. Cambridge seems only to tolerate 5 and expects 5* though no school of architecture has ever been awarded the star because the research is assessed by non architects in a process that has been acknowledged, even by Cambridge, as totally flawed. Government funding immediately dropped 42% while the University gave the school a year by to show that it would get a 5* in 2008. Within nine months three times the previous amount of research had been published and research funding was up from £1.5m to £4m but the Review Committee struck three months early and recommended closure before hearing of the progress. Now the Universitys General Board will vote on Wednesday 8th December whether to close the Department finally.

There have been protests from all over the world that the Cambridge School , which, under Sir Leslie Martin at the 1958 Oxford Conference, virtually invented architectural research, should be closed for being found wanting after one meaningless assessment. Carlo Ratti from MIT expresses it well in the Times Higher Education Supplement: " As an alumnus I am appalled, not so much because of the loss of a world-class tradition represented by leading scholars, but the narrow mindedness. While Old Cambridge may be recklessly losing its assets the new Cambridge in Massachusetts is passionately debating the role design will play in the 21st century, with the growing need for interdisciplinary problem solving and the booming economy of the ˜creative classes." Anthony Gormley has a similarly telling and passionate article in the Guardian newspaper. There have been letters in papers from leading national and international academics and practitioners. Most Heads and Deans of most international schools have written to the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University as have many of the design conscious public and politicians from all over the world but it seems to little effect.

Who suffers most? First and foremost the current students and those applying now for entry next year. At Cambridge University Architecture is the most sought after subject with easily the highest applicant to entrant ratio. As one correspondent pointed out it is like the bread queues in a totalitarian state. Everyone wants bread so you ensure a shortage.

Peter Sparks is an architect and a Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge. He
joined the Cambridge Department of Architecture in 1959, returning to teach
studios there for thirty years during which time he was a full time
University Lecturer 1979-1994. He is the alumni link for protest about the
proposed closure of the School but support from any and all is welcome at

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