The ‘100 Years: Research and Practice’ Symposium held at the Gillespie Centre in Clare College on the 17th September 2012 was organised to celebrate the Department of Architecture’s unique contribution to architectural research and its relationship with architectural practice on the occasion of the centenary of the school.
The department at Cambridge continues to punch above its weight in seeking to reconcile research and practice in architecture. The Symposium provided an ideal opportunity to reaffirm that collaborative relationship, and to discuss its future direction, both specifically at Cambridge, as well as in the wider context of architectural education and the challenging environment the profession currently faces in the UK and abroad. As part of the symposium an exhibition was held at the Gillespie Centre to showcase the current research being undertaken in the department. This included studio work by the newly RIBA-accredited MPhil in Environmental Design (Part 2) students, as well as research from other MPhil and PhD students, as well as several larger project teams.
The symposium was broadly structured around four themes: Architectural Theory, Urban Design, Architectural Practice and Environmental Design. Invited academics and practitioners included Prof. Peter Carl (London Metropolitan University), Eric Parry (Eric Parry Architects), David Kohn (David Kohn Architects), Prof. Philip Steadman (UCL), David Levitt (Levitt Bernstein), Deborah Saunt (DSDHA), Joanna van Heyningen (van Heyningen and Haward – appropriately the architects of the symposium venue), Ellis Woodman (Editor of Building Design magazine), Prof. Dean Hawkes (University of Wales) and designate Visiting Professor of Sustainable Urbanism at Cambridge, Peter Clegg. Our invited speakers were joined on respective panels by current graduate students of the department throughout the day.
The event concluded with a broad discussion amongst the invited speakers of the relationship and differences between research and practice, the relevance of research to practice today, and whether or not we have cause to be optimistic about the respective roles of each looking to the future. Prof. Peter Carl argued that we should not measure practice against a research ‘standard’ without questioning the nature and motivations of research, and instead suggested that the University as an institution could be seen as part of practice – the ‘reflective dimension’ of practice. Prof. Dean Hawkes pointed to the immense diversity and quality of research now undertaken across many schools of architecture, and suggested it would be disastrous for any one person or institution to propose a definitive model of the interconnections between research and practice, since it is the unresolved nature of the relationship, and the mistakes and successes that it gives rise to, that guides progress in the future. Peter Clegg commented on the need for research and practice to co-exist, as buildings are commissioned and built in shorter and shorter timescales. He made an impassioned plea for research to be ‘indulgent – clear and rational, but also ponderous and thoughtful’. Prof. Koen Steemers, Head of Department, concluded the day, arguing that the Cambridge School cannot afford not to conduct a range of research - from what might be seen as remote and ‘blue-sky’ now, to work that is likely to have a direct impact in the short term – but that we should not impose a ‘top-down’ philosophy of what research should be.
The symposium was attended by 101 delegates in total, a combination of past and present students and academics from Cambridge, students from other schools, practising architects, other building professionals, as well as the new cohort of IDBE (Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment) Masters students at Cambridge. Eight graduate students from the department presented their work and took part in panel discussions with the invited speakers and the audience, and a further twenty-five students presented their work in the exhibition. The symposium was accompanied by a publication entitled ‘Prospects’ (downloadable below), with contributions from some of the speakers on the day as well as other influential figures with connections to the department. The title ‘Prospects’ reflects the changing prospects of the department at Cambridge, but is also intended as an optimistic riposte to the wider architectural climate at present: the consensus view from the symposium and the publication was that the best days of the school lie in the future, built upon foundations that are being laid today.