New school on the block

03 Dec, 2019
School of Future Environments
Professor Charles Walker and Associate Professor Fleur Palmer

At the beginning of next year, AUT will open its new School of Future Environments, headed by Professor Charles Walker, Associate Professor Fleur Palmer (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri) and Dr Amanda Yates (Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Ngāti Whakaue, Te Aitanga ā Māhaki, Rongowhakaata). The school will offer a three-year Bachelor of Architecture and Future Environments degree (BAFE), followed by a two-year master’s degree (MArch, Prof). Amanda Harkness spoke with Walker and Palmer about the thinking behind the school and its points of difference.

Amanda Harkness (AH): Why has AUT chosen to enter what many may consider to be a crowded market in terms of architectural schools?

Charles Walker (CW): The bigger question for us is why would you have another school now, in the 21st century? If you think about architecture, the profession is originally a 19th-century concept and a lot of architecture as it’s practised is based on 20th-century principles. Our argument is that everything has changed. We’re living in a time of environmental, technological and social change. And, so, we need to rethink.

Fleur Palmer (FP): Practice, as we’ve done it for the last 150 years, needs to change. We really have to reconsider how we’re developing our built environments so that they’re more indigenous and socially inclusive and so that they address climate change.

AH: Are the other schools not moving to address these issues?

CW: I think most people in architecture education would agree that things have to change and the way that we operate has to change. But most institutions are locked into the way we do things now. One of the advantages we have is that we’re starting from scratch. We’re not inheriting established practices and we have an opportunity to put things together in new ways. Architecture is now an expanded field – it goes beyond just the design of individual buildings – we have to think more holistically and more ecologically. We now have an obligation to design for people who have not traditionally been the clients of architects and AUT is very committed to this kind of approach.

AH: What will be your point of difference?

CW: We’re interested in collective endeavours. Many architecture schools are focused on the individual and competitively based, and that model has become the norm. There have been key events in the history of architecture education – 100 years ago was the Bauhaus, which was looking at craft and making, integrating art and architectural design. And then, in the ’60s and ’70s, the Architectural Association in London developed what became the unit system, which is now the standard. So, most architectural schools operate with tutors, each with a small group of students, running semester-long studios. This is great – students can do all sorts of interesting things – but one of the problems that we have identified is that, at the end of each semester, all of the work, research and energy is often dissipated or lost. The students go back next semester and do something else. What we’re trying to do is to look at a longer-term programme – to look at the school itself as the studio or as the project and look at collective and mutually supportive work.

As the challenges of the 21st century become more complex and urgent, the value of architecture is to generate solutions. We need to create generalisable architectural knowledge beyond the scale of what can be achieved by individual students or small studios.

FP: We’re basing this programme on a series of Te Aranga Principles developed by Nga Aho (Aotearoa New Zealand’s national network of Māori design professionals), which has been a collaborator in the development of the programme. The focus is on Papatūānuku (Mother Earth) as home for future generations and recognising that our world today demands critical rethinking of the relationships between and interdependence of humans and their environments, and how we learn to design these environments.

Within the wānanga (studio), we will have a kotahitanga or unified collective practice. You couldn’t sail a waka as an individual but, as a collective, you can go a long way. Through the programme having an integration between year groups and a collaboration across disciplines, our students will be able to work on far more difficult projects than they would ever be able to do as individuals. We’re facing this really potentially difficult future so we need to be encouraging this sort of collaborative practice to address some of the problems we’re going to encounter.

CW: This is not a new architecture school – what we are establishing from next year is a new School of Future Environments that really emphasises the more holistic approach. We’re trying to avoid the traditional, siloed architecture school and look at something more expansive. We recognise that we have a responsibility to design for future generations and that has to look at more ecological approaches. We have to think about future cities: think about how people would live together differently. So, the question we asked ourselves when we set up the school was how do we live together differently in the future?

FP: And when we’re developing these built environments, how do we manage it so that they support the generations to come? So that’s the kaitiaki (custodian) principle being played out, in terms of the thinking and the ethics behind our practice.

AH: Are other schools incorporating indigenous knowledge and practice into their teaching?

CW: They are, in pockets, but we are foregrounding this as the core of the programme. What we’re seeing in universities around the world are these new research programmes that are much broader in their scopes because people are beginning to realise that the model for research, until recently, has been specialisation, where we learn more and more about less and less and become more focused. We separate things out and analyse them. But, actually, we have to start joining things up and that demands a different kind of understanding of research and looking at relationships and connections rather than separations and differences.

FP: We need our architects to be more enabling and facilitative in terms of community engagement, especially in supporting or advocating for communities that aren’t represented.

AH: How will the studio work?

FP: The programme will predominantly utilise a wānanga or studio-based model of student-centred, socially mediated, problem-based learning. Instead of a number of small studios, independent student projects and a range of other taught papers, the whole programme will be organised around a single urban project or design theme each year.

CW: We’re interested in focusing on Auckland as a kind of living lab because cities are the ultimate multidisciplinary artefact. They’re made by designers, societies, communities, politicians and technologies. Auckland is an interesting example because it’s a growing city, it’s relatively young and it’s not completely screwed. And yet it allows students to deal with real issues around engaging with indigenous communities, engaging with differences, engaging with very serious problems like affordability, housing and migration, which are also global problems.

FP: We’ll also look at the provision of infrastructure and the development of new materials or emerging materials. The current systems that we’re using are 100 years old and not that sustainable – they’re huge contributors to carbon emissions.

CW: The great strength of our faculty here at AUT is that we can draw on expertise from engineering, design, fine art and computational intelligence. Everyone talks about AI and the future of work but what does this actually mean for architecture and for the future of the city? If you think about the first industrial revolution, when people moved from the countryside to the city, they had to invent new building types that had never existed before. They built factories, housing, museums, schools – railway stations in the middles of their towns. The architects had to conceive and make real these new relationships.

So, if you think about what people are now calling Industry 4.0 – that we’re being transformed by new technologies, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, new forms of mobility and sustainable means of transportation – each of those has an impact on how we design our towns and cities and communities. And this new School of Future Environments is really looking at those ideas very holistically, but also critically and optimistically.

This article first appeared in Architecture New Zealand magazine, and was also published on Architecture Now.

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