About teaching Architecture

Talking with Tony van Raat, from New Zealand

19 JUNE 2017,
Tony van Raat
Tony van Raat

Tony van Raat is a professor, architect, curator and writer from New Zealand. In 2014 and 2016 he was Commissioner of the New Zealand entry to the Venice Architecture Biennale. He is an ex- President of the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia, founder of the NZ Architectural Publications Trust and a Fellow and President’s Medalist of the NZIA.

You are an architect in New Zealand but you have a lot of experience overseas, with projects offshore and community based projects. What makes you want to keep moving around the globe?

I have a very short attention span so I need to keep doing different things in order to work at all. That sounds like a joke but is quite serious. I find most convenient to move frequently from one thing to another – hopefully making unexpected linkages between them.

One of the reasons I like travelling is that we all are citizens of the world now and not just citizens of our own country. But even for someone of my age, who was born at a time when it was not so easy to travel, the idea of travelling is exciting and romantic. The really good thing about it is you meet amazing people from different parts of the world and that experience breaks down any possibility of xenophobia, racial, ethnic hatred or distrust.

At the moment I’m working on a project in Sri Lanka, a community based project in a poor district. The team consists of Juhani Pallasmaa the famous theorist from Finland, a Spanish architect called Alberto Foyo who is in New York city, an architect from Sri Lanka called Gihan Karunaratne who is living in London and I’m living in New Zealand! And there is something kind of extraordinary about stitching people together from all around the world. I like that experience: I find it very stimulating, very exciting and one learns a lot from dealing with people who have different educational, social and cultural backgrounds. But also having traveled overseas it makes me see my home country in a quite different way. It gives me a perspective and I think you understand a place better when you have been away from it and see it as from a distance.

So those are some of the reasons.

Can you talk about a favorite learning experience you’ve had in your career around the world?

I will give you three that are really all the same.

The first was visiting the Rural Studio in Alabama, where they have probably the best student design built projects in the world. I visited there with the man who was head of the school David Hinsen and also New Zealand architect Dave Strachan with whom we were running a similar project here in New Zealand to get students involved in building. Seeing those American students working on community projects was a really amazing experience.

Similar is this project we are doing in Sri Lanka, in the slum district, trying to build a community center with the people I’ve just mentioned. I’ve taken New Zealand students there, and some English students as well. It was a rich experience to work in such a different environment.

And the third situation, is a project in New Zealand were we took a group of students into a remote rural district, far from the city to rebuild an old Marae. A Marae is a Māori building, it’s a bit like a cross between a community center and a church and this one had been abandoned since 1940. With the students, prominent Maori architect Rau Hoskins, craftsman/artist Carin Wilson and others it was rebuilt.

All of these projects connect architecture students and architects with people who would often never use an architect. There is something wonderful in bringing the world of architecture to people who actually don’t know much about it and would hardly think that an architect could assist them. And there is no better experience – for students and indeed for anybody – than to be able to do something to help transform the lives of others.

There is a lot of highly sophisticated and intellectual architecture in the world. But I’ve reached the stage now, as a man of my age, where I would rather go and build a toilet for somebody in Africa than write an academic paper for a journal. I really would!

In terms of opportunities in architecture, is New Zealand the place to be right now?

Yes, I think it is.

The economy is very buoyant, everybody has got work and I’m involved in a project at the moment in the main street in the biggest city in the country – the conversion of a 12 story 1920’s department store into new uses - where we could not find an architect in town to assist us. We had to go out in the provinces to engage an architect to produce the documentation. Every graduating student gets work almost immediately. Some students interrupt their studies because they have work even before they have completed.

But the real reason why I think New Zealand is the place to work at the moment is because it’s stable, there is no corruption, very little pollution, it has quite a good life style and we are an extremely mixed society. In the last class I taught, I think there were 16 students in the class and they came from 12 different countries. So it’s very mixed, there is little racial prejudice (but still too much!), religious prejudice is very rare, the weather is not bad and the food is pretty good. So I think that everybody should come to New Zealand to work!

I’ll tell you a story: I was having lunch with one of my students who had just finished her third year and as we left the cafe we ran into a group of recent graduates who are running an office. I introduced them to the student who they had never met before and, standing on the corner of the street, they offered her a job on the spot. That’s how much they needed staff in their office.

In an interview you said that “Credibility rests in expertise and a change in the position of architects in society requires a change in the educational process that acculturates young people as they enter the profession.” What do you think it is more urgent to change in the way we teach and learn architecture?

I believe that academia needs to move out of the bubble in which it sees itself as being sophisticated and elitist and to encourage students to understand that they are entering a service profession. I think that a good model is medicine. A lot of medical education takes place in the teaching hospital, where the professors in the medical school are doing research and teaching but they are also working with patients. In New Zealand medical schools, you cannot teach unless you are also working. Most of the staff in an architecture school are not registered and are therefore not allowed, by law, to call themselves architects. They are academics and they become academics because they don’t want to be practicing architecture.

What we need is a return to an architecture school that is more linked to practice, is embedded in the community, which understands more about the craft of building, while using the most sophisticated digital and electronic tools available to it. We all know that architects depend on elite patrons for some of their work but that is not going to employ a whole generation of architecture students. Patrons can go to Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Bjarke Ingels or whoever is your favorite starchitect. But the community from where graduates come, they need their people’s skills.

I actually think that the best school of architecture would not be in a building at all. It would be mobile, transient. It would be embedded in the community. That is a model I would like to see.

Education is a business run by universities for profit. Architects would have more work if they were integrated into their communities closely and didn’t think of themselves as a kind of elite. In fact architects are public servants and we exist to serve - just like health care professionals do.

The current crisis has exposed the amount of buildings which are now empty. Architects played a part in this as well. Do you think that students are aware of this? Or are they too distant from this reality?

Students are often much too distant because most university education happens in some kind of a bubble. Architecture students should be talking to economists, politicians, social workers and health care workers. If they were more embedded in the broader political and social situation of their communities they might have an understanding that for architecture simply to serve the interests of the speculators, the people who are putting up these empty apartment buildings, is not a good or a healthy thing. Those people don’t need us: they can get anybody to design those buildings for them.

What do you think are the main benefits of the community projects for the students?

Two things. One is they encounter ordinary people, rather than wealthy clients. And the second is students help to build what they design for communities. That way they get hands on experience of working on a building site and they learn that some builders know a lot more about building than they do. Most architects spend their time documenting work that has to be built by others so it’s invaluable for students to see their drawings being used on site and people thinking, “how am I supposed to build that?”. I have a builder friend in New Zealand who says “Just because you can draw it doesn’t mean I can build it!”. It’s about reality. You get the social reality by dealing with ordinary people, and the architectural reality by working with builders.

We took a group of students to Haiti after the earthquake there, they were first and second year students doing a surveying exercise in the ruined suburbs. When we came back one of them said to me “I thought this trip was going to change my views of architecture. I was wrong. It changed my views about life”. All the students say that the built projects they do are the best projects that they ever do in architecture school.

What do you feel that are the major changes in the students path due to the proliferation of contemporary digital tools in the class?

I think that the real risk is that students are now required to be so professional at computing that what you get in a critique is a demonstration of computing skills rather than architecture skills. If you are sophisticated enough with your renders and your models, then you can make a pretty awful project look pretty good! And I think that that is dangerous.

I’m still old enough to think that there is a value to working with your body – hand, eye, brain coordination - in a way that you don’t really do with the computer.

As a teacher, do you have any general advice for students who are now starting to learn architecture?

Nobody should study architecture, at least not at senior levels, until they have a chance to find out what it is, outside of the school of architecture.

I believe there is value in the apprenticeship model of learning. Students should spend some time in an architecture office or on a building site and then go to architecture school. You have to be exposed to the realities of the architecture production before you know what kind of education you want to have. Students should select their own education and an architecture school should enable a student to construct the particular kind of education which suits them. There should be freedom and flexibility within an architecture program. I don’t think that architecture school should have to be accredited or examined at all. The real test should be when you enter the profession.

Architecture education in an architecture school should involve almost anything that the student is interested in. But if they want to become a registered architect, there are certain professional things they would have to learn. Nobody should study architecture before they know something about the world.