A new school for a new century
Will Hunter, 15 September 2021
A new school for a new century: Part I, the Founder’s story, November 2010 to October 2015
England’s first new independent architecture school in over 150 years, the London School of Architecture opened in 2015 with a single academic programme: a Part 2 diploma. Today the school has 57 staff, 103 students, 77 students-in-waiting, 127 alumni and 180 practice partners. Departing as chief executive in June 2021, LSA founder Will Hunter reflects on the decade-long story of why and how the school came into being. (This essay is an edited version of the original, which appeared in Citizen, the school’s magazine.)
Genesis: November 2010–October 2012
The idea for a new school of architecture came in late 2010. That November, the UK’s coalition government announced it would triple university tuition fees. Teaching at the Royal College of Art at the time, I felt deeply that increased costs for five years of architectural study would be an overwhelming obstacle to candidates with limited means and – consequently – would be hugely damaging to the architectural profession. How could we make a new, fairer, more accessible model?
That winter I stayed with friends in Los Angeles and dreamed about what this new enterprise could be. The first drawing I made was of people in conversation sitting around a table. The nascent plan was to set up a think tank, to start a conversation, to form the coalition, to form the school. Trying out names, I tested acronyms that could be spoken as words. Rejecting runner-up ALFA for its whiff of testosterone, I settled on ARFA – Alternative Routes for Architecture. A trip to LA’s supposedly finest fortune-teller offered a triumphant prophecy; thus emboldened, the new school became my new year’s resolution.
The arrival of 2011 brought a year of transition at the RCA. Professor Nigel Coates stepped down in May, concluding a 16-year reign as head of school; in September, Alex de Rijke was announced as the replacement. Even the smoothest of successions (and this wasn’t) are a time for reflection, and the shifting of tectonic plates stimulated thoughts about what an architecture school could be.
Through patronage, then happenstance, I had risen quickly at the college. In 2009, Nigel had pushed me as a potential co-tutor to Clive Sall, who led architectural design studio 2 (ADS2). In the space of three years, I moved upwards – filling new gaps – from collaborator to unit co-leader, to Clive’s de facto deputy in the delivery of the programme. Clive’s critical focus on strategic endgames and fast-paced derring-do was a huge encouragement to be big, bold and fearless about a new enterprise.
Gaining insight into the mechanics of a school, I started to evaluate what to emulate and what to amend. The RCA’s selling point was as an architecture school in an art school. As I began to be more engaged with issues such as climate change, I was beginning to see the limitations of viewing architecture as a form of art practice, where visual expression is overly valued. As Malcolm Gladwell succinctly put it, the 20th century was about lone geniuses, where the 21st century is about smart people working together. I was interested in alternatives to the long-established prevailing unit system – which can fragment design education into excessively esoteric positions – and how to offer a more collaborative experience.
One of the earliest meetings for the project was an ‘organisation alignment’ with energy practitioner Diana Rice. I could see the school would need to involve many people, and I sought her help in conceptualising how the organism could thrive. In August 2011, I described to her my vision of an ‘anti-institutional guerrilla start-up’, with a mission to ‘create game-changing architecture that responds to the political, social and environmental challenges of the century’. At the time I imagined something so ludicrously small scale – only a dozen students and a dozen practices – that it would never have matched the ambitions for impact.
In the summer of 2012, it was clear I needed more bandwidth. Using some seed capital from early supporters Crispin Kelly, Niall Hobhouse and Sir Peter Mason, I employed Joseph ‘JD’ Deane,¹ a recent RCA graduate, to help a couple of days a week. Our first diagrams looked at moving from school as a hierarchy to school as a network, embedding the programme in the site, being porous, and leveraging London’s resources. To replace the art-school or university context, I wanted to construct a professional network model of education, embedded in the capital city.
After months of thinking, research and development, it was time to go public. To coincide with tuition fees rising to £9,000 for undergraduate architecture courses, in the October 2012 edition of The Architectural Review, where I was deputy editor, I organised a special issue on education, in which I authored an article called ‘Alternative Routes for Architecture’. Launching the ARFA think tank, the piece unveiled ideas that have been foundational to the LSA – a strong relationship between academia and practice; integrated work placements; using the city as the campus; and collaborating as think tanks.
The ending was an invitation: please get in touch if you’re interested.