Jeremy Till

Bread and Circuses

Published as: Jeremy Till, “The Problem with End of Year Shows”, Architects Journal, 21 July 2010, 

My brooding antipathy to the end-of-year student show probably dates back to my days at Cambridge, when my work was never deemed worthy of exhibiting. Admittedly I was a rubbish student, but this rejection not only hurt, it also signalled an exclusion from the portals of “proper” architecture - an exclusion from which I have never fully recovered. But the issue is wider than my personal gripe. The end-of-year exhibition represents much that is great about architectural education, while hiding much that can be highly problematic.

Let’s start with the positive. The show is a celebration of the energy and intelligence that architectural education is so brilliant at orchestrating - go to the “best” shows and you will find an abundance of sheer exuberance, optimism and skill. It is often said that at the level of pure production, architecture shows easily trump those of the other creative arts. The end-of-year show is the euphoric moment when the great circus of architectural education performs most publicly and professionally.

Peter Cook, one of the most influential circus-masters, understood the dynamics of this moment of epiphany better than anyone. Minutes before the Bartlett exhibition opened, he would pass through the various rooms, sticking up labels for students with prizes and distinctions, his royal progression trailing an anxious line of students and staff waiting to see where favour was granted and - just as importantly - what was decreed to have missed the mark. If your unit space was devoid of labels it pretty much screwed up not just the evening, but the whole of the coming year. The exhibition was the shop window for the school’s internal marketplace, with prospective students more interested in the density of prizes in a unit than in the density of lines on the wall - though often the two did rather alarmingly correlate.

Cook, in a theatrical manner, was raising the game of the exhibition, making it the supreme court of architectural education, the place where final judgments were formed. This sense of instantaneous judgment is also a problem of the end-of-year show. Opinions are formed on limited evidence. For a start, only the best work is shown, when one would actually get a much better view of a school’s health if only the worst work was exhibited. Then there is a dearth of explanation, and when there is any it is usually wrapped up in internalised jargon and is often best avoided. Finally, the exhibition is limited to the visual, with flamboyant drawings or models given pride of place. This editing privileges and perpetuates a certain set of values: of virtuosity over persistence, reification of objects over the consequences of objects, and the conservative over the critical - exactly the values that are then played out within the culture of architecture. It is the conservative nature of architectural education, and by extension of the profession, that the end-of-year show masks. Because things look different from year to year, from school to school, from unit to unit, the show suggests progress is being made.

However, fresh imagery is confused with fresh thinking. In fact, the surface diverts us from the underlying stasis of the system. The end-of-year show is based on the model of the Beaux Arts, except that charrettes (the carts on which the work was taken to the final exhibition) have been replaced with USB sticks, and the ateliers run by dictatorial architects have been replaced with units run by prescriptive tutors. Just as the Prix de Rome was the target for the year’s work, with its proscriptions framing the way design was produced, so the contemporary end-of-year show hangs over the current school studio. The proscriptions of the Beaux Arts led to an obsession with form and style that is still with us today: the instant gratification demanded by the end-of- year show leads inevitably to the production of mere eye candy.

It is essential to question how appropriate it is to stick with a 200- year-old model of production, with all its value systems and rituals, given the rapidly changing external context. The perfect storm of architects producing decadent form, but no money with which to build, demands new roles and paradigms for the profession and its accompanying education. With this, one would hope to see new directions emerge in student shows. I’d be a misanthrope to deny the thrill of the occasion, but I do wish the energy, optimism and skill of students were projected on to a wider territory than the making of beautiful stuff, the bread and circuses that distract us from the underlying malaise.