Courtesy of the coronavirus, universities are closed around the world, and classrooms are now entertained over video conferencing. This is not overly dramatic as this temporary arrangement will eclipse after cases are contained, and classes will resume soon after. However, the impacts on the university ecosystem and on the urban fabric will require immediate renovations in higher education that will shape the architectural syllabus for years to come.
Many universities around the world are facing a once in a century event, and younger ones a once in a lifetime event. Their future will be defined by their flexibility to do business. While university campuses have often been hailed as the exemplar of urban planning in many instances, as they host their primary population in immediate proximity to services, they are not resilient or adaptive systems. This is because there have not been major disruptions to this sector for the past 50 or 100 years. And continuous money flows have sustained this rigidity in planning and operation, which is now synonymous to reputation. However, those ‘brick and mortar’ universities may be the most ill-equipped in times of current crisis; giving way to newer universities to gain in repute, and for a share of business. The latter incidentally may be more flexible and better equipped in offering cheaper solutions, in the form of online education.
The case of online education is tricky for architectural training, as most design (studio) courses require some form of residency component -computing a large part of the course requirement, which is now hindering the progress of academic pursuit. Additionally, not all faculties, departments and staff are equipped to shift to online and most have never dealt with this. Prior to this, universities have leveraged their budgetary allocations to build administrative support, parking services, residential dormitories, numerous buildings, and services -a whole lot of physical infrastructure that require an incredible amount of cash flow to sustain. In return, this adds to an impressive real estate that builds university repute, which attracts students to invest in specific product (course) offerings in return of certain lifestyles. Online education, principally offered by newer (and smaller) universities has operated differently over the past years, allowing a larger student enrolment over smaller campuses, rendering cheaper product offerings.
While the transitional needs to online education seem clear, Architectural requirements for course validation by professional bodies can be tricky, as they require specific hours of face-to-face design consultations and teachings, differing from other courses. On this, Curtin University from Australia, showed leadership by offering the first accredited online Master of Architecture course in the world. While this programme is surely buffered from the pandemic, the question arises as to how did a 54-year old university beat older (and more established) universities, having with more resources? Is resistance to change observed in the very administration of universities studying it?
This shift to online education will now be forced upon all universities as air fleets are grounded around the world, with no clear endpoint. Students are missing semester intakes and choosing to enroll instead in either local or online university alternatives. The heavy and expensive infrastructure that universities have invested in no longer serves as an appeal. This equates to a severe economic loss for universities that rely principally on foreign students. The result, numerous universities around the world are accepting students with either postponed entry dates or by re-structuring course offerings to push residency requirements to a later date. This transition is also allowing for larger dissemination of knowledge in low-income economies, far from the ‘brick and mortar’ established university brands. Africa, for example, only host around 3% of the global architect population, while it hosts ۱۶% of the world’s population. A mismatch is present, and while economic metrics may be a good indicator of attaining university education, access plays another key role. One important part on this is that western world education may not be totally applicable to the developing world. For example, the glass buildings designed for temperature regulation in Canada may not be fitting in poverty-stricken areas in Laos, Thailand, or in the Mekong river delta. In this sense, wider access to western education, and -importantly- its recalibration to fit local contexts, may accentualise not only profitability for universities, but also world development.
However, while partnerships can be sought to allow for contextual programs, design residency requirements. proves problematic on the immediate term if the coronavirus lockdown extends. This is a concern that expands beyond the educational realm.
The innovation and re-structuring are not only warranted by universities but also by accreditation bodies, where flexibility will be key in these difficult times. This is also the same for architectural registration bodies that seek hours of site experience, in a time where construction sites around the world are closed, and where numerous projects will soon face forced closures due to economic concerns. What will then happen to junior architects that spent 2 years going through concept to construction to see their site finally closed due to bankruptcy, linked to the coronavirus? An issue being outside their scope and power… Will there be flexibility on registration requirements? This point is particularly tricky, in particular for administrators of architectural bodies that tend to linger on traditional (and often superfluous) requirements for registration.
Another aspect is the demand for some disciplines will increase and others will decline. Universities will have to be flexible and adaptable and encourage increased mobility of their resources across faculties. Take for example the upcoming interest of architectural and planning courses addressing urban health and liveability. Universities that will adapt sooner will reap the most reward. So, we may see upcoming changes in syllabus offerings to include ‘urban health’, an inexistent subject during our (the authors) terms as architecture students. The emergence of joint-degrees may soon arise. A prospect which other disciplines had adopted for a while, but which somehow seldomly seen in Architecture.
Research funding is also expected to be redirected towards finding immediate, short, medium, and long term solutions to addressing the pandemic, across an array of disciplines. In a time where major cities are under lockdown, leading to direct societal and economic impacts, Architecture and Planning are directly concerned. The need for multi-disciplinary thinking must be accentuated as researchers navigate seamlessly amongst different, yet connected disciplines. This may not only address the issue of funding, but also allow for more cohesive solutions. The Live+Smart Research Laboratory at Deakin University, with academics in the likes of Phillip Roos, David Jones and others, approaches this idea of innovative transdisciplinary research and collaboration intelligently. As the demand for more smart city responses to pandemics will increase, so will many other planning and architectural solutions. Positioning future academics and students towards responding to this need will be key in crafting future problem solvers, just as in sustaining the economic resilience of universities.
Lastly, Architecture is often hailed as a discipline of problem-solving, but its education has somehow principally revolved around the pursuit of aesthetics. Increasing criticism continues to arise on architectural and design solutions being disconnected -both culturally and in scale, shape and form, from their immediate context; where the critic on modernism principally rides on. Through the sole pursuit of abstraction, the discipline seems to obstinately distance itself from pursuing real and practical solutions. Moreover, in a time where the world’s challenges keep morphing and uncertainties keep arising due to the constant change in variables, architecture needs to keep up. Architecture needs to adopt an eclectic view of the world, regroup disciplines, and perhaps rebrand it to the art of wicked problem solvers.
The coronavirus brought about a disruption, which also brings about an opportunity to address other much-needed changes at both education and societal level. For future architects to be equipped to face those, a review of the architectural syllabus is needed where equal emphasis is provided on studio just as much as other dimensions. Along with this, it may also be the time to expand the architectural curriculum, merge across disciplines and truly work towards building the future. A future is just as much as beautiful as it is resilient, sustainable, inclusive and safe.