Friday, July 22, 2011

Low fees, star lecturers and good facilities are proving increasingly attractive to British students

When the next generation of bright young architecture students begins plotting its route to Arb-registration, language lessons and visa applications are increasingly likely to feature.With tuition fees about to go through the roof in Britain, US scholarships and the continent’s state-subsidised schools will seem pretty tempting, even if you need fluent Italian or German to land a place.It has been an open secret among part IIs for a while, but doing the full five years abroad may soon become more common. At £900 a year in Switzerland instead of up to £9,000 in Britain, it’s easy to see why.

Breathtakingly low fees are by no means the only attraction, though. The first-class facilities and variety of courses at places like ETH and Mendrisio, both in Switzerland, are putting the pressure on UK schools.But the single biggest draw is the tutors. Some of Britain’s best architects names like David Chipperfield, Tony Fretton, Jonathan Sergison and Adam Caruso are taking up professorships in Europe and the States and the most ambitious students are following them.Since so many students get jobs at practices with links to the colleges they studied at, this exodus is motivated by more than purely intellectual interest.

Francis Fawcett, now working for Herzog & de Meuron in London, was taught by the Swiss architects in his second year at ETH. He is one of a dozen or so recent Cambridge graduates to have studied at the Zurich school, a trend bolstered by Cambridge’s lack of a design-led diploma.When I was looking around in 2005 there was nowhere in the UK I really wanted to study at, he recalls.I did interviews and had places in the UK but didn’t see the attraction of the teachers and the work that was coming out of them.The chance to be taught by his idols in Switzerland was a head-turner, but other selling points included the facilities and the number of projects.

We did one per semester instead of one a year which meant you could do a completely different thing with a new professor every 12 weeks.If you end up with your third or fourth choice it will only last a semester, so you learn something and move on. I had a fantastic time and would totally recommend it.The most popular professors, like Peter Märkli, are reserved for second-year students so patience is required. But Fawcett, 30, says the variety of tutors was part of the richness of studying abroad.ETH is a technical university so architecture is taught as a technical subject,he says.They lay it on quite heavily but it’s really good to come out with these skills. In the later stages there is more freedom to try things out but it is quite formal compared with UK.

Annie Blackadder, another Cambridge graduate mid-way through her masters at ETH, says one of the frustrations is not being allowed to design in the first year. This is partly because the school’s popularity is placing space at a premium, which led to protests last year. The staff are addressing this but the result may be higher entry requirements in future.For Fawcett and Blackadder the toughest hurdle was the German test. Though once in, British students face a barrage of catch-up exams to prove they have reached the same standard as nationals.It was easy to get a place but harder to do the course. The workload is quite crazy, says Blackadder, 24.
The masters programme is three terms of lectures and design followed by a term of final design work. Students earn two points per lecture course at ETH; two and a half at Mendrisio.

The number of points required to graduate in Switzerland depends on whether a student’s previous university is affiliated.Cambridge is not, so students must cram in extra courses. At times the academic requirements, plus the bureaucracy involved in moving countries, can be overwhelming. But this is balanced by the chance to study under the likes of Märkli, Roger Diener and Hans Kollhoff.The facilities are also amazing,adds Blackadder.There’s a laser workshop with four lasers, a metal workshop, a wood workshop, a huge engineering hall, eight plotters. Everyone gets a desk in a studio.And the range of subjects you can do is vast from a digital fabrication course where you write a complete script, generate architecture and build it 1:1, to a column course where you design a classical temple and draw it in pencil.

The four Swiss schools Lausanne and Winterthur are the others are highly regarded by UK employers. Tom Emerson of 6a Architects, who has taught at ETH and London’s AA, says they have a brand value few others can match.But there is something about the Swiss system that is especially appealing at the moment, he says.The whole architecture scene is quite tribal so someone from the Bartlett would have something different to say,he admits.But there’s a certain scene of British architects that’s quite drawn towards Switzerland because over there they see teaching, practice and research as part of the same discourse. That’s hard to achieve in the UK.

We have people in the office from ETH and Mendrisio and they are really very good,he says.They have a very powerful set of practical and intellectual tools. They all want to make really good buildings which is not the priority at every school. If you go round the summer shows you’ll see the agenda at some schools is more experimental.The calibre of tutors at US schools is similarly high David Chipperfield and Chris Lee of Serie Architects are among new signings at Yale and Harvard this year.However, since the average student there graduates with $250,000 of debt and takes out a 25-year mortgage to pay it off, low fees are not one of the attractions.But there are ways round this. Lucy Pritchard transferred from Cambridge into the fourth year at New York’s Cooper Union on a scholarship, though she still had to pay annual admin fees of $1,000. Her application was her portfolio plus Cooper’s infamous home test”with questions like “do a self-portrait with no reference to body. Once there, she was required to do extra work including physics to catch up.

If you get a place you get a full-fee scholarship which makes for an interesting, diverse year group,she says.Moving country is a big hassle but I couldn’t find any courses I desperately wanted to do in the UK.At Cooper she was able to pursue interests in film and the historical and cultural context of architecture. She is now doing a PhD at London Met. Would she recommend studying abroad? “It turned out to be an invaluable education. I had the time of my life.

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