Joseph Van der Steen and James O'Brien sum up their first year as BA (Hons) Interior Architecture & Design course leaders, talk about the Russian architectural market, future academic plans and programme graduates' career paths.
What were your expectations and academic goals at the beginning of this year?
James: Our main goal was to build on the existing foundations of the course, which existed when we arrived. We tailored them to suit the skills and the knowledge and the attitude that are important within the sphere of architecture and design. That was a very gratifying process.
Joe: I think there were no particular aspirations or expectations because we teach in a different way compared to the last year. It’s now more hands-on - learning through making. In that sense, I think it was surprising and exciting because things emerged through the way of working that hasn’t happened in this school before. For example, level 5 built real fragments of buildings through working out details by themselves and constructing different typologies. Or Level 4 where they built brick walls. In that sense, that was unexpected cause we haven’t done it and the School is new to that way of working. I find that just great.
How would you describe the Russian architectural market? Who are we trying to breed — those who would fit in or the «new generation»?
Joe: The market is very unusual. In some ways, like the British market, it produces architects who design shapes on paper. They don’t control the actual making of the project. And that’s where the market got lost. Let’s not say it’s not developed - it has developed as any other market, but in a different way. The architectural sphere is incredibly inverted. That means that one very particular narrative develops and I think that that narrative is a bit lost in its own direction at the moment.
James: Yes, I think the Russian context is the Russian context. There aren’t that many other things that manage to break through to it. There’s lack of international fashion through architecture. And that’s also reflected to some degree in the architectural education — in terms of it being very much focused on the Russian scene without much looking outside of the borders.
Joe: That’s partly because of the market restrictions that exist. It is expensive to look outside. Sourcing information as well as knowledge of people who come in costs money, and there is not much money. It doesn’t mean you can’t look or think in a broader sense.
James: In terms of what we are attempting to do - we are certainly not trying to train people for the existing condition. It’s not even a question of particular skills; it’s more a question of instilling certain attitudes or certain set of sensibility towards how you make things. We have a much wider responsibility to people, who are, in fact, always the users of what we build. We’d be hoping to be setting a slightly different agenda and context within the existing circumstances. We’d like to think that there is an ability to progress and to move forward in terms of the way that architects deal with.
Joe: We are not responding. We are questioning. There are very few developed architects in this market. Many are gone to Europe to different bureaus.
James: That does come down to a difference between the way the title of architect is defined and seen in this country and the way we would associate it. We are trying to train architects or designers as people who understand the whole process. When they make a decision about using a certain material or a space they understand the implications of its finances and the rest of it. I think an architect on many levels here in Russia at the moment is deemed to be a kind of artist who comes up with an idea and then someone else builds it - and the end result is not really important. The idea is more important than the final result of the building. Which for us is diametrically opposed to where the significance lies. Because no-one interacts with the idea; people interact with the final thing, the fully realized building. And I think that’s where the understanding of experience of how you make things being on site a project going from sketches on a napkin to bits of concrete and glass is a fully resolved building.
What are the strengths of your teaching duet?
James: Design and architecture, construction and working out of an idea and the rest of it is never really a one-sided process. It is a process that emerges through conversation, interaction and collaboration. Be that with another professional or a builder or an engineer, whoever it is I think. The fact that there are two of us working in this position means that all of the conversations that we have within the School are more diverse because there are two of us. So there are two opinions, and students are beginning to interact with how different ideas influence the projects on different stages. It also helps us clarify how we teach and what we teach on a daily basis because we have to justify it to each other before taking it to the students.
Joe: We are different. We have different skills and experience, expertise and opinions. It can never be a bad thing unless you clash as personalities.
James: But, you know, that is a genuine skill students should learn during their education because it’s a skill you have to be able to apply in professional practices, understanding who to speak to at different moments depending on their expertise - whose advice to take and who to agree with. And in the UK our courses were taught like that - you had 2 tutors and they would often have an idea and they would work together for a reason because they agreed on most things but there would always be something they disagreed on.
Joe: You’ll be able to have the headspace to absorb different opinions and people’s arguments and understandings. Architecture comes as everything from interior design fashion design to product design to music — you can’t escape any of it, so you’ll need to absorb it and filter it at the same time. And design from it.
What are your plans for the upcoming academic year? Are you going to change anything in terms of the academic programme?
Joe: We want the course to have a manifesto that gives it more power in the sphere of education. It has been a sort of a graduate factory, which is fine, because you need good graduates to work in good offices. But the course hasn’t had much of an agenda.
James: We would like to give it a focal point that ties together everything that we do and also challenges some of the existing ideas as to the way things are done here. And that’s not to say that we have the ready answers, but the idea of us challenging other people or other people challenging us — that’s what we’d love to do and that does revolve a lot around the concept of what a good building is. We are primarily concerned on this course with the existing condition and how that might be developed. And so it is basically the very real scenario that happens when new projects are being done whether you work with the existing building and change it or whether you preserve it as a piece of historic architecture. It’s exactly the conversations that we have in the studio with the students.
Last year you took your students to India. Tell us more abut the trip?
Joe: The goal was just to open up their minds to new things and ways of thinking. We tried to teach them how to think in a Russian context by experiencing how people think and work in an Indian context and how they question things, make things, do things. It makes the students come back here and think in a different way. We studied different buildings and different types of culture in the same country and different climates and landscapes. You can’t help but absorb that.
James: The value of the field trip, regardless of whether it’s in India or somewhere else — is that whenever you learn something new you don’t really understand, it potentially makes you slightly uncomfortable because you automatically try to investigate why things exist in that way and how is it that they do that in that way here and we don’t do it like that. The thing with India was so beneficial for the students — they came, they saw a country that, again, is developing rapidly, and there are big social tensions and financial implications and things are changing really quickly, yet there’s this kind of attention to cultural identity. They do things in a certain way and that is being used to make it an incredibly vibrant place. The students also benefited from seeing the potential within those things they didn’t see before. When you’re able to take them to buildings and spaces that are incredibly impressive and beautiful, you don’t need to say anything. They just walk into the space and they are affected by that space in the same way as we would like them to be ambitious with their projects and their design.
For example, there was a house that we took them to on the third day. We took the ferry across the bay, it was driving us around and everything was new and it was very exciting and there was a lot of shouting and laughing and giggling and we got to that house and walked in — and suddenly there was this complete silence. Thirty people just went quiet. That really was an experience.
The programme is called Interior Architecture and Design. Who do you breed? Architects or Interior designers?
Joe: Interior architects don’t exist. The question is what is the difference between a purely architectural course and our course. The answer is there’s not very much difference. Apart from the fact that we are not very constraint, but we deal with existing conditions and buildings and spaces. We are just more physical and more engaged with buildings in a moderate way.
James: The name is to some degree confusing, but the reality is that architecture, interior architecture, interior design and design all fall under the same record. We deal with buildings, and we deal with space, which is really the key thing. Space, whether you’re designing a new building or you’re working on the existing one, is influenced by light and different finishes and many other things. The difficulty appears when people try to cut up into so many different things what different people do - because the overlap between the interior architecture and interior design is huge. The common conception of interior design is that it deals with furnishes and colors and that’s not always true. It can be far more engaged with the fabric of a building. Interior architecture is also more engaged with the fabric of the building and how you can re-work it and how you can make structural changes to it. But then architecture is also engaged with that. Many architects do reconstructions of existing buildings, and so the clear parameters and the clear boundaries of these programmes do not exist and so there is always going to be discussions. Some may say «yes, those are probably design discussions», whereas to others that may look like architectural discussions. And there are discussions in architectural schools in London, which are interior design discussions. If they understand architecture, they then understand interior design. If they understand interior architecture, they understand architecture. The protectionism of the definition of all of these different roles is actually one of the key problems with architectural community on a global level. Like the idea of seeding so much responsibility within the design of the building to other specialists when you should be aiming to create a holistic design which is as strong in its initial idea as it is in its final detail.
What career paths our students can choose upon the graduation?
Joe: They can go into furniture design, architectural design, interior design, boat design, fashion design, graphic design… or they can go and work in a bank.
James: We do teach very specific skills which are related to architecture. But the education process is the whole point of a BA (Hons) degree that exists in the UK. You are not coached in the way that you’re coached during your school days. This is a personal fulfillment, personal progression. You are developing yourself effectively as well as learning specific set of skills that you’re interested in. Much like - and this is a bit of a hideous example - once people finish being officers in the British army, most of them go and work in finance in the city of London. Cause they’re good at organizing people.
Joe: The other option is to go on and do a Masters in architectural design somewhere in the world or in Russia. That may help coach some well-know, good architectural technicians or graduates in this country at the moment.
James: And the most obvious thing, of course — they can be architects! That is the path that we would like them to take. Students we are teaching now are demonstrating a number of very strong skills.
What’s exciting about being an architect?
Joe: Building things. Seeing your ideas appear in the physical reality.
James: The process. Whether that’s the process of design, the excitement of getting a project done or sometimes just shouting at each other.
Joe: Or maybe the real joy is to see a smile on someone’s face when you present them with a building they can now live in.
James: The social change and the impact you can make on people’s lives as an architect whether that’s a singular person or whether that’s a whole group of people is the most challenging but also the most exciting part of the work. It affects people’s mood in a good way. The reality of architecture is not about the materials or a design - it’s actually about people.