What role does the education of unbuilt visionary projects play in an absolute realist society

theory essays

Curiousity and questions based on my architectural studies.

Dear Students; 

of the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA)


To you whom I write to, I would like to bring to your attention about the paradoxical nature of the education given at different architecture schools. Architecture schools are often categorised as either a technical school or design school. Often in one, it promotes‘generic’ design, and more technical, ‘engineering’ based skills. The design school, especially an experimental school, such as the AA promotes more utopian, ‘anti-realism, ‘open-ended experimental’  thinking. The AA, encourages us, the students to explore

“‘anti’, ‘partial’, or ‘alternative’ realities ”  in order to create “visionary projects”. I’m sure the word ‘radical’ is not unheard of at tables and juries. However in modern society today, these projects we create, remain projects, unbuilt, untouched and often unexplored. In such a society, I question you and myself the purpose of being taught in fictional manner of thinking and the likely hood of these projects becoming real.

The AA school represents itself as an ‘experimental school’, where new ideas and visionary projects comes to life. This is all encouraged in order to form the next era of architecture future. To be exact, in an article called ‘Architectural anti-realism: The AA school in 2013”, in which the school published; written by the director of the school Brett Steel states; the school urges the “invention of those kinds of genuinely visionary projects able to invent new kinds of architectural knowledge trough a compelling description of alternative, possible, architectural futures .”


The first page of the paper started with a quote saying; “The monster I kill every day is the monster of realism ”.  (For those who did not join the school in first year; it was a compulsory reading.) This affirms the standing of the school to be the on the opposite spectrum of realism.


Steel ended the article by quoting J.G Ballard, an english realist saying “‘Being hyper-realistic about everything is too simple a cop out.’Architecture schools should hope for more - really more - in their relentless pursuit of (as yet) unimaginable visions of the future.” As most schools are ‘hyper-realistic’, the AA then must be creating ‘hyper unimaginable visions’ . 


Outside of what the AA thinks of the AA, in an end of year critic review, the school was also described as a unique kind of education of it’s own, establishing the public’s view of the school being experimental and visionary.

“Walking through the front door at 36 Bedford Square is like entering a schizophrenic giant architectural brain in the process of computing and analysing the problems of the world and simultaneously testing solutions. It was heartening to see an extremely diverse spread of themes and working methodologies played out…These range from issues of food production and effects of climate change, through to the challenges of sink estates such as Thamesmead (Diploma 1). I was drawn toHelene Solvay’s ‘The Quest For Jersualem’s Chamber: An Unofficial Appendix of Delight to the London Housing Guide (it really needsone). Diploma 11, meanwhile, has produced beautiful exploratory models and a huge compendium book on the theme of City as Playground, a re-reading of the hinterland between Farringdon and King’s Cross. ”

Those are only a few of the idealistic, experimental units and projects selected as examples. With that, it’s safe to say the nature, ambition and interest of the AA school in both the outsider’s point of view, and the AA itself, is of not to raise generic architects, but those who are creative and enough to provide and lead the next (yet to know) kind of architecture. 


“What happens when our goal is to ‘blur the lines between the imaginary and the real? ”

On the extreme side of the spectrum; recently a new school of architecture was opened. The London School of Architecture, led by Will Hunter. I described it as extreme opposite; as the nature of course is in which - very real and realistic. The structure of the course is that the students will be partnered up with a selected firm; working 3 days a week. The remaining two days they will be attending school. With this scheme, the students get real-life practice during their time at the architecture school. The salary of

working three days a week makes up to two years of their school fees at the LSA covered.


The founder of LSA stated that he wanted to change the way of architectural education; due to the expenses students now pay for, in order to graduate as an architect.


“The fear now must be that architecture schools aren’t ladders but snakes in the board game of life. Over the last week, I took part in four final crits at the Bartlett. Despite leaving with nothing but respect for the tenacity and talent of the tutors on the frontline, I couldn’t help but worry how many of their bright young students will end up worse off than their parents. ”


“architectural education needs to be radically rethought.” 


There are no existing examples of their projects, as the school will only start their first year of running in October 2016. However; given that the students will be working 3 days a week in the industry, how much of what they do at work will influence their education? The 46 architecture firms that are currently partcitipating namely includes; Allies and Morrison, Grimshaw, Cullinan Studio, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Terry Farrell and Partners. Personally, I have great respect for these firm and studios, however the projects in which they work on do not fit in the description of ‘experimental’, ‘visionary’ and ‘radical’, in which the AA provides. Thus, one can only expect the education with the LSA to be one that is very industrial skill based, real and commercial. In fact; on their website they described the mission of the course to “Prepare talented graduates for the architectural profession of tomorrow, Offer a platform within the industry to connect academia and practice. ”  The LSA in a nutshell is a very practical school, completely different to the AA, but I do believe it will be very successful in terms of career prospects. This then questions the reality of studying at the AA, which we will come back to later.

Before that, I would like to bring in another manifesto based on the generic architecture of today, by an utterly famous alumni of the AA itself, Rem Koolhaas. He stated that “junkspace will be our tomb ” . To clarify that, his definition of junkspace is “space-junk” , saying that contemporary practices and building is not architecture with defined purposes, function or style anymore. “We do not leave pyramids… it was a mistake to invent modern architecture…architecture disappeared in the 20th century. ”


“If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, junkspace is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. ”


So if what Koolhaas is saying, is that we are in this endless black hole of junkspace, and that the only outbreak of it would be the introduction of a new kind of architecture. Like Steel said, “That decidedly twentieth century project is now, for better or worse, complete. Schools are in a position to lead architectural culture again ”.  Not only one architect have criticised the generic architecture today, others include Manfredo Tafuri, have written “modern architecture has marked out it’s own fate..architects desperately attached to disciplinary ideologies ”

Roemer Van Toorn also introduced the idea of architecture of degree zero in his manifesto of ‘No more dreams? The passion for reality in recent dutch architecture and it’s limitations..’. He talks about the lack of political claims in today’s architecture, and criticised it for showing no theoretical matters. He goes on talking about practices today, which work in a commercial and practical sense, and does not actually create architecture for a better society.

‘Yet he feels that despite their different manifestations- whether they fixate on pragmatics, technology or aesthetics - these projective architects falter in their ‘addiction to reality’, forestalling political and social agendas in architecture. ’


‘Instead of using design to stake a political claim or push ethical principles, these architects adhere to an ‘extreme realism… that is intended to show no theoretical or political mediation, a kind of degree zero of the political, within thought bout the consequences of the social construction it would lead to reality. Thus, while these practices accept reality, they consciously do very little to alter it in a utopian sense ”




1. an imaginary island described in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) as enjoying

perfection in law, politics, etc.

2. (usually lowercase) an ideal place or state.

3. (usually lowercase) any visionary system of political or social perfection.

Bringing the idea of Utopia to place, Van Toorn implies the concept of it, is out of vogue- “utopian dreams are rare ,”  he assets…hope that utopia can still serve a purpose, that the “interaction between dream of utopia and reality can help projective practice develop a new social perspective ”  The idea of an ideal place, ideal city, ideal world, is the definition of the concept of utopia. A concept in architecture that have constantly been brought back, there seems to always be this gap between the fictional utopian world, and one in which we design and live in. The unbuilt projects, and the generic architecture. Yet, every now and then, the concept of utopia emerges back. Well known examples includes the group Archigram and the movement metabolism. These architects, whom are the puppet masters of all this unbuilt projects are also of those who are striving to design for the future society. Not for the purpose of commercial means, in which most practice today do.

Earlier on, we have established the education at the AA of being experimental, radical and visionary, can I so then assume that we are also being taught to build the utopian society, and not today’s generic architecture. Thus, if as many do believe that the idea of utopia is “mythical”, how realistic is the education at the AA?

A project example of one of these visionary projects built, is Arcosanti. Arcosanti is an experimental town built by Paolo Soleri in Arizona, as an attempt of an utopian city. Arcosanti as a town explores the combination of and ecology, the concept was initially proposed by Soleri in the 1950s. Over the last half a decade, people from all over the world have visited, lived there, and participated in this ‘urban experiment’. The project is still developing and running till today. The vision behind this city is to live with doing less, “by using less energy, less pollution, less waste of space and material ”.

 “It attempts to test and demonstrate an alternative human habitat which is greatly needed in this increasingly perplexing world. This project also exemplifies his steadfast devotion to creating an experiential space to “prototype” an environment in harmony with man.” The project is one of the rare experimental projects built, an utopian lifestyle that has been active for 66 years. This is one example of how these visionary projects, can potentially change tomorrow’s architecture and lifestyle, as well as how real it could be.

Another example closer to us is the Emotive City by AADRL, the practice Minimaforms. The project looks at alternative ways of structuring a city and as model of a “ blueprints for our urban future”. The concept behind it is to have living spaces “ durational, mobile and energy producing”. Similarly to Arcosanti, it looks at a sort of adaptive ecology which the future would benefit to evolve into.

In today’s growing society of advanced technologies, many of these once upon a time fantasies can be achieved, just as Arcosanti is. In that, if we apply these small inventions and ideas to a city scale, such as the project of Emotive City and other AADRL projects, it maybe start to form the answer of what’s next in architecture. A science fiction, technology based era. Building these unbuilt experimental projects, may just break us out of the junkspace cycle in which repetitive spaces are continuously built. The two examples also shows how education at the AA may not be popular in finding a job, however, it’s role in our realist society will impact how architecture changes next.

“The generation of architects today has an ‘addiction to reality’. If generic architecture is realism today, then will these visionary projects be the architecture of tomorrow?”

In writing this letter to you all; I question myself and you to think about what kind of education we have and where is it taking us. The AA provides an education to create visionary, unbounded spaces, challenging the line between what fictional and real. Science fiction architecture, as it may be described as. On the other hand, the LSA provides and education in which educates to work within the reality of modern life.

Like Van Toorn implies, “ utopian dreams are rare,” he assets…hope that utopia can still serve a purpose, that the “interaction between dream of utopia and reality can help projective practice develop a new social perspective”. The education at the AA alike, are rare, but the hope of it is to create an alternative architecture future.

Some of us may graduate and use this unique education we’ve had to design more ‘junkspace’. But with this letter, I hope for you to ponder upon the question, can we make these unbuilt projects, built? And the next time you receive a brief, create projects in which defines your version of an utopian city.

 “It is utopian not because it dreams impossible dreams, but because it recognises “reality” itself as - precisely - an `all too real dream enforced by those who prefer to accept a destructive and oppressive status quo.”


A fellow architecture student.



Blake, Peter. No Place Like Utopia. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.

Eaton, Ruth. Ideal Cities. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Print.

Jencks, Charles. The Story Of Post-Modernism. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley, 2011. Print.

Koolhaas, Rem, and Hal Foster. Junkspace. Print.

Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture And Utopia. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976. Print.

Spiller, Neil, and Nic Clear. Educating Architects. Print.

Steele, Brett. Architectural anti realism: The AA School in 2013

Sykes, A. Krista. Constructing A New Agenda. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. Print.

Toorn. Roemer Van ‘No More Dreams?’ The passion for reality in recent dutch architecture and its limitations.

Choay, Francoise. Utopia and the Anthropological status of Built Space

Reinhold, Martin. Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism

“About – The London School Of Architecture”. The-lsa.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

“Archipreneur Interview: Will Hunter, Architect & University Founder | Archipreneur”. Archipreneur.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.

Fulcher, Merlin, Laura Mark, and Laura Mark. “Student Shows 2015: The Architectural Association”. Architects Journal. N.p., 2015. Web. 18 Mar.


Hunter, Will. “What Is The Point Of Architecture Schools?”. Building Design. N.p., 2013. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.