A brief history of built environment education in the UK

At the time of the original ‘The School I’d Like’ competition in 1967, young people in Britain had virtually no contact with architects. However, in the early 1970s, somewhat lagging behind built environment education in Denmark and the USA, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ traditional Christmas children’s lectures (in London) were reinvented to give a more hands-on introduction to architecture and experiences of the built environment. Like the Chicago Architecture Foundation, for example, the RIBA organized a team of volunteer architects to deliver a mixture of ‘walk around the block’ events and space-making activities for children and parents. Following the success of these experiential learning projects, and in order to extend the invitation to learn about architecture to more children and young people, during the mid-1970s ‘architecture workshops’ were established in Cambridge, Hull, Plymouth, Stevenage, Halifax, London, Leeds, Bradford, Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester. By 1980, some architecture workshops had established ground-breaking educational projects; and other schemes, like teacher-designer Nigel Frost’s Cambridge Architects & Teachers (CAT), had formalized links between architects and school teachers.

Building on this pioneering work in 1985, and signalling an historic commitment to general education, the RIBA appointed Frost as its first Architects-In-Schools Coordinator, where he developed his work on CAT to pilot an ‘architects – in-residence’ scheme for schools in England and Wales. Thanks to this successful programme, some children will have had an opportunity to explore aspects of building design and construction from a visiting professional, at their school.

Paradoxically, alongside this important cross­fertilization between education and architecture during the 1970s and 1980s, children and young people grew up in a negative climate in which, more often than not, architecture was seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Indeed, architects are still seen – by some – as professionally distant, arrogant and fixated on stylistic dogma. Until recently, public opinion has been highly critical of contemporary British architecture.

‘As a nation…we are very partisan in the way we make decisions about what we think is good – it tends to be about heritage. For this to change… it’s important for children to be made as aware of the built environment as they are of the natural environment.’

Architect Ros Diamond’s view, supported by extensive research for her 1996 Arts Council report. The Built Environment & the National Curriculum, is one that has echoed through the architecture cognoscenti for decades and is as true today as it was in the 1990s.20

Indeed, frustrated by repetitive, high-profile assaults on the work of twentieth-century British architects, by the mid-1980s, the country’s architectural community united in a mission to raise public awareness of architecture generally, and more specifically to increase understanding of contemporary design in the built environment.21 In rallying to the cause, from necessity, architects cast themselves in the role of educator.