Out of Practice: Towards new theory at the LSA by James Soane

Hello all,

James Soane delivered a talk at the Learning through Practice, AAE 2019 conference in April 2019. Outlining the need for new ways of learning, he talked about both the work of my peers and mentioned my manifesto that seeks to understand the impacts of technology on the environment.

For the full paper drop me an email, otherwise here are some excerpts below.


The 2018 Architect’s Journal review of the LSA student written work, presented at the end of year show, was direct in its critique of subject matter suggesting it made for depressing reading. So what should post-graduate students be reflecting upon if not the state of society in relation to the built environment? In considering the role of theory in architecture, the LSA makes a case for the conversation and study to move beyond the formal or philosophical concerns that have pre-occupied the discourse for so long, and instead seek to interrogate the levers of power in order to understand the wider agency of the architect.

This paper reflects on the school’s ethical agenda and asks questions on the importance of societal and political theories that inform the teaching practice. From engaging with catastrophic climate change to the failure of government to tackle infrastructure and housing, the LSA encourages students to challenge and re-imagine practise. Too often the concerns of practice are seen academically as ‘real world’ as opposed to experimental or defiant but which Jacques Attali labels as distractions. In an increasingly connected but hyper-separated global environment we find that the purpose of architecture has morphed into the appreciation of an asset, which in turn has shaped the physical environment. The cost of this approach to those not inside the virtuous circle of investment and return, is an erosion of community, an increase in living costs and the degradation of the environment. We therefore see the act of constructing a relevant written argument, subverted into the form of a personal manifesto, becomes a space to build a call for arms; to construct an alternative world order; to imagine a kinder society. No longer is the debate about style, rather about action. It seems that when it comes to the big questions, education is out of practice.

“The problem is one of adaptation, in which the realities of our life are in question.”

Le Corbusier, Vers Une Architecture, 1927

This paper is a reflection on the critical approach to theory adopted by the LSA and directly references the written work of the 2017/18 student cohort. The intention is both to validate their status as practitioners and to offer an alternative curriculum.

All the values have been revised

It is no longer possible to discuss the concept of space without considering its value, ownership and status. Yet, as Alice Hardy notes, the commodification of space has led to a lack of collective participation and communal enjoyment. She is optimistic that provocations are being made through digital activism, tapping into the ability to process big data in order to empower local citizens as well as designers. Underlying this approach is a belief in a more representative democratic system that values societal integration in order to make cities inclusive and accessible to all. There is a move from the power of the individual to the power of the crowd. Our relationship with technology is a further concern; the virtual space many inhabit also has its own architecture, power structures and politics. The internet of things has embedded itself into the fabric of our lives; harvesting our data and controlling our information channels contributing to societal atomisation and creating a disconnect from the physical environment. Fraser Morrison concludes that if everything is seamless and streamlined, there is no room to pause; and that a disconnected world is a way of reclaiming territory, time and space. When Jane Jacobs wrote that cities can provide for all citizens only when they are created by everybody, she opened up a discourse that discredited top down thinking characterised by the master plan and private development. The act of commoning, has come to represent a framework for co-creation and communal action. Pointing to the importance of ‘mingling’ in public space, Maxim Sass argues that core values are shaped by surroundings and encounters. The market is not equivalent to a client who represents an inclusive public. Collective decision-making protects the interests of the many and leads to a new public place-making mode of practice.

There exists a new spirit

“The reasons why students decide to study architecture are many and varied, but there is often an underlying desire to contribute to the notion of common good”

The impact of these conversations on the education of an architect is to provide a framework that sees architecture as part of a system that is transformative. As activist George Monbiot argues, discredited narratives cannot be discarded, they need to be replaced with a new narrative.21 The students on this programme have begun to exchange ideas, to critically question their trajectories and to tell a new story. They have thoughts about what they believe to be important and have engaged in ethical discussions prompted by the ecological crisis.