• Friday , 15 November 2019

Between Fantasy and Reality – the Queen’s University end-of-year show

Image credit: Declan Davis Image credit: Declan Davis

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – the end-of-year shows; where war-weary, bleary eyed students are able to dust themselves down, dress themselves up, indulge in some free wine and show off to their parents just why they haven’t been seen for over 8 months.
Exuding a peculiar atmosphere of euphoric relief coupled with palpable apprehension, the end-of-year show offers the unique opportunity for architecture students to show off their wares to the world at large. Staying just within earshot of their work, students wait with baited breath for affirmative remarks from their peers and potential employers. Reactions are dependent on the audience, typically taking the form of quiet contemplation from those within the learned community, bewilderment amongst the parents, and cynicism from the hardened professionals – ‘you’d never get that through planning!’
Projects on show tend to run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime, each highlighting the indeterminable scope of broader architectural discourse. The Masters exhibition within Queen’s University Belfast is exemplary of this; on one side of the room students exhibit finely honed studies of domestic housing units, while on the opposite side, others seek to ‘detox the planet’ through provocatively titled projects such as ‘Chicken Apocalypse’.

Building on thematic studies of previous years, the ‘Intermodal’ project group serves to investigate architecture as an instrument of global infrastructure and asks ‘big’ questions to consider its role within contemporary consumerist society. Unlike many projects where an explanatory narrative is largely neglected, the Intermodal exhibition provides viewers with an extensive catalogue of global afflictions – Chicken Apocalypse investigating the ecological impact of the frozen poultry industry – and proposes bombastic architectural responses to help alleviate such global crises. Super scale and super graphic, these are the projects which push the boundaries of architectural potential, but which also may struggle most at pre-application planning consultations.   
Serving almost as a counterbalance to this ‘big’ thinking, the rather modestly titled ‘Housing’ unit offers a much more micro-scaled investigation into the architecture of domestic habitation. Here, acute attention is paid to materiality and spatial definition, constructed through an array of meticulously crafted models and drawings. The level of detail presented within these projects is such that is seldom permitted outside the confines of the university studio, and while cavalier alumni may balk about ‘real world’ concerns of value engineering and building control certification, they may also lament that the freedom of architectural investigation afforded to students is no longer so readily available to them.

There is a common concern amongst many architectural commentators that a misalignment exists between architectural education and professional practice; that the architectural studio is of ‘academic’ concern, failing to address the multitude of external factors which serve to affect the profession. While many university projects would offer little to contradict this notion, the QUB ‘Street Society’ module appears tentatively to address the perceived disconnect. The short-run projects within this module aim to utilise students’ creative productivity and aid with potential projects for real clients. Pragmatic and believable, the projects on show not only exhibit students’ grasp on cost control and buildability concerns, but also serve to highlight the vast benefits which can be attained in the ‘real world’ by affording greater autonomy to the architect.

The end of year show represents the rare interface between the academic and professional disciplines of architecture, highlight the numerous contradictions and shortcomings which exist throughout both. At its worst, the architectural show presents pure pageantry; pretty pictures with little regard for the practical implications of design. At its best, it provides an optimistic view of the profession, an aspirational ambition which grants complete autonomy to the architect, challenging the limitations imposed within the real world.

On the whole, the Queens University show feels optimistic and aspirational; as though, regardless of the project outputs, a genuine and considered culture of process and investigation pervades, fully aware of the ‘bigger picture’ of the architectural profession. While students may be apprehensive on opening night of how their work is received by the world at large, they should stand confident in the knowledge that the ambition of the work on show not only meets the approval of the visiting viewers, but that it stands as an example to which many, if not most, professionals could only aspire to achieve.

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