Winning over the young

The Labour Party’s promise to introduce the joys of architecture to schoolchildren may sound like a good idea, but, according to Sutherland Lyall, it isn’t the architects who will do the teaching, it will be the big educational publishers and computer man

SBHD: The Labour Party’s promise to introduce the joys of architecture to schoolchildren may sound like a good idea, but, according to Sutherland Lyall, it isn’t the architects who will do the teaching, it will be the big educational publishers and computer manufacturers

Architects are wetting their knickers with pleasure at the Labour Party’s promise to make architectural education accessible to all schoolchildren on the grounds that it is the “perfect cross-curricular subject” for improving the teenies’ attitudes to the built environment. The Chartered Society of Designers may be thinking about jumping on this dodgy bandwagon so I’d like to ask the critical question: Who, exactly, is going to teach this new cross-curricular topic?

Before thousands of out-of-work architects and designers start sending off CVs, I have to tell them that a Labour government is not likely to massively increase the number of new teachers. Nothing against the Labour Party, it’s just that any party promises anything it thinks people want to hear before the elections. No, the people who would be teaching this putative new non-compulsory core subject are the same old lags who currently battle to instill the three Rs into our schoolchildren.

And the old lags? They’re largely conservative in outlook, incapable of distinguishing Bypass-Tudor from Christopher Wren or David Mellor from cutlers in the Argos catalogue, and are larded with the proudly reactionary visual prejudices so popular these days at Highgrove. Don’t get me wrong, I love and admire teachers, but they’re not significantly better educated in terms of architecture and design than your local butcher and you wouldn’t ask him to do any cross curricularising would you?

But since, like it or not, teachers would be doing this, how would they acquire some vestiges of knowledge about it all? Well, there’s teaching packs. What teachers are often good at doing is mugging up on subjects and topics about which they have little extant knowledge and passing it on. They do this by looking up books in the school or local library and getting hold of teaching packs homing in on the essentials of a topic which they get from any one of the big educational publishers.

So the battle for the visual hearts and minds of the next generation will be won by whoever puts out the first/cheapest/easiest-to-understand built environment/design teaching pack. The Prince’s Institute is probably burning midnight oil on a pack about how nice it would be to live under the feudal system again. So the good guys and the Royal Institute of British Architects and the CSD will have to do something and fast – though please, with professionals.

Reports I’ve had of practising architects laboriously trying to explain the Great Architectural Arcana to 11-year-olds have not been encouraging.

SBHD: Head start

But maybe paper/text teaching packs will be outmoded next year. The Government has already put thousands of CD-ROM drives into school computers so the teenies can trawl through encyclopedias and such like on screen. Most are dreadful, but CD is where reference information is currently at.

And there’s another development. I don’t know if you’ve been watching the consumer computer market but the first ads ever for a home virtual-reality headset appeared at the beginning of December, and more are on their way. This first version, the CyberMaxx, costs ú500, comes with four IBM PC applications, three of them games, with more in the pipeline, but not, apparently, Doom II. The other thing this system doesn’t seem to have is a 3D joystick, so you’ve probably got to sit down at your desk and use your old games stick. For kit costing ú500, the ad is remarkably vague – and it could have been product-designed by a butcher.

A much less inelegant beast is the Forte VFX1, an adjustable plastic head-moulding with cutaways and flip up eye-pieces – and a hand-held guidance stick: cyberpuck it’s called. It will run Doom. Along with two other home VR systems, about which less is known, it’s further down the track, perhaps February. I won’t bore you with the technical differences.

I’m always sceptical about program blurbs which promise such things as “complete VR development tool that allows the user to create and manipulate three- dimensional shapes and images in real time”. Especially when they come on a single floppy, bundled with games and on the IBM PC. But that is how Virtek’s 3dWare, part of the CyberMaxx package, is described. Right now, I don’t really care how good or bad it is, the important thing is that its existence means that somebody out there is working on the basics of a Photoshop-level equivalent and you’re going to be installing couches and headsets for your computer jockeys come 2001. The good thing about this is that it will solve the great design mystery of how to hide and keep clean all the crap that snaggles out the back of your current, now doomed, computer terminal.

More interesting is that this cheap(ish) in-the-shops consumer VR gear is the ideal platform for the built environment curriculum stuff. Headsetted teenies will be able to roam through ideal cities, build their own communities, watch Harlow New Town grow around them, yawn. Even more interesting, teachers won’t know if they’ve surreptitiously changed disks and are playing Revenge of the Virtual Reality Vogons.

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