Kingston renaissance?

Timothy Smith and Jonathan Taylor discuss the genesis and ongoing success of their traditional design course at Kingston University as it passes its thirteenth birthday.

In 2011 we established the first traditional design studio in a RIBA accredited mainstream educational institution for over 80 years.  At Kingston University we have pioneered a course of traditional design study that embraces multiple approaches.  Initially teaching in the RIBA Part 1 course and since 2013 in the Part 2, we have used the poetry and typology of the orders, the logic of local construction techniques and the study of notable precedents to expose students to the range of possible classical expression from high to low.  We coined the term “marginal classicism” as the title of one of our first classical studio briefs and we continue to use it to describe our position.  It refers to our avoidance of dogma in favour of moderation and careful judgement; our fascination with classical architecture attuned to its place, its programme and its time; the poetics of construction; and to our desire to situate the work of both our own vibrant London-based architectural practice and our teaching studio firmly within a broader contemporary debate.

In 2022 we were awarded the prestigious ICAA Arthur Ross Award for excellence in the classical tradition (education category) in New York City and in 2021, the RIBA Traditional Architecture Group’s Achievement Award in recognition of 10 years teaching the classical language.  Frequently students express their relief to us at having found a place to develop their interest in traditional architecture, having not thought it was available or worse, after having been mocked or denied serious attention by prejudiced teachers during their Part 1 course.  In a heartfelt correspondence one graduate expressed gratitude that the studio had enabled him for the first time, to “read” cities.

Later this year a book will be published celebrating our students’ achievements and featuring design and research projects, reflective essays by ourselves and others including students, and an interview between us and the Director of the Architecture Foundation, Ellis Woodman.

Importantly, the studio is no less valuable for students who ultimately choose not to design using the classical language as it provides a firm educational foundation for any architect and thesis projects which are distinctive in their expression and resolution.  Graduates who are interested in a career in traditional architecture frequently find work with the preeminent traditional practices such as Craig Hamilton, Ben Pentreath, ADAM Architecture, Stanhope Gate and John Simpson, but those who have chosen a more mainstream office have reported that their portfolios were received very positively, with employers noting the high level of design and technical resolution and beautiful drawings, models and image making – and they certainly stand out against others!

It is common in architecture schools for year cohorts to have a choice of a variety of design project studios, each led by tutors who have a particular interest or specialism.  At Kingston we lead one of eight different MArch studios, each with approximately 16 students.  Our students often select their studio for both of the two years of the course and write on a traditional subject for their dissertation, effectively graduating with an RIBA Part 2 in traditional architecture.  For the most part though, students spend one of their two years with the studio, integrating classical architectural and planning principles into their mainstream degree course.

Naturally, traditional working methods such as hand drawing and watercolour are welcomed, but it is important to us that the only real difference between our studio and others is that we teach the orders, their application to design and an approach rooted in a respect for the continuity of proven and relevant architectural and urban planning principles.  This ensures that our attitude cannot be dismissed as nostalgia, and that it has something meaningful and plausible to contribute to the culture of the Department of Architecture & Landscape and beyond.

We are currently also Visiting Scholars at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC which has its own classical “concentration”, and recently established a partnership between the two schools enabling international student exchange and collaboration including a summer studio at Kingston and an innovative international thesis studio in traditional design for Kingston and Catholic University final year students.

While the growth of opportunities in traditional summer schools and occasional talk of new traditional schools of architecture are to be wholeheartedly celebrated and encouraged, the presence of a well-established classical studio in one of oldest RIBA accredited schools in the UK is something remarkable.  We are committed to supporting young architects who wish to enter teaching and academia to ensure that their hard-fought achievements may be available for generations of students to come.  If any readers feel able to support this endeavour financially then we would be very pleased to hear from you, and if you’re a potential Part 2 architecture student, do consider an application!

Timothy Smith and Jonathan Taylor are the founding partners of Smith & Taylor and lecturers at the University of Kingston’s Department of Architecture and Landscape.