A fellow architect and educator made a remark recently that architectural education has broadly been the same for 200 years. What a feat it has been, then, to adapt and turn the whole thing on its head in the space of two weeks after COVID-19 lockdown was announced in March.

The wider architecture industry would be wise to sit up and take note that this is prime time to consider making long-overdue changes.

In terms of how the repercussions of coronavirus will impact the profession, an increase in working from home across all industries will likely mean we don’t require all of the real estate we’ve been building – lessening the need for big new road projects in turn. For me, this is a good thing. The way many people talk about construction is that more is always better and that rising housing prices are somehow a good thing. This is reason for concern, as it means a lot of people find themselves in housing distress; they can’t afford mortgages or rent, and we have rising numbers of people living on the streets. This not a measure of success.

It is high time that the whole speculative approach to development is critically re-examined. The ‘bigger is better’, ‘denser is better’ approach is deeply flawed. The push that is coming our way now for state government to look at provision of lots more social housing is a very positive thing. It is something we’ve neglected for decades. It’s time to stop stalling and just do it.

The development and construction industry is currently driven by speculation and the dollar. We should start looking at this city – Melbourne – and consider whether we actually want these ultra high-rise buildings which will be around for decades to come. Anyone who believes more density is always good and that 25sqm apartments, 40 stories in the air are ideal living conditions should consider how they would feel if they were stuck in one of them. We’ve gone too far down this route; and we need to rethink our approach to development.

We need to reset the system, and we’re being handed the opportunity and time now to look at how we can do better. The European model of development, with medium-rise buildings and more generosity to the size of apartments, would be a step in the right direction for me. 

Being a hands-on, practical institute, many people thought it was a given that Melbourne Polytechnic would just shut down temporarily when the COVID-19 lockdown took hold. As Head of Program for Bachelor of Built Environment, I thought “no, we have to do this, we have a duty to honour our commitment to our students”. So, we responded to the need to be flexible and explored new possibilities in order to make the transition to remote learning.

Though we’ve managed surprisingly well, this unprecedented change was accompanied by downsides. All the incidental and casual contact we have with students has been taken away. We have to work extra hard to keep some students engaged in the course and in the community we’re trying to build. 

Most notably of all though – as an architect and teacher of budding architects – has been the challenge of fostering creative energy. As a discipline somewhere between art and science, nurturing this is crucial to us achieving our potential. I like to create learning environments where my students can feed off each other’s creativity and energy; that’s not easy to mimic through online course delivery.

It’s been a testing few months, but what we’ve learned about how to deliver remote learning, and its potential, will benefit architectural education for a long time to come. We’ve proven that remote learning works, students can remain productive and, in fact, this style of learning even suits some subjects and some students’ lifestyles. A mixed model of face-to-face and remote course delivery will be something we may look at implementing permanently in the future.

Providing students with flexible learning options is only going to be a positive. It’s a matter of equity. Testament to this is a promising prospective student of the course who lives in Wodonga. Coming to campus in Epping three days a week would be too much. Other students have school aged kids, and in the past if the kids were sick they missed class. Now, with remote learning, they don’t have to miss out. If we can offer the possibility of partly completing the course online, it would immediately become much more accessible.

The current situation is also forcing us to provide more learning resources online. This year, we’re looking into hosting a digital exhibition, which will allow us to promote the course to audiences anywhere in the world. This helps level the playing field as we’re effectively showcasing our work in the same space as any big name international university.

The education sector has proven how adaptable it can be and will benefit if it learns the lessons from the pandemic. The architectural profession would be wise to do the same.

Peter Hogg has been in the architecture profession for 35 years. Now Head of Program for the Bachelor of Built Environment course at Melbourne Polytechnic, he shares how he managed to maintain connections with his students as they suddenly transitioned to remote learning during the coronavirus lockdown, and how he thinks the wider profession could benefit from learnings during this time.

Image: Dassault Systèmes