Donald Bates has been appointed chair of architectural design at the University of Melbourne.

Bates is director of Lab Architecture Studio and one of the architects behind one of Melbourne’s most recognised landmarks, Federation Square.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about the move to the Melbourne School of Design, the changing face of architectural education and the increasingly multi-faceted scope of work architectural students need to carry out.

What are you hoping to achieve as Chair of Architectural Design at the University of Melbourne? 

My role is to provide critical leadership to the design side of the architecture program of the Melbourne School of Design (MSD) – the graduate component of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.

My aspirations for this role and what I take to be my responsibilities are to assist the program to become the premier architectural design program in the Asia-Pacific region and to be a leader internationally in architectural thought, enquiry and graduate education.

I aspire for the MSD to be seen as one of the most influential, most advanced programs in architectural design. This means exploiting the resources of the university and the faculty, as well as curating the program with new, strategic inputs to emerge as leaders in new directions in architectural theory, critical thinking and student production.

How are you going to achieve this?

Partly, this will begin with a deep awareness of the existing trends and trajectories of the faculty and with the strengths and weaknesses of the architectural studios.

This will also be an understanding of the structural and pedagogic formations that now exist in the faculty and an assessment of how effective and relevant they are to the particular demands of architectural design at this point in time.

The transformation to a highly influential school of graduate architectural design will also require building on a network of other institutional partners, professional contacts, government and industry links and an engagement with a range of projects, collaborations and research studies.

This will also need to be supported by a coherent framework of lectures, exhibitions, symposiums and publications.

What is the biggest challenge facing architectural students today? 

I don’t know that there is one singular challenge. However, the ‘biggest’ challenge may be the diversity of challenges that face students. There will be increasing pressures on students, with increased tuition costs, to earn a salary while undertaking studies. This obviously affects their focus and time spent on studio and academic work. 

Simultaneous to this, there are currently limited opportunities for students to be gainfully employed during their holidays or year out, leading to both a lack of salary and/or lack of exposure to working in offices.

The technical knowledge of diverse software and CAD programs is now assumed to be absolute, even though these techniques are not the focus of university studies.

And yet, given these constraints, there appear to be greater and greater numbers of students looking to become architects, which itself puts greater and greater pressure on the opportunities available to students and recent graduates.

How has changing technology impacted on how architectural students are taught and learn? 

In effect, the increase in technology – whether at the level of drawing and documentation, or physical model making and material studies or in terms of new techniques for the development of form and representation – all of these new technologies exist simultaneously with the more traditional techniques of hand drawing, sketching, model making, image creation, etc. This implies an even broader repertoire of knowledge and technical expertise that is expected of students.

Also, the means of presenting and disseminating work has changed, with new media and media platforms to broadcast work and discussions.

The ‘digital desktop’, with its ease of portability and ‘any-where-ness’ is a challenge to the benefits of a studio culture of desks, tables and walls. These are impacts that have not yet been fully resolved.

Do you think changing technology and the way they are taught is changing the type of students that graduate? ie. do they have different outlooks on architecture than students 20 years ago? 

I am not sure they have changed the ‘type’ of students, but certainly they have changed how students work.

Dedicated students are dedicated students and they almost always are the ones who manage and assimilate new technologies, pedagogies or working formats to produce quality work. But there may be a question if these new directions change the edges of the student body that is enrolled in the study of architecture.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone considering embarking on an architectural degree, what would it be? 

From my perspective, the role of the ‘architect’ is misconstrued when seen as being a singular, creative genius.

Whether it is the mythical image of Frank Lloyd Wright or Howard Roark of ‘Fountainhead’, the media image of the architect as the person sitting down with a pen and piece of paper to sketch out – as a complete idea – an image of a new building, is pretty far from the reality. Not because architects are not intelligent people, but rather that there is a more profound action in the iterative, evolving and constructed truth of a design than in the revelation in the act of a genius.

Architecture has leaders and those who drive the profession forward, but it is emerging from within a complex partnership of many inputs (and constraints), working over and over on ideas that eventually change the course of design history.

What is one of the best pieces of advice you ever received as a student? 

“…that is good – now do it again. Only better.”