A new generation of young architects is calling out exploitation in education and practice. Not everyone is happy with their methods.

Bartlett Breakdown and Beyond

A new generation of young architects is calling out exploitation in education and practice. Not everyone is happy with their methods.

The UCL Bartlett School of Architecture, designed by HawkinsBrown Architects. (© Jack Hobhouse/Courtesy UCL)

“We break you and build you into a Bartlett Army,” one student was told during a crit at the U.K.’s most prestigious and influential architecture school, according to a recent report.

The 119-page investigation by consultancy Howlett Brown, published in June, has lifted the lid on a “toxic culture” at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London (UCL) stretching back decades. In response, UCL has apologized for an “inexcusable and pernicious underbelly of bullying” and suspended several unnamed staff.

The Bartlett controversy, which arrived months after controversy at SCI-Arc in L.A., is the latest reckoning over what UCL described as “longstanding problems with the culture of the architecture sector.” However, some senior industry figures have branded the report a “debacle” and accused UCL of initiating a social media “witch hunt.” This backlash reveals intractable ideological and generational divisions within the profession—with no clear way forward.

Howlett Brown’s report found what it called “deeply concerning” allegations of racism, violence and bullying, and a “toxic culture” led by a group of senior staff. It claimed this “old boys club” wove unaccountability into the fabric of the school, and urged the Bartlett to review its unit structure and crit guidelines after students described having their work torn up and regularly being reduced to tears.

The report had a huge impact in the U.K. architecture community. UCL apologized over what for years had been an “open secret.” Architect and ex–Bartlett student Alpa Depani, who graduated in 2007, said it felt like “collective catharsis.”

UCL commissioned the report last year after campaigning by former student Eleni Kyriacou, who took student testimonies to the press after her own complaint was ignored. Kyriacou is not alone in targeting the school; social media campaign groups Bartlett United and Times Up Bartlett are also calling for change. They are part of a network of student and early-career architecture collectives frustrated at the industry’s glacial pace of change. Now they are taking matters into their own hands.

Architecture critics and academics lined up to say the Bartlett’s problems were common across architectural education. Paul Crosby, director of professional practice at the Architectural Association, said the majority of candidates’ appraisals he reads mention having had a negative and destructive educational experience at some point.

In 2018, U.K. groups formed to campaign against exploitation in architecture (Future Architects Front, or FAF) and the “toxic culture of overwork” (the union UVW-SAW), and to take action on the climate crisis (ACAN). The pandemic fueled the movement, as young architects often found themselves in even more precarious working conditions. Charlie Edmonds, cofounder of FAF, said events at SCI-Arc and the Bartlett have provided a “blueprint for how students can organise collectively in order to hold their institutions to account.”

In the U.K., progress in the profession is slow owing to how power is unequally distributed and because it is “structurally dependent” on a culture of overwork, said Edmonds. He claimed that if unpaid overtime were abolished—one of FAF’s demands—numerous practices would fold.

As for architectural institutions, both the mainstream profession and fringe groups have long pointed to the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) weakness on labor rights. “The RIBA has the influence and power to do a lot more [about labor rights] and has been reticent to do so,” said Crosby. The Bartlett scandal also raised questions about why the RIBA, which accredits U.K. architecture programs, failed to pick up on any of the Bartlett’s poor teaching practices. Simon Allford, president of the RIBA and head of the large practice AHMM, said the organization had expressed its “deep concern” to UCL and is planning a validation visit.

“All RIBA members and Chartered Practices must uphold the standards set in our codes of conduct and practice, which includes paying all employees at least the real Living Wage,” he said, adding that the RIBA was looking at “excessive working” as part of a review of its Employment Policy Guide.

Edmonds says the RIBA’s actions fall short. The institute abandoned its pledge to consult on banning unpaid overtime and makes no efforts to uphold its standards, he said. FAF is now interested in “turning the place upside down” and getting a “worker” elected as president.

While it’s challenging to “rethink old practices and traditions,” that is the responsibility of educators and institutions like the RIBA and the American Institute of Architects in the United States, according to Douglas Spencer, Pickard Chilton Professor of Architecture at Iowa State University, who works with groups like FAF.

Spencer said one goal of this nascent movement was to “demystify” architecture and stop thinking of it as a “cult” that requires complete personal sacrifice. “To say architecture is just a job, to most architects, is deeply shocking. But most people practicing are not Norman Foster or Bjarke Ingels; they are people working in offices, oftentimes working unpaid overtime, and, if in London or New York, living in shared accommodations.”

The barrier to dispelling this mindset is an “older generation,” said Spencer, who take the view “we had to go through this, therefore that’s what it takes to become an architect.”

While grassroots groups were gaining momentum, complaints about Bartlett staff were compiled by Times Up Bartlett on its anonymous Instagram account and shared in the form of a list, a move that proved controversial. In response, an open letter, signed by architects, academics, and curators, said staff were being “blacklisted” and that UCL had embarked on a “Kafkaesque” investigation. The original list was later removed.

Asked why he cosigned the open letter, Amin Taha, head of award-winning London practice Groupwork, said foremost he had “an apology” for anyone who may have thought signing the letter sought to protect the guilty. However, he said it was important not to replace one toxic culture with another. “The letter fully supports the removal of any staff found guilty, and only by the same virtue wishes to protect those anonymously listed, who with their families find themselves guilty by association,” Taha said.

Another signatory, Penny Lewis, a lecturer at the University of Dundee, said UCL was “virtue signalling” by irresponsibly publishing the report before completing any disciplinary action. Lewis also rejected the report’s “ideological” premise that a power imbalance exists between students and administrators and that architecture culture is broadly toxic. She said she had not seen overly negative crits in recent years; however, she remembered crying at two crits during her own training. “The humiliation is not something that’s inflicted on you as a public spectacle; it’s just the reality of developing as a designer,” she said. “It’s not a permanently damaging experience.” Crosby, however, said the idea that tough crits help students prepare for the “real world” was “nonsense.”

According to Lewis, the open-letter signatories simply want a “broader discussion” of the issues it raises. Still, Crosby said the letter risked appearing “overly defensive.” Spencer said the letter included no recognition of the institutional failures at play, such as the lack of any mechanism for complaints: “You can’t complain about people turning to social media if you don’t give them any other outlet.”

Indeed, Howlett Brown’s report concluded that the school had an “ineffective” complaint procedure; it even found that one senior staff member had deleted complaints. One student said she was raped by a classmate and did not tell school staff as she was not sure “there was a network in place” to report it.

In response to the social media activity, UCL responded that it recognized the “deep distress” that some anonymous posts caused and said they would not be considered in disciplinary processes. More recently, Times Up Bartlett changed its Instagram account name and on July 7 notified followers that it would cease to post. It also clarified that their caption for the original list could’ve been better worded and apologized to one tutor who was listed in error.

The debates sparked by incidents at the Bartlett, SCI-Arc, and beyond have led to hard—but essential—conversations in which people question where power resides within the architecture industry. Depani said the profession’s emphasis should shift away from problematic individuals toward “collective achievement.” The former allows bad behavior to go unchecked for too long, she said, “though, as this report has shown, ultimately the light does get in.”

Ella Jessel is a freelance journalist based in the U.K.