The Subaltern Student of Architecture: profession versus practice



‘The point of such stories is that they unconsciously reveal not only the fundamental value- system on which architects operate, but the narrowness of that system, and the unspoken- or the unspeakable- assumptions on which it rests.’

Reyner Banham

Three years ago I declared to my friend that I intended to study architecture at university. She assumed I was going to spend three years digging for bones.

I believe this is telling anecdotal evidence that suggests that there are widely misguided assumptions of what it means to study architecture (and archaeology for that matter). Whilst some of my initial assumptions of an architectural education have been met, exceeded, and some fallen short, others have revealed much more of the nature of the professional education I had invested in three years ago.



‘Lack is the void on which individual human identity and desire is built.’ K. Ruedi Ray

According to postcolonial intellectual Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the ‘subaltern’ can be defined as: ‘a position without identity’. Key to Spivak’s definition of a ‘subaltern’, is a position without identity, “no one can say ‘I’m a subaltern.’ Her work is involved in tackling the ethical dilemma and methodological challenge of the oppression of disempowered subaltern groups in the postcolonial world. The term ‘subaltern’ is useful because it is flexible; it accommodates social identities and struggles that do not fall under the reductive terms of ‘strict class analysis’.

“I like the word subaltern for one reason. It is truly situational.”
Gayatri Spivak, 1990

With this in mind, I will be proposing an argument for the notion of the disenfranchised student within contemporary British architectural education: the notion of a ‘subaltern’ student of architecture.” I define the ‘subaltern’ architecture student as a student subordinated, lacking a coherent political and unique cultural identity and instead subsumes an identity that is shaped and moulded within the confinement of architecture school.

This essay intends to explore the discrepancies with the perception of the role of the architect, from pedagogy to practice, from student to civilian to practitioner. In doing thus, it will address the effects of constructing a self one can call one’s own- nurturing the cultural wellbeing of the student as opposed to persuading the student to follow  standards of achievement that are externally set. This will then raise questions over what an education of architecture should consist of, given the wider economic difficulties and ideological crisis in current discourse.

Ultimately, one questions the notion of recovering of a ‘subaltern’ consciousness and its implications for the ‘subaltern’s’ future involvement within the traditional architectural model for practice that is currently synonymous with the profession.