Cities, Snow and Celebration: The first Professional Diploma in Architecture module of 2015

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Paolo Santos is a student on the Professional Diploma in Architecture course at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). Here he blogs on the first module of 2015, giving a flavour of what it is like to be a student on one of the postgraduate programmes at CAT.

Due to family commitments and last minute essay writing I couldn’t make it to CAT for the usual Sunday evening cwtch (Welsh for hugs) sessions, although thought it a nice surprise for fellow Professional Diploma in Architecture (ProfDips) if I turned up for breakfast instead.

January is going to be a challenge. The weather is now wintery and it was snowing over the Aberhosan pass from Llanidloes; a treacherous route through the winter months. Nevertheless, I make it to CAT in good time not to miss breakfast. The North drive has turned into a river. Note to self, ‘always wear they right gear’. The weather is always unpredictable in the Welsh Mountains. I got my feet wet walking up to the WISE building but received a warm welcome with lots of cwtches, which makes all the difference.

sustainable architecture
WISE student building in the snow

Sundays and Monday are always the day for us fourth year students. Hardly anyone from the other courses are around till Tuesday, which means more time for us all to get reacquainted and catch up. Monday we were introduced to a marathon seminar on Design Methodology by David Lea and Patrick Hannay, which delves into the process driven rational. We begin discussing architecture, I’m almost in heaven. The evening ends with the film ‘The Fountainhead’ 1949, based on the novel by Ayn Rand, about a young architect who chooses to struggle through individualism rather than compromise his vision of architecture and give in to the collectivists.

Tuesday brought snow, we start by handing in our essays and practical written pieces. For the first session of the day we join a MSc Lecture on Transformation by Elizabeth Shove. After coffee we hear from Peter Harper, one of the early pioneers of CAT, who coined term ‘alternative technology’. This guy is good! In this video he gives a great explanation of how it got set up. Lunch is my favourite, the Michael ‘burger’.

In the afternoon we have another Design Methodology sessions. This time we discuss the process of the Jewish Museum extension in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind at length. I suggest further reading of Between the Lines in Architecture in Transition, published by Prestel. Patrick Hannay ends the day with an architectural lecture delivered to all at CAT.

Wednesday, felt as if all was back to a normal schedule of shared lectures with the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. This month the module is all about cities and communities. The first lecture was from Mike Reardon, a guest lecturer who talked about Barriers to Change; Karen Potter, another guest lecturer, then followed with a lecture on local authority planning, talking about what needs to change and how. After lunch, Jane Fisher, who is a resident lecturer at CAT, ran sessions on open spaces in the city, green infrastructure & the Urban Heat Island. The day is topped by 2 lectures by Peter Harper. The first is on Decarbonisation: household to community. After tea Peter introduces us to an amusing informal talk on his gardening techniques.

In the meantime in the background, the 5th year architecture students have been pinning up their final year projects to be assessed by the external examiner today. Gulp! One year to go! Hope all goes well for them, sure it will, nice bunch.

Seminar style

On Thursday, we are joined by Dr Ian Taylor a guest lecturer at CAT and director of Transport for Quality of Life. He gives an interesting talk on Sustainable Transport. The second session is on Post Carbon Cities, with David Rudlin of Urbed. After lunch both Ian and David lead the practical on ‘Designing an integrated urban environment’. Models like Vauban in Freiburg in Germany are mention throughout the course of the module. Using the knowledge we learned earlier in the day, we split into groups to design a sustainable housing and transport infrastructure for Peterborough’s, I’m loving this week.

burns night


Friday, is another site visit for our next project in Wolverhampton. This is very much a real project, with real constraints and a real client whom essentially needs ideas in which to develop an existing organisation/building/site. Our client faces a common nationwide situation, in which the Local Authority has reduced its previous support and funding. So we need to put everything we have learned at CAT so far into this scheme. Today is also exhibition day for the 5th years, open to all. We arrive back at base in time for a special tea, as its January we are celebrating Burns Night early, light entertainment is provided by several of the students, with song and dance by John, Helen and Tasha followed by a recital of a Burns poem in German by Cornelia. This is sadly last supper at CAT for the 5th years, and the world is their oyster. Friday night social begins with the bar open and Pat Borer (co-architect of the WISE building) in The Street Band, who play the night away as we wave goodbye to the 5th years.

Saturday, is a sobering ninth and final lecture of the week with Jane Fisher on Urban Ecology. We have a final meet with Duncan, the course leader, on setting up a brief for the Wolverhampton project and then it is all over. A quick lunch and off we set across the white landscape home.

If there is a song that could describe how I felt at CAT this January week it will be Sia’s Elastic heart.

Pat Borer
The Street Band: Evening Entertainment