Jesús Azpeitia Seron
“I take the time to build social relations. It always pays off in the end,” explains Jesús Azpeitia Seron, teacher of architecture. (Photo: Christer Gummeson)

Jesús Azpeitia broke with tradition and became teacher of the year

Published Dec 10, 2012

He well and truly broke with traditions. When Jesús Azpeitia Seron took over the Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture, he gave the students freedom to make their own choice of building to design. They showed their appreciation for this freedom by performing better than ever before. Next week, Jesús will receive the "Teacher of the Year" award at KTH.

“Jesús has raised the quality of teaching. He has taken the Architecture Programme in a direction that is absolutely essential to educating the architects that the societies of the present and future need.” This is how the students described Jesús Azpeitia Seron's initiatives when they nominated him for the prize.

“Yes, I noticed early on how happy the students were with the changes. So for me, the Teacher of the Year award is a sign that the reform was successful,” says Jesús.

The reform basically entailed third-year students having the freedom to choose one of four different projects when designing buildings for their bachelor's degree. Previously there was only one option: to design an iconic building chosen by the teacher.

“I broke with the school's traditions quite profoundly. Previously, the students' only choices were museums, opera houses, airports or similarly grand projects. There's nothing wrong with these as such, but there must be an element of freedom in the degree projects,” says Jesús.

Closer to reality

The freedom of choice has many benefits. The students can choose projects that they have a real passion for and can relate to, based on their own experiences. It also leads to better adaptation to the actual labour market for architects, according to Jesús, who is himself active as an architect and has designed a number of clothes shops and hotel complexes in Scandinavia.

In the first year, the majority of students chose the assignment of designing a residential quarter in Södermalm. A highly relevant choice, Jesús points out, as more than 25 per cent of the professionally active architects' work revolves around designing inner city accommodation. He has also noticed that the students' performance was significantly better than in previous years.

“The designs were more complex and contained lots of important elements that were not previously afforded much space in the degree projects; elements such as ecological and social considerations, and other new perspectives that the students adopted in order to question norms in their work.”

The reform has also involved making a clear statement about doing away with the old-fashioned view of the architect as “a genius with the solution to all problems”. This is not a modern reality, Jesús explains. Most assignments are not about designing iconic, aesthetic buildings, and this is not an accurate portrayal of the role of the architect.

“Many architects today work at city planning offices as real-estate economists or similar, and deal with many issues that have nothing to do with traditional architecture. The modern architect has strong connections with other professions that can assist with different parts of an assignment. And now that students can choose degree projects with a clearer association with the labour market, we can now take advantage of many of these perspectives.”

90 per cent communication

The students' great commitment in their degree projects will likely pay dividends when they start applying for jobs. Employers in the architectural industry are seldom interested in grades.

“In most cases all they want to see are examples of work, which are quite often the same thing as the students' degree projects from years 3 and 5,” Jesús Azpeitia Seron explains.

He has also worked hard to improve communication between students and teachers at the school. He feels it strengthens professional skills: “The work of the architect is 10 per cent architecture, 90 per cent communication and other ways of understanding the client's needs.”

But above all, communication helps to promote a creative climate in the school.

“I take the time to build social relations. In the short-term, it can feel like a real drain on resources, but if you spend time communicating with the students at the start of a project, it always pays off in the end. You avoid a lot of problems during the process.”

The intention is to create a basic sense of security. Without this, Jesús insists there is a risk that the students will 'play it safe' and not carry out the project work to the best of their ability.

“The students' performance must not be marred by restrictions and the feeling that they're not bold enough to create solutions that they are at first unsure about. If they are to get good results, they will need to have the courage to step out of their comfort zone,” he says.

Focus on the students

As most other teachers in Architecture, Jesús' employment at KTH is part-time. As he sees it, this means it is even more important for the School of Architecture to be diligent in terms of communication issues, and ensure that there are functioning procedures for dialogue between teachers and students.

The majority of Jesús' professional activity lies outside of KTH in his work as an architect, and he doesn't presently intend to pursue an academic career. In his work at the School of Architecture, his focus is on the students alone.

“I really love meeting with them. But it's quite demanding at times. You get a lot of questions. It keeps you on the ball, which is great. And that's what makes this award, this show of appreciation, an even greater honour.

The distinction of Teacher of the Year has been awarded by the student union, THS, since 1985. It rewards innovative methods that can serve as inspiration to other teachers.  The award consists of a trophy in the form of a silver apple, a diploma and a grant from Ericsson to the sum of SEK 25,000.

Text: Christer Gummeson