learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Snapshot: en route to Belfast

A glimpse of the Ayrshire coastline from the Glasgow / Ayr train (which calls at Prestwick Airport, 45 minutes from Glasgow Central, every thirty minutes).

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Conference: Transilient Boundaries

My computer (perhaps it’s Safari, or perhaps it’s WordPress, I don’t know) has added a red squiggly line beneath every instance of the word ‘transilient’ throughout this post, so it looks as though we have a promisingly open-ended theme for a two day conference on the interdisciplinarity of architecture at the University of Edinburgh on Monday and Tuesday.

Transilient boundaries: in/of architecture 

30-31 March 2009, University of Edinburgh

Although, having said that, I’ve just noticed another red squiggly line under ‘interdisciplinarity’. Being able to fool a spellcheck seems to be a good test of a research conference title.

If you’re also attending, please say hello. I’ll be easy to spot, I’m the nervous looking one with bad hair christening his first official day of doctoral studies with a day trip to Edinburgh.

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Reading: Architecture Depends, Jeremy Till


A copy of Jeremy Till’s new book Architecture Depends landed on my doormat with an unexpected thwump two weeks ago today (courtesy of Liz Bury at BD magazine, to whom I am most grateful). The done thing as a blogger on architectural education would be to review it here as soon as I’ve reached the index. However Architecture Depends is – to me, at least – more deserving than a quick read, digest and review. Besides, Steve Parnell has written a review far better that I could. It helpfully explains the different backgrounds (and therefore different opinions) of the two authors of the most prominent reviews of the book in the British architectural press so far: Robert Mull in the AJ and Richard Weston in BD.

So why am I, ever the energetic blogger, holding back? I suspect it is because I am coming to appreciate Architecture Depends as a formal end-point on the formal years of my architectural education. And to review it would be to pixelate my thoughts about more than just the book.

Till was appointed head of the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield in 1999. I studied my BA in Architecture at Sheffield from 2001 – 2004, and then my Masters in Architecture from 2006 – 2008. Till left Sheffield in 2008 to take up a Deanship at the University of Westminster. Although Till stepped down from the role of head for the latter years of his time at Sheffield, he remained a charismatic and provocative character who engaged with many aspects of school life. And his nine year period of influence encloses my formation as an architect. Architecture Depends has been in the works for several years, and I was among a number of Sheffield students introduced to its key concepts a year or two ago when Jeremy explained the difficulty in getting permission for an image of a Mark Wallinger performance piece for the cover and the suggestion by his publisher that Architecture Depends might be a better title than Architecture and Contingency.

Jeremy Till was not the only educator at Sheffield to have a formative influence of my shape and personality as an architect and a student. And even though he had a hand in only a fraction of the direct teaching I experienced at Sheffield, his leadership and dialogue with staff and students was fundamental in creating what I continue to regard as a lively, exciting and extremely fruitful period in Sheffield’s one hundred year history as a school of architecture. Many different dialogues were initiated, some taking up strands from before his tenure and many sparking new strands of thought in architectural education, participation, inclusivity and – of course – contingency. Those dialogues continue at Sheffield but will inevitably take on new energies and directions, a decade seeming to be a good enough time frame for a head of school to influence his flock.

So while there is no full-stop at the end of a sentence that describes the University of Sheffield School of Architecture during Jeremy Till’s ‘era’, and while I see myself as very much more than just a Till-ite, I am turning to Architecture Depends for a second, slower reading. It is a lucid, wide-reaching and enjoyable read that readily expects the criticism it has and will receive from certain quarters. Its theoretical and anecdotal breadth verges on being unwieldy, but it does translate into a coherent narrative a number of strands of pedagogical thought that a generation of Sheffield architecture graduates will recognise.

So, is it any good? I still can’t answer that question, because it still feels as though I’m passing judgement on my own architectural education. But that has made it a compelling read.

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I predict a riot

Over in Belfast for two days of enrolment, admin and consideration as a lodger. As a result of a rather unkempt haircut I also now have a student ID with a photo that will haunt me for years to come. Better that than a criminal record, however, which looks set to be haunting a number of Belfast students after the usual descent of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the Holyland into a drunken riot.
Killing time before my flight back to Glasgow and under the dreamiest of blue skies, I crossed the Lagan and went to take in the sight of a monstrous apartment complex to which I contributed many hours and not that much good design. It being under construction, I wasn’t able to see whether the 55 square metre studio apartments still had any mark of my hand, nor whether my anyone had managed to resolve the problem of getting enough car parking spaces under the buildings and between the radially arranged structural columns.
Back in town at the end of the month for my first supervisions, and hoping for similarly delightful weather. If not, I will at least be in town for some of the usually excellent Belfast Film Festival.

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The same week that our first basil seeds start to germinate and poke out through the potting compost, I receive confirmation that I can commence studies towards a PhD. Automatically I begin to look at these delicate green basil seedlings and make some fairly predictable connections. I wonder if they feel the same amount of excitement and trepidation?

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250 words

It may be hard to believe, but a three year PhD in architectural pedagogy can begin with a 250 word application.

Interdisciplinary learning and collaborative practice: towards a sustainable pedagogy that learns from alternative architectural practice

This investigation seeks to question the tangible and lasting value – to all stakeholders, participants and facilitators – of community-based “live” projects in an architectural education that is no longer exclusive of other disciplines. By mapping and collating a comprehensive history of alternative practice in architectural education (which would appear to be missing from current discourse in this field) the project would seek to critically interpret the skill sets developed therein, questioning the definition and expectations of projects deemed to be successful by their stakeholders.

Acknowledging the shifting dynamic of architectural education in this and other countries in the last two decades, the project would address whether a formal architectural education that employs tactics from alternative creative practice teaches or nurtures the skills for a more versatile student (quantatively, in terms of career path and employability, qualitatively in terms of personal development). Considering the rising costs and extensive time commitment demanded by a formal architecture education, how can educational institutions ensure that they are providing the necessary skills for students to develop their careers, especially in uncertain economic conditions?

Particular interest will be paid to those institutions which seek to nurture interdisciplinary teaching and research. Do these unions benefit taught and research students, and what actions can be made to develop genuinely interdisciplinary praxis in the higher education environment?

The author will contextualise his research with an acknowledgement of his education thus far at the University of Sheffield, an established centre of “live” project activity, critically assessing the established texts of Sara, Chiles, Petrescu and Blundell-Jones with consideration for the next moves in our understanding of successful interdisciplinary praxis.

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About the project

learning architecture is an academic blog of James Benedict Brown, previously a doctoral candidate in architectural pedagogy at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. James passed his viva in September 2012 and graduated the following December.

About the author

James Benedict Brown has worked and studied in England, Northern Ireland, France and Canada. Following the completion of his PhD at QUB, he was appointed Lecturer in Architecture at Norwich University of the Arts. A short bio is here.

About the supervisors

The project is supervised by Prof. Ruth Morrow and Keith McAllister. Prior to his appointment at Qatar University in 2009, Prof. Ashraf Salama also supervised the project.


Click here for the bibliography to date.


Click here for a selection of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed writing.


Click here for a glossary-in-progress of key terms used in the project.

Conference diary

Conferences and seminars of interest to the project.


All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it.


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