learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

PhD life: Norfolk asparagus

The asparagus season has started in England, and while at home in Norfolk over the weekend we celebrated the arrival of this wonderful crop. Dishes tried so far have included asparagus lasagne (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it), asparagus and eggs for breakfast and (perhaps my favourite) simply steamed asparagus served with melted butter and fresh garlic.

Sadly I’m back in the city now, and have yet to see such thick purpley-green stems in any of the shops.

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Freire versus de Carlo

This is as much as I could manage of the chocolate cake on Friday afternoon. As I mentioned earlier, I sought to excuse myself for a double family celebration at the weekend: the sixtieth birthday party and civil partnership of a close relative. The latter came first, and was a private family affair and a very big secret until the birthday party, at which the union was announced to assembled surprise, excitement and joy. It was a wonderful weekend, although I still regret not being able to finish my slice of cake.
Returning to Glasgow I returned to two texts that I’ve been reading this month. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Giancarlo de Carlo’s Architecture’s Public (or Architecture: too important to be left to architects?) as published in the book Architecture and Participation. These two texts are on my rather rambling bibliography, a kind of kick-start reading list that has been growing in different directions rapidly, perhaps not reflecting with any accuracy the eventual course that my studies will follow. However, in the excitement of starting the long journey towards a PhD, being able to read, note and think on a daily basis is nothing short of bliss. To me at least, but then maybe I’m just a nerd.
These two texts keep coming back to me, because I am developing a hunch about how de Carlo’s plea for a participative architecture can be re-read using Freire’s theory of pedagogy. This may be nothing more than the repeated occurrence of similar themes, but I have a suspicion that the two texts read well together (although I confess that at this early stage I have no idea whether the two authors had any knowledge of or relationship to each other). There are convincing echoes of one in the other, and the rough concurrence (Freire first published Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968; de Carlo presented Architecture’s Public as a lecture in Liége in 1969) makes these even more provocative.
So here are the very barest of bones of an essay or paper that is forming in my mind.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed describes a struggle for equity in an educational context with the manifesto of a new, democratic and liberating pedagogy. A dialectical relationship between oppressor and oppressed (in which neither is likely conscious of their role) is revealed, critiqued and challenged. The titular pedagogy proposes that the oppressed – with the assistance of certain key oppressors who (realising the violence of their actions) cross over to the ‘side’ of the oppressed – liberate both themselves and their oppressors by means of a revelatory and dialogic pedagogy.
Architecture’s Public, on the other hand, is a loud and optimistic call for a revolution in architectural practice. Referring extensively to the failures of the Modern Movement, de Carlo implores architects to reject an authoritarian mode of planning in favour of process planning, through which open ended objectives allow a continuous and democratic formation of architectural programmes.
(Forgive me if those are bastardised summations, but as I have already said, I’m still new to all this.)
Three things strike me about the relevance of these texts to each other. All underline emphases are mine.
One: de Carlo identifies the unreformed architect to be an oppressor, and therefore worthy of consideration in the light of Freire’s text.
The metamorphosis [ of developing new characteristics in architecture and new behaviour patterns in authors ] in other words, must coincide with the subversion of the present condition, where to be an architect is the result of power delegrated in a repressive fashion, and to be architecture is the result of a reference to class codes which legitimate only the exception, with an emphasis proportional to the degree to which it is cut off from its context.
Two: Genuine ‘renewal’ (de Carlo) or ‘revolution’ (Freire) comes from small groups of ‘elites’ (de Carlo) / ‘oppressors’, and not from those oppressors who offer false clemency or generosity.
de Carlo:
…this was only the consequence of a more serious failing that the Modern Movement inherited from the amorphous matrix in which it was generated: the deliberate programmatic attitude of an elite. I do not criticise the size of the group – the fact that only small groups can set off processes of real renewal seems unquestionable – but rather the group’s choices in defining its field of operation.
…another issue of indubitable importance arises: the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation … theirs is a fundamental role, and has been so throughout the history of this struggle … [ but ] they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity.
Freire could be said to has described the very trap into which the vanguard of the Modern Movement fell by dint of their false generosity: a pretense to solve the problems of the built environment in the machine age.
de Carlo:
The field which the Modern Movement intended to conquer (and did in fact conquer) was that already occupied by academic or business architecture; a field restricted to relations between clients and entrepreneurs, land owners, critics, connoisseurs, and architects; a field built on a network of economic and social class interests and held together by the mysterious tensions of a cultural and aesthetic class code. This was a field that excluded everything in economic, social, cultural and aesthetic terms that was not shared by the class in power. It is true that a few ‘heroes’ had intentions and produced works beyond these limits, but always leaning out of their elite positions, never stepping out to stand on the other side: the side of the people – those who use and bear architecture.
Or, as Garry Stevens puts it so eloquently in his book The Favored Circle:
In a way, then, it was inevitable in the heyday or modernism that the users’ opinions would count for nought. Thus, wen the heroes of the Modern movement moved across the Atlantic and up the hierarchy of the architectural field in the late 1930s and after the war, their advocacy of socialist housing solutions was discretely let slide into oblivion and their social objectives disappeared. Finding themselves in the most elite areas of American academia, in the Ivy League and associated universities, their natural affinities with the economically powerful reasserted themselves. The remnants of the threat to architecture’s autonomy was finally done away with by turning the Modern movement into the International Style, and the ancient alliance of the two fractions of the dominant classes re-affirmed by placing this style in the service of corporate America.
Three: Both Freire and de Carlo are calling for a dialogic and process based form of pedagogy / planning (delete as appropriate).
de Carlo:
The discipline and its ideology are connected by a reciprocal necessity … but identifying with the users’ needs does not meaning planning ‘for’ them, but planning ‘with’ them …
Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression … that is why … the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors. It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education.
A more coherent reading of Freire and de Carlo will follow in due course. Your thoughts, corrections and comments are most welcome, especially if you know more about these two writers than I do.

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The fourth week

If I could peer inside my mind at this moment, I suspect it would look a little like the tag cloud on the right hand side of this page – only with more words of more sizes and more colours.

The first month of the project has been spent with sudden burst of reading and researching, pulling papers off online journals, accessing various libraries and building a reading list. As a result my brain is humming from too many themes and concepts – I hope to be more focused in future so that I can read around a subject rather than read a bit of everything. However, the pile of books, papers and notes on my desk is actually comforting rather than bewildering. In amongst all this are the first inklings of concepts that support some of the hunches that inspired this PhD.

This coming weekend I must excuse myself as we travel south to England for a family celebration. I will be carefully constructing a lightweight to do list for the long train journeys there and back. Foremost in mind is the tentative construction of some initial paragraphs that could one day form preliminary chapters: fieldwork that defines some of the territory and formalises the hunches I mentioned earlier. In addition, although quite unrelated to the PhD, I have to prepare a pecha kucha presentation for an event in London. This twenty seconds / twenty slides format might offer a helpful hook on which to hang some discussion of my background and justification for an interest in the field.

Until then, I hope you enjoy your weekend, even if it isn’t as long as mine. I promise to make up for it when I get back.

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This weekend, I will be reading:

Getting back into the rusty art of reading more efficiently and reliably (funny how that suffers without practice) with a continuing aggressive assault on a broad reading list of books I’ve been meaning to get to. Till’s Architecture Depends needs revisiting because I owe the BD Book Club a review. Garry Stevens’ The Favored Circle has been a long time coming and I am enjoying it immensely; he refers to Architects’ People on a few occasions, so I’ll be dipping into that at some point as well.
Also, for occasional dipping, a seemingly bottomless bag of Swedish Easter chocolates and sweets…
From left to right:
ELLIS, R. and CUFF, D., eds, 1989. Architects’ People. 1 edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
TILL, J., 2009. Architecture Depends. 1 edn. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
STEVENS, G., 1998. The favored circle : the social foundations of architectural distinction. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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This weekend, I will be reading:

Welcome to the inaugural instalment of a new weekly feature on the learning architecture blog. In order to structure my reading schedule a little bit I’ll be posting a photograph of my bedside shelf each Friday or Saturday, illustrating what I’ll be leafing, rifling or meandering through over the weekend.
For the Easter weekend (and it’s a holiday weekend, so I’m including Monday to tackle more books than usual) I’ve been re-visiting two books and discovering two more. Giancarlo de Carlo’s 1969 paper Architecture’s Public (or Architecture, too important to be left to architects?) is the core focus of a second and enjoyable visit to the Architecture and Participation volume edited by some of my former tutors at the University of Sheffield. I’m noticing some very interesting connections between that paper and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
From left to right on the shelf:
BLUNDELL JONES, P., PETRESCU, D. and TILL, J., eds, 2005. Architecture and participation. London: Spon.
CUFF, D., 1991. Architecture : the story of practice. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
FISHER, T., 2008. Architectural design and ethics. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.
FREIRE, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Revised edition edn. London: Hammondsworth Penguin.

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Definitions of architectural practice: no. 2 the RIBA

Part two of my ongoing search for a definition of architectural practice (in order to help me define alternative architectural practice). The Royal Institute of British Architects offer these descriptions of their members:

  • Architects are trained to take your brief and can see the big picture.
  • Architects look beyond your immediate requirements to design flexible buildings that will adapt with the changing needs of your business.
  • Architects solve problems creatively
  • When they are involved at the earliest planning stage, they gain more opportunities to understand your business, develop creative solutions, and propose ways to reduce costs.
  • Architects can save you money by maximising your investment.
  • A well-designed building can reduce your bills now and increase its long-term value.
  • Architects can manage your project from site selection to completion.
  • In many building projects the role of the architect includes co-ordinating a team of specialist consultants such as landscape architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, interior designers, builders and subcontractors.
  • Architects can save you time.
  • By managing and co-ordinating key project elements they allow you to focus on your organisation’s activities.
  • Architects can help your business.
  • They create total environments, interior and exterior, which are pleasing and functional for the people who work and do business within them.

Why use an architect. Available: http://www.architecture.com/UseAnArchitect/WhyUseAnArchitect/WhyUseAnArchitect.aspx [4/8/2009, 2009].

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Definitions of architectural practice: no. 1 the ARB

As discussed earlier, one of the starting points of this process has been to address the known definitions of alternative architectural practice. But to define the alternative, I want to also define the non-alternative. I’ll be collating definitions of architectural practice under this heading. First up, is the Architects Registration Board (UK) which manages the statutory register of approved architects practising in the United Kingdom. This explanation of the 1997 Architects Act suggests some tentative definitions for non-alternative / mainstream / traditional architectural practice.

What else does the code cover?

The code expects architects to: act with integrity; provide adequate resources when undertaking professional work; promote their services in a truthful and responsible manner; carry out their work diligently, with due regard to the relevant standards; have regard to their client’s interests, and to conserving and enhancing the quality of the environment; maintain professional service and competence in areas relevant to their work; carry out the requirements of a contract with due care, knowledge and attention; ensure the security of moneys entrusted to their care; hold adequate and appropriate professional indemnity insurance; manage their personal and professional finances prudently; organise and run their professional work responsibly, with regard for their clients’ interests; and deal promptly and appropriately with disputes or complaints relating to the professional work either of themselves or their practice.

The Architects Act 1997: Q&A. Available: http://www.arb.org.uk/about/the-architects-act-1997-qanda.shtml [4/8/2009, 2009].

This is not to say that alternative architectural practice is the antithesis of this definition. But this is one of the ways in which the profession defines itself. More to follow.

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Beginnings: forming the premise of the project

Three clear, succinct questions to attempt to untangle my befuddled (and probably over-caffeinated) brain this afternoon.

  • What defines alternative architectural practice?
  • What forms of alternative architectural practice can be found in architectural education?
  • Who and what motivates these alternative practices?

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Disconnected thoughts: Pedagogy of the Oppressed


A week or two ago I decided to reserve judgement on Architecture Depends, the new book about the contingency of the architectural profession, by my former head of school Jeremy Till. I was aware that the book opened itself up to criticism by discussing the profession with only a handful of references to built works or architects in practice. In approaching the nature of the profession in such an open-ended manner, I suspect Till wanted to allow his observations be interpreted personally by the reader, rather than seen as an attack on specific movements, styles, buildings or designers. I regard it not as a specific attack on modern architectural practice, but a series of concise and carefully laid out observations about the flaws and opportunities of mainstream practice. A self-help guide for troubled architects, perhaps.

Re-reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed this week, I am beginning to understand why Architecture Depends isn’t entirely satisfactory. Pedagogy of the Oppressed was written in the context of a life time spent fighting for the rights to education of an underprivileged South American lower class. But its genius and relevance today to those with no interest in adult literacy is that it is written in such versatile language that it may be understood in most contexts where an contradiction exists between an oppressor and an oppressed.

It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves. It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to reolve the contradiction in which they are caught; and the contradiction will be resolved by the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation. If the goal of the oppressed is to become more fully human, they will not achieve their goal by merely reversing the terms of the contradiction, by simply changing poles.

Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 revised edition p. 38)

I was introduced to the text in a module during my Masters degree at the University of Sheffield entitled Reflections on Architectural Education. As Richard Saull explains in his preface to the English edition “there is no point in attempting to sum up, in a few paragraphs, what the author develops in a number of pages. That would be an offense the richness, depth and complexity of his thought.” So I’ll try to control my only-vaguely coherent thought processes with a thought about the text’s relevancy to a study of alternative practice in architectural education.

Freire exposes the “empty vessel” model of education – whereby a teacher with knowledge fills a student who has no knowledge as if one were a filled jug and the other an objectified receptacle – as an inherently oppressive relationship. Design – and especially architecture – education has long been cited by readers of Friere as a positive alternative to the “empty vessel” method of teaching, since much design education is structured around the problem-based scenarios that Freire favours.

In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation … the teacher-student and the students-teachers reflect simultaneously on themselves and the world without dichotomizing this reflection from action, and thus establish an authentic form of thought and action.

Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 revised edition p. 64)

Key to problem-posing education is dialogue.

Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges, teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. The become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.

Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 revised edition p. 61)

I’m now returning to third and fourth chapters of the book. What interests me is the creation of this problem-posing situation. The motivations of live projects and the people who initiate them in architectural education was raised as a possible line of inquiry during my last supervisions, so I want to go back to examine the ways in which problem-based learning is established and how curricula are designed. My understanding of Freire’s thesis is that the ‘oppressed’ must be part of the design of their curriculum if they are to achieve sustainable liberation. A hunch remains that the design of the curriculum remains an overlooked problem area in some problem-based educational systems. But then that also reminds me of the student involvement in such curriculum-designing exercises as described in Building Clouds Floating Walls, which is very close to both my to supervisor and myself.

Meanwhile, I leave you with a page from the superb Guy Delisle. Delisle spent a period of time living and working in North Korea, and Pyongyang: Journey in North Korea is a kind of extended travelogue about his experiences in the DPRK. Re-reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed in light of recent events reminds me of many further interpretations of Freire’s writings about the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy.


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Reading: Pedagogy of the Oppressed


In order to ensure this blog works effectively as a means for structuring and disciplining my daily routines, I’m posting this now as I sit down to read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I’ll be back to write some thoughts on it later today (so no excuse for me skiving off to the allotment instead).

EDIT (the next morning): well that didn’t work, did it. My notes are still all over the place, so I’ll continue to do some thinking and writing, and I’ll share them later.

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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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