learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Amos Rapoport on design theory

In the early nineteen-eighties, Amos Rapoport wrote:

…there is no valid theory of design involved in design teaching. In fact there is no theory of design worth that name. Without such a theory, design cannot be taught and is not really suitable as a university subject. Its approach is personal, subjective, illogical and not cumulative.

Twenty-five years later, are we still without a ‘valid theory of design’ in architectural education? Possibly…

  • RAPOPORT, A., 1984. Architectural Education: There is an urgent need to reduce or eliminate the dominance of the studio. Architectural Record 172(10), pp. 100-103.

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Conference papers in RefWorks?

RefWorks has been a revelation in my postgraduate studies. However, I have a simple question I have been unable to find an answer to. How does one file an individual, unpublished conference paper?

Unable to file it away with any satisfaction, I shall use this blog post as a handy future reminder to myself that at the AEE 2001 Conference Robert Brown and Denitza Moreau Yates delivered this paper which may or may not come in handy later…

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AJ: Students ready to work for free

A troubling set of results from a survey by the British  Architects Journal has revealed the nervousness of UK architecture students approaching the end of the 2008/2009 academic year and an undeniably difficult job market.

Students ready to work for free
Source: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/students-ready-to-work-for-free/5202333.article
‘Desperate’ students unable to gain a placement turn to unpaid work
21 May, 2009 | By Richard Waite

Almost half of architecture students looking for work experience in their year out would be willing to work for free, according to the AJ’s State of Architectural Education survey.

With almost two-thirds of students still unable to find suitable work experience (see pages 8-11), the AJ’s online study of more than 400 students revealed that 46 per cent of those seeking placements would not demand payment. Over 70 per cent said they would try to find paid work elsewhere to subsidise their architectural experience.

Jessica Noel, a third-year student at Strathclyde University, said an ‘air of desperation’ was forcing aspiring architects to offer themselves for nothing.

Noel said: ‘Some students feel desperate after finding that the university is unlikely to take on students into fourth year if they are unable to gain a work placement. Others are willing to work for free because they want to get through the system as quickly and painlessly as possible.’

But the RIBA said the trend was ‘potentially damaging’, both for graduates and for the profession. David Gloster, the RIBA’s head of education, said: ‘Although unpaid work can have value as experience, it is essentially exploitative if the relationship becomes protracted.’

Stuart Piercy of Piercy Conner Architects agreed: ‘I am fund­amentally against working for nothing. It is clearly a very privileged position for the lucky few whose parents can afford it, devalues what we do and sends the wrong messages to our clients.’

But Lorenzo Dwyer, a sixth-year student at Sheffield University, defended the decision by some students to work for free.

He said: ‘Non-paid employment is one of the few real options now remaining for out-of-work student architects. Free work is a strategic, long-term move to secure future paid employment and advance one’s architectural know-how.’

Of particular interest are the comments being posted by readers on the AJ’s online pages. The overwhelming majority disagree with the position taken by the second student quoted in the article (full disclosure: I graduated from Sheffield last year) and I am also very suspicous of any architecture student or architect who choose to enter into a contract of unpaid employment. At what point does an unpaid architectural intern become worthy of being paid? And why can’t his desk be occupied by another  Keiran Long, editor of the AJ, makes the case convincingly in his associated leader article:

Should you allow students to work for free in your practice? As a journalist, I can’t claim any moral high ground. People in my profession regularly work for free to get a foot in the door at the beginning of their careers.

We also know that architecture is not generally a high profit business, and especially not now. But there’s one important consideration. The culture of free working that exists in architecture perpetuates the stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated, upper-middle-class profession. If it has proven difficult enough to make the profession more diverse during the boom years, that will only be exacerbated if every practice takes the easy option of free labour.

There will, inevitably, be some architecture students with independent means who will be able to afford to work for free during this recession. There will also, however, be a much larger number of students who we may never see in the profession again. If the last recession in the UK is anything to go by, we are likely to see a generational blip that will be represented in the social make-up of the architectural profession for years to come. A dispersal of architecture graduates in the years 1990 – 1992 into other professions is still reported today in anecdotal evidence of a below-average proportion of practicing architects who are now in their forties. If the bold efforts of architecture schools to re-balance their intake and output to more closely represent Britain’s ethnic and social diversity is undone, the profession as a whole will be much worse off. And as a white, middle class and privately educated man I don’t think that’s an unreasonable suggestion.

As a fundamental principle, I oppose the idea of architecture students working in architectural practices for free. If a practice isn’t capable of employing people, that means that there isn’t the work to be done in the first place. And while almost any practice can keep employees busy with unpaid competition entries, if an architecture student is prepared to be working on them for free for another architect I don’t understand why they wouldn’t consider doing that entry on their own. You may get the luxury of a full equipped office and more practice-experienced colleagues to guide you, but you will be sacrificing the last remaining sparks of independence that a recession can ignite in graduates who are suddenly shocked into considering alternatives to the normative career path.

The architecture profession generally moves with the speed and manoueverability of an ocean liner. The saddest outcome of this recession is not that numerous projects are on indefinite hold, but that we risk perpetuating much that is bad with the profession: unhealthy, unsustainable and sometimes even exploitative working practices that once again favour the wealthy, the middle class and (I think it’s fair to propose) men. And this is on top of a normative practice situation in which architects routinely work unpaid overtime, either because they regard their work as a labour of art or because they aren’t capable of explaining the value of their work to their clients. As one of my supervisors said recently, ‘you don’t haggle with a dentist, so why haggle with an architect?’

To bring this back into the focus of this blog, I should re-assert that I’m studying practices in architectural education that engage students with non-academic situations, contexts and people. An interesting discourse seems to suggest itself from all this about the opportunity for architecture schools to contribute to a broader professional and non-professional awareness of how architects and architecture students practice and what we are capable of doing. Returning to a model of unpaid articuled pupilage does not seem to me to be a positive development.

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This weekend, I will be (trying to stay awake while) reading:

At 55.858º North, the sun rose this morning at 04:48 and won’t set until 21:40, which means that my largely seasonal insomnia has made an unwelcome return. Until a trip to Ikea for some new curtains can be managed, the only solution is a United Airlines eye mask. By mid-afternoon I’m pretty grumpy, but that hasn’t deterred me from a sustained assault on the key texts of Donald Schön, the widely known and highly regarded thinker and researcher on professional practice. Schön identified the design studio of schools of architecture as the apogee of professional learning, a blanket admiration with which I have some issues.

Behind this visit to Schön’s texts is a recent paper in the Journal of the Built Environment (JEBE) by Helena Webster entitlted Architectural Education After Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond (pdf link). Although I’d read a handful of chapters by Schön, it was reading this paper that finally crystalised the wider contextual importance of Schön in relation to architectural education. Feeling rather sheepish that I hadn’t read them, I skidaddled over the library to do some catching up.

Reading Webster’s paper before Schön’s The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (1983), The design studio: An exploration of its traditions and potential (1985) and Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions (1987) means I’m probably resorting to Webster’s critical stance by default rather than approaching the texts neutrally. However, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, because when approaching what some might regard as the ‘sacred’ texts of a theoretical discourse, this kind of approach can be something of a release:

Schön identified a number of key elements in architectural education that together constituted his theories of ‘reflective learning’ and the ‘reflective practitioner’. Central to Schön’s understanding of learning to design were two concepts. Firstly, the necessity for students to engage in studio-based projects that simulated the complexities of real life projects. Secondly, the importance of reflection in the design process that was constituted of: reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action and most critically reflection-on-action that allowed students to observe and re-align their thinking with the ‘expert’ thinking of their tutors. Arguably, Schön’s notions of reflective learning have framed most of the discussions about architectural education to date. This paper will argue, somewhat paradoxically, that Schön was a remarkably unreflective thinker.

So I am swilling about in a big sleep deprived pool of self reflectiveness. More thoughts to follow when I’ve had some time to sleep and ruminate.

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It’s all about timing


Two weeks ago (after months and months of not giving any) I gave two presentations in one day. Above is a slide from the first, a formal meeting on campus illustrating how I see myself working over the next three years. Below is a slide from the second, my first pecha kucha delivered in London, illustrating where I do much of my work. Both presentations went better than I had been expecting.


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This weekend, I will be reading:

A weekend of diverse and only tenuously justifiable reading: two books overdue for disconnected ramblings for the BD Book Club, one from a charity shop and one responding to a shameful gap in my understanding of architectural history. To bed, and to read…

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Ken Robinson: schools kill creativity

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This week: AA PhD symposium

Four cities in three days; it’s that busy time of the month when I have a cycle of supervisions but with the added treat of trips to Dublin and London. On Friday I hope to find time to attend all or some of the sessions being given as part of the Architectural Association‘s annual PhD Symposium. The title this year is Ideology in Transparency; a programme and abstracts can be found online:

If you’re attending, please say hello. As usual I’m the one with scruffy clothes, bad hair but rather nice spectacles.

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AJ: Glasgow students told ‘not to come back’ after summer break

The AJ is dropping off my radar (perhaps because I’ve ditched Twitter?) so I apologise for being more than a week late on this one…

Glasgow students told ‘not to come back’ after summer break
24 April, 2009 | By Ren Deakin
Source: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/glasgow-students-told-not-to-come-back-after-summer-break/5200879.article

Third-year students at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, have been told to ‘do anything, but don’t come back here’ after this year’s summer break Among the suggestions offered by the school of architecture was for students to teach surfing in Australia.

Many Part One students had been hoping to continue with their studies at the university after being unable to find year-out work experience placements due to the impact of the credit crunch on practices.

However, the university told students that if a significant number decided to stay on it would put pressure on resources. It proposed they look at filling their year any way they can.

One of the students, who had attended an informal meeting held by staff for year-three and year-five students, said. ‘It was a feeling of disillusionment. People interpreted it as a “Don’t come back” message.’

Head of Strathclyde University’s school of architecture Gordon Murray felt that the actions were justified and that taking time out would ‘better equip’ students for their fourth year. He said: ‘We advised against returning in the case of year three.

‘All schools recognise, with evidence to back it up, that students who spend time out after year three – gaining life experiences – return as better students and improved in themselves.’

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Reading: Patricio del Real in the JAE

It is the perennial fear of many mid- to late-stage PhD students that as the final submission deadline and viva approaches, one discovers that someone else has just finished a study identical in every form to your own, except better, as it inevitably would be. A slightly different sensation – and a far more positive one – is to discover early on in your work an article that just hits the spot by confirming a suspicion that has seeded some of the thought processes in your own work. I’ve had that experience this week, and I’m delighted.
A  buzzword around much of the contemporary discussion of architectural agency is alternative. This PhD is about things that are alternative and the latest issue (62-4) of the Journal of Architectural Education (JAE) has taken the theme of Alternative Architectures | Alternative Practices (I’ve learnt to realise that the vertical line between the two themes is one of those interchangeable special characters that are obligatory in the names of architecture conferences, urban interventionist co-operatives etc.) This is fertile ground. Eighteen months ago, in November 2007, we were treated to a superb symposium at my alma mater entitled Alternate Currents. I remain unconvinced that the words ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’ were not accidentally confused during the planning stages, because the symposium’s broad selection of speakers confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are more than two ‘currents’. A few months later, in March 2008 in Houston, the ACSA hosted a ‘focus session’ at their annual meeting that formed the prelude issue 62-4 of the JAE published this month. Even before the current economic storm, their seemed to be healthy debate about what practices might be considered better than those found in the majority of the architectural profession.
So, as a doctoral candidate who is interested in alternative practices in architectural education, there is plentiful activity in the field to allow for open ended discussion. In their introduction to JAE 62-4, Michael Flowers, Judson Moore and Lori Ryker establish immediately that (my emphasis):
The consequence of the [ process of peer reviewing for the journal ] for us was a broadened discussion of what it means to operate in the margin of the Alternative, and how proposed alternatives respond in time to relevant issues identified by those who propose them … Regardless of the forces that drive an alternative, all are tied to evolving value systems and respond, explicitly or implicitly, to the existing center.
Always in flux, alteratives simultaneously operate between global and local conditions, developing universal and specific traits that characterize their identity and form their effective territory. For this reason, attempting a comprehensive definition of Alternative, as it relates to the practice of architecture, seems counter to the idea’s very nature. Instead, we have elected to behin with this simple statement: an alternative is something beyond convention.
Guess that scoffs at my early attempts at defining alternative practices (although nailing down the terminology has helped enormously in this occasionally waffle-tastic field of thought). This refusal to pin down any one definition of alternative practices does support the findings of the IYO Live Project of 2006, when it became apparent that different practices could only be satisfactorily defined by mapping them across a set of parameters. This introduces a much more helpful ‘DNA’ of comparative profiles of different aspects of alternative practices.
But I am interested in the notion that whatever makes a practice ‘alternative’, it must therefore relate to the value systems of the existing centre that is responds to.
About this time last month, I blogged this scan of a cartoon strip page I produced for my design studio during the first year of my M.Arch (RIBA part II). As an explanation to ‘who I was’ and what I was interested in and motivated by in my practice, I discussed the then fresh memories of a visit to Alabama and the internationally acclaimed Rural Studio of Auburn University’s School of Architecture. The second framed panel was a declaration of disappointment in what had (for myself and many Sheffield contemporaries) become a poster-boy for alternative practice in architectural education.
In the sleepy back roads of Alabama, I experienced a realisation of profound disappointment. This famous school of architecture engaged students with the building process, but had largely produced a body of uneconomic and impractical buildings that were still obsessed with being photogenic.
Chief amongst these disappointments were the vegetable stand on Alabama County Road 42 and the Glass Chapel in Mason’s Bend: two iconic structures that had been transmitted around the world as examples of a living, breathing humane pedagogy that brought architecture students out of the ivory tower and into the communities where the gift of architecture could change some of the poorest realities in America. Both were dilapidated and overgrown, disused and irrelevant and not populated, thriving community buildings as so artfully photographed in the books about the Rural Studio we had studied.
In “Ye Shall Receive” – The Rural Studio and the Gift of Architecture Patricio del Real writes about the Rural Studio in the terms of the relational economy of the gift, as described by Marcel Mauss (a new one for my reading list). Indicative of the risk that del Real is taking by criticising such a widely and highly regarded school of architecture is this segment:
Stepping outside the magic circle of the academy and into the community, the Rural Studio engages a collaborative practice that integrates knowledge and service. However, as its remarkable work demonstrates, the Rural Studio steps into the space of “the real” by casting the spell of architecture over the community, grounding its enchantment through ritual negotiations that reproduce elite values aimed at transforming the lives of common people. My intent is not to criticize the humanitarian efforts, the hard work, the generosity, the sincere desire to help the less fortunate, or the commitment to architecture as a social practice, but to expose the networks of values that the Rural Studio has grafted, for better of worse, onto that “place where the possible had nearly been forgotten.”
If the Rural Studio gives the gift of architecture to the people of Hale County, Alabama, what are they obliged to provide in return? Del Real explains that the very act of receiving the gift of architecture is the necessary reciprocation. An “asymmetrical relationship” has been established between students and benefactors, further victimising those who are already members of poor communities.
The impressive work of the Rural Studio develops hand-in-hand with the creation of an over-determined pre-Rural Studio landscape that insists on the narrative of failure, poverty, and historical imbalances, suffered by passive subjects. This process of victimization is easily captured and exemplified in the elderly, as if their lives had not been a constant and successful struggle for survival, but it extends to all who receive gifts. The pulsating demand for reciprocity hidden within any gift guides the incorporation and re-valorization of the fringe practices of the poor, as well as the spatial politics that govern these projects: visitors are always welcome. This is clear when one visits Mason’s Bend, and discovers that the homes of the poor are always open for ‘‘inspection’’ by the curious. But this tenuous property line becomes impenetrable in the Goat House 1998), defended from all incursions by its white, upper-class owners.
This observation certainly rings true with my experiences visiting the buildings constructed by Rural Studio students. A somewhat awkward obligation to welcome in visiting architectural pilgrims collided with the apparently personal contexts of the homes that had been built. Del Real admits this obliged openness with a startling turn of phrase.
The unease with which the furniture of “the poor” inhabit these houses clearly manifests the difficulty of ownership. This is especially poignant in the Lucy (Carpet) House (2002) where the naked concrete clashes with the plush couch in the family room or the baroque wooden dresser/vantiy collides with the jagged geometry of the bedroom tower. One has to roam inside thses houses to understand the limits of representation and see the rebellions against architecture orchestrated by their inhabitants.
The article is brilliantly constructed. As the product of a ‘fellow’ PhD candidate it’s a daunting contribution to an area of study that overlaps with my field. However it proposes a coherent argument that questions the value systems of an outwardly charitable design/build programme, and I anticipate others’ responses to it.

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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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