learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

This weekend, I will be reading:

A variety of older hardbacks from the libraries of Glasgow, and finally a paper copy of the inaugural issue of PEAR (the Paper for Emerging Architectural Research). Spot the architecture/train-spotting distraction…
  • JOHNSTON, COLIN & HUME, JOHN R, 1979. Glasgow Stations. 1st edn. Newton Abbot: David & Charles
  • KOLB, D.A., 1984. Experiential learning : experience as the source of learning and development. 1st edn. London: Prentice-Hall.
  • JONES, J.C. and THORNLEY, D.G., eds, 1963. Conference on Design Methods 1st edn. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

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This weekend, I was not reading at all.

Apologies, but my usual habit of posting details on my weekend reading plans came to nought this week. After a few days down south, we headed directly to the Isle of Arran for camping, eating, drinking and inhaling midges. Normal service has now resumed, although my legs are still itchy as hell…

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Position Paper

I’ve uploaded the latest version of my position paper to a dedicated page on the blog (perma-link under ‘About the Project’ in the adjacent column). Like much on this blog, it is work in progress and is liable to change and evolve. However it does come as close as I have been able to elucidate my motivations, interests and aspirations for this project.

Portions of the actual paper describing methodology, outcomes and effects have been left out for now, but may be included as and when they are firmed up.

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Student project: Jouberton Nursery School, South Africa


A particular highlight from my visit to the University of Nottingham’s School of the Built Environment summer show were panels relating to Noah’s Ark Nursery School in Jouberton (~ 150km south of Johannesburg. South Africa) designed and built by second year undergraduate students at the school. Professor Michael Stacey, of the University of Nottingham, discusses the school in this week’s BD. My understanding is that the nursery represents the first of a new programme of student projects, and I will be following Nottingham’s progress with interest.

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Summer show season starts

If you’re interested in seeing the output of Britain’s architecture schools, now is the time to catch the various summer shows on at schools around the country. This week I ticked off two, visiting the University of Nottingham’s Exhibit! 09 and the University of Sheffield’s Summer Exhibition. With free entry, they’re an unmissable opportunity to see inside your local school of architecture, and to clock which ones are proudly parading their investment in CNC-cutters, 3D printers etc…

I hope to catch some more in the coming weeks, including those in Glasgow very shortly.

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BD: Is this the worst year to be an architecture graduate?

From Friday’s Building Design (BD). As ever, the online comments make a subscription to the newspaper itself much less interesting.

Is this the worst year to be an architecture graduate?
12 June 2009

No, says Peter Murray, previous recessions have proved highly creative for architecture – a view which Jeremy Till considers elitist and not taking into account the far higher levels of student debt…


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Who’s the client?

I do not own a car, and drive so infrequently that I usually discover in the intervening period a number of once familiar roads have been rendered inaccessible by new one-way systems. So the one week of the summer that I’m in Glasgow with a car (I’m normally a walker or train passenger) I am not at all surprised to discover that a suspicious fire has torn through the Coliseum Theatre on Eglinton Street, causing a particularly problematic road closure. Built in 1905, later converted into a bingo hall and more recently a shamefully derelict reminder of the what the Gorbals were like before the tenement slums were cleared, there seemed to be no discussion about what to do with the wreckage; it had to be demolished, taking out an adjacent kebab shop and blocking Eglinton Street. With that street closed for a couple of blocks, all my attempts to drive smoothly from the Southside to the city centre have been foiled. A diversionary route foiled me with just one wrong lane, sending me east instead of north. An attempt to make a personal detour through Pollokshields found me discovering numerous unfamiliar on-ramps to the M8 and M77 motorways. If the car had been a cabriolet, I could have started offering open top tours of the city, having driven past Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School about three times on one attempt to reach the city.

For that reason, many thoughts this week have been gestating while I’ve been behind the wheel of a car. And when not otherwise behind the wheel and cursing sudden road closures or confusing diversions, I’ve been reading Rethinking Architecture: Design Students and Physically Disabled People by Raymond Lifchez.


Lifchez edits and contributes to this powerful collection of chapters from key participants in a two year design programme at the University of California at Berkeley that introduced disabled ‘design consultants’ to an architecture design studio. Although the programme (initiated and overseen by Lifchez) took place some thirty years ago, the observations of the contributors are startlingly relevant. What comes across is a powerful sense of considering inclusive design for physically able and disabled people as more than just the addition of ramps and grab handles. With this comes the daunting realisation that in designing for accessibility, architects must accept that there is no standard ‘user’ – it is futile (and yet still so commonplace) to design the built environment for an average.

The drafting and redrafting of a position paper that I’ve been writing has brought into focus my particular interest in architectural education initiatives that introduce students either to real clients or real building processes. So this thirty-year old experiment in architectural education is most interesting. From a chapter in the book  by Fran Katsuranis, at the time a sociology doctoral candidate, shone out this quote, which touches upon an interesting strand in this study.

A number of students mentioned that since the projects were designed in the context of a class and Raymond Lifchez was the primary instructor, he was actually the primary client. As one student expressed it, “The client is the one who pays. Ray is the chief client – he pays with grades.”

Patricio del Real’s recent article in the Journal of Architectural Education introduced a number of powerful arguments for re-assessing the economy of community-based architectural education practices. And this quote from a student involved in the project reminds me of further parallels between education and practice. The ‘client’ in any community-based project has an unsual role to play, and I remain very interested in exploring how it is established. Is the student of architecture ultimately interested in satisfying the ‘one who pays’ over any other participant?

  • LIFCHEZ, R., ed, 1987. Rethinking architecture : design students and physically disabled people. 1st edn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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This weekend, I will be reading:

From left to right:
  • SIMPSON, D.J., JACKSON, M.J.B. and AYCOCK, J.C., eds, 2005. John Dewey and the Art of Teaching. 1st edn. London: Sage.
  • PAECHTER, C., PREEDY, M., SCOTT, D. and SOLER, J., eds, 2001. Knowledge, Power and Learning. 1st edn. London: P. Chapman in association with Open University.
  • LIFCHEZ, R., ed, 1987. Rethinking architecture : design students and physically disabled people. 1st edn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Sunset in Crosby

It’s a hot sunny evening in Crosby, north of Liverpool. I’ve been in town for the International/Transnational Spaces of Education seminar today, organised by the University of Surrey and hosted by the University of Liverpool. It was the first of four on the theme of New Spaces of Education: The changing nature of learning in the 21st century. Stepping outside my own discipline for a couple of hours introduced some remarkable facts and themes, and also gave me some pre-supervision time to reflect on what I’ve been doing this month. Much of my reading this month has been of and around Donald Schon’s key texts; a longer blog post discussing that is still being formulated. However, as with last month, it’s been helpful to revisit the books and articles that I’ve been reading this month…

  • BECKLEY, R.M., 1984. The studio is where a professional architect learns to make judgments. Architectural Record, 172(10), pp. 103-105.
  • KROLL, L. and MIKELLIDES, B., 1981. Can Architecture Be Taught? JAE, 35(1), pp. 36-39.
  • LAVE, J. and WENGER, E., 1991. Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation. 1st edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • MAYO, J.M., 1988. Critical Reasoning for an Enlightened Architectural Practice. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 41(4), pp. 46-57.
  • MUMFORD, E., 2000. The CIAM discourse on urbanism, 1928-1960. 1st edn. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
  • NICOL, D. and PILLING, S., eds, 2000. Changing Architectural Education: Towards a New Professionalism. London: E & FN Spon.
  • PEARSON, J., 2002. University-community design partnerships innovations in practive. 1st edn. Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts.
  • SALAMA, A., 2008. A Theory for Integrating Knowledge in Architectural Design Education. http://archnet.org/library/documents/one-document.jsp?document_id=10329 edn. Archnet-IJAR.
  • SCHÖN, D., 1987. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • SCHÖN, D., 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.
  • TILL, J., 2005. Lost Judgement. In: E. HARDER, ed, EAAE Prize 2003-2005 Writings in architectural education. 1st edn. Copenhagen: EAAE, pp. 164-181.
  • WEBSTER, H., 2008. Architectural Education after Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond. Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 3(2), pp. 63-74.
  • WILSON, M.A., 1996. THE SOCIALIZATION OF ARCHITECTURAL PREFERENCE. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16(1), pp. 33.

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I’ve out-Schön myself

schon1 schon3 schon2

A week or so ago I wrote about insomnia and Donald Schön. You’ll be pleased to learn that I’m sleeping much better now, having hung two pairs of curtains to the same curtain pole in our bedroom, and that I’ve also now had time to read through three of Schön’s more important books: The Reflective Practitioner (1983), The Design Studio: An Exploration of its Traditions and Potentials (1985) and Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987). The first and third of these will be familiar to Schön readers the world over, the second perhaps less so. It was a reframe (perhaps read that as ‘rehash’) of his first book with particular reference to architectural education for the Royal Institute of British Architects. You can tell that it was the only one of the three published by an architecture institute by comparing the covers of the three paperbacks above.

Again, as I wrote last weekend, I should state that I’ve been aware of Schön’s contribution to the field of education for some time, but have only recently come to his key texts in their entireties, and have done so following a reading of a politely critical article in the Journal of the Built Environment (JEBE) by Helena Webster entitlted Architectural Education After Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond (pdf link). The first two months of PhD studies have been occupied with a flurry of reading, catching up on some black holes in my reading lists and cross referencing bibliographies to see where else I might end up. While Schön’s books are more than twenty years old, I am beginning to appreciate how they might be seen as sacred cows in their field (to mix metaphors rather pleasingly, as if a sacred cow can chew the cud).

But that is not to say that they are taken without criticism. Webster’s article in JEBE offers a constructive critique that suggests we re-read Schön while remembering his theoretical flaws…

…it could be argued that Schön’s singular focus on design studio learning results in an overly narrow description of architectural learning. Firstly, Schön fails to recognise that there are other cognitive, affective and corporeal dimensions to learning that take place both within the design studio and in other settings (the lecture theatre, the refectory, parties, etc.). Secondly, Schön fails to recognise that students experience architectural education as the sum of its explicit and hidden dimensions and it is this total experience that effects the development of students from novices to professional architects. If architectural education is more complex, both as a structure and as a discipline, than Schön suggests then there is a need to look elsewhere for an explanatory framework. (Webster, 2008, p.66)

Webster is not the only theoretician to question Schön’s viewpoint.

Schön’s approach is so often quoted because it supports the status quo, and since that support comes from an distinguished outsider it gives it a special credence – but in fact a close reading of his description, and in particular the language he deploys, shows just how flawed his analysis is. In his description of a ‘typical’ studio project, he outlines how a studio master (Quist) first sets a problem and then guides the student (Petra) through a series of actions and ways of thinking in order to arrive at a solution. Schön interprets the process as one developing “artistry” and “reflective ways of doing”, but what is really apparent is the power structure of the relationship. Quist’s performance is described as “virtuoso”, but at every stage he exerts his authority over the mystified student, cutting into her explanations, tracing over her drawings and eventually getting her to draw his preferred solution. Whilst Schön interprets this as drawing out the reflective capacity of the student, it is the tutor’s knowledge and his solution that is deemed appropriate; her struggle is patronisingly dismissed (“stutteringly” trying to solve a problem beyond her understanding). It is a classic display of domination, right down to its gendered structure and eventual denouement in the jury. (Till, 2005, p. 167)

The case study Till refers to, a ‘desk crit’ between an architecture tutor and student (renamed Quist and Petra respectively) is called upon by Schön in all three of the books mentioned above. And as Webster points out, it wasn’t even one that he himself had observed, being a transcribed recording of a tutorial made by one of his research students during an MIT study into architectural education during the nineteen seventies. Webster makes a number of critiques about Schön’s methodological approach here, but on a more basic level, I have one question. Why did Schön – such a fervent believer in the pedagogical value of the design studio as means of educating professionals – repeatedly use the same single example to support his argument? How could just one transcribed teacher/student interaction provide such complete evidence for a pedagogical theory?

  • SCHÖN, D., 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.
  • SCHÖN, D.A., 1985. The design studio: an exploration of its traditions and potentials. London: RIBA Publications
  • SCHÖN, D., 1987. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • STEVENS, G., 1998. The favored circle : the social foundations of architectural distinction. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  • TILL, J., 2005. Lost Judgement. In: E. HARDER, ed, EAAE Prize 2003-2005 Writings in architectural education. 1st edn. Copenhagen: EAAE, pp. 164-181.
  • WEBSTER, H., 2008. Architectural Education after Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond. Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 3(2), pp. 63-74.

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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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