learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education


I was in Sheffield earlier this month to deliver some long overdue work. Arriving in the city on a beautiful summer’s day, I found my old friend the Arts Tower sheathed in scaffolding and in the process of being wrapped in white plastic for a two year programme of refurbishment. As usual, I caught my first glimpse of the building as the train approached the city from the north-east, only this time it caught my eye for a different reason, it’s partial shiny white skin an unexpected change from the heavily weathered façade panels and single glazing that are due to be replaced.
The frankly awesome twenty-something stories of scaffolding that now envelopes the tower is practically a building in its own right. Oddly, the subtle additional width it gives to the building was (just) perceptible from the train. For so many years I’ve turned corners in Sheffield and seen it standing out from the hillside and come to recognise its form; to see it slightly wider than usual caused a strange double-take.
I spent a couple of very pleasant hours in the adjacent Main Library. This is also being refurbished, and my fingers are so tightly crossed that they don’t balls it up I may not be able to type for a while. The University of Sheffield Main Library is a beautiful place to study, one of very few Modernist buildings that I genuinely like. The means of entering and ascending up two broad flights of stairs takes you from the street to the lending hall in a gracious but functional way. The subsequent transition to the beautifully calm double height reading room that overlooks Weston Park is similarly special, carrying you from the noise of the university plazas to the tranquility of the reading room. The soft leather-topped desks are blissful to write notes on, and the atmosphere is reliably work-inducing. Any re-shaping of the Main Library in the form of the truly dreadful Information Commons across the street (the place to check Facebook and drink crap but expensive coffee) will be a heart breaking loss.
From the architecture collection (and at an upward looking angle that brings out the blueish tint of the windows) I caught sight of the scaffolding team fixing the white plastic sheeting. I imagine that this external skin will, by now, have enveloped the whole structure in preparation for the long façade refurbishment that will continue through at least one Sheffield winter.

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PhD rant: people who make stupid notes and marks in library books

Forgive me, but it’s time to vent a little. This drives me absolutely friggin’ nuts…


If you don’t own the book, don’t mark the book. Don’t underline. Don’t circle. Don’t note. If it belongs to a library, it belongs to all of us. We’ve gone to the trouble of travelling to the library, joining the library and searching the library for this book because we want to read the what the author(s) have written. Not to absorb the mindless, inconsiderate demonstration of your stupidity and selfishness.


And for Christ’s sake, don’t go to the trouble of marking the following quote (from Experiential Learning, Kolb 1984)

The integrated person is person as subject. In contrast, the adaptive person is person as object.

…with such a dumb, inane and irrelevantly personal observation as…

But if you have Aspergers it is more difficult because the world is experienced in different dimensionality.

Likewise, the following, from John Dewey’s Experience & Education (1938)….


I despair. It’s because of lazy goons like these that I feel compelled to spend too much money buying pristine books online. Or maybe I’m just being really picky. Having now spent several months using the libraries of Queens University Belfast, Glasgow University, the University of Strathclyde, the Glasgow School of Art and the University of Sheffield, I can report (somewhat unfairly) that Scottish university library books are the worst affected by this vandalism. In the same way I have come to detest the general lack of respect Glaswegians show for their city (unbelievable littering, fly-tipping etc in otherwise beautiful city streets) I have come to expect – and as yet have not been often disappointed – this kind of unwanted notation in books from Scottish libraries.

What is it about Scottish students? Or what is perhaps about Scottish libraries and their books that encourages this behaviour? Or more importantly, what is it about me that sparks off these hopelessly unscientific jingoism? Answers on a postcard, please. And if it’s any consolation, I feel a lot better now.

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RIBA launches scheme to pair unemployed graduates with spare desks

During a seminar hosted by the Academy of Urbanism in Dublin a few months ago, I heard of a proposal from Irish architecture academics to help architecture graduates facing a bleak job market. With little work available, and an increasing amount of unoccupied desk space in the offices of architecture practices, the proposal was to pair unemployed students and graduates with firms so that they could use spare desks and work around architects on their own portfolios, competition entries etc.

I thuoght it was a good idea, although when I proposed it to a practising architect he reminded me of the various insurance and legal obligations, not to mention the risks in allowing a portfolio-printing graduate near the stationery cupboard. However, I still support the idea in principle. And so, it seems, does the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). This just in, details from the latest ‘RIBA Focus’ e-bulletin, announcing a British version of that proposal, this time with a trendy name that conflates two words in the modern style…

HostPractice Scheme

The RIBA has launched a scheme to help students and graduates who are unable to find suitable work placements in the current economic climate. The “HostPractice” scheme enables RIBA student members and graduates to gain access to an online network of practices and universities interested in hosting students in their offices. These students will have the opportunity to use the practice’s facilities to work on competition entries, private commissions and research, as well as being offered an overview of practice activities.

The scheme also intends to introduce graduates to universities that have identified suitable research projects related to the practice of architecture, with the potential for offering fellowships to suitable candidates. This research may be eligible for recording on the PEDR as post part 1 practical experience.

The database and online application service can be found at http://www.architecture.com. Practices and universities can register their interest in the scheme by emailing online.services@inst.riba.org

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June 2009: a month in books

I’m getting to the habit of collating the books, articles and journals I’ve been reading over the month prior to each supervision. So, in advance of meeting and reflecting on this month’s work later this week, here is a broad sweep of what I’ve been studying, reading or dipping in and out of over the last month.

* = only partially read
** = part of an as-yet-unrelated-to-my-studies strand of reading on modernism…

  • ** BOUDON, P., 1973. Lived-in architecture. London: Lund Humphries
  • DEWEY, J., 1963. Experience & Education. New York: Collier Books.
  • GOLDSCHMIDT, G., 1995. The designer as a team of one. Design Studies, 16(2), pp. 189-209.
  • HATHERLEY, O., 2009. Militant Modernism. Winchester: Zero Books.
  • * / ** HIGGOTT, A., 2007. Mediating Modernism. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • ILLICH, I., 1973. Celbration of Awareness. London: Penguin.
  • JONES, J.C., 1992. Design Methods. 2nd edn. New York: John Wiley.
  • JONES, J.C., 1991. Designing Designing. London: Architecture Design and Technology Press.
  • JONES, J.C., 1963. A Method of Systematic Design. In: J.C. JONES and D.G. THORNLEY, eds, Conference on Design Methods. 1st edn. Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 53-73.
  • * JONES, J.C. and THORNLEY, D.G., eds, 1963. Conference on Design Methods 1st edn. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • KIM, J., 2006. Exploring social construction in architectural pedagogy. Open House International, 31(3), pp. 51-59.
  • KOLB, D.A., 1984. Experiential learning : experience as the source of learning and development. 1st edn. London: Prentice-Hall.
  • LAVE, J., 1991. Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • LIFCHEZ, R., ed, 1987. Rethinking architecture : design students and physically disabled people. 1st edn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • LLOYD, P. and SCOTT, P., 1994. Discovering the design problem. Design Studies, 15(2), pp. 125-140.
  • * 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.
  • * SIMPSON, D.J., JACKSON, M.J.B. and AYCOCK, J.C., eds, 2005. John Dewey and the Art of Teaching. 1st edn. London: Sage.
  • THOMAS MITCHELL, C., 1995. Action, perception, and the realization of design. Design Studies, 16(1), pp. 4-28.

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Perks: home made pesto

A big chunk of Sunday was spent on the allotment, lifting our first potatoes and generally letting the sunshine and soil provide a break from reading. This evening we boiled our first potatoes, and ate them with home made pesto. Life is much much better than twelve months ago…

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Sunday driving: the Rural Studio, Alabama

I’ve been clicking, double-clicking and scrolling my way through some of the back roads of Hale County, Alabama this weekend, having discovered that the Google Maps car has caught on camera some of the sites and buildings of the Rural Studio, the famous outreach of Auburn University….

A handful of famous projects are visible (that’s Newbern’s fire hall on the left of the view above) although the camera car has stuck mainly to highways and the occasional odd detour down a county road, perhaps when lost or trying to double back. Use this interactive map from American Public Media to plot your own journey.

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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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