learning architecture

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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

This weekend, I will be reading:

  • BLACKMORE, R. & McCONNACHIE, J., eds, 2009, Rough Guide Directions: Paris. London: Rough Guides
  • KOSTOF, S., ed, 1977. The Architect : chapters in the history of the profession. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • JENKINS, F., 1961. Architect and Patron. London: Oxford.
  • CARPENTER, W., 1997. Learning by Building : design and construction in architectural education. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
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AJ: Glasgow Lighthouse to go into administration

Am I surprised? No. Am I saddened? Yes. I understand that 57 people are employed by Glasgow’s architecture centre.

Source: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/the-lighthouse-to-go-into-administration/5207164.article?referrer=RSS

The Lighthouse to go into administration

25 August, 2009 | By Andrea Klettner

Scotland’s centre for architecture, the Lighthouse, is set to go into administration

The news, which has been blamed on a lack of income from commercial activities, follows a board meeting last night.

In a statement released to the AJ chairman of the board of trustees-Eleanor MacAllister OBE said: ‘It has been a heartbreaking decision for me and the board to bring in administrators to the Lighthouse Trust.

‘We know the devastating effect this will have on our staff and on the partners working with us on our projects. We have done everything possible to avoid this, but the options before us were very limited in the current economic downtown.

‘Last year we put in place, with additional support from our main funders the City Council and the Scottish Government, a crisis package to secure our immediate future to enable us to continue our education and exhibition programmes at the Lighthouse.

‘Unfortunately that new package was very dependent on maintaining the income generated from our commercial activities. The Lighthouse business model has always required commercial income to subsidise its extensive programme.’

…continues

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Competition time: Northern Ontario School of Architecture

Competition Poster.ai

Calling all unemployed architecture graduates… the city of Sudbury, Ontario has launched an ideas competition for the proposed Northern Ontario School of Architecture. I’m delighted to be re-establishing contact with a friend and now collaborator to pitch an entry, so if you’re not phased by the cost and logistics of mailing up to 4 A1 foamboard panels to a former mining community in the Canadian Shield, then get cracking. The deadline is 10 October 2009.

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Reading: Architecture – art or profession?

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In the quiet rainy afternoon I had set aside to prepare a critique of Mark Crinson and Jules Lubbock’s 1994 book Architecture – Art or Profession? we repaired to our favourite Southside Glasgow café for potent coffee and delectable freshly baked scones. My output was low, however, as I foolishly picked up a copy my preferred newspaper the Guardian, and become incensed once more at the nerve of a certain royal who likes to express his opinion about modern architecture rather aggressively. This follows a similar such article relating to another such incident, which subsequently inspired said newspaper to churn out a fairly predictable piece critiquing said royal’s pet project, a badly-built haven of kitsch-dom that was designed without consideration for crime reduction or contemporary living requirements. The architectural press has also picked up on the story. This reponse to this flurry of investigative journalism has been trenchant and opinionated, descending into unfounded statements that generally miss the point. For example: “Prince Charles speaks for most people’s ideas about buildings, towns and cities, and architects can’t stand that.” It’s true that architects can’t stand Charles’ opinion, but not because Charles even has the slimmest clue of what “most people” think. In the beautiful, eloquent and razor-sharp words of one Guardian reader, Prince Charles is “a none too bright, semi-unemployed middle-aged man, who by an accident of birth, has been brought up with the impression that his views actually mean something.” I, however, am more than willing to chip in my £0.69 per year to pay for the Royal Family, and will also gladly pick up the tab for a couple of republicans, but I feel aggrieved that a Royal thinks he can push a largely accountable planning system around to his taste. Architects generally “can’t stand” Charles speaking his mind because architects never get the chance to air their opinions as freely and as widely as he does. And most architects have substantially more qualifications to comment on architecture than 5 O-levels, 2 A-levels and the lowest possible degree classification the University of Cambridge offers short of a fail (that wasn’t even in architecture).

Why the tirade? Architecture – Art or Profession? is a detailed, rigorous and appreciably complete history of architectural education in Great Britain. However, it features a laudatory forward from HRH the Prince of Wales, and the authors benefited from a research grant offered by the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. The nature by which a piece of research is procured and financed should always be considered in relation to its content. [ Please see the comment immediately below this post for an important correction. ] But to clarify, do not confuse the Institute with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment: the first evolved into the latter. The Institute became the Foundation, after it failed in its original mission: to establish a new school of architecture that would educate architects in a purely classical and traditionalist manner. The Institute would have been Britain’s only style-specific school of architecture, and it understandably failed to attract enough students or get exemption from RIBA examinations. That the RIBA should be so opposed to Prince Charles’ opinions on modern architecture is no surprise, but that it should continue to carry its royal charter with such pride is somewhat amusing.

So we have – and I must stress this – an excellent piece of historical research here. There is no book that offers such a detailed and well argued narrative about the history of architectural education in Great Britain However, from the point of view of my study, it frequently descends into a problematic and unhelpful tone that leads to a somewhat conspiratorial interpretation of history. I do not expect to find in such a scholarly work the problematic term ‘Young Turks’ to describe the mid-twentieth-century modernisers of English architectural education.

Crinson & Lubbock divide their history into four chapters, covering the periods 1660-1830, 1834-1938, 1938-1960 and finally from the sixties the early nineties. These timeframes permit an elegant narrative to be constructed, discussing firstly the many routes into architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the early-industrial-era professionalisation of architecture, the post-world-war-two modernisation of architectural education and finally the concept of a Kuhn’s scientific paradigm to explain why one system can replace another so quickly and completely. The book becomes increasingly and unapologetically conspiratorial as it builds towards the third and fourth chapters.

I worked hard not to colour my reading of the book with my own opinionated preconceptions about HRH Prince Charles and any history associated with his viewpoint, but Architecture – Art or Profession left me with a lingering suspicion that Crinson & Lubbock prefer the notion of a pre-Industrial-Revolution architectural profession which may be entered by any number of different routes. Chapter two is entitled ‘The Design of Professionalism and its resistance’, and to my mind is perhaps unfairly forgiving of pupillage, the entirely patchwork system of apprenticeship that saw aspiring architects and their families pay established practitioners for office experience and tutoring. The most famously cited criticism of pupillage as a means to acquire an architect’s training is by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), a damning caricature of lazy apprenticeship. While the faults of pupillage are acknowledged, Crinson & Lubbock are eager to emphasise that this portrayal is only an ‘extreme example’ and that it only served to fuel the ‘scientifically-minded radicalism’ (p.46) that would contribute to the downfall of informal education through pupillage. Likewise later in the book pupillage is defended once more from ‘its myths of neglectful and corrupt practices.’ How Crinson & Lubbock can vouch for such an unregulated system is difficult to conceive.

Of most interest to me is the description of the twentieth century. It was during this period that, under increasing pressure from the RIBA and modernising figures within schools of architecture, that architectural education moved away from being located in the profession to within the universities. This is very much a delayed and arguably tardy reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and the changes in the construction industry that threatened architects’ previously undisputed leadership of the building team. As larger and larger construction firms began to sub-contract various elements of their work, the building designer became less and less important, especially in an industrialised society in which mass production of standardised elements lessened the need for a unique design solution in every instance. Ulrich Pfammatter discussed this reactive nature of British design and engineering with particular reference to the 1851 Great Exhibition, at which Britain’s position at the vanguard of the industrial revolution was suddenly undermined by the discovery of greatly advanced machinery and products from abroad, and which the foundation of an entire generation of regional technical schools. (Pfammatter:2000, pp. 293-296) I agree wholeheartedly with Crinson & Lubbock’s assessment of architecture in Britain as being an extremely weak profession. (p.2)

The twentieth-century process of modernisation is described in mildly militaristic terms, with the ‘modernisers’ forming a ‘coterie’ that ‘hatched’ ideas as part of a long ‘campaign’ to ‘infiltrate’ the RIBA and it’s Board of Education. Crinson & Lubbock admit that they are not content to believe in solely evolutionary changes (p.165) to explain the remarkable shift of the nineteen-fifties and sixties from a system of architectural education that was predominantly influenced by the École des Beaux Arts and historical continuity to one that was favoured a blank-canvas approach to teaching design. Chapter four describes their interpretation of Kuhn’s theory of pardigmatic change, which they cite as an explanation for the total manner in which ‘modern’ architectural education replaced the largely Beaux Arts inspired system that preceded it.

The modest but highly influential 1958 Oxford Conference on architectural education is – wisely – debunked as a clean turning point between chaotic and inconsistent routes into the profession and a modern university-centric system. But again and again I was frustrated by a language that sought to view this key period through a conspiratorial veil, referring repeatedly and disdainfully to the conference organisers as a ‘coterie.’ Traditionalists did indeed view it as a ‘rigged’ conference, with only fifty-three invited speakers and a programme that carefully focussed on modernising issues. But why did advocates of Britain’s classicist and traditional (École des Beaux Arts derived) architectural education not protest or respond? I read Architecture – Art or Profession? with the sinking feeling that Crinson & Lubbock are reluctant to admit that before the changes recommended by the 1958 conference, and the gradual shift of architecture courses into universities that were monitored by the ever powerful RIBA, that British architectural education was inconsistent, exploitative and generally of poor quality. Pupillage and Beaux Arts teaching died out so cleanly because it was a staid system of learning-by-copying, that allowed no room for reflection on process and practice. There was, I believe, no adequate response to the 1958 conference from traditionalists because they genuinely had no convincing alternative to offer. At both the 1924 International Conference and in the 1946 RIBA Report, the aspiration was voiced for architecture to be taught within the university context, thereby conferring the profession with a status equal or similar to that of law or medicine. A key matter for exploration in my study of architectural education is understanding why this happened, and to an extent whether architecture continues to suit the university setting. Crinson & Lubbock’s book is, unfortunately, suspicious of research in the context of architectural education. I would like to believe that the authors were simply dissatisfied with the ‘modernisers’ concept of research, but the tone of the book unfortunately suggests that they simply regard all research in architectural education as a waste of time. For example:

At this point it is worth broadly signalling the consequences for British architecture of this emphasis on a particular, and apparently innocuous, notion of research. It was not, of course, an idea limited to postgraduate work, but permeated the ideology of modernist architectural education … This necessitated the recruitment of specialists who could teach a range of non-architectural subjects as a grounding for future research. This in turn had the effect of limiting the time spent on design as well as on professional, drawing and building skills in favour of an orientation towards new subject areas in the pure and social sciences. Such a conception of research picked up on the Bauhaus notion that all assumptions should be questioned and research as if no satisfactory solutions had been reached previously. This led to that most airily ‘systematic’ of 1960s pursuits, systematic design methodology, in which the inductive methods of science were to be applied actually as methods of design. (pp.142-143)

Heaven forbid that students of architecture might be taught the skills to research and question establish ideas for themselves, and that anyone from outside the profession might have something of value to teach these architects. Sadly being able to associate these notions with the understandably mixed results of the Bauhaus’ Vorkurs teaching means that Crinson & Lubbock construct an anti-academic view of architectural education, regarding the shift to university-level education as a trick played by the modernisers to exert greater control over the content of what was being taught to architects. This distrust of all things modern does have its comic moments though; on page 134 Crinson & Lubbock are quick to point out the symbolism of the RIBA Journal adopting a sans serif typeface as a key moment in the modernisation of the Institute. But Crinson & Lubbock are frankly sloppy in their criticism of the socialising practices of the ‘modern’ architectural education:

Both the avant-garde and the founding fathers shared the premise, enshrined in the Vorkurs, that the fledgling architect needed to be thoroughly laundered of his or her lay culture so as to be able to set themselves throughout their future career against the likes and dislikes of ordinary people, because that had been initiated innto a higher and more creative form of wisdom. (p.174)

This attitude seems blind to undeniable socialisation practices of the architectural education that preceded the modernised Vorkurs or academic vision. Any applicant to an architect (through articuled pupillage) or student of a Beaux Arts derived school was submitted him or herself to an equally overwhelming process of formation and socialisation.

At the time of publication, in the early nineteen-nineties, Crinson & Lubbock seemed deeply concerned by the continuing dominance of the ‘Official System’ (as they name the post 1958 Conference university-based system of architectural education) and bemoan the ‘triumph of a professionalised vision of the architect that was both narrowly focused and extraordinarily powerful.’ (p.38) Britain’s economy was far from health and the government were investigating the possibility of removing the legal protection of the title ‘architect.’ Into this context, Prince Charles’s attempt to found a school of architecture that plugged a ‘hole in the market,’ with a ‘course where those who wished could study what might broadly be termed ‘traditional’ architecture’ (p.6) seems to have been both overly optimistic and simplistic in addressing Crinson & Lubbock’s concerns with modern architectural education. And it is somewhat sad to have this book associated with that attempt and that standpoint. The authors’ critique of the RIBA’s questionable quasi-governmental position as a regulator of practice and entry to the profession is astute and coherent. Likewise their postscript suggestions for the future of architectural education are eminently intelligent. As I continue with my studies, Architecture – Art or Profession will provide an invaluable point of reference for the history of architectural education in Britain. But to do so, I will have to carefully disentangle an excellent history from an often questionable narrative.

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RIBA: unemployed architects should try their luck on building sites

I have a theory that the majority of people are born liberal and become more and more conservative as they get older. A kind of transition from reading The Independent to The Daily Mail, if you will, which takes place over the course of about forty years.

I’m not far along that potential line of conservatisation, but it’s true I’ve made one step towards the Mail by switching from the Indy to the Guardian. And likewise, as I grow older, I am certainly becoming more liable to angry outbursts. For such an outburst, see my comment (if it hasn’t been deleted) on this unbelievable comment piece by RIBA president-elect Ruth Reed.

Although to be honest, she had it coming.

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Reading: 101 Things I Learned at Architecture School

101ThingsCover

Not an essential item on my reading list, but an entertaining distraction that caught my eye while browsing the library a few weeks ago, is Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. In the introduction, Frederick invites ‘you to leave this book open on your desktop as you work in the studio, to keep in your coat pocket to read on public transit, and to peruse randomly when in need of a jump-start in solving an architectural design problem.’ Unfortunately, I followed his advice too closely, and have just been advised by automatic missive that its a week overdue for return to the library, so I will shortly be skidaddling back to town with it.

Sadly, of all the words on the cover of 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, the most important word is also the shortest. Or, to put it another it another way, perhaps it should be sub-titled 101 Things Matthew Frederick Learned in Architecture School. The trouble with this book (and I’ll be brief, because I’m writing under the pressure of accruing an ever greater library fine) is that it somewhat rashly assumes – or more importantly fails to deny – that architectural education is a universal experience, and that these 101 lessons are applicable for every student.

The book is beautifully designed and made. Two rough boards imprinted in red and black with a red cloth spine frame the book, which is made up of beautifully clear facing pages: diagram or cartoon on the left, lesson on the right. These include:

  • 1) How to draw a line
  • 28) A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea
  • 42) Those tedious first-year studio exercises in “spots and dots” and “lumps and bumps” really do have something to do with architecture
  • 85) Gently suggest material qualities rather than draw them in a literal manner
  • 98) The Chinese symbol for crisis is comprised of two characters: one indicating “danger,” the other, “opportunity”
  • 101) Architects are late bloomers

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All very pithy, closely observed and no doubt true to many architectural students’ experiences. But time and time again (such as in the cartoon illustrating number 42 above) are revelations that Frederick’s book is conceived from and targeted towards the standpoint of an utterly normative master-apprentice style of learning architectural design.

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And such background details as a frustrated student of architecture preparing a noose in a studio is not funny, appropriate, or at all sensitive to the unsustainable working practices that architecture schools have been shown to inculcate in their students.

Likewise, lessons 20 and 21 are gallingly insulting, narrow-minded and unhelpful in their attitude towards those who are frequently our most important collaborators. They’re also just plain wrong in so many instances.

  • 20) Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.
  • 21) An architect knows something about everything. An engineer knows everything about one thing.

Should this book even be in a school of architecture library? Yes, but I’d argue for a health warning. Should it be on any school’s reading list? Definitely not.

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The library-lover is impressed: Queens University’s new College Park library open

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Queens University Belfast has a shiny new library, open ahead of schedule and with plenty of time for the finishing touches before the new term starts. I had my first look around this week, sadly with only a noisy and fuzzy camera phone to snap some shots.

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Those of you familiar with my dissatisfaction of cheap, nasty and badly designed ‘information commons’ are re-assured that the signs are good. The new College Park Library, designed by the American architectural practice Shepley Bulfinch with local input from the Robinson Patterson Partnership, is an enticing place to study in. There is generous provision of study tables and the fit and finish of the materials and detailing is impressive. I particular like the furniture on the upper levels, like these overlooking the main atrium.

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The main collection now fits comfortably under one roof (although I have no idea what provision has been made for the rate of expansion) with three lending levels that keep humanities, social sciences and the sciences together on their own levels.

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The staggered stacks create a simple but attractive effect around the edges and through the middle of each floor.

The building claims some impressive figures with regard to energy efficiency. The only disappointment on that front is the usual insane pairing of motion detectors with energy saving lamps in some of the lesser used circulation spaces (namely between the main library levels and the secondary staircases). Energy saving bulbs and strip lighting are least efficient when turned on and off repeatedly, as they will be in lesser used through spaces such as the anteroom between a staircase and the library levels. However, luckily there is no sign of the faux-disco-on-off strip lighting and autistic colourschemes found in a certain building I no longer frequent. I very much look forward to discovering this new building in the coming months and years.

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Touring Britain’s schools of architecture in 1961

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Although I don’t want to step on the toes of Steve Parnell and his Back Issues column in the Architects Journal, it’s difficult not to share some pages from these 1961 issues of Architect and Building News, in which correspondent John Smith made monthly contributions examining the state of affairs in eleven of Britain’s schools of architecture. I came to the article on Birmingham School of Architecture following a specific reference about the ‘conglomerates’ and live projects that were established there in the nineteen-forties. However, the rest of the series has been a revealing insight into the state of British architectural education in the early sixties. As Steve himself wrote in one of his columns. (AJ 17.7.2008) ‘it’s as easy to complain about the state of architectural education today as it is difficult to comprehend quite how awful it was 50 years ago.’

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Despite Birmingham’s progressive approach the architectural education (students designed and supervised, if not actually built, various small projects from village halls to rows of terraced houses), Smith can’t help noting that ‘although the school’s museum and lavatories possess a certain romantic charm, the studios and offices [pictured above] by comparison seem dreary places in which to work, with ancient benches and plan chests and high chin-resting window cills.’

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Then again, Canterbury (above) didn’t seem to be too well endowed with buildings either.

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And evidently dissatisfied with their city, these tutors and students (above) were eagerly planning a complete razing and reconstruction of Cardiff…

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From profession to academy

In the works this week, an exploration not so much how but why architectural education in Great Britain gradually shifted from the profession to the academy. Until the first decades of the twentieth century, the predominant route into the architectural profession was through pupillage, by which an aspirant designer would paid to work for and learn from a practising architect. There was enormous inconsistency of both the quality and cost of this education, and while it would be easy to explain the shift into the universities as a correction of this, there are a host of additional factors that I’ve been reading up on.
I’ll post more in due course; but for now I recommed the two books above, one a useful primer on the history of architectural education in Great Britain, and the other a extremely scholarly examination of the French, Germand and Swiss technical institutions sometimes overlooked by architectural historians who prefer to cite the École des Beaux-Arts as the primary force in architectural education in France and elsewhere from the nineteenth-century onwards.
  • CRINSON, M. and LUBBOCK, J., 1994. Architecture – art or profession. Manchester: Manchester University Press
  • PFAMMATTER, U., 2000. The Making of the Modern Architect and Engineer. Basel: Birkhauser.

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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.


Bibliography

Click here for the bibliography to date.


Words

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


Glossary

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


Conference diary

Conferences and seminars of interest to the project.


Note

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.


Visitors

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