learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Aerial surveillance: Britain’s first live project?


Regular readers will know that I am not to be fooled by schools of architecture claiming that they invented live projects in the last decade. It seems, from my research, that the Birmingham School of Architecture was the first, in or around 1950. Perusing the RIBA Library while in London last week (and even splashing out on the ferociously expensive and frankly average quality photocopiers therein) I dug out more articles documenting the buildings designed and built by students at that time.

One of the earliest such student projects was this modest terrace of six houses in Rednal, completed in 1951. The Architects Journal, Architecture & Building News and The Builder (above) all reported on the project. From the latter:

This terrace of four houses which has just been completed at Rednal, near the Austin Works in Birmingham, is believed to be the first to have been designed and carried through by students of a school of architecture. It is hoped to make this type of work an annual third-year event at the Birmingham school. A student, David Radford, was primarily responsible for this scheme together with Geoffrey Darke, Michael Keyte and David Meylan.

The work has been given to the school through the kindness and co-operation of the Birmingham Corporation Housing Committee. (Mr. H. J. Manzoni, chief engineer, and Mr. Davies, chief architect.) The site is situated on the edge of the estate overlooking the Lickey Hills to the south, with a moderate rise from rear to front.


… at Rednal, near the Austin Works in Birmingham … on the edge of the estate overlooking the Lickey Hills to the south …

Did I not mention to you fine readers that I used to be an air cadet? (a Cadet Warrant Officer, no less). That tentative description was more than enough to whet my appetite. And with the power of Multimap’s Ordnance Survey maps and birds-eye aerial photography, there’s enough information to start the hunt for a terrace of four houses, sitting under a shallow single pitch roof with a view over the Lickey Hills.

Nearly 60 years after construction started, graduates of the Birmingham School of Architecture will be delighted to learn that the four houses are still there, and still occupied, albeit with some dodgy plastic windows, and what looks like a complete set of porches retro-fitted under the original in-situ concrete flats.

I still feel a trip to Birmingham coming on…

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Off-topic: Coke’s SimCity Belfast

This is an advert for Coca-Cola, currently appearing on a number of bus shelters and street hoardings around Belfast. The SimCity-style recreation of the city suggests that Coke have employed a creative team who can whip one of these up for every major city they choose to advertise in. That said, they’ve got plenty of iconic buildings and details in, if not exactly in any semblance of geographical reality. Of all of Belfast’s appalling contemporary public art, it’s nice to see that the Big Fish – one of the better pieces of such art – has been represented (albeit hugely out of scale). Public transit buffs (and I may be one) will note the accurately liveried pink Metro double decker bus at the bottom right, but more amusingly perhaps a fairly accurate representation of an NIR train…
…I can assure non-locals that the newer ones don’t spew out that much black smoke. But the old ones certainly do.

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Changing Practices: 2009 RIBA Research Symposium

I was in London last week for the annual RIBA Research Symposium Changing Practices. This was the fourth installment of this annual event, structured to bring practitioners and researchers together for a day of papers and discussions. The event was curated by Tatjana Schneider of the University of Sheffield and Prof. Jeremy Till of Westminster University (but formerly Sheffield).

Anne Lacaton opened the proceedings with a keynote on recent work by her French practice Lacaton & Vassal, and set a promising tone for those architects who were basing their presentations around recent work. While my research is about actual building work in schools, I’m always interested to see instances where actual research goes on in architectural practices. Lacaton discussed some of her firm’s recent social housing projects, each of which sought to demonstrate how existing modern-era buildings could be adapted to exceed current space standards more efficiently than if they were simply demolished and replaced with new buildings. A new-build scheme in Mulhouse introduced the idea of semi-enclosed winter gardens in a scheme of suburban houses. Although Lacaton spoke passionately for social housing that was more than just the cheapest option, and larger than the minimum space standards (reminding me of Giancarlo de Carlo’s famous appeal in the late sixties: why does social housing have to be cheap?) the project employed inexpensive industrial materials and construction techniques. The winter gardens were located on the first floor, and directly accessed through full height and width French windows. Providing unheated and technically exterior space, they dramatically increased the liveable area of the houses, simply by adding enclosed external space that is warm enough for habitation most of the year. Adding value to the properties without adding what is technically internal space plays with the local laws on property sizes, and is a refreshing example of what happens when housing is designed with aspirations beyond the basic specification. Looking beyond the traditional family shape, and considering modern day families with single parents or children from multiple relationships, the houses aspired to be significantly more flexible than more traditional cellular homes, notably those found in most recent developments in the UK.

Lacaton & Vassal have gone on to develop this concept in the rehabilitation of problematic modern-era tower blocks, notably the infamous suburban French HLMs (habitation à loyer modéré or ‘moderated rental housing’). Politicans love to dynamite problematic social housing, but Lacaton spoke up for buildings that could yet be saved, acknowledging that it is rarely the architecture that is at fault but surrounding social conditions. In this instance the winter garden (and additional rooms) are new-build complimentary structures that are built alongside or around the tower blocks. Internally, apartments can be re-configured as required, but most interestingly Lacaton & Vassal simply propose replacing the existing external façades of the apartments with French windows that open out onto these new semi-external habitable spaces. While not necessarily adding more internal space to these (often miniscule) apartments, they once again add usable space that adds value and space for the majority of the year. I was, however, concerned to note in one floor plan the addition of an extra bedroom to an apartment, only accessible through this uninsulated balcony space. I would like to know more about the efficiency of this scheme, although it was presented as a more cost effective option that demolition and construction of equivalent new housing. I was also amused to note that the spirit of le Corbusier continues to permeate through even the most socially progressive of French architecture. Lacaton also included some images of an unbuilt project for a new social housing tower block (featuring double height winter gardens to all apartments of course) that featured the distinctive Corbusian model of landings on alternate floors serving up-going and down-going flats. It seems sunlight and fresh air are still the prescribed cure for urban ills.

Simon Pepper of the University of Liverpool spoke on the evolution of practice, focusing on the sad decline of architectural design in the public sector in the UK. Tatjana Schneider plugged a forthcoming book on alternative architectural practices (which I look forward to reading) and Albena Yaneva of the University of Manchester offered an anthropological insight into the workings of Rem Koolhaas and OMA, although I was left unsure of the motivation behind the study.

Entering the second session, Jim Saker of Loughborough University reminded me of my childhood aspirations to design cars rather than houses, bringing an entertaining and articulate view of the architectural profession from his field of automotive design. He developed a theme presented by Anne Lacaton of the need to respond to the changing shape and size of the contemporary family. Fewer and fewer people need a home or a car designed for two adults and two children, and even fewer need them to serve the same people and functions seven days a week (hence Lacaton & Vassal’s open plan social housing, and the expanding market for compact people carriers with almost endless seating configurations).

Fresh out of another round of redundancies, Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios attempted to remain upbeat with a whistlestop history of this established British practice, which has for some time operated as a collection of semi-autonomous studios. Harriet Harriss of Oxford Brookes presented her newly commenced PhD studies, although the presentation suggested to me that it was too early in the process to be speaking in this forum.

Evidently dealing with ever-straightened circumstances, the RIBA took me back to my childhood with a packed lunch reminiscent of a school trip. Luckily it was a basking day outside, so the majority of delegates decamped out to the street to consider the site of Jonathan Hill’s Institute of Illegal Architects.

Jonathan Charley couldn’t escape from the University of Strathclyde to be with us, so a brilliantly sharp ten minute video was presented in his absence. Charley called for a radical and critical charter for architects, encouraging us to aspire to a practice that was practical, critical and radical. It will be Youtube’d shortly, and I’ll share it here when it is. Liza Fior of muf slipped dangerously close to a twenty minute talk on her practice’s work, but nonetheless provided fantastic insight and anecdotes into working as a non-conventional practitioner. Fior proposed three steps to an inclusive design process: value what’s already there, define what’s missing and then nurture the possible. Stephen Hill of futureplanners followed, in a way, from Simon Pepper, discussing the architectural profession and its evident erosion during the years of the ‘Thatcher-Blair-Brown project.’ Although he didn’t answer the question, he indeed left me wondering whether architects are smarter than slime mould, appealing for us to all consider how the architectural profession can develop sustainably.

Christian Derix of Aedas singularly failed to hold my attention as he demonstrated digital design simulation as a means of sharing and developing design knowledge. But that was as much due to my disinterest as anything else. The afternoon session concluded with two phenomenal speakers: Robert Webb of Quiet Revolution on the architecture of energy, and Indy Johar of 00:/. Both held my attention so well that my notes cease at this point, and I simply you recommend you download their papers from the RIBA Research website when they become available.

Jeremy Till concluded the day with a final keynote, presenting a fierce but not unexpected attack on the hypocrisy of the profession’s stance towards its ethical responsibility. That these opinions can be expressed from within the RIBA is no small feat, but it’s just a shame that their sound is unlikely to be carried far.

This was a day packed with interesting speakers and topics, but sadly short on the much needed discussion in between. I was hopeful that the drinks afterwards might have provided an opportunity for that interaction to occur, but the RIBA needed to make money out of its bar, so our group repaired to a pub round the corner instead.

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This is a scan of a draft phd-plan I worked on last week. It is about the seventh draft, one of a series scrawled over a printout of the thirty-six month timeframe I have in which to complete my studies.

I will confess to not having given this aspect of the project enough attention until recently. It is undeniable how important it is for a phd student to get stuck in and planning out the three years. All kinds of external and internal factors affect this spatially inconsistent and graphically horrible plan, namely the opportunities I might have to observe live projects in action in my and other schools of architecture. I also have to allow a signifcant amount of time for writing-up, editing, re-reading etc. As an exercise this quickly blows away any misconception you may have about how long a time three years is.

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Take the express elevator

A certain academic who had more than a small influence on my higher educational upbringing introduced me to the concept of the elevator pitch. He subsequently went on to include it as a means of introducing the themes of his most recent book. We met while I was a student (and he a professor) at my alma mater, a school of architecture that has until very recently necessitated a slow and generally unreliable elevator journey in order to access it. I am not a particularly verbose person, and I suspect that studying architecture in a twenty storey sixties towerblock didn’t help me learn the correct definition of what an elevator pitch should be. During the last fews week I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of academics, practitioners and students interested in architectural education, and frankly I should have seen that opportunity coming as a chance to refine my short, sharp and direct elevator pitch. During the same period, I was also faced with the challenge of presenting the same information in French. That didn’t go well either, although probably because my once semi-fluent spoken French is now eroding, especially whenever I foolishly try to employ the future conditional.

You may have already come across my position paper, written a few months ago as part of the development of this project, and perma-linked under ‘About the Project’ on this page. The current version, last heavily edited in June, still stands, but it’s time to be more concise.

This is a phd about live projects in architectural education.

It’s a start. But I don’t think many people are going to be fooled by a phd ‘about’ something. So it would be better framed as a question.

Why do live projects happen in architectural education?

But wait. What’s a live project?

Fair question. And I suspect it’s one that I end up answering when I have blethered on with unscripted elevator pitches. So, the definition I propose in the Glossary draws from two sources close to current live project practice in architectural education in the UK:

live project – noun 1) “a type of [ design ] studio project which is distinct in its engagement of real clients or users. This external involvement tends to result in students producing something that is of value to the client/user group, which might range from ideas , feasibility reports, or research, to a completed design scheme, a construction or other intervention. The remit of the project is typically worked out in collaboration with the external collaborators, rather than being imposed by the design studio teacher. As a result, the process is more dialogic and inclusive than traditional studio projects. The external focus introduces a contingency to the projects, which makes live project work stand apart from the necessarily more abstract projects of the traditional design studio.” (SARA, R., 2004. Between studio and street : the role of the live project in architectural education, University of Sheffield) 2) [ a design project employed in architectural education ] “with a real client, with a real problem and are done in real time, with a defined end result” (CHILES, PRUE AND HOLDER, ANNA, 2008. The Live Project. Oxford Conference)

Although contemporary live projects in architectural education are limited to only one or two UK universities, I do not propose a study limited solely to these examples. The term ‘live project’ first appeared in British architectural education in the nineteen-fifties, most notably in relation to innovative hands-on building projects of the Birmingham School of Architecture under the directorship of A. Douglas Jones, and this is a school that I will studying more in the weeks and months to come. And while the term ‘live project’ is limited largely to architectural education in Great Britain, the definitions we have seem to describe a great deal of what is better known as outreach or design/build in North American schools of architecture (including, but by no means limited to, the Rural Studio at Auburn and Studio 804 at Kansas). Although I don’t expect to be able to drag the term into common parlance, the compatibility of existing definitions of ‘live projects’ from British architectural education with these practices in North America seems to suggest to me that it is a perfectly suitable term. So, in one sentence to introduce the project:

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which architecture* students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome.

* I don’t mean to suggest that live projects only exist within architectural education. But that is where this project is coming from (quite literally: as an undergraduate and taught postgraduate architecture student, I have participated in live projects) and it is an area of personal interest and tentative expertise. To reflect the great potential for inter-disciplinarity that this style of teaching and my own school offers, perhaps it should be tweaked:

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which built environment students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome.

So that’s the definition. But why the hell am I spending three years studying live projects?

Another good question. So now for the second part of the elevator pitch that begins to acknoweldge what I’ve been doing for the last six months in building a literature review.

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which built environment students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome. While educators and students themselves have contributed much to the academic debate about their origins, processes and outcomes, we lack a coherent understanding of why they occur, and out of what conditions. Drawing together historic (UK 1950s & 1960s; US 1960s) and contemporary (UK 2000s; US 1990s-2000s) live projects from the UK and the USA, this PhD will ask why have live projects repeatedly occured, what perceived weaknesses or faults are they responding to, and how do their respective contexts shape them.

To be continued…

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Ah, Adobe Illustrator, how I have missed thee. A Sunday afternoon doodle that tries to map the origins and output of nineteen-fifties’ and noughties’ live projects.

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Prize winning onions

Sadly, these onions are not from our allotment. Photographed over the weekend during a weekend retreat to read some Pevsner and Banham and to re-acquaint myself with sunlight.

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And nineteen pence


I’m reading Panayotis Tournikiotis’ fascinating book The Historiography of Modern Architecture today, and finding countless references to key texts that contributed to our cultural definition of twentieth century architecture. One book I’d love to own that Tournikiotis cites is the catalogue to the 1932 New York exhibition The International Style. AbeBooks has a few copies listed, including this one. Why is it £2216.19? Mint condition, and signed by Philip Johnson, no less.

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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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