learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

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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