learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Abstractification (part I)

I received word this week that an abstract I submitted for the 6th Annual AHRA Research Student Symposium has been accepted. I’ll be presenting it on 12 December 2009 at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University.

And here is that abstract:

Be bold & proceed: fifty years of live projects in British architectural education
abstract for the 2009 AHRA Student Symposium, WSA Cardiff

James Benedict Brown, Queens University Belfast

Live Projects are established fixtures in a number of British schools of architecture. They have, in their most recent form, been described as design projects ‘with a real client, with a real problem … done in real time, with a defined end result.’ (Chiles & Holder, 2008) In seeking to remove students from the autonomous environment of the studio, they can broadly be divided into those projects that give students two distinct forms of ‘hands-on’ experience: a) of collaboration with others beyond the studio; and/or b) of actual building processes. But their historical predecessors, established as architectural education moved more fully into university-level institutions, were of quite different forms.

In 1961-62, Architect and Building News correspondent John Smith reported on twelve British schools of architecture. His monthly instalments provided an insight into their workings, their curricula and the manner in which they were responding to the recommendations of the 1958 Oxford Conference. In no less than three of the schools visited, ‘live projects’ were described. This included a live project at the University of Cambridge: a squat, square extension to the school itself, the design of which has subsequently been attributed solely to Colin St. John Wilson, a teacher at the school at that time. (Smith, 1962) At the Birmingham School of Architecture, third year students had designed such low-budget projects as a village hall. However, while second year students at Birmingham did indeed construct small ‘conglomerate’ projects themselves, these were temporary, small-scale indoor structures that were simply designed to combine as many different constructional details as possible rather that satisfy a client or brief. (Crinson & Lubbock, 1994) The infamous Birmingham ‘live projects’ (set in the third year) featured very little collaboration with clients or outside ‘others’, nor actual hands-on construction. Built by builders and tradespeople who tendered for the work, they were overseen by students who were training in a normative apprentice architect role. (Smith, 1961)
In the generational overlap between a declining era of articled pupillage and a rising modernist era of academic education, these live projects demonstrate an uncertain experiment in the academic yet artisanal training of architects.

This paper explores and describes the markedly different origins, motivations and aspirations of two generations of British live projects. A crucial distinction will be made, between those projects with primarily pedagogical and those with primarily philanthropic motivations. By exploring the perceived deficiencies that motivated the inception of these live projects, an alternative understanding of the twentieth-century shift of architectural education away from practice and towards the academy will be suggested.


Chiles & Holder, 2008. The Live Project. The Oxford Conference
Smith, J., 1962. Schools of Architecture – 12- Cambridge. Architect & Building News, (3 January), 17-24.
Crinson, M. and Lubbock, J., 1994. Architecture – art or profession. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Smith, J., 1961. Schools of Architecture – 2 – Birmingham. Architect & Building News, (22 February), 257-263.


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