learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

This weekend, I will be reading…

Back by popular demand, not that I have the time for this much reading this weekend…

ILLICH, I., 2002. Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars.
PALLASMAA, J., 2009. The Thinking Hand. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
SENNETT, R., 2009. The Craftsman. London: Penguin.

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Why should I research live projects in architectural education?

Next month I’ll be heading through the process known at Queens University as ‘differentiation’. In some other schools it’s called ‘upgrade’ or something vaguely similar, but it is the panel-based interview process whereby my work to date (approximately nine months in) is assessed and permission to continue towards a PhD is either granted or denied.

At this, and at any other juncture when I am asked about my research, a poignant question ought to be asked. Why should I spend three years of my life (and a not insignificant amount of funding) producing research into this field?

As a first step on the path to answering this question fully, I did some calculations, based on the amount of peer-reviewed published literature I could find on architectural education initiatives and projects that might be said to fit the description of those I am studying.

The Journal of Architectural Education is a peer-reviewed journal published four times a year on behalf of the (United States of America) Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Ten years’ editions of the journal – from 53(1), September 1999 to 63(1), October 2009 – were searched for content relating that related to ‘live’ and/or community-based projects that engaged students of architecture with real clients and/or a real project.

Content was initially searched electronically by use of four keywords. These keywords were determined by their frequent appearance in the broader literature I’ve been studying in this first year of my studies.

  • “community” (15 occurences)
  • “community design” (9 occurences)
  • “design build” “design-build” “design/build” (43 occurences)
  • “live project” (2 occurences)

A total of 69 occurrences were found between 1999 and 2009. This included a number of duplicate results, namely articles with two or three of the above keywords. Removing duplicate results, 42 unique articles were found.

The remaining 42 abstracts and articles were then examined to identify those that were non-applicable to this study, and which had been returned through a different interpretation of the keywords. 21 articles were found not to describe projects as sought in the initial parameters, and were elimated. The 21 remaining articles all described initiatives within and outwith schools of architecture that matched the initial parameters.

Of these 21 articles, 19 were authored by participants in project described (academics, students or in some instances both). The remaining 2 were authored by persons not known to be directly involved in the project described.

So, not the whole answer, nor the whole argument. But I believe (and I intend to repeat this rather simplistic assessment of published literature for other key publications in the field of architectural education) that there is justification for a rigorous piece of comparative research (qualitative and quantitative) conducted by someone not directly associated with the projects under investigation.

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Out and about: Sheffield live project reviews


For the second time in two weeks, I’m at University of Sheffield School of Architecture. Cue much joking from staff and students about me not being able to stay away from my alma mater.

I’m here this week to do some research and to attend the 2009 student-led Theory Forum, which starts tomorrow. I was here last week to witness the end of project reviews of the 2009 live projects. With one of the live project teams proposing short and medium term solutions to problems surrounding Sheffield’s stalled £600,000,000 city centre ‘Seven Stone’ redevelopment, the event was held in a vacant department store just off the Moor, a once thriving street of low-end value shops and stores that has been earmarked for gentrification. With the financial crisis causing most of the money associated with the Seven Stone plans to evaporate into thin air, the city is now laced with empty shops, many of which were compulsorily purchased and/or vacated before it was realised there was little or no ready money to demolish, rebuild or refurbish. It is hard not to subscribe to the theory that there is some greater being who has decided that Sheffield should be forever trapped in a cycle of being shat on from a great height every decade. Who knows how long it will take for the city to solve this problem, especially as the only solution seems to be to wait for the end of the recession and then start building more shops. No-one has seemed to question why Sheffield needs so many shopping centres and chain stores. It’s not like the country needs another Birmingham.

Still the faded and (because the building was unheated) frigid ground floor space of the department store made for an interesting venue to present and review architectural projects. Not that much critical reviewing took place; the programme had compressed fifteen projects into a single day with only ten to fifteen minutes for each. It was hard to engage with this current crop of real-time student projects because there was not much room for dialogue or discussion. The presence of some project clients also suggested that this was not the time or the place to critique or probe deeply. The recognisable spirit and atmosphere was there, and the modular wall mounted suspension panels (once used for displaying electrical goods) made for a tolerable exhibition space. Two silent and non-functioning escalators sat in the middle of the building, leading up and down to dark unknown voids.

There was something particularly poignant about the display of student work in a derelict department store. Every year Sheffield (and most of the other forty or so schools of architecture in Britain) churns out about fifty final stage graduates in architecture. Nascent careers that are already counter-weighted by five years of student debt (now often unsecured as well as secured) begin as blurry eyed students enter the real world to find a job.


I was not the only person present to notice this old notice about the doors to the street. Thank you for buying your architectural education from us. Good luck out there, and remember that you generally only get paid when provide something in exchange that the market is prepared to pay for.

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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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