learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

There’s something in the AIARG

Group photo by Alan Jones

Today marked the first meeting of the new and as-yet un-acronym-ed All-Ireland Architectural Research Group (AIARG). The preliminary meeting, hosted by Queen’s University Belfast, was the first formal encounter of a body of architecture schools from across Ireland, both north and south. Although the island of Ireland is home to just seven schools of architecture (as opposed to the forty-odd on the island of Great Britain), each was represented today, and a wealth of research activity was discussed.

From UCD, Hugh Campbell described three strands of research – design innovation, analysis and enquiry, and scholarship and survey – across scales from detail design up to landscape. In so doing, a helpful matrix of research strengths emerged, breaking the ice on a day that principally introduced approximately thirty people to one anothers’ work.

For the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick (SAUL), Merrit Bucholz described the intensive period of research undertaken by staff and students in the early years of this very young school of architecture. The recognisable post-Celtic-Tiger condition of the city of Limerick and surrounding suburbs, towns and villages was discussed: a medieval infrastructure of roads and townlands overlaid with frantic and incoherent subsequent development. The notion of a university as the place in which different public bodies and stakeholders may come together to “speak freely” caught my attention. As Ireland faces up to the horrific economic crash it has experienced, its schools of architectures seem conscious of their unique opportunity to work with the slack in the architectural profession.

Steven Spier of the University of Ulster plotted out a brave path for his school of architecture – a similarly young institution that he foresees building on its identity as Ireland’s only real “art school school of architecture”. With intakes of just fifty and twenty-five to the undergraduate and postgraduate architecture courses respectively, he described a scenario in which the school would focus on both practice-based research and scholarly work in the humanities. The polytechnic background of Ulster led into a presentation by Stephen Best, Senior Lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, who described the process of shifting from just teaching architecture to both teaching and researching architecture. I was encouraged to hear of a developing strength in pedagogy, as a large intake of new staff are now required to complete a thirty credit teaching and learning certificate equivalent to Irish level 9 (Masters level) studies.

Máire Henry of Waterford Institute of Technology provided an enthusiastic and compelling presentation: her school is only five years old and in an institute that has been in existence for just forty years. She desribed the importance of developing a research culture at both staff and student levels – something I feel passionately about since I believe so many second stage students of architecture develop acute research skills in the course of their architecture diplomas or Masters degrees.

Gary Boyd of the CCAE in Cork descibed the unique situation of his school: situated between University College Cork and Cork Institute of Technology, with teaching and research coming into the school from both of those institutions. CCAE offers a two stage programme in architecture that is not dissimilar the Scottish model: a four plus one combination of BSc and MArch. The March is twelve months and three semesters in duration, and is focussed on studies relating to architectural practice. Through the afternoon’s conversation session, it was tentatively agreed that the next meeting of the group should be at the CCAE in Cork in September 2010 when the school will be hosting the Ordnance: War, Architecture and Space conference.

What the AIARG will become is still be agreed upon. But it seemed to me that we witnessed today the foundation of a promising network of research-active academics and practitioners from across Ireland. This is unlikely to be manifested in another academic journal or conference, but through dialogue between eloquent and passionate academics. Some are located firmly in practice, some are in the academy, others are finding their own position between the two. As an early-career researcher, it was encouraging to meet and talk with so many people from Ireland’s seven architecture schools. I very much look forward to meeting them again soon.

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Streetland: 30 April – 2 May

Click on the image above to find out more about Streetland a micro-festival that’s happening on my doorstep in Govanhill, Glasgow. It’s happening as part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and will draw upon the modest wealth of creative activity that takes place on and around Westmoreland Street in Govanhill. It’s on next weekend and it’s all freeeeee…

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“Belfast has had nothing of any architectural merit built in the past 50 years.”

The title of this post was the content of an anonymous text message that was sent to Good Morning Ulster on BBC Radio Ulster, 26 February 2010.

So striking was this complaint, the text message has apparently inspired a debate on the quality (of lack of quality) of Belfast’s architecture. Ten buildings will be presented and their qualities debated on the evening of Friday 30 April at The Dark Horse as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Tickets are £3.

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Environmental zealousness

In a moment of unusually zealous environmental awareness, and after months of prevarication, I emptied our apartment’s paper and card recycling bin earlier this week. The morning afterwards the blue bins in our back court were emptied, and I realised I’d dumped one a recent copy of the monthly New York Review of Books taster supplement published once a month in the Saturday Guardian.


In it was an article with the fairly concise title Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities by Anthony Grafton of Princeton University (note: the article as published is hidden behind the NYRB’s paywall, but it seems to have been published in its original form on the NYRB blog here).

Universities become great by investing for the long term. You choose the best scholars and teachers you can and give them the resources and the time to think problems through. Sometimes a lecturer turns out to be Malcolm Bradbury’s fluent, shallow, vicious History Man; sometimes he or she turns out to be Michael Baxandall. No one knows quite why this happens. We do know, though, that turning the university into The Office will produce a lot more History Men than scholars such as Baxandall.

Accept the short term as your standard—support only what students want to study right now and outside agencies want to fund right now—and you lose the future. The subjects and methods that will matter most in twenty years are often the ones that nobody values very much right now. Slow scholarship—like Slow Food—is deeper and richer and more nourishing than the fast stuff. But it takes longer to make, and to do it properly, you have to employ eccentric people who insist on doing things their way. The British used to know that, but now they’ve streaked by [ our American university system ]  on the way to the other extreme.

NYRB blog post with article: http://blogs.nybooks.com/post/437005501/britain-the-disgrace-of-the-universities

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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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