learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Squirrel the free-associator

I spent a better part of yesterday afternoon unpacking dozens of references to pedagogical practices in other disciplines that may be of relevance to my study. Having difficulty getting them clear in my mind, I laid them out on the floor and started to arrange them according to related concepts.

And then yesterday evening, Squirrel the cat discovered the joy of dry-aqua-planing on them. However I might now have some new and unexpected links between disciplines.

Meanwhile, I have a modest review piece in today’s BD. Not being a subscriber, I might actually have to go out and find a newsagent that can sell me a copy for the inflated cover price. More to come from me in that outlet in the next few weeks, but right now a rough thesis chapter needs to be man-handled into shape. Less blogging = more real writing.

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DHL finally bother to knock, and Rem Koolhaas wins Golden Lion

News from the Netherlands this evening that Rem Koolhaas has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by the Venice Biennale for Architecture, just days after DHL have finally (after two weeks of trying) managed to deliver me a copy of S, M, L, XL… Koolhaas and I are both celebrating tonight.

The secret of Koolhaas’ success? Hard work and good PR. The secret of DHL’s success? Actually bothering to buzz the intercom for once.

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Derry named 2013 UK City of Culture

Via the BBC (and video here).

Londonderry named the UK City of Culture
15 July 2010 Last updated at 20:00

Londonderry has been named the UK’s inaugural City of Culture at a special event in Liverpool.

Derry won the title ahead of Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield. The accolade could bring up to 3,000 jobs to the city and boost tourism

It follows Liverpool’s successful tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2008.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the award was “a precious gift for the peacemakers” in Northern Ireland.

“This is when the real work begins,” he said. “I don’t see this as something that’s only going to revolve around 2013. This is a project for us that will last for something like five to 10 years.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity now for us to move forward and make sure that, particularly areas that are socially disadvantaged, gain the fruits of this accolade.”

Mr McGuinness said he felt there was “a huge amount of goodwill” behind the Londonderry bid, including from US President Barack Obama.

Derry’s renowned jazz festival attracts more than 30,000 people and 300 performers.

But it also has the highest unemployment in Northern Ireland and many of its most deprived estates.

Sculptor Maurice Harron, who was born in Londonderry and was part of the bid team, told the BBC he was “overjoyed”.

“This is a multi-cultural city and always was – that’s why it’s got two names,” he said.

“It’s famous for great musicians, dancers, writers, artists, and now they are going get a chance to showcase that to a wider audience.”

Actor James Nesbitt is Chancellor of the University of Ulster, which has a campus in the city.

He said: “This decision confirms what many of us in the province and further afield have known for many years – that Derry-Londonderry is a cultural powerhouse.

“Whether it is writers like Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane, songwriters and performers like Phil Coulter or the Undertones, artists like Willie Doherty, film-makers like Margo Harkin and Tom Collins, or actors like Amanda Burton, Roma Downey and Bronagh Gallagher, the city has asserted a huge influence on the arts internationally.”

No state funding

Supporters in the four shortlisted cities gathered to hear the news from Liverpool.

Television producer Phil Redmond, who headed the panel which judged the final four bids, was joined by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey for the announcement.

Mr Redmond said the award was “a cultural tool to bring people together”.

“When people read Derry’s bid… it’s about acknowledging the past, not shying away from the past, and using that point that the past informs our present and helps shape our future,” he said.

“If that is not the role of culture then I don’t know what is.”

The first UK City of Culture is likely to host a number of nationally significant events, but will not receive any government funding.

Liverpool City Council leader Joe Anderson attested to the success of 2008, saying: “Beyond the £800m impact of the year, 2008 also injected a huge amount of self-confidence.”

“The experience of delivering the most successful year as a European Capital of Culture has reshaped Liverpool – the way it looks, thinks and acts,” he added.

More from Alan in Belfast, guest posting on Slugger O’Toole.

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Unique art work involving shipping containers

You have less than a week to get yourself to Glasgow if you want to catch Christoph Büchel’s mildly controversial art installation Last Man Out Turn Off Lights, which is on show at the Tramway until Sunday. I describe it as ‘mildly controversial’ because there are will always be vocal critics (generally Daily Mail readers or people who find time to phone in to Radio 5 Live) who disagree with a six figure sum being spent on a temporary piece of installation art. If you don’t fit into either of those groups, excuse the distraction.

The Tramway is a great space for performances and visual art, but I’m under no allusions as to the straightened circumstances in which it is now operating. The Tramway is unique in Glasgow as an arts and performance venue that can pull in world class international artists. Nowhere else in the city has quite the same international reputation or appeal as a venue, and as I picked my way through Büchel’s piece on Sunday I was struggling to think of another venue in the city that could have accommodation Last Man Out so well. When the work at the Tramway is good, it’s very good (such as Forced Entertainment’s Spectacular in 2008 or Jan Fabre’s Orgy of Tolerance in 2009) but when it’s bad, it’s very bad (the insanely expensive and insanely awful Marat/Sade, back in 2008). Last Man Out was a reassurance that the Tramway hasn’t lost its expertise at commissioning great international work.

Photography is not permitted in the exhibit, and Googling for images hasn’t produced anything worthwhile for this post. One of Scotland’s listings magazines gave it the fundamentally accurate but somewhat narrow summary that has given this blog entry its title. It is a strange and beguiling piece, one that does indeed involve a number of shipping containers, but which also involves the airframe of a former British Airways Avro regional jet, apparently re-assembled for crash investigation after some kind of accident.

Entering through a series of shipping containers adapted to resemble prison visiting rooms, one discovers a series of dank, clammy and filthy recreations of a jail. A dormitory in here; utilitarian shower rooms in there; disorganised offices in another. The prison spaces, apparently furnished and decorated using objects and items from a decommissioned facility on the Isle of Man, surround the ruptured, destroyed and painstakingly re-assembled aircraft. All around it are the remnants of the plane and its passengers: partially burnt clothes, toys, books and luggage; a toy plane; rows of airliner seats and misplaced components such as the toilet or bulkhead door.

If you’re the kind of spectator who demands meaning in contemporary art, you may be frustrated by Last Man Out. But you won’t be short of material to fuel your curiosity. Why have the a prison and an aircraft crash investigation been re-created alongside one another? Why the appropriation of such diverse materials and objects?

Last Man Out Turn Off Lights runs until Sunday 18 July 2010. Enclosed footwear only, no under-16s.

Addendum: G-BXAR probably visited Ronaldsway Airport on the Isle of Man some time during it’s operational life with British Airways Cityflyer and British Airways Connect. It was written off following a hard landing at London City Airport in 2009. No-one was injured. But why do I feel compelled to re-assure you of those details?

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Detroit gets growing

Last month I shared with you a cheekily YouTube’d video of BBC 4’s documentary Requiem for Detroit. Perhaps Observer journalist Paul Harris also saw that film when it was broadcast earlier this year, because he reports today (with video) from just one of the nine hundred urban gardens established in Detroit last year.

If you think that number is impressive, then consider this: there still remain approximately 33,000 vacant residential plots of land in Detroit.

Being a novice allotment gardner with more than a few ties to the mid-western United States, a trip to Detroit has never been so tempting.

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Apologies for the odd look

Sorry if you find this website featuring a variety of inconsistent typefaces today. I’m struggling to reign in the aesthetic possibilities of TypeKit and WordPress; it is difficult to successfully apply a consistent look to the CSS palette. Whatever that means.

Edit: there, finished. Whaddayathink?

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Rural Studio at the V&A: “there’s a statement in there somehow”

This is a floorplan of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, indicating the locations of the seven built installations that make up 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces. Being, as I am, on top of the throbbing pulse of London’s architecture scene, I only discovered the exhibition at the end of a long weekend, while killing a few hours before heading back to Heathrow for my flight home. (What can I say; the V&A is on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow and has free luggage storage in the cloakrooms.)

1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces invited 7 architects to construct small architectural interventions throughout the museum. Nineteen paper and model submissions to the call for entries, including the seven that have been built, are on display in the dedicated architecture gallery. Of the seven built structures, while it was far from the most enthralling or entertaining, the most interesting to me was the ‘woodshed’ designed and built by students of Auburn University’s Rural Studio (application rendering below).

The ‘Woodshed’ is a monopitch open-ended structure built of unseasoned thinnings – immature timber harvested from commercially managed forests to allow stronger trees to grow taller and straighter. This suggests a material of inconsistency and distortion, but the structure is stoically angular. Despite the opportunities for exploring the complimentary characteristics of seasoned and unseasoned wood, such as joints that shrink into one another for structural tightness and rigidity, the entire stucture is made up of 49 identical monopitch frames, assembled alongside one another to form the shed. Their expected shrinkage is managed by the inclusion of five threaded rods, drilled through the length of the shed, which can be tightened during the course of the exhibition.

Rural Studio director Andrew Freear and student Danny Wicke explain the installation in this short video, one of seven produced to compliment each structure.

The Rural Studio is no stranger to exhibitions located firmly in art galleries, but for a studio so rooted in the social obligations of architecture as practice, profession and product it is always a provocative experience to encounter their work so removed from any meaningful context.

1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces continues until 30 August 2010.

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Preview: RIBA Research Symposium

The 2010 RIBA Research Symposium has been announced, and it will take place on 23 September at Portland Place in London. Last year’s lively and diverse programme was entitled Changing Practices. This year, practices have duly been changed, and the theme is back on safe high architecture territory with the theme Does Beauty Matter?

Booked speakers include John Andrews, Irena Bauman, Tom Bolton, John Calcutt, Sue Clifford, Sarah Featherstone, Eric Parry and Pam Warhurst. The afternoon’s keynote speaker will be John Gummer, former Conservative MP and now member of the House of Lords. His speaking engagements cover most of the second letter of the alphabet: beauty, BSE, beef-burgers…

RIBA Research Symposium 2010: Does Beauty Matter?

The fifth annual RIBA Research Symposium will address one of the basic principles of architecture: beauty. It is both a universal good and an enduring source of controversy, but what does it really mean?

Architecture is often judged on its success in creating beauty, yet beauty can also be a slipper, uncomfortable and divisive subject. As a society we are uneasy about discussing beauty, both on an individual and a professional level. The word rarely features in modern political discourse, and the concept can be dismissed as arbitrary, subjective, unnecessary, unaffordable, or elitist. Debates purporting to be about the beauty of the built environment often turn out, on closer inspection, to be about style, taste or political symbolism.

So how can beauty be both understood and applied? Do beauty and wealth go hand in hand, and if so why? Do we need our places to be more beautiful, and what would happen if they were? Can we value beauty, measure it or define its role in policy?

Can anyone hoping to be taken seriously argue in favour of beauty? And what is the responsibility of the architect?

The symposium will tackle the significance and function of beauty today. Delegates will debate with architects, developers, community activists and politicians, informed by new research. High profile contributors will bring their varied perspectives to bear on the future of beauty, and the implications of beauty in our society.

Further info and booking here. I hope to attend, but there’s something from Pony Pie in the oven in Glasgow that week that I cannot miss either. Academic sugar daddies with air miles please apply within.

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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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