learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Straddling the North Channel

Two unrelated events tomorrow, one on either side of the North Channel between Britain and Ireland, are drawing the attention of architecture students and practitioners to the city around them.

In Belfast, you can catch up on the progress of the second annual Forum for an Alternative Belfast (FAB) Summer School. It’s been running all week, with groups being assigned different sectors of the city to investigate and study. At 16:00 tomorrow in the ground floor of the University of Ulster’s York Street complex, you can see the culmination of the week’s events. FAB seems to be keeping their activity close to street level, so their website hasn’t been updated since 2009. From the email I received announcing the event, here’s the skinny:


The 2nd Forum Summer School will take place on the ground floor foyer area of the University of Ulster’s York Street campus. This year’s focus is on part of inner north Belfast. The primary purpose of the School is to respond to the ‘Missing City’ agenda; the outcome of last year’s Summer School. This will see a particular focus on the three areas outlined below. Importantly though, the School will promote a strategic understanding and a strategic response to each focus area. Key themes for the week’s work, therefore, will include: connectivity; the pedestrian experience; ground floor animation of buildings; good quality public spaces; workable street layouts; high standard sustainable urban housing; and robust block design.

The School Event

In order to promote a strategic analytical approach to the development of the city, the Summer School process will facilitate ongoing discussion around a large table with a map of the entire study area. All the main discussions/workshops will take place around this table. Satellite study groups will focus on specific areas/ Issues within this strategic context. Evening sessions which will be open to the public will sum up each day’s work.

The Outcomes

The Summer School seeks to demonstrate the benefits of a thorough analysis of city form and structure and a design process that is strategic, imaginative and inclusive. It anticipates that the outcomes will help steer and guide a number of existing and proposed individual projects within the study area. A poster map will be published initially and later a booklet documenting the results, all contributors will be acknowledged. The work will be copyrighted to Forum for Alternative Belfast as a Community Interest Company.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, there’s a whole day of events running throughout the city as part of the inaugural workshop of the Scottish Architecture Students Assembly. Entitled Collective Identity: Past, Present Future Glasgow, you need to register for participation, events include a pop-up cinema matiné in the Barras market and evening soirée at Mono. The ‘wegies seem to be more down with the interwebs than their Belfast compatriots, so you can join the Facebook event page or follow their blog.

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Some thoughts on the Kindle

Traveling home from Queen’s on Friday, I decided to take the ultimate litmus test of the Amazon Kindle DX. Would using it on a Belfast city bus lead to me getting my head kicked in, for a) flashing a valuable piece of personal electronics or b) just being too nerdy in public?

I made it home without any injury being sustained. Although my perception of the Kindle’s price tag (and therefore its suitability for use on a Metro bus) is probably distorted, because I didn’t actually pony up £149 for it myself. Having been awarded funds from the Queen’s Annual Fund (a source of “unrestricted funds for projects and institutional priorities that can bring about an immediate impact to today’s students”), the library at Queen’s University Belfast has invested in five Kindles pre-loaded with books of specific interest to planning students at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering. They’re available now at the McClay Library for students and staff to borrow and evaluate. They are loaned on pretty much the same terms as ordinary books, four weeks for undergrad and taught postgrad, twelve weeks for research postgrad and staff.

The same selection of titles have been loaded onto Kindles 1-4, with a slightly different selection on number 5. I’m not sure whether these now exist in the library’s QCat system, but in theory you should now be able to locate these books on a Kindle as well as on the shelf, and borrow the device instead of one or multiple books.

This has some obvious advantages and disadvantages. If the book you want is out, lost or not in our collection, you can borrow it and many others. But then again, if one borrower takes out a Kindle for just one title, that’s effectively a waste of all the other books pre-loaded onto it, especially since other borrowers might want them while it’s out, thereby negating the advantage of an ebook reader to cover for books not in the physical collection. One desirable outcome of this trial is that in future, larger numbers of ebook readers like the Kindle might be kept empty in stock, but with a base station that could upload ebooks as they are required by borrowers. I’ve no idea whether the software and licensing of the Kinde system would support that kind of deployment, because my experience of ebook marketing so far has been almost entirely to the private consumer, who buys books one at a time and installs them for life on his or her device. If it isn’t possible, it would seem a pretty huge oversight on the ebook industry not to support hot-syncing of their devices.

Until this week, I’d never handled or used a Kindle before. First impressions count, and I had a bit of time on my journey home to play around with the Kindle and read some of the text.

From a physical design point of view, let’s not beat about the bush. The Kindle sucks. It is horrible to hold, manipulate and use. A few years ago I might not have been so cruel, but then Apple came along and released the iPad. Strangely, despite the iPad being a useless e-reader itself, Apple have changed the whole e-reader game completely. While the iPad has a problematic light emitting screen behind a glossy layer of glass, which is difficult to read from in direct or changing light conditions, it has at least been designed by a team of people who care deeply about the tactile experience of holding and using it. The Kindle has a nasty cheap plastic and faux-aluminium body, with horrible interface buttons and keyboard about sixty percent the size it needs to be to be useful.

Likewise, the software interface is dreadful. Books are listed by title, and navigation is slow and unintuitive. While I could get used to this with time, once you get into the e-books there are numerous annoying formatting errors. Chapter and section headings appear to have lost their page breaks, so chapter titles appear at the bottom of the screen and their text begins on the next. In one text, chapter one had merged with the book’s acknowledgements on the previous page.

Crucially, for academic users, the e-books appear to have had their printed edition page numbers replaced by electronic ‘location’ numbers. It makes sense to adapt the book’s navigation to the e-reader format, but sadly this is a nascent medium, and I can’t cite references in my own work without the page number of a known and dated paper edition. If the Kindle is to be useful for academics, I would rather that the format stuck to the page format of the paper books themselves so that I could use it without having to refer to paper copy as well.

Without question, however, the Kindle excels with its display. The beautiful electronic paper display is a pleasure to read off, and unlike light emitting screens (on computers, iPads, phones etc) it is both comfortable to use and legible in all light conditions, most notably the rapidly changing light and shade cast through the window of a moving vehicle.

Amazon and Apple are, to some extent, going head to head in the e-reader market with their Kindle and iPad, respectively. Sadly, both are flawed as electronic readers. The iPad has the design nailed, but the screen is horrible for extended reading. The Kindle has a beautiful screen to read from, but the interface is hellish, and the formatting of the books is useless for serious academic citation. Perhaps I’m unaware of developments in this field, but there is also a fundamental weakness in the academic use of e-readers preloaded with purchased titles: the e-reader would seem to me have a much more useful role in the library if it can be loaded and loaned dynamically, with whatever book a borrower wants but can’t get at that moment.

If you want to try a Kindle for yourself, you can Check out a Kindle from the QUB McClay Library. Each unit is supplied with a feedback form (also online here) for you to share your thoughts on the trial.

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Scotland’s Housing Expo

I made the trip up to Inverness last week on behalf of BD to visit Scotland’s Housing Expo, located just outside the city in Milton of Leys. As you can see from the photo above, there were still some finishing touches to be made, but it was still an incredible sight to see fifty-something homes by twenty-something Scottish architects (mostly) delivered on time. You can read my thoughts in this week’s BD (clicky clicky), but if you have any interest in the state of Scottish architecture and design I suggest you head north at the earliest opportunity. If Scotland is to have any chance of enjoying another such event, this one needs as many visitors through the turnstile as it can get, especially as the target of 30,000 visitors over the month that it’s open seems somewhat optimistic.

The Expo is, if nothing else, a unique opportunity to see so many practices’ work side by side; some good, some bad. Unlike some in the press, I see no point in being churlish about the all the setbacks faced by the Expo in the last few years. But, faced with a strict 1200 word count for BD, I did take the executive decision not to waste readers time describing the buildings I really didn’t like.

The Expo is open daily until the end of August, when the houses will be put on the market for sale or rent.

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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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