learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

American apparel: AIAS Forum t-shirts

Perhaps a key cultural indicator? At the AIAS Forum (described below) one afternoon, architecture students from around the country presented the t-shirts they had designed and printed to raise money for their AIAS chapters. And while there were some exceptions, I couldn’t help noticing a pattern emerging.

In their 1996 report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang drew on an extensive survey of students, faculty and practising architects to argue that schools of architecture should be, amongst other things:

…learning communities – places where students are supported, not put on trial, where communication is clear and mutually respectful, where all groups are actively sought out, and where the community regularly celebrates itself.

I am of a generation that questions the Beaux Arts method of inculcating students with a certain patten of behaviour – a kind of academic hazing, if you will. Architecture has been a problematic discipline to open up to its true diverse and inclusive potential, especially as for so long its design studio overwhelmed curricula with its sprawling time  requirements and overwhelmed students with its competitive structures of work and judgement. But in that same report, Boyer and Mitgang noticed that despite a density of reasoned critique, many architecture students were inclined to defend such aggressive and confrontational educational rituals as the solo student presenting to a design jury of invited critics.

A number of architecture students and graduates we met agreed that architecture should be a hardening experience. As one student at a West Coast campus told us: “A value of it being so rigorous and taking so much commitment is that you leave with a commitment to the field.”

It’s hard to tell from the cross section of architecture students at the AIAS Forum, but I sensed a continued affection for the macho culture of architectural education. Perhaps it was most evident in the t-shirts on sale. Is it representative of every student and every school? I doubt it, but it was something that seemed somewhat out of step with the progressive and inclusive culture of architectural education advanced by the AIAS in its broader activities and publications.

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Minnesota Nice: AIAS Forum 2009

I’m back from sunny Minnesota. Sunny, snowy and sub-zero (in both Celsius and Fahrenheit) Minnesota. It was a great pleasure to be welcomed to the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) 2009 Forum, and I owe a debt of thanks to the forum organisers for their hard work in preparing such a large event. There were about five hundred and fifty delegates in attendance, mostly students of architecture from schools throughout North America. Here’s a view of the Nicollet Ballroom before one of the nightly general sessions, before which chapters (representing individual schools of architecture) confirmed their presence to a daily roll call with a selection of sports field chants, musical parodies, borderline sexual jokes and (for those attending on their own) solitary wails or monologues.

There was a busy programme of workshops, general sessions, keynotes, tours and events. I had the pleasure of putting my head round the door of a design charette at the University of Minnesota and visiting some local architectural practices who opened their doors during the Forum Firm Crawl. The Forum was an excellent opportunity for me to get a feel for what students of architecture in the United States are currently talking about. It should be no surprise that top of the bill is pretty much the same thing that British and Irish students are talking too: the recession. Representatives of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) at state and national level spoke during the general sessions, all imploring architecture students not to give up, because although times are bad “we need you” (George H. Miller, AIA President, if I attributed that correctly) and “you are agents of change” (Thomas Fisher, Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design).

What struck me, however, was an absence (as far as I found it, at least) of any discussion of alternative practices, especially those that might see students through the economic malaise. I was impressed by the students who presented recent AIAS Freedom By Design projects, which are the latest additions to a long history and culture of pro bono work in the community by architecture students in the United States. But in response to the problems faced by the recession, I sensed only a cultural attitude that the economy will eventually pick up, and students should be primed and ready to leap back into traditional commercial practice as soon as that happens.

This was very much a meeting between the profession and its future members. While I understand there was some heavy socialising going on in the evenings (I politely excused myself to accept the kind offer of free accommodation outside the city) during the daytime I noted the business-like atmosphere of the Forum. The majority of workshops on offer were proposed to develop employability, through portfolio, technical and presentation skills. And while the rowdiness of the roll call described above was in stark contrast to the image of a diverse and inclusive profession that I understood the AIAS and AIA to be campaigning for, the atmosphere of the event was overwhelmingly business-like. The Forum delegates represented the most motivated and the most passionate students of architecture in the country (being as most are, paid up members of the AIAS and representatives of this national body of students at their local schools).

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At the AIAS Forum, Minneapolis / St. Paul

Subject to confirming some minor issues with our travel documents (we now have three passports between the two of us, and our return flights terminating in either Helsinki or Glasgow depending on which airline website we download our itinerary from) I will be attending the American Institute of Architecture Students 2009 Forum in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota from 29 – 31 December. On the 31st I’ll be running a seminar / workshop event entitled Trans-Atlantic transactions, in which the American AIA Code of Ethics (http://www.aia.org/about/ethicsandbylaws/index.htm) and the British RIBA Code of Conduct ( http://www.architecture.com/TheRIBA/Organisation/Constitution/CodeofConduct.aspx) will be explored, deconstructed and re-assembled to consider what it is architects do in practice, and to discuss the contribution of recent graduates and young architects to an expanded notion of practice.

I was planning to submit a more detailed description of the event to the AIAS Forum organisers, but my hand slipped and it was emailed as described above. It actually reads much better than what I had planned, and I’m looking forward to meeting students and other Forum delegates in a few weeks time.

My attendance at the AIAS Forum has been made possible thanks to Queens University Belfast’s Emily Sarah Montgomery Travel Scholarship, and my research cluster The Centre for Built Environment Research (CBER).

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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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