learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Call for participation: Common Grounds 2012 – On Site

Last year, with Anna Holder of the University of Sheffield, I helped to organise and curate a colloquium for postgraduate researchers entitled Common Grounds. This year, Common Grounds returns for a second event, to be hosted by the Sheffield Graduate Architectural Society and is being organised by Carolyn Butterworth and Adam Park. The call for participation went out this morning; you can find more information on the website.

Common Grounds: On Site

An open call for active participation in a postgraduate research colloquium.

20th – 21st April 2012, University of Sheffield School of Architecture

Common Grounds is an opportunity to collaborate with postgraduate students and other early-career researchers in exploring what it means to engage in situated/active spatial research, and what might be gained through a propositional or praxis-led research agenda. Researchers that actively engage on and with site, people and place are encouraged to apply from any ‘spatial’ discipline (including activists, architects, artists, geographers, performers, planners, sociologists, and others).

Please find further details and the full call at the colloquium website: http://exploringcommongrounds.wordpress.com/

Please forward to anyone else who may be interested in submitting!

Filed under: blog, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Common Grounds: 14 & 15 January 2011

On Friday morning, at the AHRA Postgraduate Research Symposium hosted by the University of Sheffield, Anna Holder and I launched the call for participation for Common Grounds: exploring methodologies for research within or research about architecture and the built environment

This two day winter colloquium for post-graduate students and early career researchers on methodologies for researching architecture and the built environment will take place at St. Deiniolʼs Library, Clwyd on Friday 14 & Saturday 15 January 2011.

Doing research on or in the field of architecture can feel like a methodological free-for-all, borrowing from the arts, humanities, physical sciences, social sciences etc. Conscious of the difficulties facing early career researchers in the built environment (who may not feel they have received adequate training in this area) Common Grounds proposes a weekend away from the university to present, discuss and constructively critique research-in- progress. This event will focus on developing thematic clusters and working relationships to support research in the field of architecture.

Early-career researchers in any discipline with an interest in architectural research are invited to submit:

  • a 100 word introduction to your topic and key questions
  • a 200 word abstract describing your current / proposed research methodologies
  • a brief statement of what you would like to get out of this event


  • Call for papers: 22 October 2010
  • Deadline for submissions: 26 November 2010
  • Programme announced: 10 December 2010

On the Friday attendees will be invited to present an informal 20 minute paper specifically discussing their research approach and methodology. Time will be allocated for detailed discussion and feedback. Submissions are particularly invited from researchers who have are still developing their research questions and approaches. Informal conversations may continue over dinner and perhaps onwards to a local hostelry. Based on the outcomes of the previous dayʼs presentations, on the Saturday we will collectively design structured workshops to consolidate and develop methodological themes.

The intent of Common Grounds is to nurture an informal student-led research colloquium dedicated to that most tricky aspect of research: method. It’s been our experience of architectural education that too many students of architecture avoid or consciously postpone any engagement of technical, structural or detailed design in their studio projects. It’s a fear of the unknown, the hard-to-grasp unknown skills that are best learnt through real experience. In our PhDs, we’ve had precious little structured introduction or discussion of actual research method and methodology.

So let’s make a date. Come to North Wales for the weekend and tells us about your research, regardless of whether or not you are decided on research method or methodologies. We’ve booked a meeting room and plan to let the conversation flow. St. Deiniol’s is a fascinating venue, and very easy to access by road or rail. We very much hope to see you there.

Everything you need to know about submitting and participating is on the Common Grounds blog: http://exploringcommongrounds.wordpress.com/

Filed under: blog, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Little ginger biscuits

I’m over in Sheffield (nine years after starting undergraduate studies here) to attend tomorrow’s CEBE conference Innovation in Built Environment Education (iBEE) 2010. This is the view of one of my old haunts, one that I miss a great deal, the Showroom Cinema. I spent far too much time here during my studies, largely thanks to the extremely well priced student tickets.

After iBEE, I will continue a week of ricocheting around Britain and Ireland. It’s back across the water tomorrow, but to the other end of Ireland, for the second meeting of the All Ireland Architectural Research Group in Cork. Then it’s back to London for some meetings and interviews before I head home, exhausted, on Friday night.

I’m now engaged in these interviews as part of my first major phase of empirical research. I’ve been designing, redesigning, redesigning, piloting and redesigning my interview schedule for several months now. The time has come to roll it out, nerve wracking though that is. My transcription skills are being refreshed, and I expect to spend a substantial portion of the coming autumn with headphones plugged into my MacBook as I flip between iTunes and Pages, trying to understand why I am so bad at interrupting interesting people mid-sentence.

Do say hello if you are also attending either of those events.

Filed under: blog, , , , , , , , ,

Be Bold and Proceed: live projects at the Birmingham School of Architecture

As promised, here is the text of the a paper I delivered at the 2009 AHRA Postgraduate Research Symposium in Cardiff just before Christmas. This is the first academic paper I have delivered in the course of my PhD studies, and I took the opportunity to tie-up some research I’ve made into the live projects that existed at the Birmingham School of Architecture in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. It’s not a ground-breaking work, but at an introduction to what I believe to be an as-yet unconsidered series of pedagogic experiments in British architectural education.

I’m especially grateful to RM and AM for their input and advice, and to the attentive and responsive Cardiff audience who eased me into the art of reading aloud my work out aloud.

I hope that a fellow presenter here today won’t object to me paraphrasing something he wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1958 Oxford Conference on Architectural Education, that ‘it’s as easy to complain about the state of architectural education today as it is difficult to comprehend quite how awful it was fifty years ago.’1 In 1958 and 1961, two journals – Architecture and Building and Architect and Building News – commissioned the same correspondent, John Smith, to report on the state of the schools of architecture in Britain. In 1958 he found schools ranging “from pucka university departments to correspondence colleges of dubious merit.”2 But in some, Smith found students designing and building real buildings, notably at the Birmingham School of Architecture, where a programme of live projects had seen dozens of buildings constructed to students’ designs. Reporting from a city famed for its manufacturing, Smith found a school with an ethos “to do a little, thoroughly, rather than a lot, superficially.”3 In their second year, Birmingham students constructed bizarre ‘conglomerates’ in the workshops of a nearby technical college: temporary, small-scale indoor structures that were designed to combine as many different domestic details as possible rather that satisfy a client or brief.4 The conglomerates were dismantled after assessment so that their materials could be recycled the following year, but these were a prelude to the live projects: bungalows, terraced houses, small blocks of flats and community halls designed or built by students in the upper years.

We have, in architectural education today, a notion of what a ‘live project’ is and what it may achieve. The term is a primarily British one, but the notion of removing students from the simulated design environment of the studio and transplanting them to the ‘real’ world is well established elsewhere. Dr. Rachel Sara, who has written extensively on contemporary British live projects and whose doctoral thesis examined their pedagogic value from a critically reflective feminist standpoint, has defined a live project as ‘a type of design project that is distinct from a typical studio project in its engagement of real clients or users, in real-time settings. Students are taken out of the studio setting, and repositioned in the ‘real-world’ … the process is more dialogic and inclusive than traditional studio projects, allowing and embracing alternative voices in the studio environment.’5 From an American perspective, William Carpenter, who has written about design/build studios in American schools of architecture, defines a live project as a ‘university course that incorporates actual practice-based methods into an educational environment for clear learning outcomes.’ The engagement of American schools of architecture in design/build studios or Community Design Centres provides a seductive stepping stone between, on the one hand, pedagogically motivated live projects and, on the other the philanthropic community-based design/build projects. The design/build studios of certain American schools of architecture were inspirational models of user-centric collaborative learning to my recent generation of live project students at Sheffield, a school with ten years of recent experience in their delivery. However the contextual specificity of an architectural education that engages students in the real world cannot be replicated somewhere else. Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Alabama depends not just on a density of potential clients living with substandard houses and facilities, but also a county in which students can work without building legislation. With more than a decade of continuous activity from the early fifties to early sixties, I propose that the Birmingham live projects are an under-explored series of experiments in mid-twentieth century architectural education.

As John Musgrove6 and others have noted, most writings on architectural education regard the 1958 Oxford Conference as a turning point in British architectural education. In their comprehensive history of architectural education in Britain, Messrs. Crinson and Lubbock go so far as to describe the conference in militaristic terms, suggesting a conspiratorial attack by the modernisers of architectural education. In the generational overlap between the decline of articled pupillage and the rise of the modern era of an academic education in architecture, it is tempting to interpret construction projects such as those at Birmingham as an artisanal reaction against the recommendations of the 1958 Oxford Conference, which favoured a higher entry qualifications and the concentration of schools in university-level institutions with healthy support for postgraduate research.  But we should remember that the Birmingham live projects were in action seven years before the conference, and that as my research that has found, the head of the school was eager for students both to design real buildings and be in a university.

In the words of John Smith, Douglas Jones, head of the Birmingham School of Architecture from 1947 and 1962, was “to Birmingham as [Charles] Reilly was to Liverpool”. Jones became head of the architecture school in Manchester in 1940, before being appointed to the same position at Birmingham, where he replaced the École des Beaux Arts-trained George Drysdale. We know that he taught at the Architectural Association in the late thirties, and there is tantilising evidence that he ran a live project there in which students designed and built a small cottage, although this has been omitted from any of the histories of the AA l that I have found.

Minutes from the Birmingham school of architecture sub-committee in 1949 indicate that, less than two years after his appointment, Jones was already pressing for the School of Architecture to be affiliated with Birmingham University. Mention is made of the confusion he caused by bypassing his superior, the Principal of the College of Art, in communicating directly with the Ministry of Education on certain matters. These minutes suggest Jones was politely put in his place, but by the following year, informal discussions had begun with the university, and a report was prepared by the school’s chief education officer. It was noted during this process that universities such as Liverpool were already likely to be attracting better students with the opportunity to acquire an honours degree, even though the majority of RIBA recognised schools of architecture were in technical colleges or schools of art. Jones’ ambition in seeking to align the Birmingham school with a university – almost ten years before the Oxford Conference set an academic agenda for schools of architecture – was unprecedented, and while the Birmingham school was to remain aligned with the school of art, suggested a radical aspiration for a teaching of architecture that was both practical and academic.

On Thursday 30 October 1952, representatives of the RIBA Board of Education visited the Birmingham School of Architecture to inspect the facilities, see a sample of the students’ work and to decide whether the school could continue to offer exemption from RIBA examination to graduating students. This process, incidentally, continues to this day, and I participate in it as a student panel member. It is now highly structured, with visits every four years taking two whole days to follow an agreed programme and a rigorous code of conduct. It was not always so, however. Elizabeth Layton, the RIBA’s Education under-secretary from 1962 until 1971, recalled that, prior to her appointment to enact the recommendations of the Oxford Conference, “the visiting board … used to spend one day at a school, no more. It arrived at ten o’clock and had a cup of coffee, and left after it had had a long lunch, at about five” and did not meet any students formally.7 My examination of the school’s documents (which are now held in the archives of the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) suggests that the 1952 validation board was far from neutral in its attitude to Douglas Jones’ experiments. The eleven pages of observations Douglas Jones made to the report (which is itself only ten pages long) note that “five members of the Visiting Board are those officers of the Board of Architectural Education who wrote to me twelve months ago telling me that practical building projects (i.e. “Live Projects”) should not be carried out in the School.”  From personal communication with Douglas Jones before his death in 2003, Crinson and Lubbock have confirmed that Jones had very great support amongst the RIBA Board of Architectural Education for his experiments in education, although it seems that this support was not represented in the panel that visited Birmingham. The board was to recommend continued recognition for the school, making criticisms that are to be expected of a non-university school at the time. Tellingly, the highly unusual live projects were addressed in two distinct appendices: one describing the four projects completed or in progress at the time of the visit, and one offering the board’s critique. That the live projects were not considered as part of the overall report suggests that they were uneasily integrated with the school’s curriculum, and the board “felt that the general standard of work in the studios fell below what might reasonably be expected of a school with RIBA Final recognition and they think that this might be due in part to over-emphasis on the ‘Live Projects’.” Whereas modern-day live projects have are advocated as a means of introducing user-sensitive consultation and collaboration skills, the board reported “there is too much group work throughout the school. Whilst justification can be found for certain projects being handled in this way, most of the student’s efforts should be directed in solving his own problems.”

The first Birmingham live project was a row of terraced houses in Rednal, near Birmingham. The City Engineer authorised the project to be given to the school, and the city’s Housing Architect provided verbal instructions. Every third year student prepared their own designs, before a jury selected two finalists for further work, although sadly one that is described “of framed construction on stilts, was later abandoned due to high cost.”8 The winning design, by David Radford, was worked up by a group of four students, including the young Geoffrey Darke, later of Darbourne & Darke, before being handed over to Birmingham Corporation for construction. The Visiting Board notes that the contractor treated the scheme as a ‘hospital job’, taking almost two years to finish it. The houses were, however, complete by the time the students entered fifth year, and they still stand to this day. In the following academic year, 1951/2, four groups of third and fourth year students produced sketch designs for a development of flats and bungalows in Fletchamsted. In the absence of a year master, the groups were led by fourth year students with experience of earlier live projects, including Radford. The visiting board considered this “undesirable” for the senior students because of the interruption to their own studies and the “unjustifiably high opinion of their attainments” that it might foster. The Birmingham and Five Counties Architectural Association was also to object to larger projects, ostensibly because they placed a prejudicial burden on the school’s staff but also because they represented substantial competition. An agreement was later reached with the BFCAA to only accept work up to the value of £12,000. Construction firms tendered for the work as they would any other job, and once on site the live projects were overseen by students much in the same role as an architect. This was to lead to noticeable discrepancies of detail design, which the visiting board attributed to the “overstaffing” of an entire year group designing a small project. In their critique:

Only a very small number of students can prepare the drawings for the actual contract purposes and professional responsibilities make it inevitable that the best students only are selected … The students who have to make drawings for their own alternative scheme, which are not to be built, benefit no more than from a normal school programme. They may, however, feel a sense of frustration, as compared with the selected group, and this may result in a lower standard of work on their part.

That is not to say, however, that the board was unsympathetic with the pedagogical intent of the live projects to simulate normal architectural practice in the school.

The Visiting Board think that where ‘Live Projects’ are included in the course they must be genuine representations of everyday practice and be ancillary and not alternative to normal studio design work. Smaller schemes might be chosen to give experience in planning and construction, but they cannot provide a substitute for more broadly based tuition.9

Douglas Jones’ observations to the report confirm a greater aspiration that merely the simulation of practice, explaining that:

There is only one thing that is certain about Architectural Education and that is its complete uncertainty … In this age of architectural chaos, we at Birmingham, have taken (or have tried to take) several educational steps which I hope are forward steps; but all the thought and the effort that we have given to Architectural Education (and at Birmingham during the past few years there has been greater impetus than in any of the other Schools) has been been passed over. This perhaps due to the fact that two views are held on the subject of Architectural Education.

The first of these views is that of the architect who maintains that students on qualifying should make useful assistants and justify their existence by paying their way as soon as they qualify.

If the School concentrated entirely on turning out good assistants for Private Offices they could probably succeed but – and this is the other view – it is the duty of the Schools not only to try to train useful assistants but also to train people who will one day make good architects with vision and initiative.

Nobody has yet discovered whether these two things are entirely compatible.10

Here, in 1953, Douglas Jones has identified the problem that architectural educators continue to grapple with more than fifty years later; namely how architecture may be taught in a university-level context. On the one hand, Jones’ aspiration to align the school with the university confirmed the he saw architectural education as a highly intellectual creative activity, while on the other his development of construction projects emphasised its practical and problem-solving nature. While the learning-through-making approach of the Bauhaus has had an immeasurable influence on schools of architecture around the world, I would suggest that Birmingham developed a subtly different model of ‘live’ architectural education that situated live architectural problem-solving into an academic context.

Subsequent live projects, including a village hall, an ex-servicemen’s club and a number of small housing developments, were to acknowledge the criticisms of the 1953 report and moderate the scale of work undertaken. But to look back at the Birmingham live projects in search of precedents for current collaborative or live projects, it is tempting to simplify a complex series of experiments in architectural education as an pioneering example of a design/build education in architecture. Sara, for instance, summarises that “students were involved in hands-on work, in communicating with clients and each other, in outside locations.”11 While it is true that Birmingham students were introduced to basic building skills through the second year conglomerates, and that third year students produced all the necessary materials for small projects to be built, I would express great caution in assuming that the Birmingham live projects were coherent design/build teaching projects in the sense that we understand them today, and that to do so downplays their importance in a broader history of architectural education. To suggest that they did all of the above is to compress a decade of teaching practice into the life-span of one student, and as was noted by the RIBA visiting board, it was a quite un-collaborative process that was liable to exclude or under-represent weaker students. And while the live projects introduced students to real clients, almost all were local authorities or public bodies. Moreover, students worked just as before – individually and in competition with one another to have their design chosen by a jury of critics for detailed development. It was not until 1959 that we can be sure that students actually worked on-site, and when they did, in a row of terraced houses in Water Orton in a distinctly titled ‘live building project’, they were actually building a design provided by a commercial house-builder, in an early example of architecture students providing cheap if inexperienced labour (although I should emphasise, the houses still appear to be standing).

It is, of course, extremely difficult to critique the teaching practices of a school fifty years later, and many of these observations I’ve made to must be considered in the light of contemporary architectural practice. By 1962, when Douglas Jones left Birmingham for the Bristol school and just as the RIBA Board of Education was beginning to act on the recommendations of the Oxford Conference, it seems that the live project experiment at Birmingham was coming to an end. The second year live project was a refurbishment rather than new-build, and the two fifth year live projects are not believed to have been realised. Denys Hinton, who had many years of live project teaching experience at Birmingham and who was to succeed Douglas Jones as head of the school of architecture, explained:

Theory is unintelligible. We sought for a fuzzing of the boundaries between training and practice. I want to emphasize that we did not want to to be seen as practice; we wanted to integrate this with the learning. For us the maturity of the student was very important. This was not just an academic project and this was not just working on a site …12

In an article in the AJ that year, Anthony Goss, a senior lecturer in the school, introduced an evolution of the desire to bring a sense of realism in the studio, namely a ‘Realistic Project’ for fourth and fifth year students. While affirming that they “in no way take the place of our live projects”13, Goss acknowledged the difficulty with which a continuing search for “realism” in architectural education could be balanced with a sufficient “depth” of study for upper level    students. The realistic projects grouped students with real clients and host architects to provide expertise and criticism, but there was to be no built outcome. The students prepared agreed briefs in their groups before ploughing their own furrows towards separately submitted projects, each designed up to working and detail drawings, with a fully detailed cost plan. Presentation drawings were discouraged. Goss concluded that “the principles underlying the schemes – of realism, deeper study of smaller buildings and a closer link with good offices – deserve wider application in senior years of architectural education.” But realism was not to include construction.

The Birmingham live projects of the nineteen fifties and sixties have emerged in this, my first year of PhD studies into live projects in architectural education, as the first notable example of a British academic architectural education that sought to engage students with a sense of the realism that was seen to have been lost in the transition away from articled pupillage to a Beaux Arts derived education. Through primary documentary evidence, we know that Douglas Jones wanted the Birmingham School of Architecture to be both located in a university and to engage with an unavoidable reality that would nurture sustainable problem-solving skills and creative vision. It is my thesis that these, and many other subsequent live projects are an opportunity to understand a perceived inadequacy or flaw in the teaching of architecture. My research continues, and I am hopeful of locating more primary evidence relating to Douglas Jones and his colleagues at Birmingham in the nineteen-fifties in the coming months.

1. Parnell, S., 2008. Coverage of the 1958 Oxford Conference was harsh and influential. Architects Journal, (17 July), 47.
2. Smith, J. 1958. The Schools. Architecture and Building, (February), 42-69.
3. Smith, J., 1961. Schools of Architecture – 2 – Birmingham. Architect & Building News, (22 February), 257-263.
4. Crinson, M. and Lubbock, J., 1994. Architecture – art or profession. Manchester: Manchester University Press
5. Sara, R., 2006. CEBE Briefng Guide Series, No.8: Live Project Good Practice: A Guide for the Implementation of Live Projects. Plymouth: University of Plymouth.
6. Musgrove, J., 1983. Architectural education : the growth of a discipline. Architectural Education, (1), 105-112.
7. TROMBLEY, S., 1983. The Oxford Conference and after : an interview with Elizabeth Layton. Architectural Education, (1), 89-97.
8. RIBA, 1952. Report of the RIBA Visiting Board upon the School of Architecture, the College of Arts and Crafts, Birmningham. London: RIBA.
9. RIBA, 1952. Ibid.
10. RIBA, 1952. Ibid.
11. Sara, 2004, 132-133
12. Carpenter, W., 2004. Design and construction in architectural education : 1963 – 2003. PhD edn. Birmingham: University of Central England in Birmingham.
13. Goss, A., 1962. Realistic Projects at Birmingham. Architects Journal, (4 April), 727-731

Filed under: blog, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Filed under: blog, , , , , , , , , , ,

Take the express elevator

A certain academic who had more than a small influence on my higher educational upbringing introduced me to the concept of the elevator pitch. He subsequently went on to include it as a means of introducing the themes of his most recent book. We met while I was a student (and he a professor) at my alma mater, a school of architecture that has until very recently necessitated a slow and generally unreliable elevator journey in order to access it. I am not a particularly verbose person, and I suspect that studying architecture in a twenty storey sixties towerblock didn’t help me learn the correct definition of what an elevator pitch should be. During the last fews week I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of academics, practitioners and students interested in architectural education, and frankly I should have seen that opportunity coming as a chance to refine my short, sharp and direct elevator pitch. During the same period, I was also faced with the challenge of presenting the same information in French. That didn’t go well either, although probably because my once semi-fluent spoken French is now eroding, especially whenever I foolishly try to employ the future conditional.

You may have already come across my position paper, written a few months ago as part of the development of this project, and perma-linked under ‘About the Project’ on this page. The current version, last heavily edited in June, still stands, but it’s time to be more concise.

This is a phd about live projects in architectural education.

It’s a start. But I don’t think many people are going to be fooled by a phd ‘about’ something. So it would be better framed as a question.

Why do live projects happen in architectural education?

But wait. What’s a live project?

Fair question. And I suspect it’s one that I end up answering when I have blethered on with unscripted elevator pitches. So, the definition I propose in the Glossary draws from two sources close to current live project practice in architectural education in the UK:

live project – noun 1) “a type of [ design ] studio project which is distinct in its engagement of real clients or users. This external involvement tends to result in students producing something that is of value to the client/user group, which might range from ideas , feasibility reports, or research, to a completed design scheme, a construction or other intervention. The remit of the project is typically worked out in collaboration with the external collaborators, rather than being imposed by the design studio teacher. As a result, the process is more dialogic and inclusive than traditional studio projects. The external focus introduces a contingency to the projects, which makes live project work stand apart from the necessarily more abstract projects of the traditional design studio.” (SARA, R., 2004. Between studio and street : the role of the live project in architectural education, University of Sheffield) 2) [ a design project employed in architectural education ] “with a real client, with a real problem and are done in real time, with a defined end result” (CHILES, PRUE AND HOLDER, ANNA, 2008. The Live Project. Oxford Conference)

Although contemporary live projects in architectural education are limited to only one or two UK universities, I do not propose a study limited solely to these examples. The term ‘live project’ first appeared in British architectural education in the nineteen-fifties, most notably in relation to innovative hands-on building projects of the Birmingham School of Architecture under the directorship of A. Douglas Jones, and this is a school that I will studying more in the weeks and months to come. And while the term ‘live project’ is limited largely to architectural education in Great Britain, the definitions we have seem to describe a great deal of what is better known as outreach or design/build in North American schools of architecture (including, but by no means limited to, the Rural Studio at Auburn and Studio 804 at Kansas). Although I don’t expect to be able to drag the term into common parlance, the compatibility of existing definitions of ‘live projects’ from British architectural education with these practices in North America seems to suggest to me that it is a perfectly suitable term. So, in one sentence to introduce the project:

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which architecture* students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome.

* I don’t mean to suggest that live projects only exist within architectural education. But that is where this project is coming from (quite literally: as an undergraduate and taught postgraduate architecture student, I have participated in live projects) and it is an area of personal interest and tentative expertise. To reflect the great potential for inter-disciplinarity that this style of teaching and my own school offers, perhaps it should be tweaked:

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which built environment students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome.

So that’s the definition. But why the hell am I spending three years studying live projects?

Another good question. So now for the second part of the elevator pitch that begins to acknoweldge what I’ve been doing for the last six months in building a literature review.

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which built environment students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome. While educators and students themselves have contributed much to the academic debate about their origins, processes and outcomes, we lack a coherent understanding of why they occur, and out of what conditions. Drawing together historic (UK 1950s & 1960s; US 1960s) and contemporary (UK 2000s; US 1990s-2000s) live projects from the UK and the USA, this PhD will ask why have live projects repeatedly occured, what perceived weaknesses or faults are they responding to, and how do their respective contexts shape them.

To be continued…

Filed under: blog, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Position Paper

I’ve uploaded the latest version of my position paper to a dedicated page on the blog (perma-link under ‘About the Project’ in the adjacent column). Like much on this blog, it is work in progress and is liable to change and evolve. However it does come as close as I have been able to elucidate my motivations, interests and aspirations for this project.

Portions of the actual paper describing methodology, outcomes and effects have been left out for now, but may be included as and when they are firmed up.

Filed under: blog, , , , , , , ,

A list of modest achievements

Last week I bemoaned the state of fuzziness that had overwhelmed my brain as a result of a slightly over ambitious first month of PhD-dom. New to the project and revisiting the subject, I wanted to touch base on a few subject areas that I was either rusty or not familiar with. Hence a rather chaotic reading list.
With a gloomy wet day now setting in, and my next supervisions next week, I wanted to take control of the mess on my desk and go through what I’ve actually done over the last few weeks. I don’t think it would be helpful to divide my time into periods of reading and periods of writing, but it has certainly been a busier month for absorption than production. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the only one I had previously visited, and that provided a useful kick start in some thinking about pedagogical practice. It was also a delight to re-read, and the continued relevance of the text to numerous fields is a testament to the brilliance and clarity of thought expressed therein. The following key texts have been read, which is to say that I have read them from end to end and noted them either in the process or afterwards during a second pass.
  • DE CARLO, G., 2005. Architecture’s Public. In: P. BLUNDELL JONES, D. PETRESCU and J. TILL, eds, Architecture and Participation. First edn. London: Spon, pp. 3-22.
  • CUFF, D., 1991. Architecture : the story of practice. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
  • FREIRE, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Revised edition edn. London: Hammondsworth Penguin.
  • FISHER, T., 2008. Architectural design and ethics. 1 edn. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.
  • SALAMA, A., 2007. A Structured Content and A Rigorous Process Meet in Studio Pedagogy. In: A. SALAMA and N. WILKINSON, eds, Design Studio Pedagogy: Horizons For the Future. 1 edn. Gateshead: The Urban International Press, pp. 153-166.
  • STEVENS, G., 1998. The Favored Circle : the social foundations of architectural distinction. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

The following texts have simply been ‘read’, which is to say that I have just read them from end to end, but without the foresight of noting them. A bad habit, that I will have to overcome, because there are many unrelated but mutually supportive strands in these that I will no doubt return to in due course.

  • AHRENTZEN, S. and ANTHONY, K.H., 1993. Sex, Stars, and Studios: A Look at Gendered Educational Practices in Architecture. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 47(1), pp. 11-29.
  • AU, W., 2007. Epistemology of the Oppressed: The Dialectics of Paulo Freire’s Theory of Knowledge. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 5(2),.
  • BEAMONT, O., 2008. A Student’s Perspective: The Theory and Practice of Live Projects. M Architecture edn. Sheffield: University of Sheffield.
  • ELLIS, R. and CUFF, D., eds, 1989. Architects’ People. 1 edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • FREDERICKSON, M.P., 1993. Gender and Racial Bias in Design Juries. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 47(1), pp. 38-48.
  • GROAT, L.N. and AHRENTZEN, S., 1996. Reconceptualizing Architectural Education for a More Diverse Future: Perceptions and Visions of Architectural Students. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 49(3), pp. 166-183.
  • MORROW, R., 2007. Creative Transformations. In: A. SALAMA and N. WILKINSON, eds, Design Studio Pedagogy: horizons for the Future. Urban International Press, .
  • SACHS, A., 1999. ‘Stuckness’ in the design studio. Design Studies, 20(2), pp. 195-209.
  • TILL, J., 2009. Architecture Depends. 1 edn. Cambridge MA: MIT Press

That’s been the input. The output so far has included an interesting thought process inspired by the Freire and De Carlo texts, but I can’t yet be sure where that’s taking me. Initial definitions of key terms relating to alternative architectural practices have been compiled, but I am increasingly of the opinion that it is unhelpful to spend time simply defining alternative or conventional architectural practices. The value in these terms is to build a more reliable means of analysing practices. That will depend largely on where I go in terms of empirical research and methodologies.

Modest beginnings, out of which I am continuing to expand and define my field of reference and project ambitions. An opportunity has presented itself next week to introduce myself and the project to a potential second supervisor and other interested staff, so a narrative about my background, interest in and knowledge of the field of architectural education is being constructed to explain where I’ve come from and where I hope to go next. This might help you read this blog, so I’ll be working on those next to give a better idea of what I’m up to. In the mean time, Squirrel (the one shedding fur all over my desk in the photograph) is demanding attention. And who am I to argue?

Filed under: blog, , , ,

The fourth week

If I could peer inside my mind at this moment, I suspect it would look a little like the tag cloud on the right hand side of this page – only with more words of more sizes and more colours.

The first month of the project has been spent with sudden burst of reading and researching, pulling papers off online journals, accessing various libraries and building a reading list. As a result my brain is humming from too many themes and concepts – I hope to be more focused in future so that I can read around a subject rather than read a bit of everything. However, the pile of books, papers and notes on my desk is actually comforting rather than bewildering. In amongst all this are the first inklings of concepts that support some of the hunches that inspired this PhD.

This coming weekend I must excuse myself as we travel south to England for a family celebration. I will be carefully constructing a lightweight to do list for the long train journeys there and back. Foremost in mind is the tentative construction of some initial paragraphs that could one day form preliminary chapters: fieldwork that defines some of the territory and formalises the hunches I mentioned earlier. In addition, although quite unrelated to the PhD, I have to prepare a pecha kucha presentation for an event in London. This twenty seconds / twenty slides format might offer a helpful hook on which to hang some discussion of my background and justification for an interest in the field.

Until then, I hope you enjoy your weekend, even if it isn’t as long as mine. I promise to make up for it when I get back.

Filed under: blog, , ,

Definitions of architectural practice: no. 2 the RIBA

Part two of my ongoing search for a definition of architectural practice (in order to help me define alternative architectural practice). The Royal Institute of British Architects offer these descriptions of their members:

  • Architects are trained to take your brief and can see the big picture.
  • Architects look beyond your immediate requirements to design flexible buildings that will adapt with the changing needs of your business.
  • Architects solve problems creatively
  • When they are involved at the earliest planning stage, they gain more opportunities to understand your business, develop creative solutions, and propose ways to reduce costs.
  • Architects can save you money by maximising your investment.
  • A well-designed building can reduce your bills now and increase its long-term value.
  • Architects can manage your project from site selection to completion.
  • In many building projects the role of the architect includes co-ordinating a team of specialist consultants such as landscape architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, interior designers, builders and subcontractors.
  • Architects can save you time.
  • By managing and co-ordinating key project elements they allow you to focus on your organisation’s activities.
  • Architects can help your business.
  • They create total environments, interior and exterior, which are pleasing and functional for the people who work and do business within them.

Why use an architect. Available: http://www.architecture.com/UseAnArchitect/WhyUseAnArchitect/WhyUseAnArchitect.aspx [4/8/2009, 2009].

Filed under: blog, , , , , ,

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.


  • 89,722 hits