learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

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

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Thanks to the organisers of the AHRA Postgraduate Symposium in Cardiff at the weekend, I’ll post my paper here in due course, but enjoyed the opportunity to make my first paper presentation to a small, supportive and engaging audience. The other papers were a pleasure to hear, and the event was easily worth the sixteen hours I spent on trains getting there and back…
Cardiff was also in fine form, under clear blue skies it was a great opportunity for a first visit. More to follow soon.

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Touring Britain’s schools of architecture in 1961


Although I don’t want to step on the toes of Steve Parnell and his Back Issues column in the Architects Journal, it’s difficult not to share some pages from these 1961 issues of Architect and Building News, in which correspondent John Smith made monthly contributions examining the state of affairs in eleven of Britain’s schools of architecture. I came to the article on Birmingham School of Architecture following a specific reference about the ‘conglomerates’ and live projects that were established there in the nineteen-forties. However, the rest of the series has been a revealing insight into the state of British architectural education in the early sixties. As Steve himself wrote in one of his columns. (AJ 17.7.2008) ‘it’s as easy to complain about the state of architectural education today as it is difficult to comprehend quite how awful it was 50 years ago.’


Despite Birmingham’s progressive approach the architectural education (students designed and supervised, if not actually built, various small projects from village halls to rows of terraced houses), Smith can’t help noting that ‘although the school’s museum and lavatories possess a certain romantic charm, the studios and offices [pictured above] by comparison seem dreary places in which to work, with ancient benches and plan chests and high chin-resting window cills.’


Then again, Canterbury (above) didn’t seem to be too well endowed with buildings either.


And evidently dissatisfied with their city, these tutors and students (above) were eagerly planning a complete razing and reconstruction of Cardiff…

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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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