learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Who’s the client?

I do not own a car, and drive so infrequently that I usually discover in the intervening period a number of once familiar roads have been rendered inaccessible by new one-way systems. So the one week of the summer that I’m in Glasgow with a car (I’m normally a walker or train passenger) I am not at all surprised to discover that a suspicious fire has torn through the Coliseum Theatre on Eglinton Street, causing a particularly problematic road closure. Built in 1905, later converted into a bingo hall and more recently a shamefully derelict reminder of the what the Gorbals were like before the tenement slums were cleared, there seemed to be no discussion about what to do with the wreckage; it had to be demolished, taking out an adjacent kebab shop and blocking Eglinton Street. With that street closed for a couple of blocks, all my attempts to drive smoothly from the Southside to the city centre have been foiled. A diversionary route foiled me with just one wrong lane, sending me east instead of north. An attempt to make a personal detour through Pollokshields found me discovering numerous unfamiliar on-ramps to the M8 and M77 motorways. If the car had been a cabriolet, I could have started offering open top tours of the city, having driven past Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School about three times on one attempt to reach the city.

For that reason, many thoughts this week have been gestating while I’ve been behind the wheel of a car. And when not otherwise behind the wheel and cursing sudden road closures or confusing diversions, I’ve been reading Rethinking Architecture: Design Students and Physically Disabled People by Raymond Lifchez.


Lifchez edits and contributes to this powerful collection of chapters from key participants in a two year design programme at the University of California at Berkeley that introduced disabled ‘design consultants’ to an architecture design studio. Although the programme (initiated and overseen by Lifchez) took place some thirty years ago, the observations of the contributors are startlingly relevant. What comes across is a powerful sense of considering inclusive design for physically able and disabled people as more than just the addition of ramps and grab handles. With this comes the daunting realisation that in designing for accessibility, architects must accept that there is no standard ‘user’ – it is futile (and yet still so commonplace) to design the built environment for an average.

The drafting and redrafting of a position paper that I’ve been writing has brought into focus my particular interest in architectural education initiatives that introduce students either to real clients or real building processes. So this thirty-year old experiment in architectural education is most interesting. From a chapter in the book  by Fran Katsuranis, at the time a sociology doctoral candidate, shone out this quote, which touches upon an interesting strand in this study.

A number of students mentioned that since the projects were designed in the context of a class and Raymond Lifchez was the primary instructor, he was actually the primary client. As one student expressed it, “The client is the one who pays. Ray is the chief client – he pays with grades.”

Patricio del Real’s recent article in the Journal of Architectural Education introduced a number of powerful arguments for re-assessing the economy of community-based architectural education practices. And this quote from a student involved in the project reminds me of further parallels between education and practice. The ‘client’ in any community-based project has an unsual role to play, and I remain very interested in exploring how it is established. Is the student of architecture ultimately interested in satisfying the ‘one who pays’ over any other participant?

  • LIFCHEZ, R., ed, 1987. Rethinking architecture : design students and physically disabled people. 1st edn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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The IYO revisited – part two


As I discussed earlier today, I’ve been re-visiting the Inconspicuous Yellow Office live project that I participated in at the University of Sheffield in 2006, looking back on the definitions of live projects and alternative practice that we developed. The photograph above was taken on one of the first days of the live project, although amusingly the blackboard remained untouched for some weeks (maybe even months) afterwards. In no particular order, here are the terms that were written down when we first attempted to define what alternative practice was:








process (not product) orientated








These initial definitions for alternative practice evolved into a later exercise to consult the students, tutors and clients participating in live projects. For this exercise, pairs of opposite terms were arranged down a narrow slip of paper and responses were sought along an eleven point scale between the terms. Responses were mapped together within projects to discover whether there was a consensus within and across different projects

To identify the variety of live project experiences, we would grateful if you could mark along the scales how you feel about the live project you have been, or are part of. Please do not spend too long on this as your immediate response is important.

Who are you?

I’m M / F

I’m a Tutor / Student / Client / User

Initial Task

Unfamiliar |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Familiar

Easy |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Difficult

Aware |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Blind

Student Group Dynamic

Fixed roles |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Changeable roles

Flat |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Hierachical

Regulatory |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Freedom

Mechanical Process |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Self Critical Process

Competitive |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Co-operative

Flexible |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Structured

Dictated |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Discussion

Group |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Individual

Student Group – Tutor/Client

Structured |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Flexible

Preaching |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Dialogue

Tutor centered |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Student centered

Feminist |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Masculine

Discussion |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Dictated

Negotiable |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Non-negotiable

Internal Application of Task

Intuitive Process |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Informed Process

Practice |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Theory

Knowledge |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Judgement

Cross-disciplinary |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Enclosed

Static Brief |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Active Brief

External Application of Task

Sharing |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Internal

Personal |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Participatory

Freedom |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Regulatory

Exclusive |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Cross-disciplinary


Process |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Product

Conservative |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Speculative

Form |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Function

Non-profit |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Profit

Temporary |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Permanence

Problem Solving |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-|-| Problem Making


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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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