learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

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…

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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.

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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].

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Definitions of architectural practice: no. 1 the ARB

As discussed earlier, one of the starting points of this process has been to address the known definitions of alternative architectural practice. But to define the alternative, I want to also define the non-alternative. I’ll be collating definitions of architectural practice under this heading. First up, is the Architects Registration Board (UK) which manages the statutory register of approved architects practising in the United Kingdom. This explanation of the 1997 Architects Act suggests some tentative definitions for non-alternative / mainstream / traditional architectural practice.

What else does the code cover?

The code expects architects to: act with integrity; provide adequate resources when undertaking professional work; promote their services in a truthful and responsible manner; carry out their work diligently, with due regard to the relevant standards; have regard to their client’s interests, and to conserving and enhancing the quality of the environment; maintain professional service and competence in areas relevant to their work; carry out the requirements of a contract with due care, knowledge and attention; ensure the security of moneys entrusted to their care; hold adequate and appropriate professional indemnity insurance; manage their personal and professional finances prudently; organise and run their professional work responsibly, with regard for their clients’ interests; and deal promptly and appropriately with disputes or complaints relating to the professional work either of themselves or their practice.

The Architects Act 1997: Q&A. Available: http://www.arb.org.uk/about/the-architects-act-1997-qanda.shtml [4/8/2009, 2009].

This is not to say that alternative architectural practice is the antithesis of this definition. But this is one of the ways in which the profession defines itself. More to follow.

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The IYO revisited – part three; and towards a more refined definition of alternative practice

You might have noticed that on the right of this page is a new link to a page entitled Glossary. Following a practice established while I was a Masters student of architecture, before launching into any new theoretical field I like to commence with the deathly dull compilation of key terms and definitions. The Glossary will collate key terms relating to the project, and I’ll be extracting bits and pieces from it to develop things. The definitions are becoming hybridised, with the OED and a certain open-access encyclopedia providing starting points to definitions that will, over time, be expanded with other interpretations from texts.

Yesterday I revisited some of the early definitions of alternative practice that emerged during our work on the Inconspicuous Yellow Office. We started with a brainstorm of terms that we felt defined alternative practice, and this involved into the set of opposing terms used to generate the a series of ‘sliding scales’ – 11 points between two opposing definitions for consultation purposes.

With some minor typographical tweaks I’ve expanded those key terms to include their definitions. I’m understanding alternative practice from the point of view of alternative architectural practice, but there is no reason to suggest these definitions can’t contribute to an understanding of alternative [ art / music / design / _______ ] practice. This being a glossary, the pairings of the opposing terms isn’t expressed here, but if the ‘sliding scales’ are to be re-used in an assessment of alternative practice in architectural education, they’ll become part of the expanded glossary.

anarchic adjective with no controlling rules or principles

collective adjective 1) done by or belonging to all the members of a group. 2) taken as a whole; aggregate. noun an enterprise owned or operated cooperatively

democratic adjective 1) relating to or supporting democracy. 2) egalitarian

ethical adjective 1) relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge concerned with these. 2) morally correct. 3) (of a medicine) available only on prescription

feminist noun relating to or supporting the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of sexual equality

interdisciplinaryadjective relating to more than one branch of knowledge

non-commercialadjective 1) [ not ]concerned with or engaged in commerce. 2) [ not ] making or intended to make a profit. 3) (of television or radio) funded by the revenue from broadcast advertisements. Defined from:

commercial adjective 1) concerned with or engaged in commerce. 2) making or intended to make a profit. 3) (of television or radio) funded by the revenue from broadcast advertisements. noun a television or radio advertisement.

non-hierarchicaladjective 1) not ordered according to status or authority. 2) not arranged according to relative importance or inclusiveness. Defined from:

hierachy noun (pl. hierarchies) 1) a ranking system ordered according to status or authority. 2) an arrangement according to relative importance or inclusiveness. 3) (the hierarchy) the clergy of the Catholic Church or of an episcopal Church. 4) Theology the traditional system of orders of angels and other heavenly beings.

participatory adjective relating to taking part

political adjective 1) relating to the government or public affairs of a country. 2) related to or interested in politics. 3) chiefly derogatory acting in the interests of status within an organization rather than on principle.

process-orientatedadjective aligned, positioned or tailored to noun 1) a series of actions or steps towards achieving a particular end 2) a natural series of changes. Derived from:

process noun 1) a series of actions or steps towards achieving a particular end. 2) a natural series of changes: the ageing process. 3) Law a summons to appear in court. 4) Biology & Anatomy a natural appendage or outgrowth on or in an organism. 5) before Printing relating to printing using ink in three colours (cyan, magenta, and yellow) and black. verb 1) perform a series of operations to change or preserve. 2) Computing operate on (data) by means of a program. 3) deal with, using an established procedure.

provocative adjective 1) deliberately causing annoyance or anger. 2) deliberately arousing sexual desire or interest.

relational adjective relating to the way in which two or more people or things are connected or related. 2) the way in which two or more people or groups feel about and behave towards each other. 3) a relative. 4) (relations) formal sexual intercourse. 5) the action of telling a story.

social adjective 1) relating to society, its organization, or hierarchy. 2) needing companionship; suited to living in communities. 3) relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure. 4) (of birds, insects, or mammals) breeding or living in colonies or organized communities. noun an informal social gathering organized by the members of a club or group.

speculative adjective 1) engaged in or based on conjecture rather than knowledge. 2) (of an investment) involving a high risk of loss.

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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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