learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Video: Requiem for Detroit

I shan’t ask how, but the entirity of Julien Temple’s 2010 film Requiem for Detroit has made its way from BBC Television and onto YouTube. Although my work here hasn’t led to many concerted explorations of postmodern studies, I’m fascinated by Detroit – perhaps the only postmodern American city.

If, like me, you combine passions for automobile design with architecture, urbanism, race / gender studies and urban agriculture, you should find 75 minutes of your time to watch this.

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RIBA launches scheme to pair unemployed graduates with spare desks

During a seminar hosted by the Academy of Urbanism in Dublin a few months ago, I heard of a proposal from Irish architecture academics to help architecture graduates facing a bleak job market. With little work available, and an increasing amount of unoccupied desk space in the offices of architecture practices, the proposal was to pair unemployed students and graduates with firms so that they could use spare desks and work around architects on their own portfolios, competition entries etc.

I thuoght it was a good idea, although when I proposed it to a practising architect he reminded me of the various insurance and legal obligations, not to mention the risks in allowing a portfolio-printing graduate near the stationery cupboard. However, I still support the idea in principle. And so, it seems, does the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). This just in, details from the latest ‘RIBA Focus’ e-bulletin, announcing a British version of that proposal, this time with a trendy name that conflates two words in the modern style…

HostPractice Scheme

The RIBA has launched a scheme to help students and graduates who are unable to find suitable work placements in the current economic climate. The “HostPractice” scheme enables RIBA student members and graduates to gain access to an online network of practices and universities interested in hosting students in their offices. These students will have the opportunity to use the practice’s facilities to work on competition entries, private commissions and research, as well as being offered an overview of practice activities.

The scheme also intends to introduce graduates to universities that have identified suitable research projects related to the practice of architecture, with the potential for offering fellowships to suitable candidates. This research may be eligible for recording on the PEDR as post part 1 practical experience.

The database and online application service can be found at http://www.architecture.com. Practices and universities can register their interest in the scheme by emailing online.services@inst.riba.org

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AJ: Students ready to work for free

A troubling set of results from a survey by the British  Architects Journal has revealed the nervousness of UK architecture students approaching the end of the 2008/2009 academic year and an undeniably difficult job market.

Students ready to work for free
Source: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/students-ready-to-work-for-free/5202333.article
‘Desperate’ students unable to gain a placement turn to unpaid work
21 May, 2009 | By Richard Waite

Almost half of architecture students looking for work experience in their year out would be willing to work for free, according to the AJ’s State of Architectural Education survey.

With almost two-thirds of students still unable to find suitable work experience (see pages 8-11), the AJ’s online study of more than 400 students revealed that 46 per cent of those seeking placements would not demand payment. Over 70 per cent said they would try to find paid work elsewhere to subsidise their architectural experience.

Jessica Noel, a third-year student at Strathclyde University, said an ‘air of desperation’ was forcing aspiring architects to offer themselves for nothing.

Noel said: ‘Some students feel desperate after finding that the university is unlikely to take on students into fourth year if they are unable to gain a work placement. Others are willing to work for free because they want to get through the system as quickly and painlessly as possible.’

But the RIBA said the trend was ‘potentially damaging’, both for graduates and for the profession. David Gloster, the RIBA’s head of education, said: ‘Although unpaid work can have value as experience, it is essentially exploitative if the relationship becomes protracted.’

Stuart Piercy of Piercy Conner Architects agreed: ‘I am fund­amentally against working for nothing. It is clearly a very privileged position for the lucky few whose parents can afford it, devalues what we do and sends the wrong messages to our clients.’

But Lorenzo Dwyer, a sixth-year student at Sheffield University, defended the decision by some students to work for free.

He said: ‘Non-paid employment is one of the few real options now remaining for out-of-work student architects. Free work is a strategic, long-term move to secure future paid employment and advance one’s architectural know-how.’

Of particular interest are the comments being posted by readers on the AJ’s online pages. The overwhelming majority disagree with the position taken by the second student quoted in the article (full disclosure: I graduated from Sheffield last year) and I am also very suspicous of any architecture student or architect who choose to enter into a contract of unpaid employment. At what point does an unpaid architectural intern become worthy of being paid? And why can’t his desk be occupied by another  Keiran Long, editor of the AJ, makes the case convincingly in his associated leader article:

Should you allow students to work for free in your practice? As a journalist, I can’t claim any moral high ground. People in my profession regularly work for free to get a foot in the door at the beginning of their careers.

We also know that architecture is not generally a high profit business, and especially not now. But there’s one important consideration. The culture of free working that exists in architecture perpetuates the stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated, upper-middle-class profession. If it has proven difficult enough to make the profession more diverse during the boom years, that will only be exacerbated if every practice takes the easy option of free labour.

There will, inevitably, be some architecture students with independent means who will be able to afford to work for free during this recession. There will also, however, be a much larger number of students who we may never see in the profession again. If the last recession in the UK is anything to go by, we are likely to see a generational blip that will be represented in the social make-up of the architectural profession for years to come. A dispersal of architecture graduates in the years 1990 – 1992 into other professions is still reported today in anecdotal evidence of a below-average proportion of practicing architects who are now in their forties. If the bold efforts of architecture schools to re-balance their intake and output to more closely represent Britain’s ethnic and social diversity is undone, the profession as a whole will be much worse off. And as a white, middle class and privately educated man I don’t think that’s an unreasonable suggestion.

As a fundamental principle, I oppose the idea of architecture students working in architectural practices for free. If a practice isn’t capable of employing people, that means that there isn’t the work to be done in the first place. And while almost any practice can keep employees busy with unpaid competition entries, if an architecture student is prepared to be working on them for free for another architect I don’t understand why they wouldn’t consider doing that entry on their own. You may get the luxury of a full equipped office and more practice-experienced colleagues to guide you, but you will be sacrificing the last remaining sparks of independence that a recession can ignite in graduates who are suddenly shocked into considering alternatives to the normative career path.

The architecture profession generally moves with the speed and manoueverability of an ocean liner. The saddest outcome of this recession is not that numerous projects are on indefinite hold, but that we risk perpetuating much that is bad with the profession: unhealthy, unsustainable and sometimes even exploitative working practices that once again favour the wealthy, the middle class and (I think it’s fair to propose) men. And this is on top of a normative practice situation in which architects routinely work unpaid overtime, either because they regard their work as a labour of art or because they aren’t capable of explaining the value of their work to their clients. As one of my supervisors said recently, ‘you don’t haggle with a dentist, so why haggle with an architect?’

To bring this back into the focus of this blog, I should re-assert that I’m studying practices in architectural education that engage students with non-academic situations, contexts and people. An interesting discourse seems to suggest itself from all this about the opportunity for architecture schools to contribute to a broader professional and non-professional awareness of how architects and architecture students practice and what we are capable of doing. Returning to a model of unpaid articuled pupilage does not seem to me to be a positive development.

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Reading: Architecture Depends, Jeremy Till


A copy of Jeremy Till’s new book Architecture Depends landed on my doormat with an unexpected thwump two weeks ago today (courtesy of Liz Bury at BD magazine, to whom I am most grateful). The done thing as a blogger on architectural education would be to review it here as soon as I’ve reached the index. However Architecture Depends is – to me, at least – more deserving than a quick read, digest and review. Besides, Steve Parnell has written a review far better that I could. It helpfully explains the different backgrounds (and therefore different opinions) of the two authors of the most prominent reviews of the book in the British architectural press so far: Robert Mull in the AJ and Richard Weston in BD.

So why am I, ever the energetic blogger, holding back? I suspect it is because I am coming to appreciate Architecture Depends as a formal end-point on the formal years of my architectural education. And to review it would be to pixelate my thoughts about more than just the book.

Till was appointed head of the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield in 1999. I studied my BA in Architecture at Sheffield from 2001 – 2004, and then my Masters in Architecture from 2006 – 2008. Till left Sheffield in 2008 to take up a Deanship at the University of Westminster. Although Till stepped down from the role of head for the latter years of his time at Sheffield, he remained a charismatic and provocative character who engaged with many aspects of school life. And his nine year period of influence encloses my formation as an architect. Architecture Depends has been in the works for several years, and I was among a number of Sheffield students introduced to its key concepts a year or two ago when Jeremy explained the difficulty in getting permission for an image of a Mark Wallinger performance piece for the cover and the suggestion by his publisher that Architecture Depends might be a better title than Architecture and Contingency.

Jeremy Till was not the only educator at Sheffield to have a formative influence of my shape and personality as an architect and a student. And even though he had a hand in only a fraction of the direct teaching I experienced at Sheffield, his leadership and dialogue with staff and students was fundamental in creating what I continue to regard as a lively, exciting and extremely fruitful period in Sheffield’s one hundred year history as a school of architecture. Many different dialogues were initiated, some taking up strands from before his tenure and many sparking new strands of thought in architectural education, participation, inclusivity and – of course – contingency. Those dialogues continue at Sheffield but will inevitably take on new energies and directions, a decade seeming to be a good enough time frame for a head of school to influence his flock.

So while there is no full-stop at the end of a sentence that describes the University of Sheffield School of Architecture during Jeremy Till’s ‘era’, and while I see myself as very much more than just a Till-ite, I am turning to Architecture Depends for a second, slower reading. It is a lucid, wide-reaching and enjoyable read that readily expects the criticism it has and will receive from certain quarters. Its theoretical and anecdotal breadth verges on being unwieldy, but it does translate into a coherent narrative a number of strands of pedagogical thought that a generation of Sheffield architecture graduates will recognise.

So, is it any good? I still can’t answer that question, because it still feels as though I’m passing judgement on my own architectural education. But that has made it a compelling read.

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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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