learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Video: introduction to the 2012 Street Society live projects at QUB

2012 was the third year that we’ve run a vertical live project between the first and fifth year students of architecture at Queen’s University Belfast. It’s the last one I will be involved with in any capacity, and it’s really a delight to see the event growing under the careful supervision of my talented peers and faculty colleagues. PhD candidate Paul Bower replaces me as Street Society co-ordinator (and he did a cracking job).

This year, a documenting team of students made a series of amazing videos about the eleven different projects which were located throughout Northern Ireland. Posted above is Dr. Sarah Lappin’s introduction to the Street Society. Posted below are Prof. Ruth Morrow’s concluding thoughts.

A short documentary summarising all eleven projects is posted below. You can find eleven more videos, one for each project by visiting the Street Society Youtube channel or by clicking past the jump below.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Live Projects Pedagogy International Symposium 2012

This poster arrived tonight. It’s obviously great to see such a large and well organised event happening just a few months after I finish my PhD on the subject (and not just for the usual cheeky reasons of self-promotion). I’ll be there in May and presenting a paper drawing on some of my findings. If you’re interested, I hope I can encourage you to come to Oxford as well. There’s more info here.

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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!

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Published: Site and other matters

A bit more than two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Anne Pirrie of the University of the West of Scotland at the 2009 international conference of the AHRA at Edinburgh College of Art(aka Field/Work). Following that meeting and a discussion surrounding the paper she had just oresented – entitled Tripping, Slipping and Losing the Way – Anne invited me to work with her on developing the paper for publication.

Since then, the draft paper has been through several evolutions and variously considered for several publications. Somewhat unexpectedly, it was accepted without our immediate knowledge to Policy Futures in Education, and appears in this months edition, volume 9, issue 5 as Field/Work, Site, and Other Matters: exploring design practice across disciplines.

Anne has been a fantastic collaborator to work with, and although this is perhaps not the version of the paper we had envisioned being published, it’s a pleasant detour through rich fields surrounding the core interests of my PhD. Subscribers can download the article and the rest of the issue here. The paper will be available to non-subscribers in two years time.

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Published: Intercultural interaction in architectural education

It’s a pleasure to finally hold in my hands a copy of Intercultural Interactions: in Architectural Education (eds. Peter Beacock, Geoffrey Matstutis and Robert Mull) – to which Ruth Morrow and I contributed a chapter on the first Street Society live project at QUB. If you’re interested in reading it and thirteen other chapters on participatory practices in architectural education, you can buy the book now for just £10 from Amazon or from your preferred retailer (ISBN: 978-0956353214).

If you’re in London on 3 November, there’s a book launch alongside a lecture and exhibition on Capturing Urban Conflict by Wendy Pullan, author of Chapter 5 in the book. Details are on the ASD blog.

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CFP: Live Projects Pedagogy International Symposium 2012

I got an email from Oxford Brookes University this week announcing the imminent launch of this call for participation. Following from our own very productive Live Projects 2011 colloquium at Queen’s University Belfast, it’s good to see more interest in the field and more events such as this to bring live project students and teachers together to talk pedagogy.

For more information, including a schedule and details about registration, see the website.


Symposium: Live Projects Pedagogy International Symposium 2012

Critical reflections on Live Projects with a view to co-creating a pedagogic best practice framework

Thursday 24th – Saturday 26th May 2012
Oxford Brookes University, Headington Hill Campus.

A three-day international symposium by and for live project educators, live-project community participants, live project students, practice architects involved in community co-design, University management involved in community partnership projects, and live project practitioners and participants from associated fields and disciplines.

Themes include:

Problem-based learning, community-engaged scholarship, co-design, peer-based learning, tacit knowledge, threshold concepts, practice-ready skills, professionalism and ethics, diversity, critical citizenship, education futures, deep and surface learning, live project methodologies and paradigms, architecture curriculum, assessment and validation.

Overview: Why do we need critical live architecture project pedagogy?

Benefits to clients

The recent economic downturn and ongoing restructuring of both the professional training and design practice management, signifies a tipping point in the way we currently teach and practice architecture. As a profession, architects are by definition tasked with serving the interests of the public. Yet many architects would argue that delivering upon this requirement is not without difficulty given the constraints of a sector focused triptych that prioritises time, quality and cost over human factors.

Benefits to the profession

Architecture practices have often voiced concerns that schools of architecture do not provide students with the right set of skills needed in practice. Schools often defend their teaching by emphasising the role of Universities in developing creative and aesthetic capabilities that will produce good designers and ultimately good buildings and spaces. This kind of teaching is usually delivered within a studio environment that presents students with fictional rather than ‘real time’ challenges considered to be more likely to produce visionary and creative design output.

Benefits to students

The majority of UK architecture students have no contact with clients or with the consultation process until after they graduate. ‘Live studio’ projects not only address this but they also enable students to gain practice-ready professional experience such as job running, as well as develop a sense of civic social engagement and gain an education that is aimed at nurturing tomorrow’s citizens for lives of consequence.

Benefits to Universities

As well as Universities, public sector organisations and charities are facing financial pressure upon their ability to deliver to their clients effectively. Although this presents huge challenges in terms of resources, this is also an opportunity to establish partnerships that provide enduring benefits by mobilising students, faculty, and neighbourhood organizations to work together to solve urban problems that revitalize the economy, generate jobs, and rebuild communities. In the USA, these partnerships are far more prevalent than in the UK. Known as Community University Partnerships, these ‘resource units’ that are often located on and off campus, provide effective, community-engaged scholarship for students from a range of disciplines. Based upon the success rate of these kinds of learning environments, UK Universities clearly have some catching up to do.

The knowledge gap

The principle aim of this symposium is to critically examine the learning value of live projects to students of architecture and to consider how they are attained and what their value is, particularly in terms of the students professional development and to the shaping of the profession as a whole.

During the symposium, live project ‘best practice’ will be critically defined in the interests of educators, students and schools alike. Subsequently, delegates will co-author a Live Project Pedagogy Charter, aimed at enabling Live Projects to be validated, academically accredited and formally integrated into mainstream architecture curriculum.

Format of Presentations

Paper sessions will consist of four presenters within each 90-minute session. Each session will be chaired. The session time will be divided equally between the presenters. Workshop presentations will be given a full 90-minute session. Panel sessions will provide an opportunity for three or more presenters to speak in a more open and conversational setting with conference attendees.

Conference highlights:

Two-Week International Live Project Summer School 2012: Montana State University & Oxford Brookes

The symposium will include visits to and presentations by community and student participants to an Oxford-based Live Project Summer School – partnered with Oxford City Council – and involving students from graduate architecture programs at Montana State University & Oxford Brookes University.

Architecture tours of ‘secret’ Oxford

Social activities for visiting delegates include organised tours of historic Oxford, including visiting some of the key architectural gems and hidden delights.

Symposium Outputs

  • Generation of Live Project Pedagogy Charter
  • Double-blind, peer-reviewed Symposium specific Journal

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Forthcoming: live projects as border pedagogies in architectural education

Above: an unexpected road sign, seen on Shetland earlier this month

It continues to be a busy summer, even if the weather hasn’t been particularly summer-like. In between weeks at home working on the thesis, we’ve managed to make a few escapes to (appropriately enough) the “peripheries” of Scotland, first the Outer Hebrides and subsequently the Shetland Isles. As previously mentioned, I’m working towards the delivery of a first draft of my thesis to my supervisors in late October / early November, depending on how we all cope with the forthcoming International Conference of the Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA) which we are proudly hosting at Queen’s University Belfast from 27 – 29 October. For more details, and to register, see the Peripheries 2011 website.

A handful of colleagues at QUB will be presenting papers at Peripheries, and below is an expanded abstract of the work that I am preparing to present in Belfast. Although the eventual paper will likely have evolved by the end of October, I hope that it’s a helpful preview of some of the thoughts that have been ricocheting around during this phase of writing. For more, come along to Peripheries!

Back to the edge: reconsidering live projects as border pedagogies in architectural education

 James Benedict Brown, Keith McAllister, Ruth Morrow (Queen’s University Belfast)

 According to recent definitions by Sara (2006), Watt & Cottrell (2006), and Charlesworth, Dodd & Harrison (2011), a live project in architectural education is one that engages students with people outside the academy. Through the live project, students’ produce work that is of some value to an external ‘client’ as part of their academic studies. Drawing on the radical pedagogies of Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and others, this paper emerges from a project to re-consider live projects as examples of critical pedagogies in architectural education. Charlesworth, Dodd & Harrison explain that live projects in architectural education “tend to work in marginal communities where there is both a willingness to accept alternate modes of practice, and a need to operate outside of commercial design parameters of budget.” (ibid) Examples might include those of the American tradition of “design/build” projects[1], such as the Rural Studio of Auburn University in Alabama, through which relatively privileged university students design and build small projects that hopefully improve the conditions of the lives of some of the poorest and most impoverished people in the USA. (Dean, 2002, 2005; Real, 2009) While not all live projects serve such clearly marginalised clients, it is perhaps useful to consider them as marginal pedagogical practices, ones which suggest an excursion away from the mainstream of architectural education towards, and sometimes across, the boundaries of normative practice.

 This paper asks how architectural educators who use live projects may go about interrogating this possible intellectual position against an established pedagogical framework. It poses this question by expanding upon the struggle of architectural education to escape the influence of modernist, cognitivist epistemologies, (Till, 2005; Webster, 2008) principally David Kolb’s (1984) theory of experiential learning and Donald Schön’s (1983) notion of the reflective practitioner. This paper, instead, brings into play Henry Giroux’s concept of a Border Pedagogy as a site of resistance in education. Giroux, an American critical theorist and pedagogue introduced this pedagogical viewpoint directly to our discipline in a 1991 paper in the Journal of Architectural Education that has since been widely overlooked by our discipline. [2]

It is hoped that this paper will contribute to the issues surrounding the transformation of architectural pedagogy and practice that is ‘on the edge’ while also building a critique of pedagogical positions that are peripheral to mainstream architectural education. This epistemological shift could be illustrated by a continuum of postmodernist thought, with extreme postmodernists at one end and moderate postmodernists at the other (Best and Kellner, 1997). This is the difference between positing that there has been been a complete break between Modernist theory and Postmodernist theory, and suggesting that there has instead been a more nuanced and complex Postmodern turn. Giroux’s project of developing a hybrid pedagogy that draws on both Modernist and Postmodernist theory places his work clearly at that moderate end of the continuum of postmodernist theory. Whereas European (including predominantly French) discourses were marked by a sense of defeat following the failure of the events of May ’68 to contribute to lasting change in European thought, North American discourses appear to have been seeded in a more positive intellectual milieu. The language of Giroux and other critical pedagogues is, therefore, one of hope and possibility.

This paper also develops a position that practice, pedagogy, and research form an inter-dependent triumvirate, and seeks to speak to all three of those component parts. By practicing, teaching and researching architecture, it is argued that architectural educators (unlike many other disciplines in the university) may be in a privileged position of being able to see how these three acts can intersect. This paper proposes that in their simulation or interpretation of architectural practice – namely the provision of architectural services to a client – that live projects are extremely valuable sites in which to interrogate the role of pedagogy. If pedagogy is understood as “the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept,” [3]

 it could be argued that pedagogy is not only inter-connected and inter-dependent on its fellows in a triumvirate of practice, pedagogy and research, but that it may be considered as an intermediary between practice and research, and that it can release the potential of both. In the words of Paulo Freire, it can be argued that we are all ‘unfinished’ (Freire, 1996). If we never stop learning, therefore, it could be argued that we should regard pedagogy not as an isolated theory relevant only to formal periods of education, but an opportunity to interrogate our daily practice and research.

This paper begins by clearly articulating the realities of the relationship between the theory of education and practice of education, both within and outside our own discipline. The relocation of architectural education – Crinson and Lubbock (1994) suggest that this is part of a wider project of professionalisation for the discipline – has only been completed relatively recently. The majority of people involved in the frontline delivery of architectural education are drawn primarily from architectural practice rather than (as is the case in many other disciplines) academia. Helena Webster (2008) describes this as the way in which the spaces, tools and methods of architectural apprenticeship in practice were replicated in the educational setting of the university (p. 64). The fact that architecture is first and foremost envisaged as a professional training is reflected not only by the intent of its curricula (shaped in no small way in this country by the validation joint criteria of the RIBA and ARB) but by the overwhelming tradition for its educators to be drawn primarily from practice rather than academia. Webster (2004, p. 4) has gone so far as to suggest that approximately 60% of architectural educators are part or full time practitioners. However, this paper does not seek to criticise architectural education for being pedagogical under-developed. Interviewed in 2006, Giroux described a qualification to the poor understanding of the relevance of pedagogical theory to teachers, namely that many teachers “often find themselves in places where time is such a deprivation that it becomes [difficult] to really think about what role theory might play in their lives.” (Giroux, 2006a) While invoking a theorist who has written or co-written 47 books, 320 articles, 186 chapters and held several prominent chairs and professorships of education, it’s important to emphasise that like many pedagogues, Giroux began his theoretical project with a desire to better understand an intuitive pedagogical act. Born in 1943 in Providence, Rhode Island, Giroux started working as a high school teacher in the early sixties. He describes the friction between himself and his school principal following his decision to re-arrange “a very rigid, militaristic, utterly barren sterile” classroom into a circle (Giroux, 2006a). Demanded by his principal to explain his changes, Giroux reflected: “I didn’t have the language to justify it. I felt it was right, but I couldn’t really talk about it in a way that was convincing.” (ibid) Pedagogues will appreciate that sometimes the most important actions that educators take in the classroom, lecture hall or design studio are instinctive. They may not know immediately why they do them, or even why they’re important, but they feel right, and they can only understand them by doing them first and reflecting, theorising and critiquing them afterwards. Just as in practice, just as in research, the first moves a teacher makes are often instinctive. In order to frame, reflect upon, theorise, justify and critique those moves, designers, researchers and teachers need to discover a language, especially at a time of diminishing resources in higher education.

There are five thematic projects in Giroux’s writing (Giroux, 2006b; Kincheloe, 2008): the sociology of education, democracy and education, cultural studies, the “war against youth”, and the politics of higher education. Although there is much of value to architectural educators across all these periods, this paper focuses on the period in which Giroux focused on cultural studies, namely around his book Border Crossings, considering architecture educators, architecture students and architects themselves as cultural workers. πThrough his notion of Border Pedagogy (Giroux, 2006b, 2005, 1992, 1991a, 1991b, 1991c) Giroux proposed that existing theories of critical pedagogy could be reinterpreted by combining the best insights of both Modernist and Postmodernist theory (rather than settling in either one theoretical camp or the other) and that Border Pedagogy would enable students “to engage knowledge as border-crossers, as persons moving in and out of borders constructed around co-ordinates of difference and power.” (1991a:72) By ‘de-centering’ education, Giroux proposed that “critical pedagogy can reconstitute itself in terms that are both transformative and emancipatory” (p.72), suggesting a reinterpretation of critical pedagogy that “equates learning with the creation of critical rather than merely good citizens.” (2006b:50). The aim of this paper is to suggest that is it through live projects that we can begin to formulate possible ‘Border Pedagogies’ in architectural education. In engaging students with communities outside the academic environment, this paper asks what is it to go away from the centre, towards the edge, or towards the periphery of architectural education practices? How can live projects allow us to both test the possibilities of architectural education, and simultaneously prepare our students to engage with knowledge and practice as confident yet sensitive crossers of the borders that they will encounter in their own future practice?


[1] As opposed to the British procurement method.

[2] A reverse citation search for the paper on Google Scholar lists only eleven references to the paper in more than twenty years.

[3] Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford University Press. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pedagogy (accessed June 19, 2011).


All references may be found in the Bibliography.

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Statistics: the numbers behind UK architectural education

I have the somewhat ambitious (but highly strategic) target of fleshing out, structuring and mostly writing one draft chapter of my thesis per month through the summer. If I can complete this task by October, I’ll be able to enter the long dark nights of winter with six months in hand to beat the thing into shape before I submit in it March 2012.

Hence, this month, my primary writing pre-occupation has been a chapter on the general context of higher education (HE) over the last three decades and the more specific context of architectural education (AE) over last two decade and a half. It’s given me the opportunity to get into some of the numbers that are in the public domain relating to both HE and AE.

The graphs I’m presenting below are all generated from the data I’ve scraped from the relevant websites, statistics and annual reports. Some of the data will find its way into the chapter, some not. But taken together, it’s been a helpful opportunity for me to crunch some numbers and test some hunches. It has been a task to download countless .csv and .xls files from government websites, and then a painful chore to manually scrape other data from annual reports that are helpfully published only in pdf format (I’m looking at you, RIBA and ARB). The data is all Copyright of its respective owners / publishers, and the graphs presented here are my own. All this is work in progress; I may one day be able to publish this data with a more rigorous analysis and carefully verified sources, so for the time bring trust this only as far as you can throw it.

Data recording the number of students in higher education in the United Kingdom is available from two sources: the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which provides archived ‘Social Trends’ data for at ten year intervals between the 1970/1 and 2000/1 academic years, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which provides data annually between the 1995/6 and 2009/10 academic years.

Combining the two sources on one graph (and plotting an exponential trend line from the ONS data) indicates the clear continuation of the trend in growth of student numbers between the academic years 1995/6 to 2000/1, when there were 2,553,250 part and full time students in HE. The growth in student numbers during the last two decades is significant, but is broadly in line with the growth experienced since 1970.

As you might notice (clicking on all of these graphs will load a larger version) for the one academic year of overlap between the two sources of data (2000/1) there is a slight discrepancy between the two sources (89,395 students, or of 3.9%). I can’t determine the cause of this, and while its within a reasonable proximity not to be worrying I’d be interested to hear any suggestions why the ONS and HESA disagree.

The data gets more interesting when you break it down by the four constituent countries of the UK. As you can see from the next graph, almost all of the growth in UK student numbers has happened in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have maintained modest growth.

I still need to collate the opening dates of new universities in the UK, so I expect some of the growth in student numbers in England to have been caused by new universities opening during this time frame.

Over the four academic years between 1996/7 and 1999/2000, student numbers increased at average of 2.8% per year. This relatively stable period of growth was disrupted in the 2000/1 academic year, with an increase of student numbers by 9.1%. Over the four academic years between 2000/1 and 2003/4, student numbers increased at an average of 5.4% per year. This rate of growth relented slightly 2003/4 and 2007/8, but for the two most recent years available the data would suggest a return to growth above the rate established between 1996/7 and 1999/2000.

So, despite a few blips here and there, the number of students in higher education in the UK is growing exponentially, and it has been growing for some time. The widening participation agenda of the New Labour era has had a lasting impact on HE, with more people going to university or other forms of HE now than ever before.

So what about architecture? Since the 2001/2 academic year, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has published an annual report compiling statistics provided by RIBA validated schools of architecture and statistics relating to office-based candidates for RIBA Parts I, II and III (they’re online here). Complete or partial participation in the survey supporting the RIBA Education Statistics is voluntary, and as a result some reports do not represent the statistics of all validated schools, and I’m presuming that not all schools completed (or were able to complete) all parts of the survey. The implications of this voluntary participation are discussed below. Whereas the ONS data can supplement the HESA data on general HE statistics, without published statistics pre-dating the 1997/8 academic year, conclusions regarding the number of students studying architecture should be limited to the twelve years available (data for the years 1997/8 was provided retrospectively in the first 2001/2 RIBA Education Statistics report).

The next chart illustrates the total number of students in all academic years of RIBA validated architecture courses with the number of new entrants to RIBA validated Part I and Part II courses.

Things are pretty stable from 1997/8 until 2002/3. The sharp rise in the total number of students studying architecture in the 2004/5 academic year is notable, representing a year on year increase of 19.67%.

Presented at a slightly larger scale, here are the new entrants to Part I and II courses.

While the RIBA Education Statistics Report 2004/5 was correct in reporting an unprecedented near-20% increase in total student numbers that year, it is clear that this jump in student numbers was heightened by an anomalous drop in 2003/4, visible in both preceding graphs. Although the RIBA Education Statistics Report 2003/4 does not explain that year’s drop in student numbers, it should be noted that fewer schools chose to participate in the that survey than in any previous or subsequent year. Problematically, after 2002/3, RIBA Education Statistics Reports do not expressly state the number of schools participating in the survey, only the number of validated schools that chose not to participate in either the entire survey or that did respond to certain questions. For example, the 2003/4 Report notes that “all but three Schools of Architecture provided information for this report.” I’m still trying to work out the total number of validated courses at each year for the duration of these surveys, but will hopefully find that and other data next week when I have a few hours spare in the RIBA Library. Given the difficulty in ascertaining the comparability of the 2003/4 survey against other years, it would be apposite to consider that year’s results as an exception. In doing so, the number of students entering RIBA validated courses maintained a steady year-on-year growth between 2001/2 and 2008/9 of 5.45%.

Given that the RIBA validated track to become a registered architect takes at least seven years, the data gets more interesting when you consider the statistics not just at entry into a course, but at its natural conclusion. For instance, the following graph shows the number of students passing RIBA Part III courses and the number of new admissions (not including re-admissions) to the Architects Registration Board (ARB) – that data being extracted from the ARB’s annual reports. Again, with the exception of the RIBA data for 2003/4, which I’m treating with caution, there’s a broad correlation of the numbers: more people pass RIBA Part III, more people register with the ARB (a legal requirement to trade as an architect in the UK).

The data behind the green line was supplied by ARB; the blue line by RIBA. Note, again, the blip in 2003/4 when there was lower participation than normal in the RIBA survey. The modest increase in the number of newly qualified architects registering with the ARB over the last decade or so has contributed to a steadily increasing number of registered members: almost 33,000 across the UK in 2009.

Looking back through the RIBA Education data, we can go into more detail about the number of students passing the three stages of an RIBA validated architectural education.

The next graph illustrates the total numbers of students passing RIBA Parts I, II and III. As discussed earlier, the first half of the ‘noughties’ represented a turning point in the number of students entering RIBA Part I validated courses. This is reflected in the number of students passing those same courses three years later:

As you can see from the above chart, however, the number of students passing Part II and Part III remains relatively stable, largely because the spike in entries to Part I courses in the early ‘noughties’ hasn’t yet progressed that far through the system. The RIBA Education Statistics report from 2010/11 (due around about October) will perhaps begin to tell us more about the longer term effects of that rise in Part I entrants and passes.

Of greatest concern, however, for the shape and structure of architectural education today, are the numbers presented in the final chart below, mapping entries to RIBA Part I courses and passes from RIBA Part III. This is something that my supervisor, Prof. Ruth Morrow, has talked about at some length in recent lectures at QUB and elsewhere.

Regardless of the fact that the shortest amount of time a student can spend between starting Part I and finishing Part III is seven years (and that the spike in admissions from the early 2000s onwards has yet to be reflected in Part III passes), there is a dramatic drop-off between the number of people who enter RIBA Part I and complete RIBA Part III.

In 2000/1, for instance, less than half the number of people passed RIBA Part III (and received the accreditation to become a legally registered architect) as passed RIBA Part I. Notwithstanding the effects of the last decade’s expansion of numbers in HE and AE, there has long been a massive drop off between the number of students who start studying architecture as do who finish and enter the profession.

As Prof. Morrow herself asked at her QUB inaugural lecture last summer, where do these students go?

Many of its fiercest advocates will argue that AE’s strength is its quality and richness as a broad education in the humanities that can prepare students for any number of career paths. But as we approach the 2012 introduction of student fees of up to £9,000 per annum, I’m increasingly interested not only in where these students go to, but how AE itself can be better design, structured, and validated to support the aspirations, needs and demands of students who are increasingly likely to never practice architecture in a traditional sense.

On Tuesday, I’ll be traveling to London to take part in the RIBA’s ‘Tough Times’ Student Forum. I’ll be particularly interested to take the pulse of AE from the perspective of those students on taught courses from up and down the country. The experiences that they’ve had and the ideas that they put forward will, I hope, shape the continuing evolution of AE in this country.

Meanwhile, if you have any comments, corrections or suggestions regarding my handling of the data, please drop me a line.

Sources available on request.

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To Crit or to Big Crit

With apologies for the slight blogging backlog (backblog?) it’s only today I’ve been able to get round to reviewing my notes on the 2011 Big Crit at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture. This was the second year that I’ve roused myself early enough to catch the deliciously timed 05:55 train from Glasgow to Aberdeen (scheduling it just five minutes later would make it much more bearable). That meant that by the time I was home late that night I was too wrecked to process, let alone share, any cogent thoughts on the day.

The Big Crit is, first of all, a fantastic idea and a fantastic experience. For the last three years, an evolving group of staff and students have volunteered their time and energy to organise a one day event that’s open to the public. Over the course of one day, a selection of students from every year group in the school present their design projects to invited critiques and a public audience of students and guests. Scheduled after (most) students have finished their submissions, it comes at a point when the school (internal examiners notwithstanding) can breathe a sigh of relief after the stressful final weeks of term. The school dusts itself down, projects itself against a wall and considers its progress.

The guest critics this year included Annalie Riches (Riches Hawley Mikhail Architects), Peter St John (Caruso St John Architects), William Mann (Witherford Watson Mann Architects) and Ellis Woodman (editor, Building Design). This tranche of London and south-east-England based critics was balanced by visiting professors Alan Dunlop (Alan Dunlop Architects) and Neil Gillespie (Reiach and Hall Architects) who provided an informed voice both from within the school’s own faculty and Scotland’s central belt. They were supported by lecturers Neil Lamb, Penny Lewis and David Vila-Domini. It was, as always, also a particular pleasure to catch up with the head of school, David McClean.

The role of ‘the crit‘ in architectural education is far from assured. At its best, it can be at the heart of an inclusive, discursive and critical architectural education. At its worse, it can be an inhumane, destructive and pointless waste of time. By scheduling the Big Crit away from assessment and after final submission (for most students), the Scott Sutherland School proposes an interesting twist on the old format. Over the course of one day, about three dozen students “pin up” (electronically) their projects from the preceding academic year, and present them to the visiting critics for reviewing and conversation. The conversation is opened to the floor for varying degrees of interaction.

Over the course of the day, I skipped between two of the three parallel sessions, witnessing a variety of projects and a variety of critique. As might be expected, the day starts with first year students and works its way up towards five year thesis projects in the late afternoon. All of the projects I saw were located in or close to the city of Aberdeen itself, starting on the very campus of the Robert Gordon University and working out through the city towards the mouth of the Dee and the city’s lively port.

As is the template in schools of architecture the world over, projects start small and get progressively bigger, peaking with somewhat uncomfortable thesis projects that survey vast areas before settling down to design a singular object or set of objects at an architectural scale. The fact that, unlike in France for instance, planning is a discipline taught separately from architecture is immediately apparent. However the gradual rise in design sophistication from first to five years is palpable, as is the confidence with which students describe the ideas behind their projects. Some of the undergraduate projects felt, to me, as thought an early “good idea” had been pounced up and not let go off until it had yielded a building. By the later years it was pleasing to see students making informed executive decisions about which themes and concepts to develop and which to abandon as they progressed their designs.

The inverse complexity of designing that most basic of architectural forms, the residence, was apparent throughout the days. As I offered in one comment from the floor, “housing is damned difficult,” and none of the residential projects I saw was entirely satisfactory. The decades of experience of the guests critics will, hopefully, have reassured students that it takes a long time to get housing – especially apartments and sheltered accommodation – just right.

In the afternoon I got to see a number of fourth and fifth year students present their schemes from their penultimate and final projects. Having now spent more than two years learning how to research, I can look back at my own M.Arch projects as well as those at the Big Crit and see a clear cultural deficiency in Part II architectural design research. Just as in my own thesis project a few years ago, there was only a vague understanding of the difference between subjective and objective data, and never quite enough time to really get inside the information that was being presented. That said, the standard of work I saw was, across all five years, consistently high. I was assured that the students were not just selected based on academic performance, but represented an accurate cross section of the school. Given the small size of the student body and the enviable location, the Scott Sutherland School is for me one of the most interesting architecture schools in the country.

There remained, at the end of the day, just one sad observation. While the projects presented were of a remarkable range, depth and quality; and while the critiques from the guests were informed, thoughtfully provocative and intelligent; the overall level of conversation between the floor and the panels was disappointing.

I was reminded, on the long journey home, of this remarkably handy sketch prepared by the Glasgow-based architect Simon Chadwick (click to enlarge):

Reviewing options. Drawing credit: Simon Chadwick.

Drawn in the oddly specific language of the architect’s sketch, this diagram explains neatly to visiting critics the aspirations of architectural educators who want to curate lively, inclusive and public discussions about students’ work. Since architectural education depends to a great extent on part time tutors and visiting critics, such guidelines can be extremely helpful in ensuring a school’s pedagogic aspirations aren’t lost when guests are invited to review work.

In the first option, as has been practiced in schools of architecture across the world, the critics sit at the front of the room to get the closest view of the student’s work pinned on the wall. A disaffected audience of non-presenting students lingers in the background, doubtless exhausted by their own deadlines and only half-engaged with conversation between student and reviewer.

In the second option, a simple relocation of the three critics to different points of the room encloses and engages the audience. While not guaranteeing the engagement of the audience, it does at least establish the landscape of a room in which students and educators can interact.

At the Big Crit (see my shitty five minute SketchUp illustration above), guest critics sat at either or one end of a table arranged lengthwise beneath the projected image of the students’ work. Models, books and pamphlets supporting the project were placed on this table. The audience sat in the body of the room, on rows of chairs facing the screen. When the critics engaged in conversation with the student, the audience continued to sit in silence. Turning to the audience of students with specific questions rarely initiated more than a simple response to the stated question.

While I love the post-evaluation timing and format of the Big Crit, it demonstrates that there is still some room to develop the way we present and discuss design projects in architectural education. While I share the sentiments of David McClean who, at the end of the day, expressed a desire to see Big Crits starting at other schools of architecture, I’d like them to push for an even greater inclusiveness of critic and student. As Simon Chadwick’s diagram suggests, a simple move might be to re-arrange the spaces in which guest critics are invited to review student work. Without disrespecting the valuable experience and opinions of the invited critics who give their time to come to schools of architecture to review the work of students, I would propose a quick 90º rotation of the critics’ table. Instead of reinforcing the front/back relationship between “stage” and audience, it could penetrate the body of the room like the perfect proportions of a dining table in a large kitchen. Or, more appropriately, like a university’s seminar or business’ conference room. Critics and students can then take their place around the table, turning to face the screen, presenting student, or one another as appropriate.

There are naturally some flaws. You can fit more people into the room if you arrange the seats in rows. You will also likely struggle to get everyone at the table itself in the alternative proposed above. But you might well be able to get everyone within at least one row of it, making it easier to reach models and books.

The increasing availability of digital data projectors in the academic environment has made great things possible in architectural education. Whereas my early experiences of them were dominated by illegible drawings projected by students who thought it was a straight substitution for plotting A1 sheets, there is an increasing sophistication of the visual language used by the students to present their work digitally. While high resolution plots and prints of drawings are still irreplaceable for the detailed examination of projects (especially when they’re being assessed) an event like the Big Crit benefits hugely from being able to present a large quantity of student work with relatively little disruption between presentations. Furthermore, the critics and audience are no longer beholden to the physical spaces of the school, being able to see all projects under consideration in one space (rather than moving peripetically around the studios and crit rooms, audience in tow, perched on whatever furniture is near-by).

Regardless of my beef about how schools of architecture arrange and populate their crits, there is no doubt in my mind that the Scott Sutherland School’s Big Crit is one of the most engaging and valuable events of the summer exhibition season. I’ll be making a date for next year’s event, and invite you to join me for a day out at the country’s northernmost school. It might provide the perfect model for a public day of reviews at your school of architecture.

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Tough Times

RIBA Library, Portland Place, London. Photo: Nick Garrod

Tomorrow afternoon, the Education team of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) will be contacting thirty students of architecture who have been selected to attend the following event:

Tough Times RIBA Student Forum
Tuesday 21 June: 18.00-21.00 at RIBA, London

Establishing a shared understanding of how the architectural community can best support architecture students in tough times. 

This unique forum is open to students from UK schools of architecture. It will be chaired by Niall McLaughlin and give you the chance to share your thoughts with RIBA staff, practitioners and students from other schools. 

You will hear about some of RIBA’s recent initiatives and have the opportunity to:

• Help consider future policies to improve pay and conditions in practice
• Debate employment options and alternative career paths for graduates
• Discuss how to survive architectural education in a new era of university financing 

The forum is open to thirty students, ideally representing a range of architecture schools and students at different stages of study. As capacity is limited, at this stage we cannot promise a place to every applicant. If you secure a place we will reimburse UK travel expenses (second class, advance booking on set tickets). 

The forum was promoted on RIBA Education’s Facebook stream earlier this month and was covered briefly in Friday’s Building Design. The subsequent “conversation” amongst online readers of the article (of varying shades of anonymity) reveals some of the usual perspectives on the relationship between the RIBA and architectural education today.

“Why should firms contribute to UK architectural education if it is no use to practices?”

“The future of a the profession and of the lives of all of its members requires a sense of SHARED responsibility. These young architects are the FUTURE of our profession – something that all of us surely want to INVEST in.”

“It appears to me (a 26 year old currently studying for part 3) that the current process of obtaining an architectural education is woefully removed from the wants and needs of modern architectural practice.”

“Let’s hope that the selection considers students from at least ALL the UK schools of architecture and not just the usual ones.”

For my part, I’ve emailed the RIBA with an expression of interest, and I fully expect not to be invited. I may be (as far as I know) the only person in the UK writing a PhD on architectural education at the moment, but I expect the RIBA to prioritise the very limited number of just thirty places to just students on taught courses. The attitude of the RIBA towards students of architecture – both through the validation procedures that accredit UK schools of architecture every four years, and events such as these – is that traditional architectural practice in a commercial environment is the principle aspiration for everyone. And yet anecdotal evidence and fag packet calculations of recent RIBA statistics would suggest that as many as two thirds of all students who commence RIBA Part I (undergraduate) studies in architecture never complete Part III (professional examination that follows the postgraduate degree or diploma and a minimum period post practice-based experience).

While it is a recurring feature of architectural education to call for its reinvention, the difference between previous upheavals and those of today is that they’re now out of the control of the profession or academe.

Architecture has always been expensive to study. Now, however, the stable little ecosystem of five years in university and two years in practice has been received a blinding broadside by the sudden reality of £9,000 p.a. tuition fees. While the interface between academe and profession adapted begrudgingly when the Labour government first introduced tuition fees, the disrespect between the two has suddenly been brought into sharp relief.

Whereas foundation level doctors in the UK (who will by the end of their education have spent the same amount of time at university as architects) earn a starting salary of between £22,000 and almost £28,000, a Part I graduate (after three years of study) is lucky to earn £20,000 (graduating in 2004, I started on £10,000 pre-tax). After Part III, an architect can expect £30,000 – £34,000, whereas a newly qualified GP can start on a salary of well over £50,000. If a medical student chooses to train as a consultant, they can expect to earn in excess of £70,000. (Sources: RIBA and NHS)

While few architects save lives in their day to day line of business, because of the RIBA Validation criteria and the established system of architectural education in this country, both they and doctors have to spend lengthy periods at university. And now that a three year degree at pretty much every self respecting university costs £27,000 before living and ancillary costs, the maths doesn’t add up for architecture.

As those selected comments on the BD article above show, students are reluctant to spend such a huge sum of money without better employment prospects or remuneration, and employers are reluctant to pay their graduates more without education becoming demonstrably more vocational. A stubborn rump of practicing architects expect graduates to be ready for professional practice, even though as little as one third of graduates ever take up a career in the profession.

Neither the RIBA, nor the schools of architecture, nor the profession itself, can do anything to reverse the Conservative-led government’s decision to charge (and the Liberal Democrat’s failure to obstruct) university tuition fees of £9,000 per annum. It is, therefore, up to practitioners, educators and the RIBA to negotiate a future for architectural education and practice.

The RIBA are to be congratulated for the apparently genuine intent to see a diversity of students represented at the forthcoming Tough Times forum. Reimbursing travel costs is also to be commended, especially for those students selected to represent schools far from London. However, given the RIBA’s diversity of spacious venues, it’s regrettable that only a small number of students can attend. While I appreciate the venues are commercially available to others and are likely booked up, it’s a shame that the strategic decision wasn’t taken to open the event to a wider number of delegates. If RIBA funds are too tight to reimburse all attendees, then some students, like myself or those studying in London, could have attended without necessarily claiming travel costs. Thirty travel bursaries could then have been provided for those in genuine financial need.

I hope to see you at Tough Times. But then I doubt I’ll be invited.

Postscript, 24 hours later: I’ve been invited to attend. Egg, face, etc.

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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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