learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Unique art work involving shipping containers

You have less than a week to get yourself to Glasgow if you want to catch Christoph Büchel’s mildly controversial art installation Last Man Out Turn Off Lights, which is on show at the Tramway until Sunday. I describe it as ‘mildly controversial’ because there are will always be vocal critics (generally Daily Mail readers or people who find time to phone in to Radio 5 Live) who disagree with a six figure sum being spent on a temporary piece of installation art. If you don’t fit into either of those groups, excuse the distraction.

The Tramway is a great space for performances and visual art, but I’m under no allusions as to the straightened circumstances in which it is now operating. The Tramway is unique in Glasgow as an arts and performance venue that can pull in world class international artists. Nowhere else in the city has quite the same international reputation or appeal as a venue, and as I picked my way through Büchel’s piece on Sunday I was struggling to think of another venue in the city that could have accommodation Last Man Out so well. When the work at the Tramway is good, it’s very good (such as Forced Entertainment’s Spectacular in 2008 or Jan Fabre’s Orgy of Tolerance in 2009) but when it’s bad, it’s very bad (the insanely expensive and insanely awful Marat/Sade, back in 2008). Last Man Out was a reassurance that the Tramway hasn’t lost its expertise at commissioning great international work.

Photography is not permitted in the exhibit, and Googling for images hasn’t produced anything worthwhile for this post. One of Scotland’s listings magazines gave it the fundamentally accurate but somewhat narrow summary that has given this blog entry its title. It is a strange and beguiling piece, one that does indeed involve a number of shipping containers, but which also involves the airframe of a former British Airways Avro regional jet, apparently re-assembled for crash investigation after some kind of accident.

Entering through a series of shipping containers adapted to resemble prison visiting rooms, one discovers a series of dank, clammy and filthy recreations of a jail. A dormitory in here; utilitarian shower rooms in there; disorganised offices in another. The prison spaces, apparently furnished and decorated using objects and items from a decommissioned facility on the Isle of Man, surround the ruptured, destroyed and painstakingly re-assembled aircraft. All around it are the remnants of the plane and its passengers: partially burnt clothes, toys, books and luggage; a toy plane; rows of airliner seats and misplaced components such as the toilet or bulkhead door.

If you’re the kind of spectator who demands meaning in contemporary art, you may be frustrated by Last Man Out. But you won’t be short of material to fuel your curiosity. Why have the a prison and an aircraft crash investigation been re-created alongside one another? Why the appropriation of such diverse materials and objects?

Last Man Out Turn Off Lights runs until Sunday 18 July 2010. Enclosed footwear only, no under-16s.

Addendum: G-BXAR probably visited Ronaldsway Airport on the Isle of Man some time during it’s operational life with British Airways Cityflyer and British Airways Connect. It was written off following a hard landing at London City Airport in 2009. No-one was injured. But why do I feel compelled to re-assure you of those details?

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Rural Studio at the V&A: “there’s a statement in there somehow”

This is a floorplan of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, indicating the locations of the seven built installations that make up 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces. Being, as I am, on top of the throbbing pulse of London’s architecture scene, I only discovered the exhibition at the end of a long weekend, while killing a few hours before heading back to Heathrow for my flight home. (What can I say; the V&A is on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow and has free luggage storage in the cloakrooms.)

1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces invited 7 architects to construct small architectural interventions throughout the museum. Nineteen paper and model submissions to the call for entries, including the seven that have been built, are on display in the dedicated architecture gallery. Of the seven built structures, while it was far from the most enthralling or entertaining, the most interesting to me was the ‘woodshed’ designed and built by students of Auburn University’s Rural Studio (application rendering below).

The ‘Woodshed’ is a monopitch open-ended structure built of unseasoned thinnings – immature timber harvested from commercially managed forests to allow stronger trees to grow taller and straighter. This suggests a material of inconsistency and distortion, but the structure is stoically angular. Despite the opportunities for exploring the complimentary characteristics of seasoned and unseasoned wood, such as joints that shrink into one another for structural tightness and rigidity, the entire stucture is made up of 49 identical monopitch frames, assembled alongside one another to form the shed. Their expected shrinkage is managed by the inclusion of five threaded rods, drilled through the length of the shed, which can be tightened during the course of the exhibition.

Rural Studio director Andrew Freear and student Danny Wicke explain the installation in this short video, one of seven produced to compliment each structure.

The Rural Studio is no stranger to exhibitions located firmly in art galleries, but for a studio so rooted in the social obligations of architecture as practice, profession and product it is always a provocative experience to encounter their work so removed from any meaningful context.

1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces continues until 30 August 2010.

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Summer show season starts

If you’re interested in seeing the output of Britain’s architecture schools, now is the time to catch the various summer shows on at schools around the country. This week I ticked off two, visiting the University of Nottingham’s Exhibit! 09 and the University of Sheffield’s Summer Exhibition. With free entry, they’re an unmissable opportunity to see inside your local school of architecture, and to clock which ones are proudly parading their investment in CNC-cutters, 3D printers etc…

I hope to catch some more in the coming weeks, including those in Glasgow very shortly.

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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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