learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Disconnected thoughts: Pedagogy of the Oppressed


A week or two ago I decided to reserve judgement on Architecture Depends, the new book about the contingency of the architectural profession, by my former head of school Jeremy Till. I was aware that the book opened itself up to criticism by discussing the profession with only a handful of references to built works or architects in practice. In approaching the nature of the profession in such an open-ended manner, I suspect Till wanted to allow his observations be interpreted personally by the reader, rather than seen as an attack on specific movements, styles, buildings or designers. I regard it not as a specific attack on modern architectural practice, but a series of concise and carefully laid out observations about the flaws and opportunities of mainstream practice. A self-help guide for troubled architects, perhaps.

Re-reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed this week, I am beginning to understand why Architecture Depends isn’t entirely satisfactory. Pedagogy of the Oppressed was written in the context of a life time spent fighting for the rights to education of an underprivileged South American lower class. But its genius and relevance today to those with no interest in adult literacy is that it is written in such versatile language that it may be understood in most contexts where an contradiction exists between an oppressor and an oppressed.

It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves. It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to reolve the contradiction in which they are caught; and the contradiction will be resolved by the appearance of the new man: neither oppressor nor oppressed, but man in the process of liberation. If the goal of the oppressed is to become more fully human, they will not achieve their goal by merely reversing the terms of the contradiction, by simply changing poles.

Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 revised edition p. 38)

I was introduced to the text in a module during my Masters degree at the University of Sheffield entitled Reflections on Architectural Education. As Richard Saull explains in his preface to the English edition “there is no point in attempting to sum up, in a few paragraphs, what the author develops in a number of pages. That would be an offense the richness, depth and complexity of his thought.” So I’ll try to control my only-vaguely coherent thought processes with a thought about the text’s relevancy to a study of alternative practice in architectural education.

Freire exposes the “empty vessel” model of education – whereby a teacher with knowledge fills a student who has no knowledge as if one were a filled jug and the other an objectified receptacle – as an inherently oppressive relationship. Design – and especially architecture – education has long been cited by readers of Friere as a positive alternative to the “empty vessel” method of teaching, since much design education is structured around the problem-based scenarios that Freire favours.

In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation … the teacher-student and the students-teachers reflect simultaneously on themselves and the world without dichotomizing this reflection from action, and thus establish an authentic form of thought and action.

Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 revised edition p. 64)

Key to problem-posing education is dialogue.

Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges, teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. The become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.

Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 revised edition p. 61)

I’m now returning to third and fourth chapters of the book. What interests me is the creation of this problem-posing situation. The motivations of live projects and the people who initiate them in architectural education was raised as a possible line of inquiry during my last supervisions, so I want to go back to examine the ways in which problem-based learning is established and how curricula are designed. My understanding of Freire’s thesis is that the ‘oppressed’ must be part of the design of their curriculum if they are to achieve sustainable liberation. A hunch remains that the design of the curriculum remains an overlooked problem area in some problem-based educational systems. But then that also reminds me of the student involvement in such curriculum-designing exercises as described in Building Clouds Floating Walls, which is very close to both my to supervisor and myself.

Meanwhile, I leave you with a page from the superb Guy Delisle. Delisle spent a period of time living and working in North Korea, and Pyongyang: Journey in North Korea is a kind of extended travelogue about his experiences in the DPRK. Re-reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed in light of recent events reminds me of many further interpretations of Freire’s writings about the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy.


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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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