learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Why should I research live projects in architectural education?

Next month I’ll be heading through the process known at Queens University as ‘differentiation’. In some other schools it’s called ‘upgrade’ or something vaguely similar, but it is the panel-based interview process whereby my work to date (approximately nine months in) is assessed and permission to continue towards a PhD is either granted or denied.

At this, and at any other juncture when I am asked about my research, a poignant question ought to be asked. Why should I spend three years of my life (and a not insignificant amount of funding) producing research into this field?

As a first step on the path to answering this question fully, I did some calculations, based on the amount of peer-reviewed published literature I could find on architectural education initiatives and projects that might be said to fit the description of those I am studying.

The Journal of Architectural Education is a peer-reviewed journal published four times a year on behalf of the (United States of America) Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Ten years’ editions of the journal – from 53(1), September 1999 to 63(1), October 2009 – were searched for content relating that related to ‘live’ and/or community-based projects that engaged students of architecture with real clients and/or a real project.

Content was initially searched electronically by use of four keywords. These keywords were determined by their frequent appearance in the broader literature I’ve been studying in this first year of my studies.

  • “community” (15 occurences)
  • “community design” (9 occurences)
  • “design build” “design-build” “design/build” (43 occurences)
  • “live project” (2 occurences)

A total of 69 occurrences were found between 1999 and 2009. This included a number of duplicate results, namely articles with two or three of the above keywords. Removing duplicate results, 42 unique articles were found.

The remaining 42 abstracts and articles were then examined to identify those that were non-applicable to this study, and which had been returned through a different interpretation of the keywords. 21 articles were found not to describe projects as sought in the initial parameters, and were elimated. The 21 remaining articles all described initiatives within and outwith schools of architecture that matched the initial parameters.

Of these 21 articles, 19 were authored by participants in project described (academics, students or in some instances both). The remaining 2 were authored by persons not known to be directly involved in the project described.

So, not the whole answer, nor the whole argument. But I believe (and I intend to repeat this rather simplistic assessment of published literature for other key publications in the field of architectural education) that there is justification for a rigorous piece of comparative research (qualitative and quantitative) conducted by someone not directly associated with the projects under investigation.

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Touring Britain’s schools of architecture in 1961


Although I don’t want to step on the toes of Steve Parnell and his Back Issues column in the Architects Journal, it’s difficult not to share some pages from these 1961 issues of Architect and Building News, in which correspondent John Smith made monthly contributions examining the state of affairs in eleven of Britain’s schools of architecture. I came to the article on Birmingham School of Architecture following a specific reference about the ‘conglomerates’ and live projects that were established there in the nineteen-forties. However, the rest of the series has been a revealing insight into the state of British architectural education in the early sixties. As Steve himself wrote in one of his columns. (AJ 17.7.2008) ‘it’s as easy to complain about the state of architectural education today as it is difficult to comprehend quite how awful it was 50 years ago.’


Despite Birmingham’s progressive approach the architectural education (students designed and supervised, if not actually built, various small projects from village halls to rows of terraced houses), Smith can’t help noting that ‘although the school’s museum and lavatories possess a certain romantic charm, the studios and offices [pictured above] by comparison seem dreary places in which to work, with ancient benches and plan chests and high chin-resting window cills.’


Then again, Canterbury (above) didn’t seem to be too well endowed with buildings either.


And evidently dissatisfied with their city, these tutors and students (above) were eagerly planning a complete razing and reconstruction of Cardiff…

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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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