learning architecture

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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Some thoughts on the Kindle

Traveling home from Queen’s on Friday, I decided to take the ultimate litmus test of the Amazon Kindle DX. Would using it on a Belfast city bus lead to me getting my head kicked in, for a) flashing a valuable piece of personal electronics or b) just being too nerdy in public?

I made it home without any injury being sustained. Although my perception of the Kindle’s price tag (and therefore its suitability for use on a Metro bus) is probably distorted, because I didn’t actually pony up £149 for it myself. Having been awarded funds from the Queen’s Annual Fund (a source of “unrestricted funds for projects and institutional priorities that can bring about an immediate impact to today’s students”), the library at Queen’s University Belfast has invested in five Kindles pre-loaded with books of specific interest to planning students at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering. They’re available now at the McClay Library for students and staff to borrow and evaluate. They are loaned on pretty much the same terms as ordinary books, four weeks for undergrad and taught postgrad, twelve weeks for research postgrad and staff.

The same selection of titles have been loaded onto Kindles 1-4, with a slightly different selection on number 5. I’m not sure whether these now exist in the library’s QCat system, but in theory you should now be able to locate these books on a Kindle as well as on the shelf, and borrow the device instead of one or multiple books.

This has some obvious advantages and disadvantages. If the book you want is out, lost or not in our collection, you can borrow it and many others. But then again, if one borrower takes out a Kindle for just one title, that’s effectively a waste of all the other books pre-loaded onto it, especially since other borrowers might want them while it’s out, thereby negating the advantage of an ebook reader to cover for books not in the physical collection. One desirable outcome of this trial is that in future, larger numbers of ebook readers like the Kindle might be kept empty in stock, but with a base station that could upload ebooks as they are required by borrowers. I’ve no idea whether the software and licensing of the Kinde system would support that kind of deployment, because my experience of ebook marketing so far has been almost entirely to the private consumer, who buys books one at a time and installs them for life on his or her device. If it isn’t possible, it would seem a pretty huge oversight on the ebook industry not to support hot-syncing of their devices.

Until this week, I’d never handled or used a Kindle before. First impressions count, and I had a bit of time on my journey home to play around with the Kindle and read some of the text.

From a physical design point of view, let’s not beat about the bush. The Kindle sucks. It is horrible to hold, manipulate and use. A few years ago I might not have been so cruel, but then Apple came along and released the iPad. Strangely, despite the iPad being a useless e-reader itself, Apple have changed the whole e-reader game completely. While the iPad has a problematic light emitting screen behind a glossy layer of glass, which is difficult to read from in direct or changing light conditions, it has at least been designed by a team of people who care deeply about the tactile experience of holding and using it. The Kindle has a nasty cheap plastic and faux-aluminium body, with horrible interface buttons and keyboard about sixty percent the size it needs to be to be useful.

Likewise, the software interface is dreadful. Books are listed by title, and navigation is slow and unintuitive. While I could get used to this with time, once you get into the e-books there are numerous annoying formatting errors. Chapter and section headings appear to have lost their page breaks, so chapter titles appear at the bottom of the screen and their text begins on the next. In one text, chapter one had merged with the book’s acknowledgements on the previous page.

Crucially, for academic users, the e-books appear to have had their printed edition page numbers replaced by electronic ‘location’ numbers. It makes sense to adapt the book’s navigation to the e-reader format, but sadly this is a nascent medium, and I can’t cite references in my own work without the page number of a known and dated paper edition. If the Kindle is to be useful for academics, I would rather that the format stuck to the page format of the paper books themselves so that I could use it without having to refer to paper copy as well.

Without question, however, the Kindle excels with its display. The beautiful electronic paper display is a pleasure to read off, and unlike light emitting screens (on computers, iPads, phones etc) it is both comfortable to use and legible in all light conditions, most notably the rapidly changing light and shade cast through the window of a moving vehicle.

Amazon and Apple are, to some extent, going head to head in the e-reader market with their Kindle and iPad, respectively. Sadly, both are flawed as electronic readers. The iPad has the design nailed, but the screen is horrible for extended reading. The Kindle has a beautiful screen to read from, but the interface is hellish, and the formatting of the books is useless for serious academic citation. Perhaps I’m unaware of developments in this field, but there is also a fundamental weakness in the academic use of e-readers preloaded with purchased titles: the e-reader would seem to me have a much more useful role in the library if it can be loaded and loaned dynamically, with whatever book a borrower wants but can’t get at that moment.

If you want to try a Kindle for yourself, you can Check out a Kindle from the QUB McClay Library. Each unit is supplied with a feedback form (also online here) for you to share your thoughts on the trial.

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Café ‘ope

A light supper in Café Hope, the jaundiced bistro in the New Library at Queens University Belfast. You’d expect it to be busier, given how many students are fighting for desk space in the library during this exam period, but the coffee is pricey (and not that great) and you can’t get chips with the gourmet burger of the day (£5.25). Fatal flaws, and a huge captive audience missed…

Addendum: an overheard conversation between a waitress and another customer reveals that there can be no chips in Hope, because the university won’t allow a deep-fat fryer in the library building.

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This weekend, I will be reading…

Back by popular demand, not that I have the time for this much reading this weekend…

ILLICH, I., 2002. Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars.
PALLASMAA, J., 2009. The Thinking Hand. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
SENNETT, R., 2009. The Craftsman. London: Penguin.

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Diagramming part two

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Sunday night in with Oddbins finest 3-for-£10 Shiraz and my trusty copy of Adobe Illustrator. This weekend’s much delayed task (it should have been last weekend, but I was moonlighting as a roadie) is to tentatively start map my literature review.

You might have been wondering why my once regular ‘this weekend, I will be reading’ posts have tailed off. There’s very simple explanation for that. I’m now a clear six months into my studies, and as everyone has been so wisely reassuring me, three years goes pretty darn quick. So there comes a point when it is necessary to stop the initial rush of literature consumption, and consider the next steps. The truth is, for every five books or articles I read, I will discover at least another ten potentially interesting or relevant references. Part of the life of a phd student is, it seems, being able to say ‘no more.’

The first firm draft of the literature review will be required for my process of differentiation, which will happen at around nine months into the phd. It is at this stage (hopefully between now and Christmas) that I go before a panel at Queens and am assessed on the quality and potential of my studies. If things are on course, I may continue. If not… well, I’m not entirely sure what happens.

As part of the next stage of the process, I’m revisiting my bibliography and using RefWorks to help me map it out by subject area. Overlaps are quickly revealed, gaps are highlighted and areas of personal interest become easier to identify.

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The library-lover is impressed: Queens University’s new College Park library open

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Queens University Belfast has a shiny new library, open ahead of schedule and with plenty of time for the finishing touches before the new term starts. I had my first look around this week, sadly with only a noisy and fuzzy camera phone to snap some shots.

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Those of you familiar with my dissatisfaction of cheap, nasty and badly designed ‘information commons’ are re-assured that the signs are good. The new College Park Library, designed by the American architectural practice Shepley Bulfinch with local input from the Robinson Patterson Partnership, is an enticing place to study in. There is generous provision of study tables and the fit and finish of the materials and detailing is impressive. I particular like the furniture on the upper levels, like these overlooking the main atrium.

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The main collection now fits comfortably under one roof (although I have no idea what provision has been made for the rate of expansion) with three lending levels that keep humanities, social sciences and the sciences together on their own levels.

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The staggered stacks create a simple but attractive effect around the edges and through the middle of each floor.

The building claims some impressive figures with regard to energy efficiency. The only disappointment on that front is the usual insane pairing of motion detectors with energy saving lamps in some of the lesser used circulation spaces (namely between the main library levels and the secondary staircases). Energy saving bulbs and strip lighting are least efficient when turned on and off repeatedly, as they will be in lesser used through spaces such as the anteroom between a staircase and the library levels. However, luckily there is no sign of the faux-disco-on-off strip lighting and autistic colourschemes found in a certain building I no longer frequent. I very much look forward to discovering this new building in the coming months and years.

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Touring Britain’s schools of architecture in 1961

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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.’

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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.’

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

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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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Scaffolding

I was in Sheffield earlier this month to deliver some long overdue work. Arriving in the city on a beautiful summer’s day, I found my old friend the Arts Tower sheathed in scaffolding and in the process of being wrapped in white plastic for a two year programme of refurbishment. As usual, I caught my first glimpse of the building as the train approached the city from the north-east, only this time it caught my eye for a different reason, it’s partial shiny white skin an unexpected change from the heavily weathered façade panels and single glazing that are due to be replaced.
The frankly awesome twenty-something stories of scaffolding that now envelopes the tower is practically a building in its own right. Oddly, the subtle additional width it gives to the building was (just) perceptible from the train. For so many years I’ve turned corners in Sheffield and seen it standing out from the hillside and come to recognise its form; to see it slightly wider than usual caused a strange double-take.
I spent a couple of very pleasant hours in the adjacent Main Library. This is also being refurbished, and my fingers are so tightly crossed that they don’t balls it up I may not be able to type for a while. The University of Sheffield Main Library is a beautiful place to study, one of very few Modernist buildings that I genuinely like. The means of entering and ascending up two broad flights of stairs takes you from the street to the lending hall in a gracious but functional way. The subsequent transition to the beautifully calm double height reading room that overlooks Weston Park is similarly special, carrying you from the noise of the university plazas to the tranquility of the reading room. The soft leather-topped desks are blissful to write notes on, and the atmosphere is reliably work-inducing. Any re-shaping of the Main Library in the form of the truly dreadful Information Commons across the street (the place to check Facebook and drink crap but expensive coffee) will be a heart breaking loss.
From the architecture collection (and at an upward looking angle that brings out the blueish tint of the windows) I caught sight of the scaffolding team fixing the white plastic sheeting. I imagine that this external skin will, by now, have enveloped the whole structure in preparation for the long façade refurbishment that will continue through at least one Sheffield winter.

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PhD rant: people who make stupid notes and marks in library books

Forgive me, but it’s time to vent a little. This drives me absolutely friggin’ nuts…

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If you don’t own the book, don’t mark the book. Don’t underline. Don’t circle. Don’t note. If it belongs to a library, it belongs to all of us. We’ve gone to the trouble of travelling to the library, joining the library and searching the library for this book because we want to read the what the author(s) have written. Not to absorb the mindless, inconsiderate demonstration of your stupidity and selfishness.

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And for Christ’s sake, don’t go to the trouble of marking the following quote (from Experiential Learning, Kolb 1984)

The integrated person is person as subject. In contrast, the adaptive person is person as object.

…with such a dumb, inane and irrelevantly personal observation as…

But if you have Aspergers it is more difficult because the world is experienced in different dimensionality.

Likewise, the following, from John Dewey’s Experience & Education (1938)….

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I despair. It’s because of lazy goons like these that I feel compelled to spend too much money buying pristine books online. Or maybe I’m just being really picky. Having now spent several months using the libraries of Queens University Belfast, Glasgow University, the University of Strathclyde, the Glasgow School of Art and the University of Sheffield, I can report (somewhat unfairly) that Scottish university library books are the worst affected by this vandalism. In the same way I have come to detest the general lack of respect Glaswegians show for their city (unbelievable littering, fly-tipping etc in otherwise beautiful city streets) I have come to expect – and as yet have not been often disappointed – this kind of unwanted notation in books from Scottish libraries.

What is it about Scottish students? Or what is perhaps about Scottish libraries and their books that encourages this behaviour? Or more importantly, what is it about me that sparks off these hopelessly unscientific jingoism? Answers on a postcard, please. And if it’s any consolation, I feel a lot better now.

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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.


Bibliography

Click here for the bibliography to date.


Words

Click here for a selection of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed writing.


Glossary

Click here for a glossary-in-progress of key terms used in the project.


Conference diary

Conferences and seminars of interest to the project.


Note

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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