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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Thesis status check: chunky with revisions

Brief emergence from the thesis lair for an update. Very productive supervisions in Belfast a week and a half ago (during our third annual Street Society vertical live project). I’ve taken the liberty of pushing my deadline back a few weeks to Friday 13 April.

You know, for luck, and stuff.

If you’re in Belfast that evening, give me a buzz and I’ll give you directions to a hostelry where you can watch me sob into a Guinness.

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Thesis status check: chunky

20120217-114146.jpg

Just over one week until I share this final draft with my supervisors, and just under a month and a half until I hope to submit it. Yoikes.

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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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The road less taken

(Post updated to include a PDF of the AIARG programme)

Happy new year to all who kindly follow this blog. After a brief excursion to celebrate my fiancé’s thirtieth birthday somewhere warmer than the northern half of the UK (re: the photo, we did not turn right), I’m now back at my desk and knuckling down (minor administrative duties permitting) to the final three months of my PhD. I am extremely excited (if not a little bit nervous) to have received a tentatively positive response from a highly regarded academic who may be able to be external examiner. The intention is to submit my thesis for examination at the end of March, with a viva to follow sometime in the spring.

In the meantime, I’ll be presenting a paper tentatively entitled Negotiating pedagogies: developing a grounded theory of architectural education at the inaugural conference of the All Ireland Architectural Research Group (AIARG) at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) on Friday 20 and Saturday 21 January. The conference costs just €50 for two days and more than thirty-five papers, plus a keynote from Adrian Forty. You can download the finalised programme from here. For more info, contact Brian Ward at DIT by email on: brian <–DOT–> ward <–AT–> dit <–DOT–> ie

Other activities will be posted here in due course. But for now… onwards with 2012.

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The loneliness of the long distance consumer

This has not been a good year for me to write my thesis. While my attention span has definitely improved since I was a teenager, and while  I can turn the radio, television, internet, phone and Twitter feed off, there is still too much god-damn stuff going on.

Having dipped into some of the doctoral thesis written by past students (and now available for all via the British Library Ethos project) I am fully aware that while the higher education sector may be feeling a financial squeeze, I am nonetheless living in an exceptionally privileged digital age. Whereas less than a decade ago the same tasks involved hours of manual clerical labour, my computer can now manage, sort and output all my academic references in countless formats. Whenever I discover a reference to an academic paper in someone else’s bibliography, I can usually access it and download a PDF copy to my desktop in seconds. And using proprietary music and word processing software, I’ve been able to transcribe and code about 21 hours of interviews without encountering the delights of a micro-cassette tape recorder or insolent foot pedal control.

But for the PhD candidate in 2011, the flipside of all this technology is that information overload is now a serious threat to one’s productivity. The mental muscle that can make strategic decisions and editorial choices now has to work harder and harder. Because I can now work half as much to access tens of thousands of pages of information that is possibly relevant to my study, it means I have to work twice as hard to decide what I actually need.

At some point in the last decade, I forget when, I recall reading an article that described recent scientific research into children’s dextrous skills. The sudden rise in popularity of mobile phones, and the relative cheapness of Short Messaging Services (SMS) had produced a noticeable evolutionary quirk in young people in developed nations. Their opposable thumbs and fingers were getting stronger. It was posited that this was because having grown up firstly with computer games and then secondly with mobile phones, a new generation of humans was using their thumbs and fingers in an entirely new way, manipulating the miniature buttons on these devices.

A few weeks ago, I was told about a friend’s child, who has just learnt to walk. Having been allowed to play with the family’s iPad, and having learnt to make primitive gestures and ‘drawings’ on the screen, he had subsequently been seen to approach a television and try repeatedly to change the channel by swiping the moving pictures to one side with his hand.

As I consider the passing summer and coming autumn that will be spent writing up my thesis, I have become more and more aware how the information revolution has turned me into a digital consumer. Through seamless and wireless internet connections, my smartphone, laptop computer and tablet all provide continuous access to information that is updated by the second. As riots have exploded across London, for the first time I have television news channels being eclipsed as the up-to-the-minute sources of information. Up-to-the-minute? I’m getting updates up-to-the-second. Prior to returning to the UK, the Prime Minister was widely lampooned on Twitter for receiving “hour by hour reports” on the situation in London. That made all of Twitter better informed than him.

Amongst all the chaff floating around my desk today, one article has stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Zygmunt Bauman writes on Social Europe Journal:

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.

There is no European nation that has embraced the neoliberal culture of consumerism to a greater degree than the UK. And while politicians have struggled to make vacuous statements about the base criminality of those looting shops and businesses, I am becoming more and more aware of the tipping point over which we teeter. If an entire nation is sold a dream based on consumption, there will inevitably be an underclass that will never be afforded the same social, cultural or financial capital to consume as much as we are told we should do.

Postscript: this is a frustrated work in progress. It may be amended, edited, extended, shorted or deleted after publication. Please comment if you have any thoughts.

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PhD opportunity in practice-based architectural research

Another excellent PhD opportunity has come across my desk this week. The deadline is very close, but the project is very appealing, with full funding and an excellent supervisor.

PhD Studentship – Architecture by Design

Newcastle University and the University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape
Closing Date: 21st July 2011

The School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape is pleased to offer one funded studentship for a three-year PhD to begin in September 2011, to conduct practice-based research in architecture. It is an opportunity to conduct a PhD by design with the School’s Design Office research consultancy; to collaborate on – and construct a thesis around – a series of live and theoretical architectural projects in the Office, under the supervision of Professor Adam Sharr.

Value of the Award and Eligibility

The studentship attracts a bursary of £15,000 p.a. to cover fees and living costs for three years. International students are welcome to apply for this award, however, a successful non-EU applicant will therefore have a lower stipend for living costs because of their substantially higher fees.

The studentship carries an expectation that the student will work with the Design Office as part of their thesis studies.

Person Specification

Applicants are expected to have a background in architecture – a BArch or MArch (RIBA pt.2 or equivalent) is highly desirable – and the motivation to develop and complete a suitable PhD thesis.

(It is possible that the candidate might also be able to use their work in conjunction with the thesis and the Design Office towards a qualification at RIBA pt.3).

How to Apply

You do not at this stage need to apply through the University’s online postgraduate application form.

Applications should include a covering letter, a brief, edited portfolio of design work, a statement of research interests, a CV and the names of two academic referees.

Applications should be submitted by e-mail to Marian Kyte, Postgraduate Research Secretary (marian.kyte <—at—> ncl.ac.uk). Please indicate clearly the reference number “APL10” in your letter/email header.

Closing date for applications: Thursday 21 July 2011.

For further details, please contact Professor Adam Sharr, adam.sharr <—at—> ncl.ac.uk

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PhD Opportunity in community led design at the University of Sheffield

This just in, another great opportunity to undertake fully funded research in collaborative design. Not only a great sounding brief, also a great partnership, and (as my alma mater) I’m obliged to point out a wonderful city to live and work in.

Glass-House and University of Sheffield AHRC Collaborative PhD Studentship in community led design
3 Jun 2011

Great news! The Glass-House and Bureau – Design + Research (a research unit within the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield) have been successful in securing an Arts and Humanities Research Council (www.ahrc.ac.uk) funded Collaborative Doctoral Award. The topic of this research will be community led design. It will investigate, within the context of community involvement in the design process across the UK and Europe, the practice and projects of The Glass-House since its inception.

The award:

  • funds the UK/EU tuition fees and a maintenance stipend of approx. £14k for one person to undertake a 3 year PhD
  • both the University of Sheffield and The Glass-House will oversee the research collaboratively

What we are looking for:

A person with a passion for community inclusion in the design process. The candidate could come from a range of fields – you might be a sociologist, an architect, urban designer, a cultural geographer, or have other knowledge and experience.

You will be creative and passionate about the future, as well as the history and impact of, community led design, and feel that this is the right time for you to commit to the research over the next couple of years

Now more than ever, with the ‘Localism’ Bill currently going through parliament, communities are potentially being given the opportunity to play an active role in the physical and social regeneration of their neighbourhoods. However, far too many development and regeneration projects still fail to really include the community or develop an effective brief that draws on the aspirations and potential of local people.

It is now well recognised that allowing the public to have a say in the shaping of their environment leads not only to better physical outcomes, but also to empowered communities that are active in enlivening and managing their regenerated places and spaces. Indirect benefits can also include increased employability, improved physical and mental health and more cohesive communities. Surprisingly, very little study into this field has been undertaken at this level.

The collaborating partners are keen that the research should produce a tangible resource to support design practitioners in their work with communities, as well as informing future policy and practice.

Application info:

If you are interested in applying for the PhD studentship please apply via the Postgraduate Application Form at http://www.shef.ac.uk/postgraduate/research/apply and mention in your application that you wish to apply for this project.

Applicants must be UK or EU citizens and be ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom. Further information on eligibility requirements is available from the AHRC website (Annex A): http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/FundingOpportunities/Documents/GuidetoStudentFunding.pdf

If you have further questions about the area of research, please contact:

Prue Chiles at the University of Sheffield +44 (0)114 222 0312 p.chiles <—at—> sheffield.ac.uk

Rebecca Maguire at the Glass-House t: +44 (0)20 7490 4583 e: rebecca <—at—> theglasshouse.org.uk

Deadline for applications 15th July with interviews at the end of July, with a view to beginning the studentship on 1st October.

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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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Things

In the manner of the insanely beautiful but highly distracting Things Magazine, it behoves me to offer my loyal readers something of a disjointed update on what’s going on, and why I’m not telling you more about it here. For regular 140 character updates, you can now follow me on Twitter.

1 April 2011 will mark the beginning of my third and final funded year of PhD studies. I’m aiming to complete a draft of thesis chapter three, which discusses pedagogical theories appropriate to architectural education and live projects this month. Ruth and I have also been invited to co-write a chapter for a very exciting forthcoming book, but have a very tight deadline.

As you may know, in October we will be hosting the 2011 Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA) International Conference, Peripheries 2011. Earlier this week I joined the organising committee to sort through the abstracts we’ve received for them to be distributed for double blind reviewing by our scientific committee. The standard of abstracts is very high, and 21 countries are represented.

On 7 March the 2011 Street Society begins, bringing our first and fifth year students of architecture together for a one week live project, working with eight clients outside the school of architecture. I’m delighted to be working with all of the client groups and look forward to bringing two of our more segregated year groups for the week. The Ulster Museum have also generously donated their refurbished lecture theatre for the end of project presentations on Friday 11 March.

On 25 March, we welcome speakers from eight schools of architecture for a CEBE-supported one day colloquium, called Live Projects 2011. Registration is completely free, and open for a few more days here. If you need help finding affordable travel to Belfast, I’ve compiled everything you need here.

Finally, I’m delighted to announce that Amanda and I are engaged. Planning a wedding is naturally the perfect compliment to completing a PhD.

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PhD opportunities at Sonic Arts Research Centre, QUB

Interested in music and fancy doing a PhD at Queen’s? The Sonic Arts Research Centre are accepting applications for entry in the 2011/12 academic year until 1 March 2011 in the fields of Musicology, Composition & Creative Practice, Sonic Arts (info here). You will also get to work in one of coolest buildings in Belfast, SARC’s awesome Sonic Lab (specs) that’s pictured above.

If you’ve already started a PhD in that area elsewhere (and are maybe experiencing Sound Lab jealousy), don’t feel left out. The following call may also be of interest.

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS

The Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) is calling for applications from doctoral students (at any stage of their research) with a music/sonic arts/performance background, in particular from those researchers with an interest in new technologies.

The course BIG EARS sonic art for public earsʼ runs from 14 – 16 April 2011 and will deliver training in communication skills, public engagement and will offer hands-on experiences for researchers in linking with an audience facilitated by Northern Ireland’s leading children’s arts organisation, Young at Art www.youngatart.co.uk.

On the final day (16 April 2011) PhD researchers will work closely with local children and will showcase the outcomes ! that were designed during the course. The showcase will be a public event to be staged at SARC, a cutting-edge space, geared towards new technological developments.

To apply for a place in the three day course please click here and fill out the application form or contact Franziska Schroederf.schroeder@qub.ac.uk for more information. Candidates are required to submit a 500 word statement and two references, the deadline for applications is 25 January 2011.

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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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