learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

AHRA 2011: Peripheries – call for papers

Save the dates, and we hope to welcome you to Belfast in October.

Call for Papers

27-29 October 2011

Architectural Humanities Research Association Conference 2011
School of Planning, Architecture & Civil Engineering (SPACE)
Queen’s University Belfast

Peripheries are increasingly considered in contemporary culture, research and practice. This shift in focus challenges the idea that the centre primarily influences the periphery, giving way to an understanding of reciprocal influences. These principles have permeated into a wide range of areas of study and practice, transforming the way we approach research and spatio-temporal relations.

The 2011 AHRA Queen’s Belfast Peripheries conference will invite discussion via papers and short films on the multiple aspects periphery represents — temporal, spatial, intellectual, technological, cultural, pedagogical and political – with, as a foundation for development, the following themes:

  • Peripheral practices
  • Practice-based research
  • Urban peripheries
  • Non-metropolitan contexts
  • Peripheral positions

From these themes might arise a series of questions:

  • How do notions of periphery and proximity impact on the construction of cultural memory?
  • Is globalization facilitating the inclusiveness of peripheries or denying their local value to favour the centre?
  • How does architecture respond to the challenges of temporal peripheries in varying historical, spatial and political contexts
  • Does being on the edge heighten or transform architectural practice?
  • What infrastructure is required for peripheral positions to exist? How are peripheries networked to one another and to centres?
  • Can architecture support peripheral populations, and can these voices offer critique of architectural practice?
  • How does interdisciplinarity — the communication between perceived peripheral disciplines — affect architectural practice?
  • What are the shifting boundaries of alternative or peripheral currents of education, research and practice? Do architecture schools recognize the importance of peripheral subjects in their teaching?

Queen’s University’s School of Planning Architecture and Civil Engineering operates within a context of an increasingly non-metropolitan society, on an island of rural communities resistant to normative patterns of urbanisation. The culture, economies, politics and social networks in Ireland are often perceived as “on the edge of Europe”; it is a place of experimentation, translation and evolution.

Belfast is thus an ideal setting in which to pose questions of periphery: it is a city in simultaneous states of flux with multiple political and social reiterations and repositionings. In a city where extremism was once the norm, there is much to ask about how to moderate and manage the tensions and potentials that exist between the edge and the centre.


  • abstracts of papers (500 words) and digital video (5-8 minutes in length:) 15 February 2011
  • notification of acceptance: 15 April 2011
  • registration open: 1 June 2011
  • submission of summary paper based on abstract (1000-2000 words) or film: 1 August 2011
  • categories/sessions determined and session chairs chosen: 1 September 2011
  • chairs of sessions distribute expanded abstracts/films to co-session paper presenters; all chairs and paper presenters asked to provide structured feedback/reflection on session papers: 1 October 2011

Submissions and registration via conference website: http://www.qub.ac.uk/peripheries2011

Contact peripheries@qub.ac.uk with any questions.

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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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Seminar: mediating reality: live projects and architectural education

Oops. Not too hot on the self-promotion here. As part of my duties to CBER, my research cluster at Queen’s, I’ll be delivering a seminar on my research tomorrow afternoon (Friday 11 June) at 15h00 in Seminar Room 2 of the David Keir Building. It’ll be a nice gentle meander through ’til four o’clock which, depending on your outlook, could be an acceptable Friday evening going-home-time.

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This just in via the weekly QUB Students’ Union newsletter, reporting crime statistics relating to students at Queen’s.

Off Campus Discipline Statistics: 1 August 2009 to 14 May 2010

243 Queen’s Students disciplined for anti-social behaviour

£7,425 worth of fines were imposed during the period

173 warnings were imposed during the period

40% were first years

33% were second years

17% were third years

No word on the cleaner-than-clean postgraduate community, then.

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There’s something in the AIARG

Group photo by Alan Jones

Today marked the first meeting of the new and as-yet un-acronym-ed All-Ireland Architectural Research Group (AIARG). The preliminary meeting, hosted by Queen’s University Belfast, was the first formal encounter of a body of architecture schools from across Ireland, both north and south. Although the island of Ireland is home to just seven schools of architecture (as opposed to the forty-odd on the island of Great Britain), each was represented today, and a wealth of research activity was discussed.

From UCD, Hugh Campbell described three strands of research – design innovation, analysis and enquiry, and scholarship and survey – across scales from detail design up to landscape. In so doing, a helpful matrix of research strengths emerged, breaking the ice on a day that principally introduced approximately thirty people to one anothers’ work.

For the School of Architecture at the University of Limerick (SAUL), Merrit Bucholz described the intensive period of research undertaken by staff and students in the early years of this very young school of architecture. The recognisable post-Celtic-Tiger condition of the city of Limerick and surrounding suburbs, towns and villages was discussed: a medieval infrastructure of roads and townlands overlaid with frantic and incoherent subsequent development. The notion of a university as the place in which different public bodies and stakeholders may come together to “speak freely” caught my attention. As Ireland faces up to the horrific economic crash it has experienced, its schools of architectures seem conscious of their unique opportunity to work with the slack in the architectural profession.

Steven Spier of the University of Ulster plotted out a brave path for his school of architecture – a similarly young institution that he foresees building on its identity as Ireland’s only real “art school school of architecture”. With intakes of just fifty and twenty-five to the undergraduate and postgraduate architecture courses respectively, he described a scenario in which the school would focus on both practice-based research and scholarly work in the humanities. The polytechnic background of Ulster led into a presentation by Stephen Best, Senior Lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, who described the process of shifting from just teaching architecture to both teaching and researching architecture. I was encouraged to hear of a developing strength in pedagogy, as a large intake of new staff are now required to complete a thirty credit teaching and learning certificate equivalent to Irish level 9 (Masters level) studies.

Máire Henry of Waterford Institute of Technology provided an enthusiastic and compelling presentation: her school is only five years old and in an institute that has been in existence for just forty years. She desribed the importance of developing a research culture at both staff and student levels – something I feel passionately about since I believe so many second stage students of architecture develop acute research skills in the course of their architecture diplomas or Masters degrees.

Gary Boyd of the CCAE in Cork descibed the unique situation of his school: situated between University College Cork and Cork Institute of Technology, with teaching and research coming into the school from both of those institutions. CCAE offers a two stage programme in architecture that is not dissimilar the Scottish model: a four plus one combination of BSc and MArch. The March is twelve months and three semesters in duration, and is focussed on studies relating to architectural practice. Through the afternoon’s conversation session, it was tentatively agreed that the next meeting of the group should be at the CCAE in Cork in September 2010 when the school will be hosting the Ordnance: War, Architecture and Space conference.

What the AIARG will become is still be agreed upon. But it seemed to me that we witnessed today the foundation of a promising network of research-active academics and practitioners from across Ireland. This is unlikely to be manifested in another academic journal or conference, but through dialogue between eloquent and passionate academics. Some are located firmly in practice, some are in the academy, others are finding their own position between the two. As an early-career researcher, it was encouraging to meet and talk with so many people from Ireland’s seven architecture schools. I very much look forward to meeting them again soon.

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This is the Street Society

Above: fifth and first year students discussing their project in an ‘interface zone’ along Northumberland Street, in west Belfast.

This week we’re making an experiment at QUB, with first and fifth year students of architecture coming together for a full week clear of other class commitments. They’re working in small groups with real clients in modest five day live projects. You can find out more about what they’re up to on their website at streetsociety.ning.com

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Juhanni Pallasmaa in Belfast, 10 February

Of all the public lectures to miss in my own department, this one is particularly annoying. However, if you’re in Belfast on Wednesday 10 February, Finnish architect, former professor of architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology and a former Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture Juhanni Pallasmaa will be speaking at Queens. The lecture starts at 18h00 in LG_115 in the David Keir Building on Stranmillis Road. Pallasmaa’s book The Thinking Hand was an excellent discovery for the fifth year architecture elective on practice and education that I co-directed this year.

Much to my great personal torment, I will not be in Belfast but on a brief exchange visit here… watch this space for more.

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


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.


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.


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.


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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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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