learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

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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Common Grounds: 14 & 15 January 2011

On Friday morning, at the AHRA Postgraduate Research Symposium hosted by the University of Sheffield, Anna Holder and I launched the call for participation for Common Grounds: exploring methodologies for research within or research about architecture and the built environment

This two day winter colloquium for post-graduate students and early career researchers on methodologies for researching architecture and the built environment will take place at St. Deiniolʼs Library, Clwyd on Friday 14 & Saturday 15 January 2011.

Doing research on or in the field of architecture can feel like a methodological free-for-all, borrowing from the arts, humanities, physical sciences, social sciences etc. Conscious of the difficulties facing early career researchers in the built environment (who may not feel they have received adequate training in this area) Common Grounds proposes a weekend away from the university to present, discuss and constructively critique research-in- progress. This event will focus on developing thematic clusters and working relationships to support research in the field of architecture.

Early-career researchers in any discipline with an interest in architectural research are invited to submit:

  • a 100 word introduction to your topic and key questions
  • a 200 word abstract describing your current / proposed research methodologies
  • a brief statement of what you would like to get out of this event


  • Call for papers: 22 October 2010
  • Deadline for submissions: 26 November 2010
  • Programme announced: 10 December 2010

On the Friday attendees will be invited to present an informal 20 minute paper specifically discussing their research approach and methodology. Time will be allocated for detailed discussion and feedback. Submissions are particularly invited from researchers who have are still developing their research questions and approaches. Informal conversations may continue over dinner and perhaps onwards to a local hostelry. Based on the outcomes of the previous dayʼs presentations, on the Saturday we will collectively design structured workshops to consolidate and develop methodological themes.

The intent of Common Grounds is to nurture an informal student-led research colloquium dedicated to that most tricky aspect of research: method. It’s been our experience of architectural education that too many students of architecture avoid or consciously postpone any engagement of technical, structural or detailed design in their studio projects. It’s a fear of the unknown, the hard-to-grasp unknown skills that are best learnt through real experience. In our PhDs, we’ve had precious little structured introduction or discussion of actual research method and methodology.

So let’s make a date. Come to North Wales for the weekend and tells us about your research, regardless of whether or not you are decided on research method or methodologies. We’ve booked a meeting room and plan to let the conversation flow. St. Deiniol’s is a fascinating venue, and very easy to access by road or rail. We very much hope to see you there.

Everything you need to know about submitting and participating is on the Common Grounds blog: http://exploringcommongrounds.wordpress.com/

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And we must retain it

What we should do, I suggest, is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with out errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it be beyond our reach. We may admit that our groping is often inspired, but we must be on our guard against the belief, however deeply felt, that our inspiration carries any authority, divine or otherwise. If we thus admit that there is no authority beyond the reach of criticism to be found within the whole province of our knowledge, however far it may have penetrated into the unknown, the we can retain, without danger, the idea that truth is beyond human authority. And we must retain it. For without this idea there can be no objective standards of inquiry; no criticism of our conjectures; no groping for the unknown; no quest for knowledge.

Karl Popper, On the Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance

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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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Another weekend, some time, I will be reading…

I live quite close to a bookstore branch of a famous charity. I don’t often drop in, because said charity has a habit of marking up their second hand stock to a point that seems to negate the pleasure and value of taking the time to search through the shelves. I also smart a little every time I visit, because on the one occasion (during my extended winter of unemployment) I went in to volunteer some time, I was subjected to one of the rudest customer service encounters I can recall in this city. I did not persist in my efforts to help them out.

However, today’s visit produced two great little finds. A 1985 copy of MATRIX’s Making Space – Women and the Man Made Environment and a revised edition of John Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture. One was worth the £1.99 price tag, the other was not, but one absolute bargain subsidised the other less spectacular purchase. Together, and perhaps more entertainingly, they make a  appealing demonstration of the opposite ends of the gendered spectrum of architectural writing. I am nothing, if not balanced…

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Out now: Full Irish

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the launch of QUB faculty member Sarah Lappin’s new book Full Irish: New Architecture in Ireland at PLACE, the Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland. It’s a beautifully written and designed volume published by Princeton Architectural Press in the same series as Bart Lootsma’s seminal Superdutch: New Architecture in the Netherlands, and will make an excellent stocking filler for the architect in your life.

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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

literature diagram

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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Prize winning onions

Sadly, these onions are not from our allotment. Photographed over the weekend during a weekend retreat to read some Pevsner and Banham and to re-acquaint myself with sunlight.

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And nineteen pence


I’m reading Panayotis Tournikiotis’ fascinating book The Historiography of Modern Architecture today, and finding countless references to key texts that contributed to our cultural definition of twentieth century architecture. One book I’d love to own that Tournikiotis cites is the catalogue to the 1932 New York exhibition The International Style. AbeBooks has a few copies listed, including this one. Why is it £2216.19? Mint condition, and signed by Philip Johnson, no less.

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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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