learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Video: Requiem for Detroit

I shan’t ask how, but the entirity of Julien Temple’s 2010 film Requiem for Detroit has made its way from BBC Television and onto YouTube. Although my work here hasn’t led to many concerted explorations of postmodern studies, I’m fascinated by Detroit – perhaps the only postmodern American city.

If, like me, you combine passions for automobile design with architecture, urbanism, race / gender studies and urban agriculture, you should find 75 minutes of your time to watch this.

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Out and about: Sheffield live project reviews


For the second time in two weeks, I’m at University of Sheffield School of Architecture. Cue much joking from staff and students about me not being able to stay away from my alma mater.

I’m here this week to do some research and to attend the 2009 student-led Theory Forum, which starts tomorrow. I was here last week to witness the end of project reviews of the 2009 live projects. With one of the live project teams proposing short and medium term solutions to problems surrounding Sheffield’s stalled £600,000,000 city centre ‘Seven Stone’ redevelopment, the event was held in a vacant department store just off the Moor, a once thriving street of low-end value shops and stores that has been earmarked for gentrification. With the financial crisis causing most of the money associated with the Seven Stone plans to evaporate into thin air, the city is now laced with empty shops, many of which were compulsorily purchased and/or vacated before it was realised there was little or no ready money to demolish, rebuild or refurbish. It is hard not to subscribe to the theory that there is some greater being who has decided that Sheffield should be forever trapped in a cycle of being shat on from a great height every decade. Who knows how long it will take for the city to solve this problem, especially as the only solution seems to be to wait for the end of the recession and then start building more shops. No-one has seemed to question why Sheffield needs so many shopping centres and chain stores. It’s not like the country needs another Birmingham.

Still the faded and (because the building was unheated) frigid ground floor space of the department store made for an interesting venue to present and review architectural projects. Not that much critical reviewing took place; the programme had compressed fifteen projects into a single day with only ten to fifteen minutes for each. It was hard to engage with this current crop of real-time student projects because there was not much room for dialogue or discussion. The presence of some project clients also suggested that this was not the time or the place to critique or probe deeply. The recognisable spirit and atmosphere was there, and the modular wall mounted suspension panels (once used for displaying electrical goods) made for a tolerable exhibition space. Two silent and non-functioning escalators sat in the middle of the building, leading up and down to dark unknown voids.

There was something particularly poignant about the display of student work in a derelict department store. Every year Sheffield (and most of the other forty or so schools of architecture in Britain) churns out about fifty final stage graduates in architecture. Nascent careers that are already counter-weighted by five years of student debt (now often unsecured as well as secured) begin as blurry eyed students enter the real world to find a job.


I was not the only person present to notice this old notice about the doors to the street. Thank you for buying your architectural education from us. Good luck out there, and remember that you generally only get paid when provide something in exchange that the market is prepared to pay for.

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AJ: Glasgow Lighthouse to go into administration

Am I surprised? No. Am I saddened? Yes. I understand that 57 people are employed by Glasgow’s architecture centre.

Source: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/the-lighthouse-to-go-into-administration/5207164.article?referrer=RSS

The Lighthouse to go into administration

25 August, 2009 | By Andrea Klettner

Scotland’s centre for architecture, the Lighthouse, is set to go into administration

The news, which has been blamed on a lack of income from commercial activities, follows a board meeting last night.

In a statement released to the AJ chairman of the board of trustees-Eleanor MacAllister OBE said: ‘It has been a heartbreaking decision for me and the board to bring in administrators to the Lighthouse Trust.

‘We know the devastating effect this will have on our staff and on the partners working with us on our projects. We have done everything possible to avoid this, but the options before us were very limited in the current economic downtown.

‘Last year we put in place, with additional support from our main funders the City Council and the Scottish Government, a crisis package to secure our immediate future to enable us to continue our education and exhibition programmes at the Lighthouse.

‘Unfortunately that new package was very dependent on maintaining the income generated from our commercial activities. The Lighthouse business model has always required commercial income to subsidise its extensive programme.’


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RIBA: unemployed architects should try their luck on building sites

I have a theory that the majority of people are born liberal and become more and more conservative as they get older. A kind of transition from reading The Independent to The Daily Mail, if you will, which takes place over the course of about forty years.

I’m not far along that potential line of conservatisation, but it’s true I’ve made one step towards the Mail by switching from the Indy to the Guardian. And likewise, as I grow older, I am certainly becoming more liable to angry outbursts. For such an outburst, see my comment (if it hasn’t been deleted) on this unbelievable comment piece by RIBA president-elect Ruth Reed.

Although to be honest, she had it coming.

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RIBA launches scheme to pair unemployed graduates with spare desks

During a seminar hosted by the Academy of Urbanism in Dublin a few months ago, I heard of a proposal from Irish architecture academics to help architecture graduates facing a bleak job market. With little work available, and an increasing amount of unoccupied desk space in the offices of architecture practices, the proposal was to pair unemployed students and graduates with firms so that they could use spare desks and work around architects on their own portfolios, competition entries etc.

I thuoght it was a good idea, although when I proposed it to a practising architect he reminded me of the various insurance and legal obligations, not to mention the risks in allowing a portfolio-printing graduate near the stationery cupboard. However, I still support the idea in principle. And so, it seems, does the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). This just in, details from the latest ‘RIBA Focus’ e-bulletin, announcing a British version of that proposal, this time with a trendy name that conflates two words in the modern style…

HostPractice Scheme

The RIBA has launched a scheme to help students and graduates who are unable to find suitable work placements in the current economic climate. The “HostPractice” scheme enables RIBA student members and graduates to gain access to an online network of practices and universities interested in hosting students in their offices. These students will have the opportunity to use the practice’s facilities to work on competition entries, private commissions and research, as well as being offered an overview of practice activities.

The scheme also intends to introduce graduates to universities that have identified suitable research projects related to the practice of architecture, with the potential for offering fellowships to suitable candidates. This research may be eligible for recording on the PEDR as post part 1 practical experience.

The database and online application service can be found at http://www.architecture.com. Practices and universities can register their interest in the scheme by emailing online.services@inst.riba.org

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BD: Is this the worst year to be an architecture graduate?

From Friday’s Building Design (BD). As ever, the online comments make a subscription to the newspaper itself much less interesting.

Is this the worst year to be an architecture graduate?
12 June 2009

No, says Peter Murray, previous recessions have proved highly creative for architecture – a view which Jeremy Till considers elitist and not taking into account the far higher levels of student debt…


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AJ: Students ready to work for free

A troubling set of results from a survey by the British  Architects Journal has revealed the nervousness of UK architecture students approaching the end of the 2008/2009 academic year and an undeniably difficult job market.

Students ready to work for free
Source: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/students-ready-to-work-for-free/5202333.article
‘Desperate’ students unable to gain a placement turn to unpaid work
21 May, 2009 | By Richard Waite

Almost half of architecture students looking for work experience in their year out would be willing to work for free, according to the AJ’s State of Architectural Education survey.

With almost two-thirds of students still unable to find suitable work experience (see pages 8-11), the AJ’s online study of more than 400 students revealed that 46 per cent of those seeking placements would not demand payment. Over 70 per cent said they would try to find paid work elsewhere to subsidise their architectural experience.

Jessica Noel, a third-year student at Strathclyde University, said an ‘air of desperation’ was forcing aspiring architects to offer themselves for nothing.

Noel said: ‘Some students feel desperate after finding that the university is unlikely to take on students into fourth year if they are unable to gain a work placement. Others are willing to work for free because they want to get through the system as quickly and painlessly as possible.’

But the RIBA said the trend was ‘potentially damaging’, both for graduates and for the profession. David Gloster, the RIBA’s head of education, said: ‘Although unpaid work can have value as experience, it is essentially exploitative if the relationship becomes protracted.’

Stuart Piercy of Piercy Conner Architects agreed: ‘I am fund­amentally against working for nothing. It is clearly a very privileged position for the lucky few whose parents can afford it, devalues what we do and sends the wrong messages to our clients.’

But Lorenzo Dwyer, a sixth-year student at Sheffield University, defended the decision by some students to work for free.

He said: ‘Non-paid employment is one of the few real options now remaining for out-of-work student architects. Free work is a strategic, long-term move to secure future paid employment and advance one’s architectural know-how.’

Of particular interest are the comments being posted by readers on the AJ’s online pages. The overwhelming majority disagree with the position taken by the second student quoted in the article (full disclosure: I graduated from Sheffield last year) and I am also very suspicous of any architecture student or architect who choose to enter into a contract of unpaid employment. At what point does an unpaid architectural intern become worthy of being paid? And why can’t his desk be occupied by another  Keiran Long, editor of the AJ, makes the case convincingly in his associated leader article:

Should you allow students to work for free in your practice? As a journalist, I can’t claim any moral high ground. People in my profession regularly work for free to get a foot in the door at the beginning of their careers.

We also know that architecture is not generally a high profit business, and especially not now. But there’s one important consideration. The culture of free working that exists in architecture perpetuates the stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated, upper-middle-class profession. If it has proven difficult enough to make the profession more diverse during the boom years, that will only be exacerbated if every practice takes the easy option of free labour.

There will, inevitably, be some architecture students with independent means who will be able to afford to work for free during this recession. There will also, however, be a much larger number of students who we may never see in the profession again. If the last recession in the UK is anything to go by, we are likely to see a generational blip that will be represented in the social make-up of the architectural profession for years to come. A dispersal of architecture graduates in the years 1990 – 1992 into other professions is still reported today in anecdotal evidence of a below-average proportion of practicing architects who are now in their forties. If the bold efforts of architecture schools to re-balance their intake and output to more closely represent Britain’s ethnic and social diversity is undone, the profession as a whole will be much worse off. And as a white, middle class and privately educated man I don’t think that’s an unreasonable suggestion.

As a fundamental principle, I oppose the idea of architecture students working in architectural practices for free. If a practice isn’t capable of employing people, that means that there isn’t the work to be done in the first place. And while almost any practice can keep employees busy with unpaid competition entries, if an architecture student is prepared to be working on them for free for another architect I don’t understand why they wouldn’t consider doing that entry on their own. You may get the luxury of a full equipped office and more practice-experienced colleagues to guide you, but you will be sacrificing the last remaining sparks of independence that a recession can ignite in graduates who are suddenly shocked into considering alternatives to the normative career path.

The architecture profession generally moves with the speed and manoueverability of an ocean liner. The saddest outcome of this recession is not that numerous projects are on indefinite hold, but that we risk perpetuating much that is bad with the profession: unhealthy, unsustainable and sometimes even exploitative working practices that once again favour the wealthy, the middle class and (I think it’s fair to propose) men. And this is on top of a normative practice situation in which architects routinely work unpaid overtime, either because they regard their work as a labour of art or because they aren’t capable of explaining the value of their work to their clients. As one of my supervisors said recently, ‘you don’t haggle with a dentist, so why haggle with an architect?’

To bring this back into the focus of this blog, I should re-assert that I’m studying practices in architectural education that engage students with non-academic situations, contexts and people. An interesting discourse seems to suggest itself from all this about the opportunity for architecture schools to contribute to a broader professional and non-professional awareness of how architects and architecture students practice and what we are capable of doing. Returning to a model of unpaid articuled pupilage does not seem to me to be a positive development.

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BD: Applications for architecture degrees rocket

I wasn’t surprised to read this report, although I can’t help wondering what longer term impact the recession will have on architectural education. I’m more concerned about the numbers of lesser experienced part one or part two graduates now entering a barren jobs market.

BD magazine: Applications for architecture degrees rocket

8 February, 2009

By Anna Winston

The number of students applying to study architecture at undergraduate level has rocketed by almost 2000 in a year despite the onset of the recession.

A snapshot of applications taken by UCAS this month showed 24,126 prospective students have applied to study architecture, up by 6.7% compared to last year.

The rise in applications was given a cautious welcome by the RIBA and heads of schools body Schosa, who warned there could be problems ahead for those choosing to pursue parts two and three.

“This is good news – a little flame in the recession,” Robert Mull, chair of Schosa said.

“Often recessions are very creative times for architectural thought in schools of architecture. A lot of the intellectual spade-work gets done during these periods so it’s not surprising that people wish to return to or start education.”

[my emphasis]

The UCAS statistics also showed that applications to planning degrees have dropped by 18.7% to 2,985 while the number of applications to building degrees dropped 7.6%.

“That needs to be looked at because there’s a desperate need for more planners,” said Paul Davis, chairman of Paul Davis and Partners and former president of the ACA. “Maybe [architecture and planning] could balance their intakes a bit better if they combined.”

Despite the best intentions of those institutions offering dual honours degrees in architecture and planning, a real step change would be required for the two disciplines to ‘combine’.

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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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