learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

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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Be Bold and Proceed: live projects at the Birmingham School of Architecture

As promised, here is the text of the a paper I delivered at the 2009 AHRA Postgraduate Research Symposium in Cardiff just before Christmas. This is the first academic paper I have delivered in the course of my PhD studies, and I took the opportunity to tie-up some research I’ve made into the live projects that existed at the Birmingham School of Architecture in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. It’s not a ground-breaking work, but at an introduction to what I believe to be an as-yet unconsidered series of pedagogic experiments in British architectural education.

I’m especially grateful to RM and AM for their input and advice, and to the attentive and responsive Cardiff audience who eased me into the art of reading aloud my work out aloud.

I hope that a fellow presenter here today won’t object to me paraphrasing something he wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1958 Oxford Conference on Architectural Education, that ‘it’s as easy to complain about the state of architectural education today as it is difficult to comprehend quite how awful it was fifty years ago.’1 In 1958 and 1961, two journals – Architecture and Building and Architect and Building News – commissioned the same correspondent, John Smith, to report on the state of the schools of architecture in Britain. In 1958 he found schools ranging “from pucka university departments to correspondence colleges of dubious merit.”2 But in some, Smith found students designing and building real buildings, notably at the Birmingham School of Architecture, where a programme of live projects had seen dozens of buildings constructed to students’ designs. Reporting from a city famed for its manufacturing, Smith found a school with an ethos “to do a little, thoroughly, rather than a lot, superficially.”3 In their second year, Birmingham students constructed bizarre ‘conglomerates’ in the workshops of a nearby technical college: temporary, small-scale indoor structures that were designed to combine as many different domestic details as possible rather that satisfy a client or brief.4 The conglomerates were dismantled after assessment so that their materials could be recycled the following year, but these were a prelude to the live projects: bungalows, terraced houses, small blocks of flats and community halls designed or built by students in the upper years.

We have, in architectural education today, a notion of what a ‘live project’ is and what it may achieve. The term is a primarily British one, but the notion of removing students from the simulated design environment of the studio and transplanting them to the ‘real’ world is well established elsewhere. Dr. Rachel Sara, who has written extensively on contemporary British live projects and whose doctoral thesis examined their pedagogic value from a critically reflective feminist standpoint, has defined a live project as ‘a type of design project that is distinct from a typical studio project in its engagement of real clients or users, in real-time settings. Students are taken out of the studio setting, and repositioned in the ‘real-world’ … the process is more dialogic and inclusive than traditional studio projects, allowing and embracing alternative voices in the studio environment.’5 From an American perspective, William Carpenter, who has written about design/build studios in American schools of architecture, defines a live project as a ‘university course that incorporates actual practice-based methods into an educational environment for clear learning outcomes.’ The engagement of American schools of architecture in design/build studios or Community Design Centres provides a seductive stepping stone between, on the one hand, pedagogically motivated live projects and, on the other the philanthropic community-based design/build projects. The design/build studios of certain American schools of architecture were inspirational models of user-centric collaborative learning to my recent generation of live project students at Sheffield, a school with ten years of recent experience in their delivery. However the contextual specificity of an architectural education that engages students in the real world cannot be replicated somewhere else. Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Alabama depends not just on a density of potential clients living with substandard houses and facilities, but also a county in which students can work without building legislation. With more than a decade of continuous activity from the early fifties to early sixties, I propose that the Birmingham live projects are an under-explored series of experiments in mid-twentieth century architectural education.

As John Musgrove6 and others have noted, most writings on architectural education regard the 1958 Oxford Conference as a turning point in British architectural education. In their comprehensive history of architectural education in Britain, Messrs. Crinson and Lubbock go so far as to describe the conference in militaristic terms, suggesting a conspiratorial attack by the modernisers of architectural education. In the generational overlap between the decline of articled pupillage and the rise of the modern era of an academic education in architecture, it is tempting to interpret construction projects such as those at Birmingham as an artisanal reaction against the recommendations of the 1958 Oxford Conference, which favoured a higher entry qualifications and the concentration of schools in university-level institutions with healthy support for postgraduate research.  But we should remember that the Birmingham live projects were in action seven years before the conference, and that as my research that has found, the head of the school was eager for students both to design real buildings and be in a university.

In the words of John Smith, Douglas Jones, head of the Birmingham School of Architecture from 1947 and 1962, was “to Birmingham as [Charles] Reilly was to Liverpool”. Jones became head of the architecture school in Manchester in 1940, before being appointed to the same position at Birmingham, where he replaced the École des Beaux Arts-trained George Drysdale. We know that he taught at the Architectural Association in the late thirties, and there is tantilising evidence that he ran a live project there in which students designed and built a small cottage, although this has been omitted from any of the histories of the AA l that I have found.

Minutes from the Birmingham school of architecture sub-committee in 1949 indicate that, less than two years after his appointment, Jones was already pressing for the School of Architecture to be affiliated with Birmingham University. Mention is made of the confusion he caused by bypassing his superior, the Principal of the College of Art, in communicating directly with the Ministry of Education on certain matters. These minutes suggest Jones was politely put in his place, but by the following year, informal discussions had begun with the university, and a report was prepared by the school’s chief education officer. It was noted during this process that universities such as Liverpool were already likely to be attracting better students with the opportunity to acquire an honours degree, even though the majority of RIBA recognised schools of architecture were in technical colleges or schools of art. Jones’ ambition in seeking to align the Birmingham school with a university – almost ten years before the Oxford Conference set an academic agenda for schools of architecture – was unprecedented, and while the Birmingham school was to remain aligned with the school of art, suggested a radical aspiration for a teaching of architecture that was both practical and academic.

On Thursday 30 October 1952, representatives of the RIBA Board of Education visited the Birmingham School of Architecture to inspect the facilities, see a sample of the students’ work and to decide whether the school could continue to offer exemption from RIBA examination to graduating students. This process, incidentally, continues to this day, and I participate in it as a student panel member. It is now highly structured, with visits every four years taking two whole days to follow an agreed programme and a rigorous code of conduct. It was not always so, however. Elizabeth Layton, the RIBA’s Education under-secretary from 1962 until 1971, recalled that, prior to her appointment to enact the recommendations of the Oxford Conference, “the visiting board … used to spend one day at a school, no more. It arrived at ten o’clock and had a cup of coffee, and left after it had had a long lunch, at about five” and did not meet any students formally.7 My examination of the school’s documents (which are now held in the archives of the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) suggests that the 1952 validation board was far from neutral in its attitude to Douglas Jones’ experiments. The eleven pages of observations Douglas Jones made to the report (which is itself only ten pages long) note that “five members of the Visiting Board are those officers of the Board of Architectural Education who wrote to me twelve months ago telling me that practical building projects (i.e. “Live Projects”) should not be carried out in the School.”  From personal communication with Douglas Jones before his death in 2003, Crinson and Lubbock have confirmed that Jones had very great support amongst the RIBA Board of Architectural Education for his experiments in education, although it seems that this support was not represented in the panel that visited Birmingham. The board was to recommend continued recognition for the school, making criticisms that are to be expected of a non-university school at the time. Tellingly, the highly unusual live projects were addressed in two distinct appendices: one describing the four projects completed or in progress at the time of the visit, and one offering the board’s critique. That the live projects were not considered as part of the overall report suggests that they were uneasily integrated with the school’s curriculum, and the board “felt that the general standard of work in the studios fell below what might reasonably be expected of a school with RIBA Final recognition and they think that this might be due in part to over-emphasis on the ‘Live Projects’.” Whereas modern-day live projects have are advocated as a means of introducing user-sensitive consultation and collaboration skills, the board reported “there is too much group work throughout the school. Whilst justification can be found for certain projects being handled in this way, most of the student’s efforts should be directed in solving his own problems.”

The first Birmingham live project was a row of terraced houses in Rednal, near Birmingham. The City Engineer authorised the project to be given to the school, and the city’s Housing Architect provided verbal instructions. Every third year student prepared their own designs, before a jury selected two finalists for further work, although sadly one that is described “of framed construction on stilts, was later abandoned due to high cost.”8 The winning design, by David Radford, was worked up by a group of four students, including the young Geoffrey Darke, later of Darbourne & Darke, before being handed over to Birmingham Corporation for construction. The Visiting Board notes that the contractor treated the scheme as a ‘hospital job’, taking almost two years to finish it. The houses were, however, complete by the time the students entered fifth year, and they still stand to this day. In the following academic year, 1951/2, four groups of third and fourth year students produced sketch designs for a development of flats and bungalows in Fletchamsted. In the absence of a year master, the groups were led by fourth year students with experience of earlier live projects, including Radford. The visiting board considered this “undesirable” for the senior students because of the interruption to their own studies and the “unjustifiably high opinion of their attainments” that it might foster. The Birmingham and Five Counties Architectural Association was also to object to larger projects, ostensibly because they placed a prejudicial burden on the school’s staff but also because they represented substantial competition. An agreement was later reached with the BFCAA to only accept work up to the value of £12,000. Construction firms tendered for the work as they would any other job, and once on site the live projects were overseen by students much in the same role as an architect. This was to lead to noticeable discrepancies of detail design, which the visiting board attributed to the “overstaffing” of an entire year group designing a small project. In their critique:

Only a very small number of students can prepare the drawings for the actual contract purposes and professional responsibilities make it inevitable that the best students only are selected … The students who have to make drawings for their own alternative scheme, which are not to be built, benefit no more than from a normal school programme. They may, however, feel a sense of frustration, as compared with the selected group, and this may result in a lower standard of work on their part.

That is not to say, however, that the board was unsympathetic with the pedagogical intent of the live projects to simulate normal architectural practice in the school.

The Visiting Board think that where ‘Live Projects’ are included in the course they must be genuine representations of everyday practice and be ancillary and not alternative to normal studio design work. Smaller schemes might be chosen to give experience in planning and construction, but they cannot provide a substitute for more broadly based tuition.9

Douglas Jones’ observations to the report confirm a greater aspiration that merely the simulation of practice, explaining that:

There is only one thing that is certain about Architectural Education and that is its complete uncertainty … In this age of architectural chaos, we at Birmingham, have taken (or have tried to take) several educational steps which I hope are forward steps; but all the thought and the effort that we have given to Architectural Education (and at Birmingham during the past few years there has been greater impetus than in any of the other Schools) has been been passed over. This perhaps due to the fact that two views are held on the subject of Architectural Education.

The first of these views is that of the architect who maintains that students on qualifying should make useful assistants and justify their existence by paying their way as soon as they qualify.

If the School concentrated entirely on turning out good assistants for Private Offices they could probably succeed but – and this is the other view – it is the duty of the Schools not only to try to train useful assistants but also to train people who will one day make good architects with vision and initiative.

Nobody has yet discovered whether these two things are entirely compatible.10

Here, in 1953, Douglas Jones has identified the problem that architectural educators continue to grapple with more than fifty years later; namely how architecture may be taught in a university-level context. On the one hand, Jones’ aspiration to align the school with the university confirmed the he saw architectural education as a highly intellectual creative activity, while on the other his development of construction projects emphasised its practical and problem-solving nature. While the learning-through-making approach of the Bauhaus has had an immeasurable influence on schools of architecture around the world, I would suggest that Birmingham developed a subtly different model of ‘live’ architectural education that situated live architectural problem-solving into an academic context.

Subsequent live projects, including a village hall, an ex-servicemen’s club and a number of small housing developments, were to acknowledge the criticisms of the 1953 report and moderate the scale of work undertaken. But to look back at the Birmingham live projects in search of precedents for current collaborative or live projects, it is tempting to simplify a complex series of experiments in architectural education as an pioneering example of a design/build education in architecture. Sara, for instance, summarises that “students were involved in hands-on work, in communicating with clients and each other, in outside locations.”11 While it is true that Birmingham students were introduced to basic building skills through the second year conglomerates, and that third year students produced all the necessary materials for small projects to be built, I would express great caution in assuming that the Birmingham live projects were coherent design/build teaching projects in the sense that we understand them today, and that to do so downplays their importance in a broader history of architectural education. To suggest that they did all of the above is to compress a decade of teaching practice into the life-span of one student, and as was noted by the RIBA visiting board, it was a quite un-collaborative process that was liable to exclude or under-represent weaker students. And while the live projects introduced students to real clients, almost all were local authorities or public bodies. Moreover, students worked just as before – individually and in competition with one another to have their design chosen by a jury of critics for detailed development. It was not until 1959 that we can be sure that students actually worked on-site, and when they did, in a row of terraced houses in Water Orton in a distinctly titled ‘live building project’, they were actually building a design provided by a commercial house-builder, in an early example of architecture students providing cheap if inexperienced labour (although I should emphasise, the houses still appear to be standing).

It is, of course, extremely difficult to critique the teaching practices of a school fifty years later, and many of these observations I’ve made to must be considered in the light of contemporary architectural practice. By 1962, when Douglas Jones left Birmingham for the Bristol school and just as the RIBA Board of Education was beginning to act on the recommendations of the Oxford Conference, it seems that the live project experiment at Birmingham was coming to an end. The second year live project was a refurbishment rather than new-build, and the two fifth year live projects are not believed to have been realised. Denys Hinton, who had many years of live project teaching experience at Birmingham and who was to succeed Douglas Jones as head of the school of architecture, explained:

Theory is unintelligible. We sought for a fuzzing of the boundaries between training and practice. I want to emphasize that we did not want to to be seen as practice; we wanted to integrate this with the learning. For us the maturity of the student was very important. This was not just an academic project and this was not just working on a site …12

In an article in the AJ that year, Anthony Goss, a senior lecturer in the school, introduced an evolution of the desire to bring a sense of realism in the studio, namely a ‘Realistic Project’ for fourth and fifth year students. While affirming that they “in no way take the place of our live projects”13, Goss acknowledged the difficulty with which a continuing search for “realism” in architectural education could be balanced with a sufficient “depth” of study for upper level    students. The realistic projects grouped students with real clients and host architects to provide expertise and criticism, but there was to be no built outcome. The students prepared agreed briefs in their groups before ploughing their own furrows towards separately submitted projects, each designed up to working and detail drawings, with a fully detailed cost plan. Presentation drawings were discouraged. Goss concluded that “the principles underlying the schemes – of realism, deeper study of smaller buildings and a closer link with good offices – deserve wider application in senior years of architectural education.” But realism was not to include construction.

The Birmingham live projects of the nineteen fifties and sixties have emerged in this, my first year of PhD studies into live projects in architectural education, as the first notable example of a British academic architectural education that sought to engage students with a sense of the realism that was seen to have been lost in the transition away from articled pupillage to a Beaux Arts derived education. Through primary documentary evidence, we know that Douglas Jones wanted the Birmingham School of Architecture to be both located in a university and to engage with an unavoidable reality that would nurture sustainable problem-solving skills and creative vision. It is my thesis that these, and many other subsequent live projects are an opportunity to understand a perceived inadequacy or flaw in the teaching of architecture. My research continues, and I am hopeful of locating more primary evidence relating to Douglas Jones and his colleagues at Birmingham in the nineteen-fifties in the coming months.

1. Parnell, S., 2008. Coverage of the 1958 Oxford Conference was harsh and influential. Architects Journal, (17 July), 47.
2. Smith, J. 1958. The Schools. Architecture and Building, (February), 42-69.
3. Smith, J., 1961. Schools of Architecture – 2 – Birmingham. Architect & Building News, (22 February), 257-263.
4. Crinson, M. and Lubbock, J., 1994. Architecture – art or profession. Manchester: Manchester University Press
5. Sara, R., 2006. CEBE Briefng Guide Series, No.8: Live Project Good Practice: A Guide for the Implementation of Live Projects. Plymouth: University of Plymouth.
6. Musgrove, J., 1983. Architectural education : the growth of a discipline. Architectural Education, (1), 105-112.
7. TROMBLEY, S., 1983. The Oxford Conference and after : an interview with Elizabeth Layton. Architectural Education, (1), 89-97.
8. RIBA, 1952. Report of the RIBA Visiting Board upon the School of Architecture, the College of Arts and Crafts, Birmningham. London: RIBA.
9. RIBA, 1952. Ibid.
10. RIBA, 1952. Ibid.
11. Sara, 2004, 132-133
12. Carpenter, W., 2004. Design and construction in architectural education : 1963 – 2003. PhD edn. Birmingham: University of Central England in Birmingham.
13. Goss, A., 1962. Realistic Projects at Birmingham. Architects Journal, (4 April), 727-731

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Why should I research live projects in architectural education?

Next month I’ll be heading through the process known at Queens University as ‘differentiation’. In some other schools it’s called ‘upgrade’ or something vaguely similar, but it is the panel-based interview process whereby my work to date (approximately nine months in) is assessed and permission to continue towards a PhD is either granted or denied.

At this, and at any other juncture when I am asked about my research, a poignant question ought to be asked. Why should I spend three years of my life (and a not insignificant amount of funding) producing research into this field?

As a first step on the path to answering this question fully, I did some calculations, based on the amount of peer-reviewed published literature I could find on architectural education initiatives and projects that might be said to fit the description of those I am studying.

The Journal of Architectural Education is a peer-reviewed journal published four times a year on behalf of the (United States of America) Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Ten years’ editions of the journal – from 53(1), September 1999 to 63(1), October 2009 – were searched for content relating that related to ‘live’ and/or community-based projects that engaged students of architecture with real clients and/or a real project.

Content was initially searched electronically by use of four keywords. These keywords were determined by their frequent appearance in the broader literature I’ve been studying in this first year of my studies.

  • “community” (15 occurences)
  • “community design” (9 occurences)
  • “design build” “design-build” “design/build” (43 occurences)
  • “live project” (2 occurences)

A total of 69 occurrences were found between 1999 and 2009. This included a number of duplicate results, namely articles with two or three of the above keywords. Removing duplicate results, 42 unique articles were found.

The remaining 42 abstracts and articles were then examined to identify those that were non-applicable to this study, and which had been returned through a different interpretation of the keywords. 21 articles were found not to describe projects as sought in the initial parameters, and were elimated. The 21 remaining articles all described initiatives within and outwith schools of architecture that matched the initial parameters.

Of these 21 articles, 19 were authored by participants in project described (academics, students or in some instances both). The remaining 2 were authored by persons not known to be directly involved in the project described.

So, not the whole answer, nor the whole argument. But I believe (and I intend to repeat this rather simplistic assessment of published literature for other key publications in the field of architectural education) that there is justification for a rigorous piece of comparative research (qualitative and quantitative) conducted by someone not directly associated with the projects under investigation.

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Congratulations RM & TB

While my supervisor is out of town on other business, I will ignore her modesty and draw your attention to this news item:

Entrepreneurs win prize for best local innovation
By Symon Ross Monday
Belfast Telegraph, 28 September 2009

Two female entrepreneurs have cemented their place among the leading innovative businesses in Northern Ireland by taking home the top prize in the Northern Ireland Science Park’s competition to find the province’s “next big thing”.

Tactility Factory, founded by Ruth Morrow and Trish Belford, edged out nine rival competitors to win the NISP CONNECT £25k Award.

They took home a £10,000 cheque for their patented technology designed to combine textile design with hard building materials such as concrete.

The concept is expected to have implications for building construction and received credit from the judges for combining Northern Ireland’s textiles heritage with building product design.

Trish Belford said: “Competing for this award benefited our business thinking and has given us great insight into the potential of our business on a global scale.

“This award has greatly boosted our prospects to commercialise our product and go to market. In addition to this, the icing on the cake is receiving a significant financial prize which will provide vital capital at this time enabling us to take advantage of the opportunities that are now presenting themselves.”

Steve Orr, director of NISP Connect, said the awards had uncovered local talent with innovative ideas and inspiring ambitions.

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Aerial surveillance: Britain’s first live project?


Regular readers will know that I am not to be fooled by schools of architecture claiming that they invented live projects in the last decade. It seems, from my research, that the Birmingham School of Architecture was the first, in or around 1950. Perusing the RIBA Library while in London last week (and even splashing out on the ferociously expensive and frankly average quality photocopiers therein) I dug out more articles documenting the buildings designed and built by students at that time.

One of the earliest such student projects was this modest terrace of six houses in Rednal, completed in 1951. The Architects Journal, Architecture & Building News and The Builder (above) all reported on the project. From the latter:

This terrace of four houses which has just been completed at Rednal, near the Austin Works in Birmingham, is believed to be the first to have been designed and carried through by students of a school of architecture. It is hoped to make this type of work an annual third-year event at the Birmingham school. A student, David Radford, was primarily responsible for this scheme together with Geoffrey Darke, Michael Keyte and David Meylan.

The work has been given to the school through the kindness and co-operation of the Birmingham Corporation Housing Committee. (Mr. H. J. Manzoni, chief engineer, and Mr. Davies, chief architect.) The site is situated on the edge of the estate overlooking the Lickey Hills to the south, with a moderate rise from rear to front.


… at Rednal, near the Austin Works in Birmingham … on the edge of the estate overlooking the Lickey Hills to the south …

Did I not mention to you fine readers that I used to be an air cadet? (a Cadet Warrant Officer, no less). That tentative description was more than enough to whet my appetite. And with the power of Multimap’s Ordnance Survey maps and birds-eye aerial photography, there’s enough information to start the hunt for a terrace of four houses, sitting under a shallow single pitch roof with a view over the Lickey Hills.

Nearly 60 years after construction started, graduates of the Birmingham School of Architecture will be delighted to learn that the four houses are still there, and still occupied, albeit with some dodgy plastic windows, and what looks like a complete set of porches retro-fitted under the original in-situ concrete flats.

I still feel a trip to Birmingham coming on…

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Take the express elevator

A certain academic who had more than a small influence on my higher educational upbringing introduced me to the concept of the elevator pitch. He subsequently went on to include it as a means of introducing the themes of his most recent book. We met while I was a student (and he a professor) at my alma mater, a school of architecture that has until very recently necessitated a slow and generally unreliable elevator journey in order to access it. I am not a particularly verbose person, and I suspect that studying architecture in a twenty storey sixties towerblock didn’t help me learn the correct definition of what an elevator pitch should be. During the last fews week I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of academics, practitioners and students interested in architectural education, and frankly I should have seen that opportunity coming as a chance to refine my short, sharp and direct elevator pitch. During the same period, I was also faced with the challenge of presenting the same information in French. That didn’t go well either, although probably because my once semi-fluent spoken French is now eroding, especially whenever I foolishly try to employ the future conditional.

You may have already come across my position paper, written a few months ago as part of the development of this project, and perma-linked under ‘About the Project’ on this page. The current version, last heavily edited in June, still stands, but it’s time to be more concise.

This is a phd about live projects in architectural education.

It’s a start. But I don’t think many people are going to be fooled by a phd ‘about’ something. So it would be better framed as a question.

Why do live projects happen in architectural education?

But wait. What’s a live project?

Fair question. And I suspect it’s one that I end up answering when I have blethered on with unscripted elevator pitches. So, the definition I propose in the Glossary draws from two sources close to current live project practice in architectural education in the UK:

live project – noun 1) “a type of [ design ] studio project which is distinct in its engagement of real clients or users. This external involvement tends to result in students producing something that is of value to the client/user group, which might range from ideas , feasibility reports, or research, to a completed design scheme, a construction or other intervention. The remit of the project is typically worked out in collaboration with the external collaborators, rather than being imposed by the design studio teacher. As a result, the process is more dialogic and inclusive than traditional studio projects. The external focus introduces a contingency to the projects, which makes live project work stand apart from the necessarily more abstract projects of the traditional design studio.” (SARA, R., 2004. Between studio and street : the role of the live project in architectural education, University of Sheffield) 2) [ a design project employed in architectural education ] “with a real client, with a real problem and are done in real time, with a defined end result” (CHILES, PRUE AND HOLDER, ANNA, 2008. The Live Project. Oxford Conference)

Although contemporary live projects in architectural education are limited to only one or two UK universities, I do not propose a study limited solely to these examples. The term ‘live project’ first appeared in British architectural education in the nineteen-fifties, most notably in relation to innovative hands-on building projects of the Birmingham School of Architecture under the directorship of A. Douglas Jones, and this is a school that I will studying more in the weeks and months to come. And while the term ‘live project’ is limited largely to architectural education in Great Britain, the definitions we have seem to describe a great deal of what is better known as outreach or design/build in North American schools of architecture (including, but by no means limited to, the Rural Studio at Auburn and Studio 804 at Kansas). Although I don’t expect to be able to drag the term into common parlance, the compatibility of existing definitions of ‘live projects’ from British architectural education with these practices in North America seems to suggest to me that it is a perfectly suitable term. So, in one sentence to introduce the project:

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which architecture* students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome.

* I don’t mean to suggest that live projects only exist within architectural education. But that is where this project is coming from (quite literally: as an undergraduate and taught postgraduate architecture student, I have participated in live projects) and it is an area of personal interest and tentative expertise. To reflect the great potential for inter-disciplinarity that this style of teaching and my own school offers, perhaps it should be tweaked:

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which built environment students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome.

So that’s the definition. But why the hell am I spending three years studying live projects?

Another good question. So now for the second part of the elevator pitch that begins to acknoweldge what I’ve been doing for the last six months in building a literature review.

Live projects are non-abstracted design projects, in which built environment students are introduced to real clients, users or occupants, with a real outcome. While educators and students themselves have contributed much to the academic debate about their origins, processes and outcomes, we lack a coherent understanding of why they occur, and out of what conditions. Drawing together historic (UK 1950s & 1960s; US 1960s) and contemporary (UK 2000s; US 1990s-2000s) live projects from the UK and the USA, this PhD will ask why have live projects repeatedly occured, what perceived weaknesses or faults are they responding to, and how do their respective contexts shape them.

To be continued…

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Reading: Architecture – art or profession?


In the quiet rainy afternoon I had set aside to prepare a critique of Mark Crinson and Jules Lubbock’s 1994 book Architecture – Art or Profession? we repaired to our favourite Southside Glasgow café for potent coffee and delectable freshly baked scones. My output was low, however, as I foolishly picked up a copy my preferred newspaper the Guardian, and become incensed once more at the nerve of a certain royal who likes to express his opinion about modern architecture rather aggressively. This follows a similar such article relating to another such incident, which subsequently inspired said newspaper to churn out a fairly predictable piece critiquing said royal’s pet project, a badly-built haven of kitsch-dom that was designed without consideration for crime reduction or contemporary living requirements. The architectural press has also picked up on the story. This reponse to this flurry of investigative journalism has been trenchant and opinionated, descending into unfounded statements that generally miss the point. For example: “Prince Charles speaks for most people’s ideas about buildings, towns and cities, and architects can’t stand that.” It’s true that architects can’t stand Charles’ opinion, but not because Charles even has the slimmest clue of what “most people” think. In the beautiful, eloquent and razor-sharp words of one Guardian reader, Prince Charles is “a none too bright, semi-unemployed middle-aged man, who by an accident of birth, has been brought up with the impression that his views actually mean something.” I, however, am more than willing to chip in my £0.69 per year to pay for the Royal Family, and will also gladly pick up the tab for a couple of republicans, but I feel aggrieved that a Royal thinks he can push a largely accountable planning system around to his taste. Architects generally “can’t stand” Charles speaking his mind because architects never get the chance to air their opinions as freely and as widely as he does. And most architects have substantially more qualifications to comment on architecture than 5 O-levels, 2 A-levels and the lowest possible degree classification the University of Cambridge offers short of a fail (that wasn’t even in architecture).

Why the tirade? Architecture – Art or Profession? is a detailed, rigorous and appreciably complete history of architectural education in Great Britain. However, it features a laudatory forward from HRH the Prince of Wales, and the authors benefited from a research grant offered by the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. The nature by which a piece of research is procured and financed should always be considered in relation to its content. [ Please see the comment immediately below this post for an important correction. ] But to clarify, do not confuse the Institute with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment: the first evolved into the latter. The Institute became the Foundation, after it failed in its original mission: to establish a new school of architecture that would educate architects in a purely classical and traditionalist manner. The Institute would have been Britain’s only style-specific school of architecture, and it understandably failed to attract enough students or get exemption from RIBA examinations. That the RIBA should be so opposed to Prince Charles’ opinions on modern architecture is no surprise, but that it should continue to carry its royal charter with such pride is somewhat amusing.

So we have – and I must stress this – an excellent piece of historical research here. There is no book that offers such a detailed and well argued narrative about the history of architectural education in Great Britain However, from the point of view of my study, it frequently descends into a problematic and unhelpful tone that leads to a somewhat conspiratorial interpretation of history. I do not expect to find in such a scholarly work the problematic term ‘Young Turks’ to describe the mid-twentieth-century modernisers of English architectural education.

Crinson & Lubbock divide their history into four chapters, covering the periods 1660-1830, 1834-1938, 1938-1960 and finally from the sixties the early nineties. These timeframes permit an elegant narrative to be constructed, discussing firstly the many routes into architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the early-industrial-era professionalisation of architecture, the post-world-war-two modernisation of architectural education and finally the concept of a Kuhn’s scientific paradigm to explain why one system can replace another so quickly and completely. The book becomes increasingly and unapologetically conspiratorial as it builds towards the third and fourth chapters.

I worked hard not to colour my reading of the book with my own opinionated preconceptions about HRH Prince Charles and any history associated with his viewpoint, but Architecture – Art or Profession left me with a lingering suspicion that Crinson & Lubbock prefer the notion of a pre-Industrial-Revolution architectural profession which may be entered by any number of different routes. Chapter two is entitled ‘The Design of Professionalism and its resistance’, and to my mind is perhaps unfairly forgiving of pupillage, the entirely patchwork system of apprenticeship that saw aspiring architects and their families pay established practitioners for office experience and tutoring. The most famously cited criticism of pupillage as a means to acquire an architect’s training is by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), a damning caricature of lazy apprenticeship. While the faults of pupillage are acknowledged, Crinson & Lubbock are eager to emphasise that this portrayal is only an ‘extreme example’ and that it only served to fuel the ‘scientifically-minded radicalism’ (p.46) that would contribute to the downfall of informal education through pupillage. Likewise later in the book pupillage is defended once more from ‘its myths of neglectful and corrupt practices.’ How Crinson & Lubbock can vouch for such an unregulated system is difficult to conceive.

Of most interest to me is the description of the twentieth century. It was during this period that, under increasing pressure from the RIBA and modernising figures within schools of architecture, that architectural education moved away from being located in the profession to within the universities. This is very much a delayed and arguably tardy reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and the changes in the construction industry that threatened architects’ previously undisputed leadership of the building team. As larger and larger construction firms began to sub-contract various elements of their work, the building designer became less and less important, especially in an industrialised society in which mass production of standardised elements lessened the need for a unique design solution in every instance. Ulrich Pfammatter discussed this reactive nature of British design and engineering with particular reference to the 1851 Great Exhibition, at which Britain’s position at the vanguard of the industrial revolution was suddenly undermined by the discovery of greatly advanced machinery and products from abroad, and which the foundation of an entire generation of regional technical schools. (Pfammatter:2000, pp. 293-296) I agree wholeheartedly with Crinson & Lubbock’s assessment of architecture in Britain as being an extremely weak profession. (p.2)

The twentieth-century process of modernisation is described in mildly militaristic terms, with the ‘modernisers’ forming a ‘coterie’ that ‘hatched’ ideas as part of a long ‘campaign’ to ‘infiltrate’ the RIBA and it’s Board of Education. Crinson & Lubbock admit that they are not content to believe in solely evolutionary changes (p.165) to explain the remarkable shift of the nineteen-fifties and sixties from a system of architectural education that was predominantly influenced by the École des Beaux Arts and historical continuity to one that was favoured a blank-canvas approach to teaching design. Chapter four describes their interpretation of Kuhn’s theory of pardigmatic change, which they cite as an explanation for the total manner in which ‘modern’ architectural education replaced the largely Beaux Arts inspired system that preceded it.

The modest but highly influential 1958 Oxford Conference on architectural education is – wisely – debunked as a clean turning point between chaotic and inconsistent routes into the profession and a modern university-centric system. But again and again I was frustrated by a language that sought to view this key period through a conspiratorial veil, referring repeatedly and disdainfully to the conference organisers as a ‘coterie.’ Traditionalists did indeed view it as a ‘rigged’ conference, with only fifty-three invited speakers and a programme that carefully focussed on modernising issues. But why did advocates of Britain’s classicist and traditional (École des Beaux Arts derived) architectural education not protest or respond? I read Architecture – Art or Profession? with the sinking feeling that Crinson & Lubbock are reluctant to admit that before the changes recommended by the 1958 conference, and the gradual shift of architecture courses into universities that were monitored by the ever powerful RIBA, that British architectural education was inconsistent, exploitative and generally of poor quality. Pupillage and Beaux Arts teaching died out so cleanly because it was a staid system of learning-by-copying, that allowed no room for reflection on process and practice. There was, I believe, no adequate response to the 1958 conference from traditionalists because they genuinely had no convincing alternative to offer. At both the 1924 International Conference and in the 1946 RIBA Report, the aspiration was voiced for architecture to be taught within the university context, thereby conferring the profession with a status equal or similar to that of law or medicine. A key matter for exploration in my study of architectural education is understanding why this happened, and to an extent whether architecture continues to suit the university setting. Crinson & Lubbock’s book is, unfortunately, suspicious of research in the context of architectural education. I would like to believe that the authors were simply dissatisfied with the ‘modernisers’ concept of research, but the tone of the book unfortunately suggests that they simply regard all research in architectural education as a waste of time. For example:

At this point it is worth broadly signalling the consequences for British architecture of this emphasis on a particular, and apparently innocuous, notion of research. It was not, of course, an idea limited to postgraduate work, but permeated the ideology of modernist architectural education … This necessitated the recruitment of specialists who could teach a range of non-architectural subjects as a grounding for future research. This in turn had the effect of limiting the time spent on design as well as on professional, drawing and building skills in favour of an orientation towards new subject areas in the pure and social sciences. Such a conception of research picked up on the Bauhaus notion that all assumptions should be questioned and research as if no satisfactory solutions had been reached previously. This led to that most airily ‘systematic’ of 1960s pursuits, systematic design methodology, in which the inductive methods of science were to be applied actually as methods of design. (pp.142-143)

Heaven forbid that students of architecture might be taught the skills to research and question establish ideas for themselves, and that anyone from outside the profession might have something of value to teach these architects. Sadly being able to associate these notions with the understandably mixed results of the Bauhaus’ Vorkurs teaching means that Crinson & Lubbock construct an anti-academic view of architectural education, regarding the shift to university-level education as a trick played by the modernisers to exert greater control over the content of what was being taught to architects. This distrust of all things modern does have its comic moments though; on page 134 Crinson & Lubbock are quick to point out the symbolism of the RIBA Journal adopting a sans serif typeface as a key moment in the modernisation of the Institute. But Crinson & Lubbock are frankly sloppy in their criticism of the socialising practices of the ‘modern’ architectural education:

Both the avant-garde and the founding fathers shared the premise, enshrined in the Vorkurs, that the fledgling architect needed to be thoroughly laundered of his or her lay culture so as to be able to set themselves throughout their future career against the likes and dislikes of ordinary people, because that had been initiated innto a higher and more creative form of wisdom. (p.174)

This attitude seems blind to undeniable socialisation practices of the architectural education that preceded the modernised Vorkurs or academic vision. Any applicant to an architect (through articuled pupillage) or student of a Beaux Arts derived school was submitted him or herself to an equally overwhelming process of formation and socialisation.

At the time of publication, in the early nineteen-nineties, Crinson & Lubbock seemed deeply concerned by the continuing dominance of the ‘Official System’ (as they name the post 1958 Conference university-based system of architectural education) and bemoan the ‘triumph of a professionalised vision of the architect that was both narrowly focused and extraordinarily powerful.’ (p.38) Britain’s economy was far from health and the government were investigating the possibility of removing the legal protection of the title ‘architect.’ Into this context, Prince Charles’s attempt to found a school of architecture that plugged a ‘hole in the market,’ with a ‘course where those who wished could study what might broadly be termed ‘traditional’ architecture’ (p.6) seems to have been both overly optimistic and simplistic in addressing Crinson & Lubbock’s concerns with modern architectural education. And it is somewhat sad to have this book associated with that attempt and that standpoint. The authors’ critique of the RIBA’s questionable quasi-governmental position as a regulator of practice and entry to the profession is astute and coherent. Likewise their postscript suggestions for the future of architectural education are eminently intelligent. As I continue with my studies, Architecture – Art or Profession will provide an invaluable point of reference for the history of architectural education in Britain. But to do so, I will have to carefully disentangle an excellent history from an often questionable narrative.

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Sunday driving: the Rural Studio, Alabama

I’ve been clicking, double-clicking and scrolling my way through some of the back roads of Hale County, Alabama this weekend, having discovered that the Google Maps car has caught on camera some of the sites and buildings of the Rural Studio, the famous outreach of Auburn University….

A handful of famous projects are visible (that’s Newbern’s fire hall on the left of the view above) although the camera car has stuck mainly to highways and the occasional odd detour down a county road, perhaps when lost or trying to double back. Use this interactive map from American Public Media to plot your own journey.

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Summer show season starts

If you’re interested in seeing the output of Britain’s architecture schools, now is the time to catch the various summer shows on at schools around the country. This week I ticked off two, visiting the University of Nottingham’s Exhibit! 09 and the University of Sheffield’s Summer Exhibition. With free entry, they’re an unmissable opportunity to see inside your local school of architecture, and to clock which ones are proudly parading their investment in CNC-cutters, 3D printers etc…

I hope to catch some more in the coming weeks, including those in Glasgow very shortly.

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I’ve out-Schön myself

schon1 schon3 schon2

A week or so ago I wrote about insomnia and Donald Schön. You’ll be pleased to learn that I’m sleeping much better now, having hung two pairs of curtains to the same curtain pole in our bedroom, and that I’ve also now had time to read through three of Schön’s more important books: The Reflective Practitioner (1983), The Design Studio: An Exploration of its Traditions and Potentials (1985) and Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987). The first and third of these will be familiar to Schön readers the world over, the second perhaps less so. It was a reframe (perhaps read that as ‘rehash’) of his first book with particular reference to architectural education for the Royal Institute of British Architects. You can tell that it was the only one of the three published by an architecture institute by comparing the covers of the three paperbacks above.

Again, as I wrote last weekend, I should state that I’ve been aware of Schön’s contribution to the field of education for some time, but have only recently come to his key texts in their entireties, and have done so following a reading of a politely critical article in the Journal of the Built Environment (JEBE) by Helena Webster entitlted Architectural Education After Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond (pdf link). The first two months of PhD studies have been occupied with a flurry of reading, catching up on some black holes in my reading lists and cross referencing bibliographies to see where else I might end up. While Schön’s books are more than twenty years old, I am beginning to appreciate how they might be seen as sacred cows in their field (to mix metaphors rather pleasingly, as if a sacred cow can chew the cud).

But that is not to say that they are taken without criticism. Webster’s article in JEBE offers a constructive critique that suggests we re-read Schön while remembering his theoretical flaws…

…it could be argued that Schön’s singular focus on design studio learning results in an overly narrow description of architectural learning. Firstly, Schön fails to recognise that there are other cognitive, affective and corporeal dimensions to learning that take place both within the design studio and in other settings (the lecture theatre, the refectory, parties, etc.). Secondly, Schön fails to recognise that students experience architectural education as the sum of its explicit and hidden dimensions and it is this total experience that effects the development of students from novices to professional architects. If architectural education is more complex, both as a structure and as a discipline, than Schön suggests then there is a need to look elsewhere for an explanatory framework. (Webster, 2008, p.66)

Webster is not the only theoretician to question Schön’s viewpoint.

Schön’s approach is so often quoted because it supports the status quo, and since that support comes from an distinguished outsider it gives it a special credence – but in fact a close reading of his description, and in particular the language he deploys, shows just how flawed his analysis is. In his description of a ‘typical’ studio project, he outlines how a studio master (Quist) first sets a problem and then guides the student (Petra) through a series of actions and ways of thinking in order to arrive at a solution. Schön interprets the process as one developing “artistry” and “reflective ways of doing”, but what is really apparent is the power structure of the relationship. Quist’s performance is described as “virtuoso”, but at every stage he exerts his authority over the mystified student, cutting into her explanations, tracing over her drawings and eventually getting her to draw his preferred solution. Whilst Schön interprets this as drawing out the reflective capacity of the student, it is the tutor’s knowledge and his solution that is deemed appropriate; her struggle is patronisingly dismissed (“stutteringly” trying to solve a problem beyond her understanding). It is a classic display of domination, right down to its gendered structure and eventual denouement in the jury. (Till, 2005, p. 167)

The case study Till refers to, a ‘desk crit’ between an architecture tutor and student (renamed Quist and Petra respectively) is called upon by Schön in all three of the books mentioned above. And as Webster points out, it wasn’t even one that he himself had observed, being a transcribed recording of a tutorial made by one of his research students during an MIT study into architectural education during the nineteen seventies. Webster makes a number of critiques about Schön’s methodological approach here, but on a more basic level, I have one question. Why did Schön – such a fervent believer in the pedagogical value of the design studio as means of educating professionals – repeatedly use the same single example to support his argument? How could just one transcribed teacher/student interaction provide such complete evidence for a pedagogical theory?

  • SCHÖN, D., 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.
  • SCHÖN, D.A., 1985. The design studio: an exploration of its traditions and potentials. London: RIBA Publications
  • SCHÖN, D., 1987. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • STEVENS, G., 1998. The favored circle : the social foundations of architectural distinction. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  • TILL, J., 2005. Lost Judgement. In: E. HARDER, ed, EAAE Prize 2003-2005 Writings in architectural education. 1st edn. Copenhagen: EAAE, pp. 164-181.
  • WEBSTER, H., 2008. Architectural Education after Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond. Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 3(2), pp. 63-74.

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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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