learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

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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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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This weekend, I will be reading:

  • BLACKMORE, R. & McCONNACHIE, J., eds, 2009, Rough Guide Directions: Paris. London: Rough Guides
  • KOSTOF, S., ed, 1977. The Architect : chapters in the history of the profession. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • JENKINS, F., 1961. Architect and Patron. London: Oxford.
  • CARPENTER, W., 1997. Learning by Building : design and construction in architectural education. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

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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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This weekend, I will be reading:

A variety of older hardbacks from the libraries of Glasgow, and finally a paper copy of the inaugural issue of PEAR (the Paper for Emerging Architectural Research). Spot the architecture/train-spotting distraction…
  • JOHNSTON, COLIN & HUME, JOHN R, 1979. Glasgow Stations. 1st edn. Newton Abbot: David & Charles
  • KOLB, D.A., 1984. Experiential learning : experience as the source of learning and development. 1st edn. London: Prentice-Hall.
  • JONES, J.C. and THORNLEY, D.G., eds, 1963. Conference on Design Methods 1st edn. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

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This weekend, I was not reading at all.

Apologies, but my usual habit of posting details on my weekend reading plans came to nought this week. After a few days down south, we headed directly to the Isle of Arran for camping, eating, drinking and inhaling midges. Normal service has now resumed, although my legs are still itchy as hell…

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Position Paper

I’ve uploaded the latest version of my position paper to a dedicated page on the blog (perma-link under ‘About the Project’ in the adjacent column). Like much on this blog, it is work in progress and is liable to change and evolve. However it does come as close as I have been able to elucidate my motivations, interests and aspirations for this project.

Portions of the actual paper describing methodology, outcomes and effects have been left out for now, but may be included as and when they are firmed up.

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This weekend, I will be reading:

From left to right:
  • SIMPSON, D.J., JACKSON, M.J.B. and AYCOCK, J.C., eds, 2005. John Dewey and the Art of Teaching. 1st edn. London: Sage.
  • PAECHTER, C., PREEDY, M., SCOTT, D. and SOLER, J., eds, 2001. Knowledge, Power and Learning. 1st edn. London: P. Chapman in association with Open University.
  • LIFCHEZ, R., ed, 1987. Rethinking architecture : design students and physically disabled people. 1st edn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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This weekend, I will be (trying to stay awake while) reading:

At 55.858º North, the sun rose this morning at 04:48 and won’t set until 21:40, which means that my largely seasonal insomnia has made an unwelcome return. Until a trip to Ikea for some new curtains can be managed, the only solution is a United Airlines eye mask. By mid-afternoon I’m pretty grumpy, but that hasn’t deterred me from a sustained assault on the key texts of Donald Schön, the widely known and highly regarded thinker and researcher on professional practice. Schön identified the design studio of schools of architecture as the apogee of professional learning, a blanket admiration with which I have some issues.

Behind this visit to Schön’s texts is a recent paper in the Journal of the Built Environment (JEBE) by Helena Webster entitlted Architectural Education After Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond (pdf link). Although I’d read a handful of chapters by Schön, it was reading this paper that finally crystalised the wider contextual importance of Schön in relation to architectural education. Feeling rather sheepish that I hadn’t read them, I skidaddled over the library to do some catching up.

Reading Webster’s paper before Schön’s The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (1983), The design studio: An exploration of its traditions and potential (1985) and Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions (1987) means I’m probably resorting to Webster’s critical stance by default rather than approaching the texts neutrally. However, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, because when approaching what some might regard as the ‘sacred’ texts of a theoretical discourse, this kind of approach can be something of a release:

Schön identified a number of key elements in architectural education that together constituted his theories of ‘reflective learning’ and the ‘reflective practitioner’. Central to Schön’s understanding of learning to design were two concepts. Firstly, the necessity for students to engage in studio-based projects that simulated the complexities of real life projects. Secondly, the importance of reflection in the design process that was constituted of: reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action and most critically reflection-on-action that allowed students to observe and re-align their thinking with the ‘expert’ thinking of their tutors. Arguably, Schön’s notions of reflective learning have framed most of the discussions about architectural education to date. This paper will argue, somewhat paradoxically, that Schön was a remarkably unreflective thinker.

So I am swilling about in a big sleep deprived pool of self reflectiveness. More thoughts to follow when I’ve had some time to sleep and ruminate.

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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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