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Open to ideas

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AHRA Research Student Conference At the Department of Architecture, University of Westminster, on 7 May This one-day conference was the inaugural event of a new organisation - the Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA). The idea behind AHRA is simple: to promote research in the area of architectural humanities in a way unattempted before.

The subject area is deliberately broad and covers a range of sub-disciplines such as architectural history, theory, culture, design and urbanism.The primary 'audience' is made up of those responsible for funding research across the higher education sector, such as HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) - via the infamous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) - the Arts and Humanities Research Board (potentially one of AHRA's main supporters, but currently lacking a clear architectural remit), and other research sponsors and users, including the construction industry itself.

Far from being just another 'talking shop', AHRA clearly has some big fish to fry.Having said that, talking is still important, and that is basically what this first event - organised by Professor Murray Fraser and his team at Westminster - was for.

An open call for papers asked PhD students in architecture to propose 20-minute presentations of a portion of their doctoral research.No one knew what sort of response to expect, so it was a pleasant surprise to get 36 submissions from universities right across the country.

This gave the panel of referees a little extra work to do, but a key aim of AHRA is to set a 'gold standard' in terms of quality.Selection was therefore ruthless, and many good students were not chosen.As this event is planned to be the first of many, hopefully most of those missing out this time will get another chance.Three broad themes helped to focus the discussions: 'subjective experience of space', 'reinterpreting the city', and 'cultural meaning and representation'.

The first set of papers brought out another subtext to the day's proceedings: an attempt to encourage students developing less-conventional models of research, that might start to question the traditional definition of the doctoral thesis.

Both Lilian Chee (Bartlett) and Betty Nigianni (East London) are doing what might be labelled 'psychogeography', using various popular cultural and literary sources to build up a richly layered method of analysis.Hilary Powell (Goldsmiths), from the second group, showed further possibilities of practice-based research; in her case, fine-arts practice in relation to architectural space.

The final group threw up perhaps the most contentious questions, to do with the limitations of the 20-minute paper taken out of context from the PhD project.

Franceso Proto (Nottingham) fell victim to the 'manifesto' tendency, without properly declaring his sources, while Mike Maddens' (De Montfort) perhaps too heavily referenced account of architectural hermeneutics laid a strong foundation for an argument there wasn't actually time to build.

But both Florian Kossak (Edinburgh College of Art) and Jon Goodbun (Westminster) delivered impressively wellstructured papers, the first on architectural exhibitions and the latter on the philosophy of technology.

Introducing the day, Adrian Forty of the Bartlett highlighted the potential of more collaborative models of research, making the comparison with the physical sciences where research is more of a 'management'process: teams of junior researchers producing the data and often also writing it up.

In conclusion, David Dunster struck a more caustic note, ambitiously exhorting listeners to save the architectural profession from the encroachment of the chartered surveyor.

One issue that does fall within AHRA's remit is the problem of academic jargon, although Dunster's claim that ideas can and should always be expressed in accessible everyday language surely wouldn't find much favour in the sciences, particularly where innovative research is concerned.

Overall the event was a success on many levels, not least in getting people talking.Communication within the research community has been notoriously stilted over the years, but now with AHRA this community at last has a voice.

Jonathan Hale is an architect and lecturer at the University of Nottingham.For more details on AHRA, he can be contacted via email at jonathan. hale@ nottingham. ac. uk

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