ARCSR Diploma in Architecture 2006-08
Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Liverpool University
Emma Curtin is a registered architect and university teacher. She leads a BA3 design studio and teaches in 1st year, on the MA and MArch programs.
Working at architectural practices in Manchester, Sheffield and London she has built up a wide range of experience across sectors including education, social housing, transport and heritage re-use. With Sheppard Robson she was involved in the redevelopment of the Former Royal Eye Hospital in Manchester and a number of award winning schools. Later at 3D Reid she worked on 1 Angel Square during the construction phase and most recently she was project architect for a number of new social housing schemes in Greater Manchester with Triangle Architects.
Whilst her background is in architectural practice, her current efforts to influence the shape of the built environment are though public campaigns and community led projects, rather than more conventional building-focussed-design. She has an interest in participation and architecture and is chair of The Friends of London Road Fire Station, a community trust working towards the re-use of this listed building in Manchester. This striking listed building in central Manchester has a rich social history but has been undeveloped and left to decay by its owner’s since 1986. After two years of campaigning by the Friends, it seems the situation is starting to change. Library Walk, identified by the 20th Century Society as a unique piece of urban design, was recently closed and built on. Opposition to this development led to a Public Inquiry where Emma acted as an Interested Party; opposing the loss of the Right of Way through this space. More recently Emma has joined the advisory board of Social investor Steinbeck Studio in relation to their Ducie Street Project.
Other projects have included a year long illustration project drawing birds and a new project exploring visual perception of the landscape along the M62 as experienced by coach.
ARCSR Alumni Profile
What does your day to day role involve?
Teaching architecture in studio and lectures and associated course design, strategic planning, scholarship and administration.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Supporting interesting young people to develop and communicate their ideas and introducing them to new ideas and resources.
Did you have to undertake any additional qualifications to get into your chosen career, if yes please describe your route
Qualified and registered as an architect & additional teaching qualification and membership of HEA:
BA Hons University of Sheffield RIBA 1 2004
Post Grad Diploma London Met RIBA 2 2008
Advanced Prof Diploma RIBA NW RIBA 3 2010
Certificate in Professional Studies in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 2019
HEA fellowship 2019
Do you think your ARCSR experience directly assisted you in obtaining your current role and career path?
Yes. In several ways. In some ways I was very unsure of myself at that time and in spite of my inability to make decisions to progress my work and my lack of reading I really felt Maurice had confidence in my thinking which in turn gave me confidence which has been helpful beyond the duration of the course. My ability and inclination to question the status quo and consider who produces the built environment was informed by ARCSR and continues to be influential in my practice and activism. This was relevant in my initial application to work at Liverpool University. The development of this work has been recognised in subsequent promotions. The work of ARCSR has also been influential in my teaching methods which have been commended by external examiners and in student evaluations and formed part of my successful promotion application.
What did you enjoy most about the course?
This is really hard. When I went for my interview I felt like “you just have to let me in - this course was designed for me”, luckily they did and when I was doing it I still felt I’d made exactly the right choice. However I also found the whole thing a struggle. I think I felt overwhelmed most of the time and so did not always enjoy it!
I don’t know that I could have articulated it at the time but I think I most enjoyed the opportunity to consider and explore who produces the built environment and how. This has enabled me to continue challenging assumptions about to think about architecture and the built environment are produced in a variety of contexts and has had a direct influence on my subsequent work in teaching and built environment activism. I also enjoyed working with the friendly and talented people whose minds were open to those different approaches. Not ARCSR but I also absolutely loved the history and theory modules with Helen Mallinson.
What are your professional ambitions?
Short term: to generate some kind of output to share and consolidate the work I’ve been doing for the past few years.
Longer term: To continue working within architecture and education on work related to citizen / community production of the built environment. Perhaps developing the curriculum to more explicitly include knowledge, skills and practice related to community led development and activism. I‘d also like to be directly involved in community led development projects in some way. Some of the projects I’ve done with students could develop in that way but it could equally be without students. I’ve always got my eye out for suitable projects.
Some days I’d like to be head of school or even start my own architecture school but I think I’d find it stressful. I often contemplate whether a PhD would be a good use of my time but so far I’ve always decided against it. People keep suggesting I go into politics again so far I’ve always decided against standing for election. I think the scrutiny and compromise would be too painful but after the formative experience of the 2018 UCU strikes I was beginning to consider if there was an aspect of politics, policy or
campaigning that I would be suited to. It was politics that led me to architecture in the first place. I thought it looked like politics with drawing: My two favourite things. Looking at my politics a-level essays clearing out boxes when I was on strike I have no idea why I never considered just studying politics. It came much more easily to me than architecture ever has. I think I’m still working out what I’m good at and enjoy and how I can best make
good use of my skills and get paid for it.
I like writing and I have things to say. So I would also like that to feature more in my future career. I’ve had some experience of work where working hard and effectively seems to come easily, perhaps because you are working on implementing an important idea and you can clearly see a way forward using your natural skills. Ultimately, I’m looking for work that gives me that feeling and the money I need to support my family and feel secure.
In your opinion, what are the essential skills for you career?
Imagination, ability to mentally visualise 3D spaces places & objects, diplomacy, careful listening and interpretation of other people’s ideas, ability to communicate through writing and drawing, verbal communication, design skills, strategic thinking, analytical thinking, organisation, ability to juggle multiple varied projects.
If you are undertaking research, what sort of research is it?
My role does not currently involve research submitted for the REF.However I am researching several women who studied at Liverpool school of architecture in the 1920s initially trying to map out their lives following their graduation. Mostly they don’t seem to have had conventional architectural careers but it appears they may have still been involved in architecture in some way and they did other interesting things. I have also been involved in built environment activism campaigns e.g. Library Walk, London Road Fire Station. This involves applied research related to specific contexts and policy, focussed on specific campaigns. Longer term this may result in a research project reflecting on this work. There is ongoing pedagogic research related to my work BA3 design studio and working with live clients.
What is your best memory of ARCSR?
Not strictly ARCSR but I loved going to the centre for alternative technology for the experimental building course. Sitting in a garden in an informal settlement in India talking to the women who lived there with an interpreter. Being in the studio on the top floor irritated that we couldn’t use the terrace (in hindsight - a great lesson for architecture students) and enjoying the company of other students thinking and talking but not getting much productive work done.
What advice can you offer to new ARCSR students?
Make a lot of models they help you understand your proposal and refine it. I only learnt this as a teacher. I never understood it as a student. Don’t be afraid of making design decisions. Commit to something then you can develop and improve it. I found very hard at the time and I think I was overwhelmed by the unfamiliar context with so few permanent structures and fears of being an insensitive outsider or something like that. I also wish I’d done more of the reading! I think it would have helped me develop my thinking and communicate better. I think I’m still held back my lack of reading.
And finally, tell us a bit about what you are currently working on at the moment.
Since 2015 I’ve been leading a BA3 studio with 3 colleagues. During this time I’ve been developing my pedagogic approach and refining several learning activities such as “zooming out” where students study a material (it’s architectural and global impact & how it can be used) and then develop a design “in the wrong order” through model making, starting with the detailed design of a “moment” e.g. an entrance in a specific place for a specific brief. Which is later developed into a building design. Other activities relate to developing skills of collaboration and communication where students swap projects for a workshop. These approaches are informed partly by ARCSR. The other important part of this work is the type of project brief. We have often worked with a social enterprise or co-operative for example taking their model and applying it speculatively in a different context or working with their own proposed project brief sharing our ideas. I have been on maternity leave but I intend to continue this in the new academic year and I hope to be able to produce a publication or exhibition in the not too distant future to reflect on what we have learnt in order to share our experience and also to help us continue to develop and improve. I have already mentioned the work looking at the history of women in the Liverpool School of= architecture. I am looking forward to getting back into detective mode to try and work out what these women were up to later in the 20th century.