Co.LAB, the Collaborative Laboratory, is a multifaceted organisation embedded within the School of Architecture & Design at Birmingham City University. We focus on design research, enterprise, employability and practice-led interdisciplinary exploration through collaborative practice as a key working methodology. It acts as a vehicle to directly engage the school, its staff and students to collaborate (Co.) with ‘partners’ across the city on ‘live’ projects within the disciplines of architecture, landscape and urbanism as a laboratory (LAB).
Projects intervene across the city – acting as a laboratory (LAB) to test our ideas against. We explore issues of liveness: the relevancy of the creative arts, and all its disciplinarities, to challenge the limits and crossovers between these disciplines – developing new creative practices in order to explore contemporary issues that affect our urbanised contexts.
Research shows the Birmingham School of Architecture was a pioneer in developing ‘live projects’ as part of the taught curriculum in the 1950’s. Since then, this process has influenced similar organisations in other institutions with a recent resurgence in UK and North American schools. Co.LAB is well placed as part of a legacy of one of the first schools to establish such an innovative teaching-practice model.
We established its name in 2011 with a significant amount of collective experience amongst its staff, starting off as academics setting up various design projects for students to participate in. These were often independent from one another but all shared an intent to offer students with an alternative design process during their studies. After the success of the Hayes Bridge in 2011, our first built project, Co.LAB was formalised as a taught module in the BA (Hons) Architecture and MArch Architecture courses before being set up in its current format.
Since then, all ‘live’ projects were completed under the new Co.LAB banner, bringing together a diverse range of project types and expertise amongst participating staff. The website was developed in late 2012 as a resource for students and to act as ongoing record of all the various projects undertaken. The Collaborative Blog was added in 2013 disseminating best collaborative practices and ongoing research in architectural pedagogy, design exploration and live projects.
Schools of Architecture around the country began establishing ‘live projects’ as a mode of teaching to provide students with an element of real life that is difficult to replicate in a design process that is isolated in a taught studio environment. These are not our competitors. They are like-minded people with a passion to bring a positive contribution to the built environment through architectural design and creativity.
It coincided with a number of other initiatives that brought these bottom-up organisations to prominence in architectural education. These include Jeremy Till and Tatiana Schneider’s Spatial Agency, Live Projects Network, The Compendium of Civic Economy, and more recently the Radical Pedagogies publication.
As this pedagogic approach became popular, its impact started being felt across other aspects of Higher Education. Slowly, over the first five years our projects moved away from typically construction-build opportunities to more exploratory type investigations; we felt a need to reflect back to what academia can offer, rather than just trying to replicate professional practice. In turn, we took Co.LAB towards a design and research initiative – encouraging students to become a part in the innovative research projects university are engaged with.
As the organisation grew, Co.LAB was integrated into the BA (Hons) Landscape Architecture and course in 2015, generating an even wider scope of work towards an urbanism scale. We are also working with the Faculty of Arts, Design & Media, establishing new collaborative links between various creative disciplines – further contributing to the creative culture of the city. The organisation is now being recognised in the architectural and academic sector with features in the Architect’s Journal, ArchDaily and recently presenting our work to the RIBA at the annual Research Matters conference and Local Members Forum.
In 2016, the School of Architecture integrated the product and interior design programmes which will allow for even more crossovers and expand our exploration in interdisciplinary practices. Our new focus will take disciplinary boundaries seriously in an attempt to allow our collaborators to recognise and challenge the full scope of their design disciplines and creating new working methods that combine multiple perspective for innovative and socially-driven design responses.