Bridging the Space between Institutions, Disciplines and Pedagogies
The necessity to connect the designers and architects of tomorrow with the pressing challenges of today was the core motivation of the Bright Cityscapes pedagogical framework: the Atlas of Distances workshop and exhibition. It was the result of a dynamic collaboration and exchange between three diverse institutions, their educators, and their students: The Faculty of Architecture and Urban Studies at the Politehnica University of Timișoara (Romania), Studio Technogeographies at Design Academy, Eindhoven (Netherlands), and Borders & Territories at TU Delft (Netherlands). Here, the educators reflect on the different pedagogical strategies that each institution brought to the collaboration.
Borders & Territories: Architecture as ampersand
Recognising architecture as a binding force that connects divergent aspects, recognises architecture’s ability to create frameworks for action. The Borders & Territories course at TU Delft, Faculty of Architecture, investigates spatial bordering practices in emerging territories. It focuses on the critical relationship between architectural theory, spatial analysis, and architectural design; it balances practice and theory, research and design. Lecturer and researcher Negar Sanaan Bensi outlines the pedagogical principles that Borders & Territories contributed to the Atlas of Distances educational collaboration.
Through the studio work, the course attempts to emphasise the range of possibilities that the profound discipline of architecture still entails. To do this, we embrace uncertainty. Our work is geared towards intensifying rather than eradicating the inherent problems within architecture. Instead of presenting set answers, the emphasis of the course lies in asking students to pose questions, and prompting introspection into the very essence of architecture.
We don’t focus on architecture’s reflective or reflexive character—that is to say the fictive objective in search of a resolution—but on its agency, or its generative and projective potential. This is due to the belief that the true value of architecture is not located in the certainty embedded in its formulated answers, but in the uncertainty implied by its posing of sublime questions.
The concept of the ampersand is a key thematic element and metaphor that informs our pedagogical approach. Through the analogy of the ampersand, architecture can be likened to a binding force that connects divergent aspects. By looking at architecture through this lens, we invite our students to challenge traditional norms and move away from conventional views. Instead, the blending of design theories, scales, and spaces is emphasised.
This approach underscores the inextricable ties between the natural and the constructed while also exploring the possibility of architectural independence where traditional norms are continually redefined and diversified.
A number of pressing challenges and considerations underpin architectural production today. There is, therefore, a need to navigate the intricate landscape of architectural outputs and address the fragmented nature of this multifaceted discipline.
This raises the question of how to construct a coherent architectural research programme in contemporary times, one that confronts the inherent challenges of the discipline. These include the ever-expanding scope of an architect’s tasks; the interplay between theory and design; the rise of research as a distinct facet of architectural production; and the complexities of modern urban environments.
Considerations such as these create a need to strategically utilise tools and techniques that can translate work from research to architectural design itself. This shapes our studio’s methodological approach, influencing both group activities and individual endeavours like PhD researches and Master graduation studio projects.
Four dominant themes structure our work:
- Border Conditions and ‘Spaces of Conflict’: Examining the role of borders amid conflict zones, and understanding migration-related challenges.
- Architecture, Territory, and ‘Infrastructure Things’: Scrutinising the contextual and material foundations of architectural constructs and perceiving them as territorial entities.
- Disciplinary Boundaries and Architectural Adjacencies: A discourse on the defined boundaries of architecture and the potential transgressions beyond those limits.
- Design Operations and Instruments or ‘Modi Operandi’: Speculative and practical research on drawing, and on advanced inventive techniques as the basis for architectural formulation.
These themes are inseparable from the need for pedagogical activism in architectural education, which can serve as a form of action or activation, a method of divergence or a mode of protest. This need challenges both educators and students to step outside of the conventional bounds of their medium, prompting deeper reflections on the condition and purpose of architecture in today’s context.
Borders & Territories poses the question: ‘How can we create a framework for action?’
Or, as Daniel Libeskind once said: ‘Architecture as taught and practised today is but a grammatical fiction… Neither teachers nor students are today encouraged to undertake an adventure—dangerous, risky, perhaps hopeful?—which understands itself as a search for the whence, the whereto, and the why of our architecture’s condition: a quest for the miracle, or at least the abyss which illuminates it.’
Studio Technogeographies: Design as engagement
A consistent methodology based on engagement, positionality, and sensemaking is based on recognising design as a mediation between humans and their environments. The Studio Technogeographies course at Design Academy Eindhoven boldly positions complex global systems at the core of design education, bridging the gap between extraction, transportation, manufacturing, commerce, consumption, and geopolitical forces, both human and non-human. Studio leader and Bright Cityscapes curator Martina Muzi, and studio tutor Roberto Pérez Gayo reflect on the pedagogical principles that Technogeographies contributed to the ‘Atlas of Distances’ educational collaboration.
The name of the studio, ‘technogeographies’, isn’t our invention. It’s a term used in anthropology to describe how environments and human-made industries are mediated by technologies and technological practices. We came across ‘technogeographies’ while looking for a term to foreground and emphasise the relational and mediatory capacities of design, rather than its outcomes or results.
One of the defining principles in Studio Technogeographies is approaching reality as composed of complex and interelated technological systems across multiple scales, spanning from individual bodies to vast systems. This layered approach to technology shapes not only our perspective, but our overall methodology. Every semester, the methodology remains the same, but the studio introduces a new theme, inviting students to apply the methodology to explore varied subjects.
For the studio, activism is about creating conditions for students to experiment and engage with alternate forms of working and collectivity. This includes three approaches:
Design as engagement
The fundamental question we grapple with is: ‘how do we engage?’ What tools, strategies, and perspectives do we adopt to ensure that our engagement becomes an intrinsic part of the research process?
Design is seen not just as a product but as a method of engagement, entailing research and active involvement. The act of researching is inextricable from making, conversing, and collaborating.
In the programme, we stress that research isn’t isolated from making, collecting, or conversing. It’s a continuous process, starting from the initial assignment and realising that the process never ends. This interconnectedness of research, making, experimentation, and dialogue inherently embodies activism as a form of activation.
Positionality in design
This is the exercise of understanding and acknowledging one’s place within a specific context. This can relate to social positions, power dynamics, and technological association, with emphasis on the ethical and political dimensions of such engagements.
Our approach emphasises engaging with specific systems and materials, not just in broad terms but in understanding our particular connection to them. This forces us to consider our position, especially where power imbalances exist. It challenges us to reflect on the ethical and political dimensions of our actions. Furthermore, it begs the question of how we navigate when we’re an integral part of these systems, rather than just external observers.
Sensing and making sense
This approach delves into the aesthetics and material elements of activism, emphasising the importance of experiencing, sensing, and deriving meaning.
This concept is something we’ve been exploring
semester after semester. For example, in this past semester, we emphasised placing experience at the forefront of design. When tackling complex realities, the challenge is to truly understand them without narrowing the gap between our personal experiences and the subjects we wish to connect with.
When we ask our students to immerse themselves in the research, drawing from their lived experiences and perceptions, we challenge traditional boundaries of external research. How do we reconcile these varied ways of knowing without resorting to homogenisation? What does it truly mean to live and embrace difference?
Understanding and valuing diversity is central to our approach, encapsulating the challenge we pose in our students’ work, and our approach to pedagogical activism. As such, the studio promotes both individual and collective learning. While each student is encouraged to develop their own projects and insights, they are also urged to engage in collective discussions and share perspectives.
A recurrent theme in our philosophy is ‘alone we can’t, but in proximity we can’. This emphasises the power of collaboration without sacrificing individuality.
Faculty of Architecture and Urban Studies, UPT: Adopting a studio mindset
How can an established academic faculty adopt a studio mindset to explore new terrain and strategies pedagogically? The Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Politehnica University of Timișoara (UPT) is a cornerstone of the Romanian architectural education landscape. It offers a course that strives to promote a forward-thinking approach, marked by innovative teaching methods and progressive discourse. Here Cristian Blidariu, head of the faculty, reflects on the remarkable challenge and opportunity to experiment with a completely novel educational approach for the university, afforded by the Atlas of Distances collaboration.
Firstly, the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Studies at UPT is not a studio and does not have as finessed a trajectory as our collaborators Borders & Territories, and Technogeographies. However, this was precisely the opportunity that participating in the Atlas of Distances educational programme offered us: the possibility to explore and cultivate an active studio mindset. We embraced this with the intention of bringing about transformative changes in the school’s future educational strategies.
What we tried to do is to create an alternative studio within the Faculty’s regular curriculum, by first opening a call to lecturers who were interested in the themes of Bright Cityscapes. We then invited students from various academic years to participate. This novel approach of amalgamating third, fourth, and fifth-year students not only offered diverse perspectives, but also invited these students to learn through peer-to-peer engagement. The third new approach was to embark on this journey without a clear theme or outcome, but simply by aligning ourselves with the other schools through pedagogies and keywords, and allowing the project to emerge through the journey.
Our students are not international but mostly from Romania. This meant that we needed to consider ‘distance’ on a scale and context that was relatable to them. The studio also still needed to address certain formal teaching objectives. To resolve this, we structured the studio around the geographical scale of the industry in Timișoara. Students navigated the complexities of the city’s geographical and historical context, concentrating on understanding the role of industry in shaping spatial dynamics. The Bright Cityscapes commissioned research by Norbert Petrovici, published in the report ‘Economy in Timișoara: Territorial Distribution of the Economy in the Timișoara Metropolitan Area’, which demonstrates how the city has become an industrial powerhouse in Romania and the broader European region, played a foundational role in the studio.
Students embarked on an exploratory journey, dissecting the transformation of socialist industrial platforms over the years. While vast sections are transitioning into living spaces, others remain firmly rooted in production. There is a tension between these production and residential spaces, a palpable disconnect. By confronting this dissonance head-on, we avoid spiralling into a fuzzy spatial logic that blurs the identity and functionality of this pivotal city sector. The projects address the city’s spatial disconnection, to prevent this loss of clarity and identity in these areas.
Venturing into the interplay between industry and its spatial environments through the studio was pioneering for our architecture school. The projects we facilitated delved deeply into the complexities of distance, scale, and the confluence of production and habitation in urban landscapes.
What our studio undertook was truly exploratory in nature, and it was critical that the students retain their autonomy. They didn’t merely follow a dictated path but instead formed their own teams, setting the stage for an experience where the design process was as much about community as it was about individual creativity.
One team’s project focused on the Continental Plant area, exemplifying our studio’s approach by identifying underutilised spaces, understanding their limitations, and then conceiving sustainable solutions. Nature’s integration with the built environment became a central theme. Notably, their perspective on architecture extended beyond aesthetics to encompass functionality.
The depth of our students’ investigation was admirable. They initiated their design processes by immersing themselves in the site, employing varied observational techniques, from drone surveys to on-foot explorations. This holistic approach was evident when students investigated land ownership and urban regulations, aiming to craft designs rooted in reality.
Beyond the tangible architectural projects that resulted from our method, the studio experience served as a platform for students to learn from each other, fostering a rich environment of shared insights. Their approach to projects, shaped by personal lenses, showcased the power of individual perspectives in collective endeavours.
Within the context of UPT’s work, the studio is testament to how pedagogical activism is about introducing flexibility into an otherwise rigid academic structure, about striving to break boundaries within academia. This constructed a bold new experience for the students.