City as Laboratory for Alternative Urban Research and Practice


By William Hunter – an architect, urban designer and Teaching Fellow at University College London’s Bartlett Development Planning Unit where he leads studio modules in urban practice in the developing world, critical case study analysis, and investigative design strategies. 

The current landscape of cities is that of contested processes, interdependencies and relations which are dominated to various degrees by diverse actors with contrasting voices and agendas. These complex relations emerge from historical and material dialectics of the territory, linking diverse activities with the environment in a time-based evolving process, connecting action sequences that may happen simultaneously both locally and globally. To appropriately engage in this arena, a critical re-appraisal is required concerning a new paradigmatic shift in the cultural discipline and practice of Architecture and Urban Design, one that views design as an interpretive and open form of action.

Arguably a re-appraisal of this nature needs to start in education. The notion of sleepless nights spent toiling over the design of a hypothetical museum or even the genuine article of a micro design-build project does little to enliven an understanding of the underlying and surface complexities that run constant in the shaping of the urban realm. As well as in practice, there is necessary movement to re-engage with the ground, the real, as it unfolds in front of us. Pre-dated by learned theory and methodology, the act of research, especially field-based investigation, becomes paramount to the exposure of a reality that offers higher stakes, higher return value and unparalleled informed experience. As Jeremy Till suggests, there are other ways of doing architecture.

In a move to align with any emerging shift in an alternative or renewed critical design practice, the Bartlett’s Development Planning Unit has launched its 2nd annual summerLab series. Drawing on extensive internal resources and established departmental ethos, these workshops are an intended extension of academic and professional pursuits seeking to leverage the reality of the city as a laboratory for developing socially responsive design measures that provoke, stimulate, strategize, and reconsider the role of designers and practitioners in promoting spatial justice.

This type of investigation and action has played out annually through the highly successful extended fieldtrips run as part of the DPU’s MSc courses where student groups are facilitated by local partner universities and organizations and focus on various approaches and contextual challenges such as slum upgrading capacity building and alternative urban housing proposals (Mumbai), pro-poor community mobilization and housing provision strategies (Bangkok), the livelihoods surrounding urban and peri-urban agriculture (Accra, Ghana), and poverty reduction programming and agriculture industrialization (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). In these cases, faculty and students were able actively engage in a transition from classroom methodology to practical hands on research and interpretive design application, gaining valuable insight into the limitations, possibilities and decision making processes involved in various forms and scales of development. In those experiences, the current and realistic nature of critical questioning and knowledge exchange is often found to be an irreplaceable artefact.

In a similar parallel vein, but with a more site/area-based parameter focus, DPU summerLab strives to establish a unique rotating platform for in-situ immersion and experimentation in urban environments where the boundaries of spatial agency are actively tested. Hinging upon critical analysis and spatial knowledge development, the workshops are tailored toward students and emerging professionals in architecture, urban design, planning and just about any discipline in between or beyond these. At once, they offer a vital testing ground for the resolution of spatial interventions with local socio-economic trends alongside embedded political contexts, allowing participants to venture outside of their everyday modus operandi in order to gain further access to design-driven field-based action research.

This summer, alongside local collaborators, we will be immersing interested participants and ourselves in the contradictory landscapes of Bucharest (urban clashes resulting from informal city centre settlements and plans for Europe’s largest Orthodox Cathedral), the suspect facets and spaces of an alternative and multicultural Zurich (crime, drug-trade and prostitution in the Langstrasse, and neighbouring districts), and occupied structures and interstitial territories of Rome (challenges facing Roma and other squatter communities).

Bucharest | Fuzzy Urbanisms | 23 – 28 July (application deadline 11 June)
Zurich | Liminal Contours | 6 – 11 August (application deadline 2 July)
Rome | Occupation City | 10 – 15 September (application deadline 30 July)

For more information on the summerLab series and to apply, click here or contact Anna Schulenburg [email protected]