Urban Fabrics studio essentials course

Fieldwork notes Montreuil, Ile de France [B. Hausleitner, 2008]

The studio essentials course introduces selected main methods of the Design of the Urban Fabrics graduation studio. In this studio, design and analysis are interwoven, integrating imagination and evidence throughout the process. All design-driven projects put learning from and with the place central. The first week of the essentials will put methods of fieldwork central, reading the past, present and future, concluding with a first diagnosis of the place. The second week will introduce workflows of the Urban Fabrics project, which will result in the first design of your project.

Course description

Intervening in urban territories today means dealing with places of increased complexity. The stratification of the socio-spatial and cultural layers and evolving material layers requires re-reading, de-constructing, reassembling and interpreting to achieve workable transformation strategies. UF graduation projects will, therefore, start with reading the place by different means to understand the specific place with its actual urgencies, potentials, and constraints. Reading a place includes tracing the present materials and processes and the mapping of potentials, an interpretation of what is not there yet. James Corner (1999) introduced this process of tracing and mapping, tracing ‘delineating patterns, but revealing nothing new’ and ‘equalling mapping to what is AND to what is not yet.’ Projections of possible futures are based on these mapping of potentials. (Corner 1999, The Agency of Mapping. Speculation, Critique and Invention)

Each place is composed by specific elements of urban form, related to the local spatial practices. Identifying the elements by de-composing a place through close-reading, builds the base for your project. One way of understanding the local spatial practices is by fieldwork. Fieldwork allows to understand what elements of built form are present with great detail, exceeding the technical layers of big data, it allows an assessment to what urban system the elements belong, what role they can play in transformation and how they are assembled. Different elements come in focus, depending on our interest and the identification of underused spaces allows, informed by trends and challenges, rethinking where urgencies could be dealt with. What if, collective spaces could be spread through neighbourhoods where currently empty corner shops appear? What if, large inner city parking squares could be transformed into neighbourhood parks? What if, densification of neighbourhoods would increase along the central streets? What if, mobility space is reduced and transformed into space for communities or nature? Similar design hypotheses can be generated from observations by fieldwork.

Walking through cities and their streets is getting to know places, their actors, learning about conflicts in space and discovering opportunities and constraints. While fieldwork is core to understanding how spaces are actually used, it also allows to interpret the affordances provided by the built environment. The first week will therefore be focussing on three aspects in fieldwork: 1) past: discovering meaning and narratives – developing urban biographies 2) present: understanding public life by ethnographic methods, and 3) future: identifying opportunities for transformation and (re-) appropriation by describing drosscapes. 

Projections have to deal with concrete urgencies of a place, which can originate locally, but can also be part of global processes, like the climate crisis or changes in economic processes. In any case, projections always have to deal with uncertainties. Uncertainties require a place to be able to adapt or transform to accommodate new and unforeseen needs. Uncertainties require us as designers to think about possible, probable and desirable scenarios of the future. Scenarios allow a scientific use of imagination and frame design experiments to explore alternative futures. The second week of the UF essential will explore 1) scenarios and evidence-informed decision-making and 2) working with reference cases that might offer solutions to similar challenges your project is concerned with.

You can find the more detailed programme and schedule on the bright-space page for Urban Fabrics.