City in Theory: Urban Matters and Design

Seminar (052-0850-19)
Organizer: Chair of Prof. Avermaete
Lecturers: Hans Teerds
Time: Friday, 8.00–10.00
Location: HIL C 10.2

Handout: Handout 

Cities are the most common human habitat. While today more than half the global population lives in cities, it is expected that within the next few decades this amount will have increased to two-thirds. Not surprisingly, the development of cities forms the topic of discussion among a wide range of people. Politicians, activists, anthropologists, philosophers, economists, citizens, policy makers have all made explicit statements not only about the development of cities (how to deal with heritage, with nature, with slums) but equally about their functioning (public infrastructure, public spaces, the government of neighborhoods). This discourse, although challenged by the current growth of cities, has a long pedigree in history. Already from the establishment of Greek and Roman city-states, the city has provoked theorists to think and write about its form and functioning, appearance and structure. Throughout history, theorists, artists, writers, and social scientists have reflected on the city and the new societal developments it has engendered – both positive and negative.
Architects and urban planners have also made valuable contributions to these discussions, not only in writings but in projects, proposals, and designs. Due to their ability to read the material, functional, and phenomenological aspects of the city and imagine alternative future scenarios, they have offered perspectives that, consciously or unconsciously, have shaped new urban environments, have adapted to new societal developments, or have offered better alternatives.
The ambition of this seminar-course is to explore current discourses on cities and urban developments, to understand how urban and architectural design is related to theory, and to help students reflect upon their own position regarding architectural interventions in the urban fabric.

During this seminar students will examine a broad range of opinions in the debate on cities, specifically focusing on the role of design and designers’ perspectives. Every semester, this course will select a small number of key topics to be investigated. In the 2019 Spring Semester course the following topics will be discussed:
  • Capital: the influence of capital on the form and functioning of cities.
  • Public Space: the ability of citizens to develop public life.
  • Fear: the uncertain or dangerous aspects of living in dense urban areas.

The course starts with an introduction to urban theory, questioning why is it important for architecture students to actively engage with it. In the succeeding sessions, we will discuss the theoretical and practical implications of the selected topics, each of which will be addressed from three different perspectives. Each cycle will start with an initial exploration of the topic through the writings and projects of designers. In the second lesson of the cycle, we will investigate perspectives as tabled by theorists (social scientists, political theorists, philosophers, and so on). During these meetings, students will discuss the core messages of the selected texts, at the same time as uncovering when, why, and how the particular author chose to investigate the specific topic dealt with. In the final lesson of the cycle, we will discuss actual projects, selected by the participating students, that enable us to grasp/understand the implications of the theoretical discussion in the everyday environment.

Summarized, this course will:
  • Offer students an overview of the most important historical and contemporary contributions to current debates on cities and urban design.
  • Discuss the motivations, purposes, and ideologies behind these particular contributions
  • emphasize the specificity of the “designerly” view in addressing the deficiencies and potentialities of the urban territory.
  • Highlight the relationship between theoretical and “designerly” approaches to the contemporary city.
  • Equip students to reflect upon cities with the help of both theoretical as well as “designerly” perspectives.
  • Make students aware that no urban project is neutral, but is always informed by certain values, assumptions, and expectations; and moreover that each project impacts upon the city and everyday environments, and as such conditions their inhabitants and users.
  • Help students to position themselves within current debates on cities, urban developments, and urban life.

This course consists of nine thematic seminars of two hours each, and one intermezzo (Parity Talks). The first meeting introduces the students to the field of urban theory and its relation to urban and architectural design. Every three weeks thereafter is seen as one cycle, concentrating on a particular topic (capital, public space, fear). Every first week of the cycle the topic in question is approached through a number of specific architectural or urban design perspectives. In the second week, a number of theoretical perspectives are discussed. During these two or three meetings, the students will prepare the discussion by reading a small number of texts (extracts) on the topic, leading to a presentation or a question. Every student has to introduce the main reading once and open and lead the discussion on the specific text, while the other students are asked to prepare questions for the following discussion. The third lesson of each cycle will focus on a particular urban project, selected by the students themselves, which will also frame the final assignment. In this final task, the students will be asked to interpret the project they have selected in a single drawing, and emphasize how, in this project, the discussed topics are made visible and/or addressed.

The seminar will be finalized by handing in a particular drawing and accompanying text. The drawing should present a (designed) intervention in the student’s home town (or Zurich), with a specific focus on the topic of public space and one of the other themes addressed during the seminar course (either “capital” or “fear”). A written text of 750 to 1,000 words accompanies the drawing with an interpretive analysis of the situation the design intervention responds to. The text is a short statement about the current situation and the specificities of the project in relation to the topics addressed. These materials are to be handed in by May 31, 2019 at the latest.
As a collective result of the course, a booklet will be produced in which the texts and drawings are published alongside each other. The booklet introduces the different themes discussed during the seminar and will show how, during the course, a collective knowledge of cities and discourses on cities was developed amongst the participants.

  • Active participation in the course (10% of final grade)
  • Oral presentation of a text during one of the sessions (15% of final grade)
  • Analytical drawing (420 × 420 mm) (50% of final grade)
  • Written explanation (750 to 1,000 words) (25% of final grade)[L]


Hand in final materials: Friday, May 31, 2019