In 2019–20, architectural and social design studios with a focus on displacement were organised at universities in Delhi (India), Brighton (UK) and Oslo (Norway) in the context of a collaborative project: Displacement, Placemaking and Wellbeing in the City (DWELL).1 This consortium explores how placemaking among and for displaced and migrant groups happens in cities and the outcomes of such processes on their wellbeing. Central to these questions is placemaking, understood as the ability of migrants – individuals and groups – to inhabit and attach meaning to a given location or space.2 Placemaking is complex and relational; it is a continuous, iterative and bottom-up process. At the same time, placemaking is conceptualised as the design-driven development of inviting and inclusive urban spaces within urban design and architecture. Architects, planning agencies and property developers work to improve the attractivity and liveability of socially challenged and often migrant-dominated urban districts based on local cultural and physical contextual features.3
Displacement impedes individual wellbeing and developing a relationship with a place and the local community. Further, migration represents an urban dynamic that challenges conventional architectural assumptions of stable relationships to place. Arriving and transitory populations, and their relation to a given location and community, present a perpetual challenge for policymakers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and city managers. The relationship between spontaneous bottom-up placemaking and planned top-down expert-driven placemaking is contentious and seemingly oppositional. This tension was explored in the three studios as students studied and challenged apparent contradictions, including displacement versus home, transition versus stability and wellbeing versus marginalisation. Thus, they examined how mobility and migration influence how we shape our cities and how the design of social infrastructure and new sustainable ways of living can help to create diverse, tolerant and inclusive neighbourhoods. The welfare of displaced peoples and migrants, and their possibility for placemaking, was central to students’ design investigations and solutions.
Place and urban locations rarely receive attention in social science studies of displaced populations, and architectural and urban planning research has often overlooked migrant groups as non-locals with negligible place attachment.4 Within architecture, migration and placemaking represent distinct and mostly unconnected theoretical discourses and practices. Social scientists working with displacement joined students and teachers in the studios to explore community engagement methodology and reflective analysis of design processes and outcomes. This not only unfolded in different ways, but also allowed for simultaneous explorations of complementary conceptions and processes of placemaking, one pertaining to studies of everyday individual and community practices and perceptions, and another relating to the design-based place investigations and interventions in the studios. While social scientists study everyday placemaking practices, the architecture, urban design and social design studios emulate architectural practice. Accordingly, the studios first analysed place through various discipline-specific or hybrid mapping approaches and subsequently suggested placemaking interventions. Furthermore, students’ engagement with communities and individuals during and after the studios also entailed a placemaking dimension of its own.
In dominant forms of studio-based architectural education, briefs provided by teachers form the basis for individual project development, where students learn to perform within given limitations, thus acquiring generalised knowledge about spatial design. Within architecture, placemaking practices are not new, but they have remained relatively marginal.5 In education, however, placemaking is a concept that can help students to engage with communities and individuals and focus on negotiating concerns and interests rather than on the resulting design objects. Learning to understand place relationally can prompt students to challenge and venture beyond strict disciplinary knowledge boundaries. Thus, placemaking focuses students’ attention on non-traditional clients and challenges (residual modernist) epistemological assumptions within the field of architecture. Placemaking helps students acknowledge the limits of the primacy of expert knowledge and grapple with post-modern notions of embedded, subjective and local knowledge.
The studios’ fieldwork provide examples of ways in which educational practices within architecture and related fields adopt sociocultural learning approaches – that is, learning through social interaction and framing learning as a shared exercise in knowledge building. As architect and planning researcher Ian Banerjee observes, this also means that ‘educational institutions are moving away from their insular existence towards stronger embeddedness in the social and urban context’.6 Extending this embeddedness to architectural and design education, such a shift replaces classroom pedagogy with an urban pedagogy where the dynamics and complexity of the city become central to continued discovery-based learning and socio-spatial literacies.
This article examines dimensions of this pedagogical shift in the DWELL studios. It discusses the integration of social science perspectives and theoretical frameworks into the studios’ collective and individual design processes. This exploration is formatted as an examination of how community studies, architectural proposals, prototypes and future constructions articulate bottom-up and top-down placemaking perspectives across the three studios. The pedagogical design process and output were documented in studio booklets with critical reflections from studio teachers and social scientist partners. The interacting placemaking dimensions of the studios were recorded through a shared protocol, and an ensuing online roundtable elicited further reflections on the multiple and interacting modes of placemaking in the students’ work.
Designing the social
The School of Design at Ambedkar University Delhi is one of few design schools situated within a social sciences and humanities university. It does not have a traditional architecture programme. Founded in 2013, the School foregrounds an alternative approach to design and currently offers a Master’s degree in design (M.Des – Social Design). This two-year, full-time, practice-based programme focuses on the role and application of participatory and collaborative design methods along with social science methods to create more accessible, inclusive and sustainable public services and systems. The pedagogic approach adopted in the School includes taught courses and studio-based learning with fieldwork. The programme encompasses two vertical tracks (critical theory and social design studio), complementing each other along with School and university electives. There is significant emphasis on the design process with specific inputs on participatory learning and action (PLA), service and systems design, and critical engagement on issues of intersectionality, democracy and ecology.
The students in the social design studio come from varied disciplinary backgrounds with minimal exposure to fieldwork and little prior experience of working in design studios. The studio format offers them an opportunity for significant peer-to-peer learning as they rigorously engage on site for a considerable time, leaving only the final couple of weeks for design interventions and prototyping. Design anthropologists Jonathan Ventura and Jo-Anne Bichard propose that in social design, the designer is a ‘social agent’.7 Stakeholder mapping and iterative co-design processes are central components in process and service design, and the implementation and uptake of solutions are sustainable success criteria (Figure 1).8
In the context of the DWELL project, the social design studio focused on placemaking through co-design in the everyday life and public community spaces of an informal settlement of migrant workers in the Jai Hindi camp in South Delhi. The students did not adopt a traditional architectural stance, but they became facilitators for sustainable social interventions with physical and social design components. Design briefs were articulated through an iterative process with significant input from the concerned groups (for example, girls and their parents). The students’ projects introduced new services relating to issues such as education, health and employment, and each student sought to implement their designs in everyday community practices. For instance, an innovative urban farming proposal was based on an existing activity reflecting the rural agricultural life that many residents had experienced before arriving in Delhi. Students also proposed and developed projects such as planting schemes, a functional jobs board, new waste and composting solutions, and spaces and amenities for women. The projects were all prototyped on site, and the new services and physical products that students proposed and produced were presented at an on-site exhibition and community meeting in December 2019. In the studio, ‘handover strategies’ ensured community participation in co-producing knowledge and design interventions. Despite the constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, some students and teachers maintained contact with stakeholder groups to follow up on their projects and support the community during the lockdown in 2020.
Over 16 weeks, students, on average, visited the site 24 times. Site visits and community interactions prompted students to become agile in understanding the context, while also challenging some of their preconceived notions as they encountered new territories. Being exposed to multiple dimensions of the city and working with diverse groups made them more aware of their social privileges and led them to critically question their position and role as designers. It further helped them uncover deeply embedded social and political hierarchies and the possibility of engaging with theoretical frameworks on the ground. Being outsiders and not speaking Bengali (the community’s language), students had to contend with class and sociocultural divides between themselves and low-income locals across the studio’s mapping, design and implementation phases. Instructors with a social science background worked to sensitise students on how to interact with people and their location through sessions on epistemologies of research, ethnography and tools of ‘reflexivity’ to check issues of power, perception bias and reliability of their research and subsequent interventions.
Students tended to focus on interventions and prototypes in the studio, and differences between actors with varying levels of agency and the collaborative processes were not well documented. A considerable amount of time was spent on problem identification, resulting in rapid solutions within the studio, which contrasted discursive social science research that seeks to unpack contestations through careful and in-depth informant engagement. While innovative, the co-design and intervention imperative of the design studio framework (from the social scientist’s perspective) led the students to sometimes ‘reinvent’ solutions that could have been more conscientiously modelled on existing programmes in fields such as education, where curriculum developed by organisations in different languages and for other age groups are already available and need not be re-created.
The studio’s engagement with the local community is in line with veteran international development expert Nabeel Hamdi’s placemaking in poor urban areas through specific actions rather than overall, top-down planning.9 Hamdi proposes that policy should be derived from successful local interventions. He argues that systemic blockages to development in deprived and vulnerable urban districts can be overcome incrementally by developing examples and prototypes that promote local engagement. According to Hamdi, the role of architects and other experts changes in placemaking processes from ‘lead agent to catalyst, from disciplinary work to interdisciplinary work, from producing plans to cultivating opportunity’.10 However, far from being an uncontested linear innovation through extensive mapping and amenable co-authorship, community change is often contentious.
Histories, values, hopes and aims
The Global Free Unit within the University of Brighton’s programme in architecture supports students engaging in real-world design and construction of architecture. A type of architectural learning approach, design/build studios were pioneered by Charles Moore’s socially committed Yale Building Project in the 1960s and, more recently, the Rural Studio based in rural Alabama. This pedagogical approach allows students to learn from user consultation to design and experience construction sites first hand.11 Design/build units often draw on students’ engagement and idealism while they still emulate professional roles and obligations by formalising deliveries and commitments. Studios often engage with non-profit organisations and focus on environmental, humanitarian and political concerns. In many cases, project realisation relies on grants, donations, material recycling and a volunteer workforce.
Attracting an international group of students, the Global Free Unit has worked in refugee management situations in southern Europe under the leadership of Robert Mull and others. In recent years, several individual professional practices based on self-initiated projects have emerged from students’ work within the unit. Concerning the theme of the DWELL project, the Global Free Unit workshop worked closely with a charity that supports young refugees in Kent, the entry point for most asylum seekers arriving in the United Kingdom.12 In the studio, students liaised directly with the young refugees and proposed interventions at the current temporary facility of the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) in Folkestone, with the intention to realise built architectural projects. The input to the studio from social scientists from the Institute of Development Studies and the University of Sussex addressed the local situation’s urgency and the contentious public discourses about refugees and integration. Educators spurred students to engage empathically with the young refugees (referred to as friends) rather than replicating the culture of expert aloofness often found in architectural practice and exacerbated by traditional educational design studios’ isolation from real-life clients and communities. Students connected their design actions to their personal histories, ethical beliefs and values. Thus, in the studio, the personal experience of overseas students arriving in the UK created a bridge to young unaccompanied refugees’ migration. A symbolic gift from the individual student’s design process to the refugees and the organisation supported this relationship. Furthermore, a contractual arrangement supplemented the interpersonal relationship and highlighted the students’ ethical responsibility to their clients. As their concluding thesis project, students proceeded to design projects for the KRAN facility (Figure 2).
The Global Free Unit studio format emulated professional architectural practice, brought students out of classroom detachment and forced them towards real-world engagement. According to studio professors, the intention was to transport students from a culture of architectural education that is too often based on self-interest and competition towards a collaborative and mature process that would be the first step towards future ethical professional practice. This includes reducing the sense of individual project authorship that is deeply engrained in architectural culture. Engaging the students’ personal experiences and values and transgressing the traditional studio format was central. In reality, students found the university’s codified expectations of formal deliverables challenging to negotiate. For this reason, such expectations reflect the performance norms and control of individual learning of skills and reproducible knowledge found in the university’s architectural programme. This included conflicts between individual and collective authorship of projects, between emphasising design process and the architectural object, and between architecture set in a framework of capital investment and community-oriented low-cost self-build projects. Beyond tensions with the university’s educational formalities, the studio also exposed tensions between the pragmatic and immediate desires of the local refugee organisation and students’ dispositions towards architectural design innovation. Thus, some students pursued personal design explorations and not all design proposals were immediately understood or recognised as beneficial by the organisation and the refugees.
Restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic compromised students’ direct engagement with the young refugees beyond the initial stages. These non-traditional clients moved and dispersed during the project period, which made actual co-design challenging. Nevertheless, and despite the rapidly evolving refugee situation and shifting public policies, at the time of writing, three students are positioned to secure funding for project realisation. Working with studio teachers towards procurement and securing financing for project realisation means that they can proceed with their KRAN projects as the mandatory year of professional practice between the undergraduate and postgraduate stages of their architectural education. However, significant uncertainty remains whether actual construction can occur due to questions about the refugee facility’s land lease and future occupancy of their current site.
Arrival city planning and multi-scalar places
At the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), students in the In Transit Studio surveyed and proposed building designs and urban space interventions in the immigrant-dominated housing district of Stovner.13 The studio is organised by the Institute of Urbanism and Landscape (UL) and is open for advanced-level students from across the School (architecture, landscape architecture and design). The architecture programme is a five-and-a-half-year integrated programme, with each semester consisting of 80 per cent studio time and 20 per cent theoretical and elective classes. UL runs a series of studios within and across the architecture and landscape architecture programmes that focus on urban and landscape complexity and societal and ecological systems thinking. The In Transit Studio, organised by Håvard Breivik-Khan and Tone Selmer-Olsen, has over several years explored how mobility and migration shape our cities, and how to design for socially diverse, tolerant and inclusive neighbourhoods. This happens by working in highly charged urban refugee settings in southern Europe in partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council and in residential districts in Oslo, where migration and multi-culturalism are central features. Community co-design and actual project realisation are not the main objective of the studio. The focus is instead on student learning in terms of interactions between small-scale architectural interventions and top-down policy frameworks for placemaking and wellbeing. Sites include both districts in the northern arrival cities that are the endpoints of migrants’ journeys (Oslo) and the extraordinary displacement and urban crisis situations around the Mediterranean. Further, the studio seeks to interface with national and international NGO and government displacement management and contingency planning agencies, using architectural approaches to explore and illustrate urban development challenges and potentials.
In contrast to traditional educational studio models, where students learn to operate within the legal, economic and other formal restrictions of architectural practice, the approach of the In Transit Studio corresponds to a field-based approach that was previously called ‘building the brief’.14 This approach outlines a process of inquiry-based learning, where design projects do not emerge from predefined terms set by studio teachers but are conceived and conceptualised during the term through on-the-ground community engagement and dialogue and a studio culture centred around peer learning with studio teachers acting as co-investigators.
This DWELL studio challenged students to change the urban narrative of fear and inequality associated with low-income housing projects at Stovner into one of hope and opportunity and to explore the potential for social and cultural neighbourhood integration. As a base for project development, students worked as a team and mapped the morphological features of the modernist-era district; they surveyed locals’ perceptions of the area and their desires for future change. Students also discussed development plans with stakeholders and municipal authorities. Individual students’ resulting transformation proposals utilised this shared and well-documented mapping, and each was linked to stakeholders and targeted certain user groups. The collective mapping phase in particular focused the students’ attention on the social potential of under-used spatial assets (vacant and sparsely populated spaces) that could be reappropriated for new meeting places. Presenting their final projects, students tended to narratively convey a linear project development trajectory from the mapping to the proposals rather than highlighting the independent architectural agency of the design actions and proposals. Most students reflected little on their proposals’ placemaking, integration and cultural exchange potential. Nevertheless, some students, either explicitly or implicitly, referenced various frameworks for placemaking, such as Oldenburg’s ‘Third Place’, Doug Saunders criteria for a thriving ‘Arrival City’, as well as the public sphere, as an intersection between social media and urban–public space.15
From a social science perspective, the projects demonstrated how residential areas could offer multiple options for social interaction aside from simply adding to existing activities and meeting points. The projects transformed public urban spaces and privately owned locations – such as the local mall – which illustrated the students’ understanding of communal social space as defined by use and perception. Some students demonstrated learning regarding the relationship between the physical site and the social locality by engaging with social interaction sites beyond the neighbourhood boundaries, reflecting an understanding of the multi-scalar nature of place and placemaking.
At the end of the semester the projects were put on public display at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. The In Transit series of studios interacts with, and proposes policy guidance for, refugee-related actors and local urban planning stakeholders. One example from the Stovner studio is a selection of the students’ mapping and proposals for Stovner that was included in a Community Heritage Statement report that outlined the dynamics of the relationship between community and place, with the purpose of informing ‘current management and care and steer[ing] the development of future planning and conservation initiatives’.16 This community-based work is targeted at the local authorities and contributes to developing community preparedness for future development and heritage plans for the area (Figure 3).
Reflexivity and contestation in architecture
Learning beyond the studio
The three architectural design studios aimed to teach students reflexive engagement with vulnerable people in urban displacement and migration contexts. Learning-wise, these engagements also highlight the social complexities and effects of built interventions in the city. The studios had open-ended briefs that emphasised place and stakeholder mapping. Students produced and shared visually elaborate analytical drawings, diagrams and project proposals with potential use and value for local communities and individuals. For some students, project development and implementation extended beyond the studio timeframe, either through diploma works or voluntary and personal engagement with the local community. This type of learning in the city helped students realise their own agency. The Delhi students, who were not designers, benefitted from entering into the studio format, while the Brighton and Oslo students, who were all designers accultured through previous architectural education, benefitted from venturing beyond the classroom or traditional closed studio format and engaging in fieldwork. Shared among the studios was engagement with the social and spatial complexity of the city as a learning context.17
While the three studios share a focus on displacement, migration and placemaking in the city, they had additional pedagogical and socially engaging agendas. The Delhi studio cultivated a methodological framework to enhance a reflective practice that points beyond traditional architectural design. The Brighton studio challenged the boundaries of the academic setting to promote emerging professionals’ ethical engagement with vulnerable groups. Finally, the Oslo studio contributed to knowledge building on contentious issues of long-term urban displacement, migration and integration towards policy guidance (Figure 4).
Restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that continued interaction with individuals and communities was hampered between 2020 and 2021, and the actual realisation of interventions was more limited than anticipated. Ultimately, the real-life implications of the students’ work in the studios were constrained. The academic framework limited and formed placemaking by adhering to tight studio timeframes and introducing performance evaluation requirements for individual students. Some students directed their efforts to demonstrating skills through design outcomes, while others extended their community intervention beyond the studio timeline. Thus, the studios revealed a tension between a focus on architectural process and social science methodologies, on the one hand, and an emphasis on the architectural quality of designs and resulting community change (improvement), on the other. Accordingly, theoretical reflections over placemaking were often not explicitly articulated by students concerned with the proposed interventions’ innovative and architectural qualities.
Across the studios, it was hard to pinpoint the precise effects of the community interactions and interventions found in the student work in terms of placemaking. The top-down and bottom-up dimensions overlapped and interacted in ways that remain hard to untangle. This entanglement we conceptualise through what geographers Joseph Pierce, Deborah Martin and James Murphy refer to as ‘relational placemaking’, which encompasses both bottom-up and top-down placemaking across multiple geographic scales and site boundaries.18 This conceptualisation helps clarify that placemaking involves contestation and that placemaking processes involving migrants and displaced people are networked when broader geographies are involved in the conceptualisation of place. This conceptualisation also helps explain the challenge students faced in working towards local, sustainable design or architectural proposals while referencing general theoretical frameworks.
Social science in the studio
In architectural studios, students map and analyse ‘place’ and ‘make’ places, while social scientists consider placemaking as a bottom-up process. Social science perspectives were introduced and integrated into the studios in different ways. The Delhi studio explicitly thematised researcher and design reflexivity, the Brighton students were encouraged to act ethically by engaging refugees interpersonally, while the Oslo students hybridised social science and architectural mapping methods and explicitly or implicitly referenced social science-related urban theoretical frameworks in their design work.
A shared protocol allowed studio teachers and social scientist partners to reflect on various dimensions of placemaking. The complexity in placemaking in the studios is mapped across several cross-cutting parameters in Figure 4. The intersecting complexity, including potential and outcomes in stakeholder and site interaction, community effects and learning as outlined in the studio briefs and results of the projects, reflects a relational placemaking framework that combines top-down and bottom-up processes across scales and geographies.
Becoming familiar with architectural and community intervention models is an essential component of field-based studios. All three studios balanced on-site versus preconditioned learning but reflexivity about the role of designers and experts engaging vulnerable groups and individuals varied. The social scientist partners articulated critical views on students’ knowledge and their proposed designs’ effects on placemaking and wellbeing. They also pushed studio professors and students to acknowledge contestation within communities and among stakeholders in the mapping and design work. This acknowledgement has the potential to challenge the interventionist imperative of architecture which, combined with the traditionally distanced expert role of architects, leads to a flattening of universal design responses that potentially fail to account for the multitude of voices, needs and desires in culturally diverse migrant urban districts and sites of displacement.
Reflecting on the role of social science in architectural education, social scientist and architectural theorist Albena Yaneva reminds us that it does not provide immediate interpretive frameworks for architecture, as the latter ‘uses a reservoir of notions, which do not always translate easily into the social’, and cause and effect often cannot be unravelled.19 However, the idiosyncratic practice of architecture that is sometimes regarded as a separate knowledge regime can be open to social analysis through, for instance, anthropological approaches. This is not a question of clarifying the validity or effect of architectural arguments and epistemologies. Instead, as demonstrated by the studio learning experiences, this practice, like many other fields of real-world engagement, is not a discrete and monolithic structure but one that can be conceptualised as a ‘“thick” mesh of entanglements’ with economics, politics and society.20 We suggest that integrating social science perspectives in design educational contexts can help students negotiate contestation in projects and proposals. Perspectives on the contested nature of design and architecture practice in the city can intersect with fieldwork and community-oriented relational placemaking in the studio setting. This will also help students explore and understand the multiple ways in which design and architecture interact in and with the city.
The study of displaced people, migrants and marginal groups provides critical insights into how the city functions and how individuals’ and communities’ wellbeing might improve by enhancing their possibility of making place. Engaging spontaneous community placemaking practices among displaced populations challenges architectural design studios’ traditional focus on expert-driven placemaking for settled groups. In the studios, students balanced the study of placemaking with the desire to improve and design placemaking. Social science input and involvement in the studios allowed for enhanced reflexivity in negotiating such seemingly contrasting approaches and methodologies. This involvement further helped increase awareness of the controversial nature of architectural and social design interventions in the city. The students’ engagement with communities beyond university campuses can be conceptualised through sociocultural learning theories that stipulate learning’s dependence on negotiation and collaboration in social and cultural settings. This, again, supports a learning practice of co-inquiry between educators and students and a broader concern for everyday urban learning towards realising human potential beyond the university. The studios’ organisation impacted significantly on student learning and community outcomes by framing and bounding placemaking in various ways while presenting boundaries for placemaking on which educators and students should learn to reflect critically. Enhancing relational placemaking perspectives in studios would allow for broadened representations of contestation within communities, public discourse, academic framing and architectural design practice as a basis for future studio pedagogy.