The City in Theory

Prof. Dr. Tom Avermaete

The ambition of this seminar-course ‘The City in Theory’ is to extensively explore current discourses on (the future of) cities and urban developments, to understand how urban and architectural design is related to urban theory. During the course, a global perspective on thinking, reflecting, practicing and producing the city is developed, critically engaging in the ways cities are narrated, written, and presented. This seminar is intended for students who are looking for more in-depth knowledge after the History and Theory of Architecture IX lecture series: again, the expansion of the city is on the agenda, but in the seminar we take the time to go deeper into some themes: we read and discuss fundamental texts, and students analyse recent interventions in cities, in order to explore in these projects how the topics we discuss become visible and tangible in practice.

Hover Image: View of a street from a car windshield, United States, 1980s–1990s. Photograph by Aldo Rossi. Credit: Aldo Rossi fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). Copyright Fondazione Aldo Rossi, Milan

This seminar investigates the topics of capital investment, public space and fear. Fear has long been one of the powers behind the transformation of cities. It could even be argued that fear is the main reason that cities were built in the first place. After all, living collectively concentrates power and thus makes it possible to resist external threats. Fear thus shaped cities by leading to the erection of walls and fortifications. The story goes that the inhabitants of Rome trusted the army (as the foundation of the Roman empire), and so did not erect walls around their city. The fall of Rome – when the barbarians came and plundered the city – therefore evoked fear: if even Rome could fall, where was safe? Today, different kinds of fear shape the urban landscape: from fear of being robbed in public spaces to fear of road accidents. Fear shapes how roads are designed, how streets are connected, how highways are embedded in the urban fabric, how parks are designed, how neighbourhoods are delineated, how playgrounds are fenced, and how shopping streets are monitored. Also, fear plays a role in a more abstract sense; in the transformation of cities, capital investment is the main resource, and fear plays a part in investment and its inherent risks. Processes of standardisation and other forms of governance are introduced to control projects and secure profits. In this seminar, the students investigate how such processes shape public life and transform public space.

This course took place during the Spring 2019 semester.

Dr. Hans Teerds

This seminar investigates the concept of smart cities with a particular focus on public spaces. The term ‘smart’ in relation to cities has been used since the mid-2000s. Previously, terms like ‘cybercity’, ‘city of bits’, or ‘virtual city’ were used. With the increasing development of the internet and social networks, the term ‘smart’ was introduced to encompass the use of networked infrastructure (internet, transport, energy etc), mainly to increase the efficiency of the city. Now, the concept of smart cities is also taken to embrace the use of ‘big data’ and the Internet of Things, devices that can track and respond to traffic, pedestrian, or energy flows. These developments are presented as the solution to the contemporary challenges faced by urban areas: traffic, pollution, overcrowding, waste, and climate change. In this seminar, we investigate the claimed benefits and the aim of improving efficiency, and also question the costs of these developments, with particular reference to public spaces and public life.

This course took place during the Spring 2020 semester.

Dr. Hans Teerds

The seminar investigates the topics of gentrification and public space. The starting point of the course is on the one hand the globalisation of the term gentrification, while on the other hand the impact of gentrification on the plurality of public space. Ruth Glass (1964) provided her seminal definition of gentrification, which has been seen as a displacement process in which high-status segments of the population displace low-status groups and existing buildings are upgraded or replaced. But gentrification is not only about the ‘housing market’, tenant structure, speculation and development, it is also about the displacement of less affluent citizens from public spaces. Although local politicians and developers strive to create an atmosphere of tolerance and diversity (as urged in economic perspectives), investment in public spaces and public services is often limited to leisure and reducing the possibilities of appropriation.

This course took place during the Spring 2021 semester.

Dr. Fatina Abreek-Zubiedat
Dr. Hans Teerds

In the post-war era, the figure of the “female professional” emerged in the form of architects, politicians, urban designers, journalists, editors, and curators who started to critically engage in discussions on urban design and actively contribute to the design of cities. This seminar intends to follow the work and life of a series of these post-war female professionals, showing how, while operating in different contexts, these women forged the discourses and practices of their generation. By fully acknowledging the contributions of these female protagonists as both a source of inspiration and as designers, this seminar sets out to correct the existing, male-dominated histories and theories of urban design.

During the seminar, we will study the concept of agency – that is, an action or intervention producing a particular effect – of women through their contribution to urban theory and design. Parallel to this, we will explore to what extent ideas on cities have changed in the post-war period because of women’s thinking and actions. Questions we will address in class discussion include, but are not limited to: which different roles did professional women play, and how did they put their agency to work in sharing their ideas? How can we use critical writing to assess the agency of women on the city?

This course is based on weekly, two-hour seminars structured around a series of input sessions on the themes of “agency” and “professional women,” as well as the acquisition of critical writing skills. During the first class, students will be asked to choose one female protagonist (from a pre-selected group) on which to focus their individual research to be carried out over the course of the entire semester. As part of their research, students will actively gather relevant sources in the library that can contribute to the research questions posed above. This semester-long individual research will culminate in a short piece of critical writing to be included in the collaborative online exhibition.

This course took place during the Spring 2022 semester.

Dr. Cathelijne Nuijsink 
Dr. Léa-Catherine Szacka

Gira Sarabhai with Deborah Susan und Haku Shah at NID. PM Dawaldi. 1960 © NID Archives