Experimental modes of urban design research: BUDD in Cambodia
By Giovanna Astolfo, on 2 June 2015
The BUDD Fieldtrip engages with urban challenges in informal settlements in Cambodia by experimenting a different mode of design research. A mode that is embedded, relational, and therefore also active, reflexive and certainly collective. Embedded refers to the learning and knowledge production which is seen as a process integrally related to the practices and lived experiences of people in specific contexts. The work on the field starts from the understanding of the unique needs, abilities, aspirations, and forms of resistance of urban dwellers. Participants focus on how people shape and reshape space and how their specific forms of life shape and produce the everyday.
As it is an immersion in life, the research is also necessarily relational – recognising that knowledge production and learning are defined within relative positions, and in conversation with existing discourses, social and material processes.
Active refers to a practice that is engaged with material conditions and social and political complexities, while reflexive acknowledges the contexts in which the research is produced and challenges hegemonic outcomes.
It is precisely in the apparent contradiction between active and reflexive that an ongoing balancing act between withdrawing from taking action and engagement takes place. Withdrawing from taking action implies a humble, flexible and reflexive approach against the risk, inherent to design, to get trapped into solution-delivery, and prescriptive and exogenous plans.
What follows is a visual account of the process to which BUDD students are exposed to and contribute to shape during and after the fieldtrip. It makes sense of the word collective, as the essential attribute of the above mentioned design research. The work developed during the fieldtrip is two times collective: in recognising that space is collectively produced by multiple subjectivities and therefore in pursuing the production of knowledge as a common endeavour.
Embedded in the present text there are some students’ notes developed during the fieldtrip and posted in the BUDD blog as part of the reflexive praxis of the course.
In Cambodia BUDD students were divided across three sites, working with Community Architects Network (CAN-Cambodia), CDF (Community Development Fund), GDH (General Department of Housing) representatives and Khmer university students. The fieldwork unfolds similarly in the different sites following a modus operandi that is now consolidated.
During the first days, after being introduced to the community members and leaders and have met local governmental officials, participants indulge in observing, surveying, mapping and interviewing, to grasp an understanding of the context, in its physical and social construction. Collective activities aimed at gathering information, identifying issues and developing proposals follow one another filling a very dense agenda.
They are also aimed at mobilising the community, reinforcing the cohesion when present, and building a relation with the materiality of the living environment. For instance, collective mapping of boundaries, landmarks and households; enumeration; focus groups; participatory exercises – such as the ‘dream house’ and ‘dream community’ exercise; design workshops as the ‘re-blocking workshop’; and even more playful activities as the ‘talking jacket’ and the ‘participatory massage’.
“Housing is conceived from inside to outside scaled by the households through the scale of the body, its shapes, its dimensions. The house is understood far away from stereotypes repeated as a stamp, seeking an average family or an ideal life standard acquirable as commodity. The exercise challenged concepts repeated and taught in Universities as a mantra: The house is clearly not “a machine for living in”. The body, the people and their social relations are in the centre.
Before the exercise, we were afraid to invite the community to dream a house far from what was possible to achieve by them in the reality. We discussed about the risk of the exercise in the creation of false expectations. However, during the activity, we discovered once again that people knowledge is linked with the reality and experience. The outcomes of the exercise were projects feasible to be built in the future.
Projecting the dream house was an exercise of reality, affordability and hope. The dream house is not a luxury mansion impossible to build, maintain or inhabit. People dream, but with open eyes : small steps, flexible projects, and reality. All the houses, created with individualities, were proposing improvements and new realities. ” (Cristian Robertson De Ferrari, MSc BUDD student, 2014/15)
After the initial observation, survey, mapping and participatory activities, the group of students start working along with community members to jointly envision and materialise a proposal to be presented to the local authority, either at the municipal or district level. It is of crucial importance that the presentation is led by the community. This is in fact a unique opportunity for them to share their story and upgrading aspirations.
“Together with university students, ministry representatives, CAN Community Architect Netwwork, CDF Community Development Fund, we facilitated community to open communication with local authorities. We could have called it an ‘urban forum’, where the community became visible and openly spoke out their proposal to government.
Their agency to act and bring something on the table was important to build trust and recognition as equal partner for government in shaping the environment. Collective agency, then, means everyone who presence in the forum understand their capacity to act, listen, and speak for themselves. Knowledge was produced both about space and positionality. We spoke in different language, but actually our meaning was mutual.” (Sri Suryani, MSc BUDD student, 2014/15)
Proposals, interventions and strategies developed with the community are refined during the last days of the fieldtrip and presented to the vice governor in Phnom Penh. This is a further opportunity to exchange the learning and outcomes; it is also aimed at making visible the presence of such enormous capital in the communities, the ‘people technology’. Capitalising on the site work, back in London, BUDD students share once again their outcomes in a final presentation that concludes the Cambodia fieldtrip project.
Contemporary urban challenges call for a deeper reorientation of design research. The BUDD mode – embedded, collective, relational, active and reflexive – aims to do so. Immersed in the tradition of action learning of the DPU, these pedagogical dimensions foster a constitutive role for urban education in addressing urban exclusion and inequality, and global disparities in the production of knowledge and space.
Giovanna Astolfo is a lecturer on the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the second year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights that previously saw the programme conduct overseas fieldwork in Thailand in 2011-13.