Report from Viseu conference, 4-9 May 2004

A Synthesis: New Strategies for Education in Architecture and Urbanism

Susan Parham © 2004


Synthesising discussion from three days that included so much interesting and useful dialogue has proved a very difficult task. This conference report attempts to summarise and structure participants’ contributions into a series of themes that it is hoped capture the essence of the main points raised. The conference was important to clarify thinking and will CEU hopes lead to the kinds of improvements in architecture and urbanist education for which we are all striving.

Any omissions, misattributions or other mistakes are my own.

Theme One – Globalisation

Globalisation is a long standing and well established process, as Elizabeth Plater Zyberk and Matthew Hardy pointed out. It would be presumptuous to assume this is purely a 20th and 21st Century phenomenon. As Javier Cenicacelaya and others noted, this is the age of urbanisation with an astonishingly rapid increase in urban populations across Europe. It is thus an especially critical time to work on the shaping of the urban space that is so quickly expanding.

Claudio D’Amato Guerrieri made a very useful contribution in linking architecture to this transforming urban condition. Matthew Hardy and Doug Kelbaugh helped to tease out some of the economic and social implications for urbanisation of greater connectivity among cities, elites and capital while populations sometimes languish; stranded in less mobile circumstances.

INTBAU Secretary Matthew Hardy suggested that chief among concerns about globalisation is the loss of local identity that can result. This loss challenges local economies and social life as well as built form traditions.

Theme Two – The spatial context for learning about architecture and urbanism

A number of speakers referred to aspects of the spatial context for teaching architecture and urbanism, including on the one hand wonderful traditional fabric; and on the other massive urbanisation, “euro-sprawl”, gentrification and the creation of increasingly similar, bland urban landscapes. It was noted that historic centres were at particular risk, as some became “freeze-dried” tourist quarters.

Michael Mehaffy and Matthew Hardy both argued that inescapably these problems were exacerbated if not created by the dominance of modernist ideology in architecture. Although this ideology could have negative effects on urban fabric, Peter Drijver suggested that this is not a uniform story. The effect of modernist architecture and planning in the Netherlands, he pointed out, was a complex mosaic of good and bad outcomes and that was no doubt true elsewhere as well.

Gabrielle Tagliaventi wanted to avoid conflating the modern with modernism. We are, he said, “a bit more modern than yesterday and a bit less modern than tomorrow”.

It was agreed that stylistic concerns should not take pre-eminence when the key questions and focus needs to be on humane urbanism. In addressing these effects, as Matthew Hardy argued, it is important to avoid the approach pursued by many under the UNESCO Venice Charter that artificially separates past from present and distances the historic, in sometimes absurd ways.

Participants were reminded that there were also aspects of the context that were not spatial but important nonetheless. Javier Cenicacelaya spoke of the importance of a media that was insatiable in its appetite for the novel and the new: “the temporary contemporary”. Javier Cenicacelaya noted the implication of what he termed the “mediatic” society that was speeding up things. As Doug Kelbaugh said “we don’t know where we are going, but we are going there fast”.

Theme Three – Relating architecture to this context

The third theme is where architecture fits into this context. Participants raised a number of issues with practice now and thus what might be taught.

Many speakers contributed to a critique of what is wrong with approaches to urban space within contemporary architecture. Claudio D’Amato Guerrieri recognised a damaging separation between art and science as beaux arts and polytechnic traditions in teaching separated. Elizabeth Plater Zyberk noted on the one hand a retreat into theory in which “obfuscation trumps communication” and on the other the notion of the architect as genius whose creativity and originality must not be constrained. As Doug Kelbaugh noted, “Howard Roark is till the most influential architect in America”. In this scenario, the three dimensional reality of the city is of less interest than a relativist, virtual dialogue that excludes non-experts.

The architect as original genius may well be a myth: as Doug Kelbaugh pointed out, any creative person is “a sponge in denial”. All the same, originality is fetishised and feeds into the branding of architecture that supports globalisation, that is in turn obsessed with what José Baganha called the “wow factor” of object buildings.

Doug Kelbaugh’s tour of architectural fallacies was also a tour de force of commonly held architectural delusions of grandeur, while David Brain approached these delusions from another, more sociological direction. His precise dissection showed the structural frame beneath the surface, distorting architectural education and practice. Elizabeth Plater Zyberk meanwhile noted the contemporary preoccupation with an architecture of large numbers, in which, to paraphrase Also Rossi, “quantity is quality”.

There was considerable agreement of the need to reconfigure architectural education and practice. That would mean overcoming the “status strain” described by David Brain that sees architects practising for the approval of their peers rather than the community. He said that the aim should be to move beyond a situation in which places are things architects “do to” people.

Theme Four – What participants like architecturally

For many speakers this centred on the theme of respect for traditional city form. Matthew Hardy explained why this was critical to an architecturally robust urban future. David Brain suggested it was a matter of reviving collective intelligence and practice. For Gabrielle Tagliaventi it was about recognising “genus loci” or sense of place.

There were specific variations. For Claudio D’Amato Guerrieri, cultural memory set within the architectural ideals of the Mediterranean city building tradition was important. For Michael Mehaffy geometry and fractals provided insights, as did learning from theorists like Jane Jacobs.

Michael Mehaffy and others suggested the need to reconnect education and practice to reflect these insights through a “massive cognitive shift from simple ideas to complex processes”. Bill Buchanan argued that we need to reconnect art and science, design and construction and architecture and urbanism. This should not be a grand task, said Gabrielle Tagliaventi, but everyday work.

Theme Five – What this might mean for architectural and urbanist education

Speakers pondered who should be educated and provided a number of suggestions including students, politicians, “urban actors”, the media and the community. Education and learning should not be restricted to those within the academy but emphasise lifelong learning. Paul Gunther gave numerous examples of the ICA&CA’s efforts in continuing education as did Matthew Hardy from INTBAU, Michael Mehaffy from The Prince’s Foundation, Audun Engh from Byens Fornyelse and others. A number of great examples of continuing education included courses, study trips, publications, email lists, conferences, summer schools, and other learning forums.

Participants noted that lobbying efforts are helping to bring the CEU’s education concerns to the professional associations in various European countries and influence their policies.

Within the academy, the conference identified some big problems but also some promising developments. It noted widespread resistance to teaching principles of good urbanism, especially if the dreaded word “tradition” was involved. In contemporary teaching it was felt that too much emphasis is placed on stylistic concerns, with history treated separately or not taught at all. Again the disjunction was noted between the beaux arts and technical training. Contrasting styles of education were perceived between European and United States universities and even more between public and private universities within Europe, with the latter more able to effectively pursue an urbanist course but often isolated and marginalised as a result.

It was noted that a very small number of private universities are teaching the kind of integrated urbanism and architecture supported by CEU. These institutions tend to be in the private sector and include beacon schools like Viseu, Miami and Notre Dame.

Elizabeth Plater Zyberk pointed out that small schools could “slip under the radar” of the dominant teaching paradigm, thus making a virtue of their relative isolation. There are increasing possibilities of networking between sympathetic institutions, for travel and intellectual interchange; the “good globalisation” mentioned by Dhiru Thadani.

Audun Engh presented a proposal for a new European school of architecture and urbanism. This would be based on existing programmes and located in different institutions over the lifetime of the course featuring a version of a rotating or peripatetic programme. Matthew Hardy pointed out that INTBAU will be offering a PhD programme in traditional architecture based at a UK university in the near future.

As José Cornélio de Silva noted, there is no absolute need for big investments or scale in learning institutions but students do need possibilities to travel, look, study and learn. Such institutions must be located in towns; not out of town on greenfields sites. As José Cornélio de Silva pointed out, the quality of the rooms in which students study matters too. At Viseu great attention is given to making the physical context for learning comfortable, attractive and well lit.

Theme Six – the content of education

This theme revolved around the linked questions of what educators need to teach and how they need to teach it. A range of useful and stimulating contributions came from educators including Dhiru Thadani, Samir Younés, Elizabeth Plater Zyberk, José Cornélio de Silva, Anne Fairfax and others.

Thoughts on curriculum which links architecture and urbanism came from Dhiru Thadani and others. Among techniques cited were studio learning, the jury system, and developing technical skills in conjunction with solving design problems of increasing complexity. The need to focus on real places and sites within a small scale studio system was emphasised. Students need to consider context, not just object buildings, through detailed morphological examination of real urban fabric and geometry. Attilio Petruccioli described deep urban analysis as an important technique. Trees de Muynck showed how a curriculum could allow for students to range across subject areas in urbanism as well as exploring particular design specialisations.

There was a need perceived by educators for students to learn design principles and receive training in urbanism. This is not, said David Brain, the same as defining an abstract human reduced to a technical analysis of supposed needs.

A number of speakers argued for the enormous potential of charrettes and enquiry by design processes to produce good urbanism and a range of examples were described. Samir Younés detailed a charrette process run in Como by students from the University of Notre Dame’s third year Rome-based programme. This produced a master plan that respected local urban fabric and developed design opportunities in lost spaces within the town.

Speakers noted that charrettes offer unparalleled opportunities for students to work within multi-disciplinary teams and deal with the complexities of stakeholder involvement within the context of sustainable design.


Gonçalo Cornélio de Silva pointed out that the master planning drawings resulting from a Fredrikstad (Norway) charrette run by INTBAU and Byens Fornyelse had been influential in the policy development process in Lisbon by demonstrating sensitive ways of undertaking urban infrastructure improvements. This linked to Elizabeth Plater Zyberk’s point that drawings are powerful.

Speakers identified both constraints and barriers to expanding this kind of education. Some made suggestions for “Trojan horse” subjects to enter the gates of existing schools and undertake change from within the walls. Three areas of educational practice were identified as possible “Trojan horses” through which a more humane, integrated, urbanist curriculum could be developed. These were urbanism, sustainability and historic preservation.

A number of educationalist speakers said there was a need to help students see the magic, poetry, dignity and beauty of particular places and learn what produces them. As Julio César Pérez Hernandez said in relation to his course in Havana, he was teaching a humanist vision of the city.

There were also insights from students which included the proper teaching of drafting skills. Students also noted the need for exchange programmes and travel such as the Rome programme undertaken by students at Viseu. It is worth noting that during the conference the architectural schools of Viseu and Bari signed an ERASMUS agreement to exchange both students and professorial staff in future.

Theme Seven – Lessons for CEU

Theme Seven was the set of lessons outlined by Elizabeth Plater Zyberk. Dean Plater Zyberk proposed five lessons to guide educators. To:

1) Teach and learn from experience – to study history;

A new architecture would learn from earlier work rather than valuing only originality.

2) Build and share professional knowledge – accumulate data, especially on the interaction of architecture and social life;

There is a need -to record knowledge, the gathering and analysis of precedent, so that innovation builds on experience, instead of constantly starting over.

3) Engage all the urban disciplines;

Learning about architecture needs to integrated with all the other disciplines interested in and with expertise about the city.

4) Control the method of production through use of codes etc;

The dominance of an architecture of big numbers must be addressed. We must learn how to deliver quality, unique character and pedestrian scale, even with mass production.

5) Remember that architects are the form givers.

Drawings are powerful tools and architects need to be taught to use this power wisely.

Theme Eight – implications for CEU

Theme Eight concerned the implications from all these areas for CEU. As Audun Engh said, we need a paradigm shift from current ways of teaching architecture and urbanism. As is usual in these situations, those proposing new approaches can expect to be first ignored, then derided, then strongly resisted. It is incumbent on the CEU and its supporters involved in education and learning – within and outside universities – to communicate its educational message well in order to work through these barriers. In so doing, Doug Kelbaugh proposed CEU needs to exhibit an “extremism of the centre” and a “passionate balance”.

In conclusion

The Viseu meeting on the Teaching of Architecture and Urbanism in the Age of Globalisation provided participants with many positive ideas for improvements to teaching and learning across Europe. The Viseu Declaration on Architectural Education in the 21st Century sums up these thoughts and ideas. Signed by participants at the meeting it is reproduced on the CEU website and will be promulgated widely. The Declaration fits within the wider CEU Charter and CEU expects it to influence teaching in ways that help create more humane urbanism in Europe’s cities, towns and villages in future.

The meeting’s Proceedings are intended to be collected into book form for wider dissemination so these ideas can be more broadly known and understood. There are also a number of events planned through CEU which will pursue aspects of CEU’s education agenda in the next twelve months and beyond. Details of all of these are found on the CEU website.

The conference and Declaration are both extremely hopeful signs that architectural and urbanist education can contribute positively to making humane cities. CEU will continue to work to bring these improvements to fruition.

Susan Parham
CEU Steering Committee
May 2004

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