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Volume #45: Learning

Periode 2015 / Project Volume #45: Learning / Met Francien van Westrenen, Hans Venhuizen, Tim Devos

In­ter­view, Re­thin­king Learning in: De­cem­ber 1, 2015 — by Ar­chis/Vo­lu­me Learning by Do­ing A di­gi­tal in­ter­view with Fran­cien van Westre­nen, Wil­le­mijn Lof­vers, Tim De­vos and Hans Ven­hui­zen. See: http://vo­lu­me­pro­ject.org/learning-by-do­ing/

In Vo­lu­me 45: Learning, we dis­cuss se­ve­r­al ini­ti­a­ti­ves to cre­a­te learning con­di­ti­ons out­si­de the tra­di­ti­o­nal class­room. Stroom Den Haag (1) has had the ‘Stads­klas’ or ‘ur­ban class­room’ sin­ce 2014. Can you talk about the ba­sic idea of the pro­gram and the in­ten­ti­ons be­hind it?

The Stads­klas is at the sa­me ti­me a cour­se in in­no­va­ti­ve ur­ban plan­ning and an ac­ti­on-re­search mo­del, which aims to de­li­ne­a­te the dif­fe­rent ro­les emer­ging within the arena of ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. We ar­gue that the­se chan­ging ro­les, and the dif­fe­rent skills which ac­com­pa­ny them, are be­st stu­died in prac­ti­ce through a col­lec­ti­ve learning pro­cess – see­ing as how they are of­ten for­med and ad­ju­sted within ve­ry spe­ci­fic pro­ces­ses and ca­ses of ur­ban trans­for­ma­ti­on.

In ge­ne­ral we see an in­cre­a­sing in­te­rest, among others in ur­ban plan­ning, in the pro­li­fe­ra­ti­on of self-or­ga­ni­zing ci­vic ini­ti­a­ti­ves. Ar­tis­tic and ar­chi­tec­tu­ral prac­ti­ces res­pond to con­tem­po­ra­ry ur­ban de­vel­op­ments and tran­si­ti­ons in a va­ri­e­ty of ways, of­ten on an in­cre­a­sin­gly lo­cal sca­le by ta­king up al­ter­na­ti­ve ro­les. The­se pro­fes­si­o­nals seek clo­ser in­ter­ac­ti­ons with ci­vil so­ci­e­ty coop­e­ra­te with or ini­ti­a­te de­vel­op­ments work in the marg­ins of tem­po­ra­ry spa­ce etc. In do­ing so, they claim a dif­fe­rent and of­ten in­de­pen­dent po­si­ti­on, in con­trast to what is tra­di­ti­o­nal­ly ex­pec­ted of the ar­chi­tect or ur­ban plan­ner. The Stads­klas claims that the­se new po­si­ti­ons re­qui­re a who­le ‘new’ ran­ge of dif­fe­rent skills, at­ti­tu­des and ro­les, which ha­ve yet to be ex­plo­red.

Un­der­stan­ding the­se new po­si­ti­ons and the ro­le of the­se new pro­fes­si­o­nals within the trans­for­ming lands­ca­pe of ur­ban plan­ning is the sub­ject of our pro­gram. We in­vi­te plan­ners, ar­tists, and de­sig­ners etc., who are de­vel­o­ping an al­ter­na­ti­ve po­si­ti­on in their prac­ti­ce, to be tour gui­des for a day. Through this for­mat we aim to de­vel­op a clea­rer un­der­stan­ding of the new ro­les they are exe­cu­ting and what we can learn from them.

At the ba­sis of the Stads­klas lies a se­ries of twel­ve skills (2) – from ex­plo­ring to con­ti­nuing and from fra­ming to fi­nan­cing – that form a loo­se gui­de­li­ne to choo­se the prac­ti­ces and to re­flect on them.

The for­mat of a spe­ci­fic Stads­klas-day is ve­ry sim­ple: the par­ti­ci­pants – about fifteen to twen­ty pe­o­p­le – meet at a de­sig­na­ted pla­ce, of­ten a train sta­ti­on, ear­ly in the mor­ning, whe­re they are pick­ed up by our gui­des. The gui­des are two pro­fes­si­o­nals who usu­al­ly ha­ve dif­fe­rent back­grounds and/or prac­ti­ces. They in­tro­du­ce us to dif­fe­rent prac­ti­ces, pla­ces and pe­o­p­le in­vol­ved in their pro­jects. We ‘sha­dow’ them for a full day, trying to un­ra­vel their em­ploy­ed skills and their men­ta­li­ty when ap­pro­a­ching ur­ban chan­ges on the de­vel­op­men­tal frin­ge . We col­lec­ti­ve­ly re­flect on the prac­ti­ces by ex­plo­ring, cy­cling, wal­king and tal­king, loo­king, ex­pe­rien­cing, and ques­ti­o­ning the things we see and hear we eat and drink to­gether and fi­na­li­ze the day with a group dis­cus­si­on on ‘les­sons lear­ned’.


Is the Stads­klas co­ming from a re­ac­ti­on – that things can be do­ne dif­fe­rent­ly – or is the for­mat mo­re the out­co­me of a pro­gram­ma­tic idea that didn’t fit exis­ting in­fra­struc­tu­res?

The for­mat is the out­co­me of an idea about learning, and it’s a fol­low-up to dif­fe­rent me­thods of stu­dying and ex­pe­rien­cing the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment.

First of all we be­gan to feel mo­re and mo­re an­noy­ed with the ma­ny, usu­al­ly ex­pen­si­ve, for­mal se­mi­nars, cour­ses and sym­po­sia about bot­tom-up or coop­e­ra­ti­ve plan­ning. The­se ses­si­ons ge­ner­al­ly ta­ke pla­ce so­me­whe­re in­si­de whe­re the ‘au­dien­ce’ is sit­ting in straight rows obe­dient­ly wea­ring their na­me tag, sta­ring at a Po­wer­Point pre­sen­ta­ti­on showing suc­ces­sful pro­jects that took pla­ce on­ly a few ki­lo­me­t­res away. It’s of­ten mo­re about pre­sen­ting ap­pea­ling re­sults than loo­king at ac­tu­al pro­ces­ses of ur­ban trans­for­ma­ti­ons, the dif­fi­cul­ties and in­se­cu­ri­ties that ari­se and the ac­tors which we­re in­vol­ved. They are mo­re ‘the­o­ry’ than prac­ti­ce mo­re about the ‘what’ than the ‘how’. Mo­re than being im­pres­sed by the spe­ci­fic re­sults of a spe­ci­fic pro­cess in a spe­ci­fic si­tu­a­ti­on, we felt that the most pro­found learning ef­fect is un­lock­ed by stu­dying the way the­se chan­ges we­re ini­ti­a­ted and ha­ve evol­ved. The­re­fo­re we de­vel­o­ped a way to sha­re know­led­ge in a dif­fe­rent and mo­re in­ter­ac­ti­ve way. First­ly: by go­ing out­si­de and vi­si­ting the­se prac­ti­ces in re­al li­fe. Se­cond­ly, by en­ga­ging in a de­ba­te with dif­fe­rent kinds of ‘ini­ti­a­tors’ who are of­ten not of­fi­ci­al plan­ners at all, and fi­nal­ly, by sti­mu­la­ting in­ter­ac­ti­on and re­flec­ti­on among­st all par­ti­ci­pants. The­re­fo­re we cre­a­ted a kind of col­lec­ti­ve (peer-to-peer) learning-by-do­ing jour­ney cal­l­ed Stads­klas.


Who are you ad­dres­sing? You men­ti­on bo­th do­ing re­search and learning.

In­deed we aim to be tea­ching, learning and re­searching at the sa­me ti­me. In that sen­se the Stads­klas is an open-sour­ce ini­ti­a­ti­ve loo­king in­to in­no­va­ti­ve and new po­si­ti­ons in the spa­ti­al field. It ad­dres­ses tho­se who are in­te­rested in the­se new ty­pes of prac­ti­ces, of­ten be­cau­se they are ex­pe­rien­cing it them­sel­ves or be­cau­se they see this new po­si­ti­on ar­ri­ving and would li­ke to un­der­stand how they could pos­si­bly deal with the­se in­for­mal de­vel­op­ments.

We are also ad­dres­sing the exis­ting ar­chi­tec­tu­re and ur­ban plan­ning-re­la­ted edu­ca­ti­o­nal pro­grams in Dut­ch Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­si­ties and Aca­de­mies. Part of the pre­vious re­search was an over­view of all the dif­fe­rent cur­ri­cu­la to see if and how the­se new skills we­re em­bed­ded in­to the cur­ri­cu­lum. We found this to be on­ly par­ti­al­ly the ca­se: whi­le in­te­res­tin­gly well ad­dres­sed in art edu­ca­ti­on, of­ten not a sub­ject in ar­chi­tec­tu­re, ur­ban plan­ning or de­sign edu­ca­ti­on.

Thus, we see a hu­ge gap bet­ween the ac­tu­al and the taught fo­cus within the plan­ning and de­sign cur­ri­cu­la. Their fo­cus is still on for­mal de­vel­op­ments and main­ly grand de­sign. Their at­ten­ti­on is on the de­vel­op­ment of crafts­mans­hip, the learning of just tech­ni­cal skills, de­a­ling with brick-de­tails in fu­tu­re de­sign pro­po­sals. Ac­tu­al­ly, the­re is no­thing wrong with that – it’s still ne­ces­sa­ry. But be­si­des the­se ho­pe­ful fu­tu­res, out­si­de the­re is a much mo­re com­plex world whe­re the usu­al sus­pects are not the sa­me as who they used to be, whe­re the know­led­ge of books should be ac­com­pa­nied by the ‘dir­ty’ know­led­ge of prac­ti­ce, whe­re cre­a­ti­vi­ty with fi­nan­cing your pro­ject – such as de­vel­o­ping bu­si­ness pro­po­sals – is as im­por­tant as kno­wing how to cre­a­te and re­ly on a net­work. The­re­fo­re lis­te­ning and com­mu­ni­ca­ting are va­lu­a­ble skills to ha­ve alongside de­sign in­stru­ments. The­se skills are not taught in the afo­re­men­ti­o­ned cur­ri­cu­la, yet.

We ha­ve no in­ten­ti­on of st­ar­ting a new aca­de­my howe­ver. But we do be­lie­ve that learning how to exe­cu­te the­se new ro­les, and ques­ti­on the po­si­ti­on itself, should be part of a cur­ri­cu­lum we be­lie­ve that the be­st way to learn about the­se de­vel­op­ments and prac­ti­ces is ‘by do­ing’.


You men­ti­on ‘learning by do­ing’. Isn’t it mo­re ‘learning by ex­pe­rien­cing’?

All of the prac­ti­ces that we ha­ve vi­si­ted so far are the re­sult of a ‘learning by do­ing’ pro­cess. The­re are no gui­de­li­nes for the­se kind of prac­ti­ces yet, or how-to books. And if you look for other examples, e.g. in Ger­ma­ny or En­g­land – the hands-on cul­tu­ral si­tu­a­ti­ons and back­grounds dif­fer gre­at­ly from the Dut­ch si­tu­a­ti­on. The­re­fo­re the­se pro­fes­si­o­nals can­not just co­py-pas­te, but ha­ve to learn by do­ing. Be­yond the per­ma­nent evo­lu­ti­on of the si­tu­a­ti­on and not kno­wing be­fo­re­hand what the spe­ci­fic out­co­me will be, it re­qui­res a dif­fe­rent men­ta­li­ty: being adap­ti­ve to the si­tu­a­ti­on, flexi­ble, not af­raid to ac­tu­al­ly be part of the gang, to build so­me­thing with your own hands and just be out the­re. The prac­ti­ces of the­se pro­fes­si­o­nals are of­ten ve­ry per­so­nal, im­pro­vi­sa­ti­o­nal and adap­ta­ble.

The Stads­klas itself re­qui­res a si­mi­lar at­ti­tu­de and ap­pro­ach to the prac­ti­ces we vi­sit and stu­dy. The­re is no strict for­mat for a Stads­klas day apart from a cou­ple of ground-ru­les such as the ab­sen­ce of Po­wer­Point pre­sen­ta­ti­ons and that being out­si­de on lo­ca­ti­on is our learning en­vi­ron­ment. We de­vel­o­ped the for­mat along the way and dis­co­ver­ed what wor­ked well and what did not. And most of all: we al­lo­wed our­sel­ves to learn and ma­ke mista­kes we learn whi­le do­ing. But of cour­se, and fi­nal­ly, the po­wer of the Stads­klas cour­ses is learning-by-ex­pe­rien­cing.


What is a pro­fes­si­o­nal in your Stads­klas pro­ject? Are you?

At the start of each Stads­klas we sta­te that we are all new to this field. That all of us are bo­th pro­fes­si­o­nals and ama­teurs, si­mul­ta­neous­ly te­a­cher and stu­dent of the si­tu­a­ti­on at hand, as we all car­ry so­me kind of know­led­ge and feel the need to ex­chan­ge and learn. The sa­me goes for us as or­ga­ni­zers and re­searchers. Du­ring the days the­re is no hier­ar­chy, on­ly the idea that we ope­ra­te within a group, gui­ded through the pro­cess by each other, learning the si­tu­a­ti­ons at hand. We sha­re our know­led­ge bet­ween the group mem­bers, and the sa­me goes for all the par­ti­ci­pants.


From your de­scrip­ti­on of the pro­ject, Stads­klas ap­pe­ars li­ke ano­ther way to ex­plo­re the ci­ty, dis­clo­sing ano­ther lay­er of its fa­bric and re­a­li­ty.

Yes, you could say so. We’d li­ke to see it as re­al-ti­me stra­te­gic ana­ly­sis. We’re loo­king at the prac­ti­ces that so­me­ti­mes are not even vi­si­ble in a li­te­ral way. For example in tho­se ca­ses whe­re the gui­de ta­kes us on a tour by showing us the po­ten­ti­als of a pla­ce through his or her ey­es, or when dis­cus­sing the ro­le and me­a­ning of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on cam­paigns or com­mu­ni­ty buil­ding. We’re not so much fo­cu­sed on end re­sults or ‘pro­jects’ in the clas­si­cal sen­se, but mo­re on the pro­cess itself: how are they do­ing this, or how did it be­co­me this way? What are the ob­struc­ti­ons that sha­ped the out­co­mes? Wit­hout ‘clas­sic’ pre­sen­ta­ti­on tools, the gui­des are chal­len­ged to im­pro­vi­se in or­der to sha­re their know­led­ge, whi­le the col­lec­ti­ve learning pro­cess ena­bles the par­ti­ci­pants to en­rich them­sel­ves and dis­co­ver mo­re un­known lay­ers of a pla­ce, a prac­ti­ce and the ur­ban sys­tem itself.


Did the Stads­klas so far pro­du­ce spe­ci­fic in­sights that would be­ne­fit other ‘ci­ty-ma­kers’ and ‘ci­ty-ma­king’ pro­jects?

Eve­ry Stads­klas day re­sults in sur­pri­sing in­sights that we ga­ther and spre­ad. Sin­ce the Stads­klas is a learning si­tu­a­ti­on in pro­gress, we do not ha­ve a full over­view of the in­sights yet. So­me in­sights howe­ver emer­ge from mo­re than one si­tu­a­ti­on we stu­died. A phe­no­men­on we call ‘Über­host’ ori­gi­na­ted from the Stads­klas. The Über­host is the new pro­fes­si­o­nal that suc­ceeds in de­fi­ning ur­ban am­bi­ti­ons and kee­ping them con­ti­nuous­ly in mo­ti­on. He is ca­pa­ble of pro­gram­ming si­tu­a­ti­ons for long and in­ten­se en­ough to con­nect a wi­de group of pe­o­p­le to the chan­ges at hand. The Über­host is able to con­nect the top to the bot­tom and link dif­fe­rent in­te­rests to pro­fes­si­o­nal dis­ci­pli­nes.

An im­por­tant in­sight of the Stads­klas is the fact that pro­found chan­ges are al­ways ba­sed on the qua­li­ties al­rea­dy pre­sent in the gi­ven si­tu­a­ti­on and ne­ver de­pend on desi­red chan­ges, bor­ro­wed from other pla­ces and pro­jec­ted on­to the­se new con­texts. We also lear­ned that the­se exis­ting qua­li­ties are be­st found by first ex­plo­ring the si­tu­a­ti­on yourself wit­hout any pre­ju­di­ce or know­led­ge. Be­fo­re stu­dying re­le­vant sour­ces of know­led­ge ac­cor­ding to your own ex­pe­rien­ces and be­fo­re ac­ting.

The­se and other in­sights ena­ble us to fi­nal­ly struc­tu­re the les­sons we ha­ve lear­ned in the last pha­se of the Stads­klas, whe­re we will de­scri­be and pu­blish the me­thods, skills and men­ta­li­ties we ha­ve fil­te­red out of our ex­pe­rien­ces and in­sights.



1. Stads­klas is an ini­ti­a­ti­ve of Fran­cien van Westre­nen (Stroom Den Haag), Wil­le­mijn Lof­vers, Tim De­vos and Hans Ven­hui­zen, and is sup­por­ted by Cre­a­ti­ve In­du­stries Fund.
2. De­ri­ved from a pre­vious desk re­search on the ‘spa­ce chan­ger’ (RHOI) iden­ti­fying and ana­ly­zing a di­ver­si­ty of pro­jects and prac­ti­ces, which ac­ti­ve­ly and re­flexi­ve­ly search for a new ro­le of the ur­ban pro­fes­si­o­nal within the chan­ging field of ur­ban de­vel­op­ments.

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