Studio Descriptors 2017/18

City Design

Live Project-based studio work forms the core of learning in the MA City Design programme; collaboration with external partners and knowledge exchange are central to our pedagogical model. 

Each Studio will develop collaborative design-led research around a unique case study. Studios work on the same case for a four-year period. As the programme grows, each new Studio will introduce a new case study. Read on for information on our current studio.

Studio 1: Singular Collectives

New Urban Logics

The Context

The global urban population stands at 4 billion, with 28 megacities alone. Urban life is experiencing momentous change. New social groups are emerging, populations are ageing, family units are extending and dispersing, work is becoming casualised and whole communities have moved online. At the same time, dangerous new social divides are appearing on the periphery of cities, between different cultures, and now also between different generations. Yet many of the models used to explain, design, develop, and manage cities have resisted change. More recently, however, new possibilities are emerging and their consequences promise to be profound: modern social movements, automated building supply chains, technology platforms, driverless transport and logistics, distributed water and energy infrastructure – all will radically reshape the city's fundamental building blocks. 

It is our intention in the MA Programme City Design to provide a forum for an emerging generation of architects interested in the convergence of new social, technical and spatial innovations and harnessing their potential to generate alternative forms of urban life. The Programme aims to prepare students to challenge existing models of city design practice and research by proposing a distinct and rigorous pedagogical model.  We believe in the unique capacities of design and the value of propositional forms of thinking.  This program is a field-focused, design-led, and project-based course. It proposes a unique, multi-scalar approach to city design education that unites architectural, technological and scientific research. The course will introduce students to new technologies of calculation, visualisation and representation as essential components in re-imagining the design and management of cities in the future.

This core studio situating the MA Programme in City Design is concerned with the spatial performance of housing considered in the context of transformations in demographics and labour, and with reference to issues of urban change: density, urban renewal, urban intensification, new technologies and social and environmental resilience.

Changes in family form, from temporally mobile blended families with children living between two houses, to large extended families, the rise of ageing populations, and people living alone with the attendant issues of loneliness and isolation, are all demanding that we ask new questions of the spatial performance of housing. Where do we find new collectivities of intimacy and care as the dominance of the modern family of two parents and two children recedes, how do we use the opportunity of this change to re-organize our existing city centres on the occasion of new housing? And how do we begin to seed the conditions for a better distribution of urban life away from what is an intensifying urban core, ensuring that our city remains accessible to everyone: families, older people, ageing populations, not just the young, mobile and affluent? Are there forms of complementarity that can strategically reconnect communities across different phases of life? Can new forms of institutions or association work across the fault lines appearing between generations? How can housing be reconfigured to address this, while equally responding to the demand for new levels of density and intensity in the emerging and transforming city.


City Design: Themes cutting across design studio.

  • Spatial performance (key institutional diagrams underpinning modernity, typological innovations, key relationships of work, home, transport, leisure, multi-scalar spatial reasoning)
  • Governance and ownership (how is it owned, how is it managed, what are the governance mechanisms that allow it to happen, co-operative housing, place making)
  • Temporal strategies (pop-up, interim, first on site, seeding ecologies of use and occupation in long development periods and processes)
  • Procurement and construction (enabling construction contracts and agreements)
  • Novel and new programme anchors (what does renewal look like that is not middle class and professional, e.g. multi-generational and ageing, education, medical and health, sports etc.)

Housing Diversity

The two/three-bedroom apartment, originally based on the need for intimacy and care within the Modern Family, two parents and two children, has dominated multi-residential housing production in North America, Europe, Australia and parts of Asia since the 1920s. However, demographic changes and the diversification of social structures make dependence on a single model of housing provision inadequate. Our definition of families has multiplied. They might be mobile, blended, extended, or vertically/horizontally integrated, while single-parent families are now common. For younger generations, sharing platforms and social networks generate alternative structures of care that have all the intensity of traditional social ties even if they do not resemble them. At the same time, populations are ageing and more people live alone. Yet demands for flexible, mobile labour markets are at odds with local structures of care that can take years or even generations to develop. Isolation, loneliness among the elderly is one consequence of these shifts. Both within and between generations, collective structures of intimacy and care including the family are changing, and yet housing types remain dominated by a single model. The reasons for this are varied but housing affordability and the centralisation of employment opportunities play an increasingly important role.

This raises a series of crucial questions with respect to experimentation in the housing market: What is the scale of emerging structures of intimacy and care? What are the limits and pre-conditions for spatial experimentation around these collectives within existing housing provision?

Centralising Cities/Housing Affordability

Like Alpha cities globally, London is facing a crisis in housing affordability. The causes of this are not always well agreed upon, being both global and specific to place – involving long-term trends in asset value (Knoll, Schularick & Steger 2017), more recent international monetary policy and quantitative easing since 2008 (Del Negro & Otrok 2007; Goodhart & Hofmann 2008; Klaus & Woodford 2013) population growth and urbanisation more broadly, in addition to international capital flows toward asset investment in cities understood to be well governed by the rule of law.

These conditions are coupled with a new condition of urban centralisation: The perception of the value of the inner urban core of cities has transformed (Glaeser & Gottlieb 2006; Knoll, Schularick & Steger 2017).The dominant perception of urban centres since the 1920’s have changed, they are no longer seen as the polluted other to the suburban idyll, where the suburb is understood as essential for raising healthy and happy children. For workers in new economies, the city promises a dynamic cultural and social life. Coupled with the conditions of affordability described above because this promise attracts only the most socially and professionally mobile residents, social inequity and social division is increasing across cities

Transforming Demographics/Changing Cities

Firstly, the question of ageing and labour with regards to the city. The plasticity of human capital – its ‘employability’ – depends on its capacity for adaptation and life long learning, as well as its mobility. This new and emerging demand extends the productive life span of human beings beyond concepts of retirement established in the twentieth century, while pulling people out and away from the traditional support structures such as established community or family.

Second, to take note of the transformation of alpha cities such as London from a condition of decentralisation, which was the dominant discursive condition from the 1920s, to centralisation which has in the last 15 years reached a critical point. Here service and knowledge economy workers desire to be as close to the urban core, the centre of the city as possible with its employment opportunities, low commuting times, and what is understood to be a condition of dynamic social and cultural life. At the same time, the commodification of housing and a legacy of housing stock organised around the modern/nuclear family and the private dwelling, is resulting in a crisis of access to suitable housing provision, excluding many and putting others in an increasingly precarious economic situation. This condition of intensifying centralisation, scarcity of housing options and resulting social exclusion is a global condition of Alpha cities such as London, but also Sydney, Hong Kong, Vancouver, New York etc etc. The question for London is can the desirable conditions attracting people to the core be replicated in intensified nodes away from what has been traditionally associated in a hierarchy of periphery and centre. Is it possible to replicate these conditions and what would they look like?

Finally, a massive and now well developed shift in developed and developing economies toward an ageing population with attendant issues around the balance between tax base and obligations for ongoing care, the increased role of degenerative mental diseases, and the withdrawal of the state from provision of health care – all without the traditional structures of support and care that once existed, leading to a profound existential crisis of loneliness and isolation with exacerbated effects on health care needs.

Taken together, the new phases required of a productive life, the centralisation of opportunity in cities, and a widespread and vast demographic change add up to a complex spatial social challenge with important consequences. This studio will take up these issues and pose the following questions: How do we begin to seed the conditions for a better distribution of urban life away from what is an intensifying urban core, ensuring that our city remains accessible to everyone: families, older people, ageing populations, not just the young, mobile and affluent? Are there forms of complementarity that can strategically reconnect communities across different phases of life? Can new forms of institutions or association work across the fault lines appearing between generations? How can housing be reconfigured to address this, while equally responding to the demand for new levels of density and intensity in the emerging in London.

Untitled, City Design RCA
Untitled, City Design RCA