International Laboratory
of Architecture
& Urban Design

At the end of September 2019, a seminar entitled "The movable frontier of architectural education" was held in Milan to define the future agenda of ILAUD concerning actions to be taken relative to new environmental, social and cultural situations in the world.

ILAUD thinks that there is an unacceptable gap between the problems the human habitat is facing and the ways architects, urban designers and physical planners are trained. Changes in their education must be urgently introduced and ILAUD will make an effort in this direction. Since ILAUD has called itself a “movable frontier” it is in circumstances like these that one can judge whether the Laboratory is truly capable of moving forward and anticipating relevant initiatives.
Scholars and practitioners from Africa, Europe, India, North America participated in the seminar.

The most important problems to be taken into consideration were first examined and discussed. Participants agreed that they are:

  • consequences of climate change on human settlements, agricultural regions, and the whole world’s geography;
  • ways of life of both very rapidly growing urban populations and communities living in left-behind areas;
  • positive and negative impact of ICT and AI on the organization of work and the quality of its outcomes;
  • ITC’s and IA’s impact on the concept of space and time, and the relationship between human beings and places;
  • local communities increasing request of participation in decision-making processes and the evaluation of results;
  • fast growing number of youth in some regions of the world, and their potential impact on cultural values;
  • growing role of women in society;
  • loss of local traditional identities, the struggle to preserve them, and the quest for new identities;
  • emerging role of non-western political and economic powers, and new role of non-western cultural models. The increasing relevance of “indigenous modernities”.

These scenarios are very different from the ones on which the education and practice of architects and urban designers and planners since the second half of the last century have been based.
Two orders of considerations about education and practice can be drawn from this.


It is clear that the current way of training architects and urban planners does not adequately prepare them to face future severe environmental problems, the dysfunctions of human settlements, the crisis in the service system and the growing social, economic and cultural inequalities. The answer lies not in accumulating even more notions but in learning different things and thinking differently. The same applies to other professionals involved in the challenges posed by the environmental change: engineers, medical doctors, environmentalists, agronomists, social scientists, and so on.
To correct the main limitations of the current education model, it is necessary to fight the fragmentation of separate specialist notions, which are difficult to connect with each other. The number of specializations has dramatically increased while the interrelation between disciplines has become very mechanical, and often purely formal.
Furthermore, it is essential to re-establish a strong interaction between the designers and the physical places and communities in which they operate. This means that the training of architects must be based on “experiential” learning, that is, on a direct and committed relationship with the community and its physical location. It also means that future architects should know much better how different cultures face and solve similar common problems, each in their own ways.
This also implies a different way of teaching how the context in which we operate, and the type of problems to be solved must be analyzed. The research methods that are used to confirm pre-established solutions, rather than to understand what is specific in a situation should be rejected.
Not only that, technology cannot be used to replace reality, or to give an answer whatever a should be rejected problem. Even the most sophisticated technology is only a tool that allows and supports the analysis of problems and situations, the connection of data, the identification of risk factors and the elements of crisis in a knowledge process that arises from direct involvement). The current inability to manage the pandemic also arises from the absence of appropriate analysis and process simulation models, built starting from the concreteness of real facts and contexts and not from abstract hypotheses.  The will to listen and accept the ideas of others, openness to collaboration, a strong commitment to improve the common good are fundamental qualities for today’s architects and urban planners. Finally, which is certainly not secondary, in the “knowledge” and “risk” societies such as the present ones, a collective effort is necessary to face and solve problems correctly.
These qualities can only be learned by doing.


Professional practice
Current practice seems unable to successfully face the rapid changes occurring in the organization of work, the impact of ICT and new forms of relationship with the community, in addition to a growing series of emergencies affecting the built environment.
The current professional figure of the architect is founded on cultural and political models characteristic of the societies of the past century. It is often still centered on problems that have become marginal or no longer exist. In addition, as in the case of other professional activities, that of the architect also conformed to the processes of fragmentation and specialization of skills, replacing direct experience with information obtained through the web. This has produced a dramatic gap with respect to the great changes taking place in the world, which instead require highly integrated, interdisciplinary and participatory actions by the whole society. In an era of great geographical mobility such as this, where work opportunities are offered in regions of the world, with deeply different cultures, one cannot think of imposing its own stereotypes. It is necessary to understand the reasons and values of others and take them into account when proposing solutions.
The problems to be solved to make cities resilient and give an adequate response to the problems of everyday life of those who live there (health, work, mobility, education, cultural activities, etc.) imply two things. First, the need for a strongly integrated approach from a disciplinary point of view (involving architecture, engineering, medicine, social sciences, philosophy, environmental sciences, earth sciences, hydraulics, agriculture, computer science). An approach overcoming the specialist fragmentation in which we find ourselves today. Second, a renewed direct relationship with the real situations in which people and communities live.
The complexity of the problems we face requires the active involvement of all components of society and the sharing of complex and very advanced knowledge. All this implies that traditional professional figures collaborate in concrete terms with each other; enrich themselves with new skills, and also evolve (sometimes going back to what they once were, before the nineteenth-century professional statutes).

These initial thoughts suggest that we will find ourselves in great difficulties if we do not begin to train today those who will face the problems of climate change and the great social, economic and technological transformations underway and if we do not develop adequate methods and tools to deal with the situations that are being created.
It is however impossible to think that current university curricula can be quickly changed. Certainly, this will change, but, due to resistance of all kinds, this process will take time, and in any case the transformation will be largely originated by new experiences, by examples of what and how it could be done in concrete, by the education of new actors.


ILAUD’s education experiment
These reflections led to design and implement a different education project, built through a range of experiments, which, little by little, should make it possible to carry out the substantial reform that is needed. The project takes into account the international dimension of ILAUD, which also implies different ways of dealing with and solving problems.

The objectives of this project are:

  • to propose an integrated way of thinking, not fragmented into ever increasing specializations. A way of reasoning structurally open to very different disciplinary contributions, aimed at substantially changing the way in which problems are examined and addressed;
  • to focus on the concrete changes that must be made in existing settlements, and on new solutions to be invented to counter the negative effects of climate change, epidemics, the absolute prevalence of the urban life model and the domination of technology;
  • to recover experiences and knowledge often considered marginal and anomalous, which instead may suggest unusual adaptations, modalities of resilience, unusual patterns of behavior.
    This frequently happens in the apparently fragile areas of our societies, which manage to survive in much more flexible and lasting ways than rigidly consolidated and “efficient” systems;
  • to offer learning experiences based on the practical application of knowledge in different cultural, socio-economic and environmental contexts;
  • to confirm the absolute importance of the ethical dimension of design. Both architecture and design are not neutral: they can express positive but also negative values.

This project of enhancement (but also of substantial change) of what has been learned in university classrooms, aims to provide theoretical and practical tools not only to those who graduate in architecture. Human habitat management involves very different disciplinary and professional areas, such as medicine, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, economics, but also communication and the arts. In fact, everywhere in the world today there is a demand for new interpretation models, methods and tools, more suitable to make our relationship with the Earth work a little better.


The 2020-2022 program
On these grounds a three-year tentative program has been set.
In order not to be trapped in never-ending discussions about changes in architecture and physical planning curricula, ILAUD launches a post-graduate course open to graduates in different disciplinary fields. This highly interdisciplinary post-graduate Master entitled “Managing Human Habitat Change” involves architects, urban planners, civil engineers, but also medical doctors, environmentalists, economists, sociologists, etc. both as faculty and as students. Its goal is to prepare a new professional figure, who, starting from different disciplinary degrees at graduate level, is enriched with new skills, a strongly interdisciplinary base, and adequate training in collaborative work.
The learning process is based on a combination of classroom-teaching and field-work in workshops on real cases. The program is residential; it lasts 1-2 years; it is jointly offered by a group of universities of different countries that accredit it.
The Master will initially be offered in Italy; but it can be replicated, with the necessary adaptations, in other countries.
Both the specific contents and the organization of the Master will be set through a preliminary series of experiments taking place in 2020. It will start in 2021.


A post-covid19 addendum
The project begun in the Fall 2019 with a first workshop in Shanghai. Further workshops and seminars were planned in the Spring and Summer 2020 in Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Addis Ababa and Milano.
Since all these programs have been postponed of several months because of the pandemic. in order not to lose the momentum of the preparatory phase ILAUD has decided to launch two alternative experimental initiatives.
They are:

  1. a series of short interviews about problems posed by climate change, epidemics, etc. to scholars, experts of different organizations and practitioners in different countries on specific issues they are working on.
  2. an online course of 14-16 lessons, titled “Rethinking Cities in between Shocks and Stresses Urban Challenges and Responsive Planning”.
    Both programs are open access. They will be freely used by universities for their courses or by students and practitioners

International Laboratory
of Architecture
& Urban Design


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