This paper explores what the project of running an experiment in urbanism as part of the International Building Exhibition 2013 (IBA Hamburg), called the University of the Neighbourhoods (UoN) (2007-2013), can teach professionals in urban design about urbanisation in general and about changing political conditions in urban design in particular. The materials and preliminary findings in this paper are from an on-going project archaeology 1 for the publication Tom Paints the Fence. Re-negotiating Urban Design, which is to be published by the research and teaching programme Urban Design at HCU Hamburg in 2019.
To ground the arguments more concretely the authors use the documentation of what happened in one ‘take’ 2 , in retrospect named building a proposition for future activities, of the project University of the Neighbourhoods (UoN). The paper will meander between descriptive and conceptual paragraphs. The descriptive paragraphs function not so much as case studies, but rather as illustrative examples that are helpful in rehearsing an argument. The conceptual paragraphs assemble methods, tools and theories used in practice.
The paper reflects on how the UoN’s team processed uncertainties around the role of urban development and education in the process of making a beginning of the project with the simple question: what is it like to live, work and learn in the area where the project site is located and how does this relate to the neighbourhood and the city? 3 And what are we actually doing when we live somewhere day-to-day? Sleeping, eating, recovering, maintaining private relationships, running the household, being a neighbour…? 4 Shifting our focus from housing in terms of object-centred policies to dwelling-as-practice, we were interested in studying and pushing existing understandings of housing. The contemporary administrative, policy. development and architectural perspectives on housing in our view prove myopic if we consider the emerging schism between housing as form and housing as function 5 . Our perspective and the UoN experiment aimed to problematize the seemingly set understandings of housing by traversing the discursive and disciplinary territory in order to unpack and bring into play the various agencies and inner logics or potencies contributing to ‘problem solving’ without debating the problem. In an attempt to unravel the production, management and usage of housing and dwelling as a complex set of practices, understandings, regulations, materials, situations and actors, our curriculum provided a framework within which to question what housing is, does and could be. If, as Engels noted as early as 1872 6 , ‘in mainstream debates, housing tends to be understood in narrow terms’ it is seen as a ‘temporary crisis that can be resolved through targeted, isolated measures.’ 7

  1. The term ‘project archaeology’ for us describes a technique for reading structural traces of projective processes and thereby multiplying the directions of a project’s time vectors. It is clear that a documented process is a temporal entity that happened in the past. It thus seems to be a closed entity although in its becoming it was an open one. The dilemma now is that when the process is read as closed entity, the potentialities of the process itself get lost. Consequently, in order to open up the process again and to regain its immanent potentialities, we work with a diagrammatic approach of a serial fragmentation, de-assembling, cataloguing and indexing of the process structures. Rather than looking for representational effects, we look in the document archive for traces that incorporate new beginnings and for structural entities that can be reassembled.
  2. A take is a specific didactic form, which we have developed and included in our curriculum. The notion take derives from film and music. Especially in jazz music, making a take means to record the same piece in different versions with different improvisations. That is exactly what a take for the research and teaching programme Urban Design is about: a structural form to work in circular iterative processes around the same motif or question. The take is a rehearsal tool to learn how to keep an indeterminate open process constructive without closing it. The performative moment of the take is the repetition; its formal moment is the incorporation of difference into the repetition. In regard to notation it is characteristic of the take that its form of repetition works beyond the representational without neglecting representation. We can call this characteristic diagrammatic. The take leads to a transformational state of working on questions in which the repetition unlocks spaces of potentialities as well as potentialities of spaces.
  3. cf. Bernd Kniess Christopher Dell, Michael Koch, and Ellen Fiedelmeier, Universität der Nachbarschaften 04.10. Hamburg, 2010.
  4. Cf. Michaela Schmidt, Im Inneren der Bauverwaltung: Eigenlogik und Wirkmacht administrativer Praktiken bei Bauprojekten. Bielefeld: transcript, 2016.
  5. MTT (Methods, Tools, Theory) is one of three main pillars in the Master’s curriculum of the research and teaching programme Urban Design.
  6. Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1936(1872).
  7. David Madden and Peter Marcuse, In Defense of Housing. The Politics of Crisis. London: Verso, 2016, 4.