Interview, Learning Network

Learning by Doing

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Learning by Doing
A digital interview with Francien van Westrenen, Willemijn Lofvers, Tim Devos and Hans Venhuizen.

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.

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Stadsklas ‘landlopen‘ [country roaming] (photo: Willemijn Lofvers)

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.

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Stadsklas ‘het onbenutte benutten‘ [to use the unused] (photo: Jannes Linders)

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.

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Stadsklas ‘het onbenutte benutten‘ [to use the unused] (photo: Jannes Linders)

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.

References

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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