Architectural Type and the Discourse of Urbanism


By: The School of Architecture, UTS with the Architecture, Culture, Tectonics Research Group, Department of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Nottingham. Hosted by the RCA
Event Description
Architectural Type and the Discourse of Urbanism

Architecture’s relationship to the city is one of the key tropes in architectural and urban theory and practice. This relationship bears upon questions of architecture’s disciplinary autonomy, its agency in the change and transformation of the city and the possibility of its politics. The recent years have seen a plethora of publications addressing architecture’s relationship to the city, seeking to understand the seemingly uncontrollable urban growth, either as a network of flows and infrastructures, or as an aggregation where architecture and the urban form an unquestioned continuity. Indeed, ever since Learning from Las Vegas, many of these publications go as far as suggesting that if this explosion of urban density, and its associated commercial aspirations, cannot be prevented, then it should be taken as an ineluctable point of departure, itself the source of a new abstract beauty. However, neither these descriptions of the complexities and expansion of the city nor the insistence on architecture’s formal autonomy – as some sort of language – articulate architecture’s precise relationship to the urban.

The following one-day symposium proposes to explore typology as a mode of spatial reasoning that underlies architecture’s autonomy as a field of thought and action, its agency in the transformation of the city, and its strategic intersection with the spatial politics of the liberal metropolis. It brings together academics and practitioners to reflect on typology both as critical project and design strategy.

Organised by Dr Katharina Borsi, Tarsha Finney and Dr Pavlos Philippou.


10-30 am Introduction

11–00 am The Dwelling Cell, the City and the Autonomy of Architecture

Dr Katharina Borsi

11-30 am Counterplanning from the kitchen: For a Feminist Critique of Type

Dr Maria Shéhérazade Giudici

12-00 pm OM Ungers: Dialectical Principles of Design

Dr Sam Jacoby

12.30 pm Roundtable discussion, chaired by Dr Renee Tobe

13-00 pm Lunch

14-00 pm Urban Instability: Typological Reasoning, the Housing Project and the transformation of notions of Public Benefit

Tarsha Finney

14-30 pm Radical Distance: the role of contingency in contemporary urban typologies

Chris Schulte

15-00 pm Cultural Buildings and Urban Areas

Dr Pavlos Philippou

15-30 pm Lawrence Barth

16-00 pm Roundtable discussion, chaired by Adrian Lahoud


1. The Dwelling Cell, the City and the Autonomy of Architecture

Katharina Borsi

Hans Scharoun projected his Siedlung Charlottenburg Nord of 1955 and his Siedlung Siemensstadt of 1929 as a partial realization of his urban vision for a radical restructuring of Berlin after WW2. For Scharoun, “the mechanical decentralization” as he paraphrased the bombing of Germany’s cities, presented the opportunity to reconstruct a new spatial and social order. His urban figure of a decentralized urban landscape, organized through three parallel bands of development for work, housing and leisure, all connected by transport infrastructure, prescribed the interrelationships between meticulously defined functions. The residential cell, a grouping of around 5000 inhabitants, Scharoun saw as the basis of the ‘structure’ of the ‘new city’ in its mediation between the subject and the metropolis. For Scharoun, Charlottenburg-Nord exemplified how the Gestalt of the scalar relationship between the dwelling, the cell and the city, describe and inscribe a seemingly natural socio-spatial structure conditioning the social and economic equilibrium of the city.

Scharoun’s status within modernism tends to be classified within an alternative tradition, one whose expressivity and plasticity are read as true functionalism in its response to use and context, and in opposition to the geometric, rational, and classicizing tendencies of Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies. While this classification, based on formal difference and variation, reveals distinctions and variations in design approaches, it does not offer an understanding of architecture’s contribution to housing beyond its realization of the architectural project.

Conversely, the recent decade has seen a number of publications re-evaluating modernism’s social project as a key part of the process of rationalization and normalization of society throughout the twentieth century. From this perspective, architecture’s contribution is seen as a form of social engineering through its description and inscription of social order; its spatial articulation of the needs and norms of individuals, families and groups within the urban population – thus providing distinct spaces for the social as fields of intervention. In the context of this literature, Scharoun’s Siemensstadt and Charlottenburg-Nord exemplify architecture’s spatial and organizational capacity for supporting the conceptualization and structuring of social relationships. However, this interpretation of architecture in the service of social engineering cannot evaluate the importance of distinctions in design approaches, or the value of design in the evolution of the field.

This paper proposes typology as a mode of spatial reasoning that drives not only architecture’s immanent processes of evolution and experimentation, but also its engagement with its ‘outside’. Architecture’s design process is registered on the surface of the drawing, where it encounters and enfolds a terrain of dispute across disciplines about how to house and group the urban population. This perspective allows a reading of Siemensstadt and Charlottenburg -Nord as instances of typological reasoning specific to architecture and strategic in its operation in the broader discourse of urbanism.

2. Counterplanning from the kitchen: For a Feminist Critique of Type

Dr Maria Shéhérazade Giudici

While housing has long been a terrain of struggle in terms of its scale, provision, urban morphology and technological advancement, it often escapes a political critique of its interior logic. And yet, it is perhaps only from a political perspective that we might be able to see beyond the impasse we are witnessing. If most of the newly built stock conforms to models established more than a century ago, an increasing number of ‘experimental’ proposals reimagine domesticity with a chequered success that is surprising if we consider how ill-fitting the petit-bourgeois family apartment is to our current conditions. In such a conjuncture the concept of type seems to be still a useful ground for debate as it helps us read housing as a tool for the construction of subjects.

Only in the aftermath of the industrial revolution that European typological discourse shifted its focus from public buildings to residential architecture; if it is perhaps impossible to define traditional dwelling places as ‘non-typological’, they were however most definitely ‘pre-typological’. Already since the late renaissance concepts of distribution and composition had started to introduce typological concerns in the design of houses; however, it is with the application of these strategies to the dwellings of the working classes that the full potential of thinking housing through type emerged.

However, contemporary housing production lacks such a clear political mandate, and is haunted by a major shift in its economic rationale – from the need to provide machines à habiter to feed the industrial cycle, to the production of a mere commodity that does not even need to be inhabited to fuel speculation. At the core of this mandate crisis lies a great unsaid non-said of western society, namely the role played by the house in the institutionalization of reproductive labour. Reproductive labour is the care, education, and actual production of the labour force from childbearing to housework to the care of the elderly – a form of labour that before mature capitalism was never seen as separate from other productive activities. In this sense, the paper assumes a feminist standpoint in that it rereads modern housing as the place of women’s hidden, unwaged work, and typological discourse as the intellectual and technical arsenal that has allowed the fine tuning of such a labour system.

The hypothesis that will be explored is that reproductive labour itself is undergoing a large-scale shift that architecture is struggling to register. In order to understand this shift, we will look at the recent architectural production of three nations – the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Japan – where a strong design culture has met an acute awareness of the recent changes in the organization of work. Looking at work by MvRdV, Christian Kerez, and Toyo Ito, but also at a broad catalogue of built examples, we will try to construct a map of possible solutions for housing beyond reproductive labour – and, perhaps, beyond type itself.

3. OM Ungers: Dialectical Principles of Design

Sam Jacoby

An important contributor to the European debate on architecture’s relationship to the city after the Modern Movement was Oswald Mathias Ungers (1926–2007). Coinciding with his appointment at the Technische Universität Berlin, he became interested in questions of typological organisation and morphological transformation, positing that they are related by dialectical principles. Reviewing a number of key lectures, writings and projects from 1963 to 1976 by Ungers, I will discuss how his interest in design as a serial problem of explicit formal and implicit social transformations led him to understand the design of the urban as conditional to a typological reasoning of architecture.

4. Urban Instability: Typological Reasoning, the Housing Project and the transformation of notions of Public Benefit

Tarsha Finney

Both the 1934 Brounn +Muschenheim (B+M) slum clearance proposal for fifty blocks of Manhattan, and the 1973 Twin Parks (TP) Project in the Bronx involved the use of eminent domain and the forced acquisition of land. Architectural historical accounts of the transformation of the housing project typically place these two projects on either side of a transformation in the field in the late 1960’s. B+M is seen to be the first move of European derived Modern Movement Housing which it has been argued came to dominate the city through the twentieth century, while TP is held up as one of the first moves away from this toward the contextual; a move understood to be on the one hand a return back toward the existing and traditional city, and on the other the result of a more complex political context and financing relationship between state and civil society partners.

However, what both of these projects have in common is their procurement via the vehicle of the Public Authority. The PA had considerable powers in terms of eminent domain, the use of which depended on the establishment of public use and public benefit. Throughout the twentieth century this use was constantly tested in the state and federal courts on the occasion of the coming into form of the housing project, and as part of a definitional question regarding the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. Here ‘public benefit’ emerged to include economic benefit via a constitutive dispute around the concept of blight. Contrary to historical accounts that argue that the housing project is a simple reflection of a series of economic, political and social forces external to it, in fact this process shows that the coming into form of the housing project involved a considerably more complex iterative testing that linked spatial questions with questions of the size of governance, and the very definition of concepts within the US constitution.

5. Radical Distance: the role of contingency in contemporary urban typologies

Chris Schulte

Artefacts accumulated by what might be called ‘the city’—i.e. the specific conditions within which architecture and urban topography act as a framework for communicative associations—often mirror the conceptions which underpin civil society at different points in a city’s existence.

Until relatively recently it was assumed that, by and large, urban buildings occupied discrete plots within a block and therefore they assumed direct relationships with the street or streets they fronted and the neighbouring properties they abutted. In this way, the particular decorum of a street was acknowledged and neighbourly relations were ‘regulated’ through carefully choreographed media, including, for instance, the party-wall (Borie and Denieul).

The absolute freedom of an individual plot-owner or user was by its nature tempered by and contingent on many factors outside the owner’s control. Freedom was thereby modified within reason. Boundaries were tested (literally and figuratively), and resolved through the urban practices of dialogue, argument, compromise, etc. The rather ‘complex’ streets and blocks that were made through this kind of heuristic process perhaps reflected and promoted a collective way of being civil (sometimes through the very demonstration of incivility). Civic decency is, perhaps, what provides a high street with its capacity to belong to a population of people who mostly don’t know each other and probably never will – but who nonetheless look out for each other, and identify with each other on some level. This intermediate condition, between the extremes of the individual on the one hand and the statistical abstractions of ‘the population as a whole’ on the other, is seldom acknowledged, or, it would seem, explicitly valued (Black).

More recently, contingent and often ‘self-regulating’ negotiations between plot holders were supplemented with, or pre-empted by, more blanket forms of legislation. The role of defining what makes a good neighbour has increasingly become a concern for the State. Themes relating to public safety (spread of fire) eventually branched into those of general health (penetration of light, fresh air) and privacy (‘overlooking’, containment of noise). New block and building types were formulated in response: both intentionally and unintentionally whole cities and urban districts were posited, and sometimes constructed, which adhered to new principles of urban appropriateness (Periton). In the process, artefacts such as the party-wall were often suppressed in favour of new ways of building in the city which eliminated or reduced the sort of contingency previously associated with standard urban practice.

A number of contemporary urban projects suggest a further radicalisation of this tendency; ways have been found to ‘pre-negotiate’ certain modes of development through a disengagement with their immediate physical context, and has allowed additional development freedom while by-passing the uncertainties inherent in practical debate. Whether we look to London, New York, Paris, Dubai or Mumbai, we increasingly see a direct inversion of the urban tendencies which reflected and regulated civic transactions for centuries.

Using two contemporary case studies this paper proposes to examine recent urban processes in terms of a ‘politics of separation’ and attempts to uncover how these tendencies both mirror and undermine current conceptions of civility.

6. Cultural Buildings and Urban Areas

Pavlos Philippou

Even a cursory review of contemporary urban spatial strategies attests that the field is largely driven by two opposing dispositions. On the one hand, there is abundant work promoting place-making, which is rooted upon a sociological and geographical understanding of local identity, in conjunction with a design emphasis upon the city’s public realm, all from an environmentally-responsible perspective. On the other hand, there is roughly equal output advocating for a profound revaluation of the field, since the world is apparently confronted by unmanageable urban growth, which supposedly defies our existing conceptual tools for critical evaluation and design projection. While the former fosters ‘humane’ architecture, regional sensitivity and public participation, the latter strives for an inventive approach at the intersection between global politics, emergent technologies and abstract beauty. Notwithstanding the numerous variations of these two dispositions, what they generally seem to be missing is a sophisticated understating of the intricate and reciprocal relation between architecture and the city.

To clarify with an example: the pervasive ‘Bilbao effect’ neologism, a usual focus in the literature of both dispositions, is regularly deployed as a synonym for a single building of such outstandingly affirmative reception that it is perceived to transform the entirety of the city. However, an acquaintance with the late twentieth-century plans for the regeneration of Bilbao will confirm that the Guggenheim Museum was just a fraction of a comprehensive strategy that sought to transform the post-industrial condition into a city of culture. In other words, the typical employment of the ‘Bilbao effect’ is rather inattentive to the notion of urban area – as well as that of the city of parts – as an integral component of a multiscalar urbanism in which architecture exerts an instrumental force. Yet, the neologism is more diligent in conceiving the special role cultural buildings play in strategies of urban development and regeneration. By being consistently deployed as keystones in urban strategies, cultural buildings seem well-placed – if not inescapably positioned – to anchor and spearhead the outlook of the areas in which they belong. Through a series of both textual and design references, this paper proposes to examine the richness cultural buildings bring into their urban areas.

7. Lawrence Barth


Katharina Borsi is an architect and urbanist with a Diploma from the Bartlett School of Architecture and a doctorate from the Architectural Association. She has taught at the Architectural Association, the Mackintosh School of Architecture and since 2007 at the University of Nottingham. She is the course director of the MArch Architecture (ARB/RIBA Part 2). Her research interests are broad and span the history and theory of architecture and urbanism, sustainable and resilient cities, design research and urban design consultancy.

As an academic she has published chapters, journal papers and presented at major international conferences in the areas of architectural humanities and urbanism, housing and sustainable cities. With her design research studio, Katharina has been involved in a number of live projects and resultant master planning consultancies. She has also a large PhD group undertaking primarily urban research projects.

Maria Shéhérazade Giudici earned her PhD from Delft University in 2014. Her thesis The Street as a Project: The Space of the City and the Construction of the Modern Subject is a critique of the contemporary idea of public space and an attempt to rethink the ‘void between the buildings’ as the object of political and architectural intentions. Between 2005 and 2011 Maria worked in Bucharest-based office BAU and collaborated with DONIS Rotterdam and Dogma, specializing in large-scale urban developments and mass housing projects. As well as teaching core design studios at the Berlage Institute and BIArch Barcelona, Maria has been a Diploma Unit master at the Architectural Association since 2011, and a First Year studio master since 2012. Maria’s writings on space and subjectivity have appeared in international publications such as Perspecta, AA Files and Domus, as well as in several collective books; she co-edited with Pier Vittorio Aureli the upcoming book Rituals and Walls: The Politics of Sacred Space (AA Press, 2016). Since 2014, Maria runs Black Square, a publishing and educational platform based in Milan.

Sam Jacoby is a chartered architect with a Diploma from the Architectural Association School of Architecture and a doctorate from the Technische Universität Berlin. He has taught at the University of Nottingham, the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London and the Architectural Association, where he is currently Director of the MPhil in Architecture and Urban Design (Projective Cities) programme and a PhD supervisor. He is a tutor in the RCA Architecture programme.

Jacoby is author of Drawing Architecture and the Urban (forthcoming), co-edited Typological Formations: Renewable Building Types and the City (2007) and guest edited the Architectural Design special issue ‘Typological Urbanism’ (2011) and the Urban Flux special issue on ‘New Design Research in Architecture and Urban Design’ (2015).

Tarsha Finney is an architect, urbanist, curator and academic practicing and teaching between Australia and the United Kingdom. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney and has a visiting position at the Royal College of Art, London teaching across graduate design studio, professional practice and histories and theories. Her research interests cross several areas: domesticity, the housing project and the role of multi-residential housing in the constitution of the city since the 19th century with specific knowledge of the cities of New York, Beijing and Sydney; architectural typology and notions of disciplinary specificity and autonomy; and the architectural urbanism of innovation in cities.

Whilst completing a Masters degree in Housing and Urbanism at the Architectural Association, Tarsha won the Michael Ventris Memorial Award. She was a Visiting Research Scholar at the University of Technology, Sydney while undertaking her doctoral studies at the AA from 2004-2007. In Australia, Tarsha has been an advisor to State government on issues to do with aged care and multi-generational housing, and she is a regular guest critic at architecture schools in locally and internationally, such as the Architectural Association, the Bartlett, the RCA and Nottingham University.

Chris Schulte is an architect and urbanist practicing in London. He is Project Director at Publica.

Pavlos Philippou is an architect engaged in practice, teaching and research, whose work focuses on the transactional agency of architecture – via a theoretically and historically informed understanding of its disciplinary autonomy – in the life of cities. He has been working with J+A Philippou since 1999, while his design work has been published and exhibited internationally – especially a winning Europan entry. Furthermore to his professional activities at the office, Pavlos is currently the President of the Cypriot Planning Board.

In terms of research output, he has acted as a peer reviewer for scholarly publications, has organised symposia and curated exhibitions, while he is in the process of completing a paper and a book review for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Architecture. Pavlos is currently adjunct faculty both at the University of Nicosia and the University of Cyprus, while in the past has taught at London’s Architectural Association

(AA). Finally, he has participated in design juries-reviews, has led workshops and has delivered lectures in numerous universities around the world – mainly within the United Kingdom, but also Cyprus, Greece and Australia. He has completed all three of his degrees – i.e. Diploma, MA (Housing & Urbanism, Distinction) and Ph.D. – at the AA.

Lawrence Barth is Professor in the Housing and Urbanism Programme at the Graduate School of the Architectural Association. His professional practice and core research interests bring architecture onto the terrain of contemporary urban strategy. Mr. Barth has also lectured in the Graduate School’s Landscape Urbanism Programme, developing the political and strategic component of its curriculum, and in 2004, he initiated the formation of a sustained research programme in architectural urbanism at the PhD level. Mr. Barth works independently as a consultant urbanist for cities, design practices and research institutes. He has collaborated with diverse architects and landscape architects on large scale urban projects, and has assumed the lead role in overseeing a multidisciplinary refinement of the central district within the one-north Masterplan for a next generation innovation environment in Singapore. He has published widely in architecture and sociology, and is a frequently invited lecturer and critic on the role of architecture and landscape in the contemporary urban process. He participates in an international research network on the growth of global megacities and the urban transformations associated with the knowledge economy. He is a member of the Governing Board of INTA the International Urban Development Association, a member of the UK’s Academy of Urbanism and on the advisory panel of MITKE, a European research network on the sustainable intensification of industrial territories.

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