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AGENCY - Transformative Research into Architectural Practice and Education

The AGENCY research team functions as an umbrella for research activities related to transformative research into architectural education and practice. Agency also serves as a forum for publicizing teaching, seminars, lectures and other activities of interest to pedagogues and practitioners, and as point of access to information for prospective graduate students interested in these areas of research. Agency welcomes academic visitors to the University with an interest in the contemporary role of architecture, its capacity for transformative action, urban intervention and agency in the city.

Selected projects


Education

TAKING PART/ TRANSFORMATIVE PRACTICES IN THE CITY – Workshop as part of the IUAV summer school 2011

Taking Part was a collaboration between the Sheffield University based research centre Agency, the multidisciplinary Veneto based practice Fram_menti, a small group of students from Sheffield, a large group of students from IAUV and a variety of participants, from city officials to residents, from the city of Vicenza. Coming from an architectural background, but interested in exploring ways of collective and transformative practices we wanted to explore, expand and stretch the spectrum of the tools, tactics and techniques that enable multiple readings of the city. The workshop investigated what it means to ‘know’ a place, both as an individual and communally, as an ‘expert’ and a ‘non-expert’, and how that knowledge informs design and urban planning. Against the often static and documentary production of site plans and site surveys, we explored alternate, co-created, multiple and propositional site readings encompassing social networks, informal economies, potential futures, memories and fictions.

The locus of the workshop and the collaboration was the Quartiere Laghetto Dal Verme just north of the historic city centre of Palladian Vicenza. The area itself, a psychological and real island bounded by agricultural fields on three sides and a vast American military base on a third side, had been developed in the 1960s and 70s and on the surface hasn’t changed much since. Looking more closely, however, there are issues & frictions resulting from social, economic and political demands on the area. Newer residents have different expectations of Laghetto than those that have been living there all their lives. There is pressure to fill in the gaps between Laghetto and the city as the demand for new housing and services increases.

We proposed to look at these issues not through the imposition of a masterplan – an authoritative plan developed by architects and planners – but through the development of a userplan: a device or tool that is shaped by those actually living and working in the area and that can take in the multitude of possible futures. We observed, documented and constructed communal and personal relationships with the site working from within the field; seeking, initiating and fostering new and dynamic collaborations, crossing boundaries and engaging in an immediate and pertinent urban discourse.

The different relationship with and approach to the site was mirrored also in the way that Agency and Fram_menti set up the workshop, both spatially and intellectually: rows of tables and chairs at our base at IUAV were reconfigured to form more dynamic and non-hierarchical layouts allowing spaces for group discussions, plenaries and presentations and students worked on scenarios collaboratively from the beginning of the workshop until its conclusion; they looked at and explored specific topics through the application of various creative survey techniques that engaged with Laghetto and its inhabitants. As a consequence, no single group work presents a comprehensive picture in itself, but the complex picture of the area comes from the combination of several or all of them that allows for different and alternative readings of the area. The product of this process was represented as a series of immediate, mid-term and long-term propositions and strategies which highlighted the necessity to accommodate change and afford contingency in any future urban plan. These scenarios were communicated and displayed through a series of cubes, designed to contain each group’s survey, strategies and proposals.

ECO-NOMADIC SCHOOL

The nomadic and temporary school for mutual learning and teaching of eco-civic practices in different regions of Europe reinforces democratic values by the transfer of skills and knowledge on issues of resilience in different urban contexts, involving participants of diverse ages and social and cultural backgrounds. The project which runs for 2 years (2011-2013) is based on a partnership between 4 organisations already activating in the transmission of ecological skills and knowledge: (AAA-FR, AGENCY/ UoS-UK, MyVillage-AL and FCDL-RO) and takes support from the EU network RHYZOM, in which these partners are involved. The project has received support from the EC lifelong learning programme Grundtvig, The ECO-NOMADIC SCHOOL will materialise through a number of workshops, exhibitions and publications which constitute pedagogic material for a wide public.

ECOLOGY Theory Forum 2009

The Theory Forum is an annual two-day event held at the School of Architecture as part of the M.Arch Theory and Research module. In recent years, this event has been organised and led by staff of the School of Architecture.?However, for Theory Forum 09 - ECOLOGY, AGENCY proposed to actively engage the M.Arch students in the processes of designing, planning and organising the event. This included peer-reviewing submissions to the call for papers, peer-reviewing their own submissions for the module assessment, and co-authoring an article for a scholarly journal. By doing this, Theory Forum 09 was able to integrate inquiry-based learning through a theoretical framework of critical pedagogy. This initiative built on existing practices within the School of Architecture and aimed to enable and empower students, through discourse with staff and their peers, to become involved in designing the content and delivery of their curriculum. Through these activities, students are able to form a wider understanding of the aims of their course their potential roles within it as well as fostering better connections between the studio and lecture-based parts of the course.

The Theory Forum 09 theme, developed by the students, was ECOLOGY. It explored how architecture engages with the concept of ECOLOGY. It aimed to create a testing ground: "a cross-disciplinary platform of events that stimulates activity encourages discussion and develops theory between a diversity of research disciplines." The event was conceived as "an evolving habitat of adaptable spaces with diverse talks, workshops and interventions."?The forum was part-funded through a CILASS IBL Grant and was organised by the MArch students Juliet Sakyi-Ansah, Robert Sharples, Natalie Lunt in conjunction with AGENCY.

In relation to the Forum, a profile issue of field: was published.

Research

AGENCY has initiated a number of projects at the intersection between research, education, practice and civic action. Most of our projects promote participative research methods, instigating collaborations beyond the academic institution. In 2006-2007 we conducted a EU funded Culture 2000 project called European Platform for Alternative Research and Action on the City (PEPRAV) in partnership with atelier d´architecture autogérée (Paris), Recyclart (Brussels), Metrozones (Berlin). PEPRAV involved a network of practices conducting alternative action and research on the city. It included artist groups, media activists, cultural workers, software designers, architects, students, researchers, neighbourhood organizations and city dwellers.

Over the course of one year, PEPRAV worked in three different locations - Sheffield, Paris and Brussels - and organised a series of workshops, actions and symposia that dealt with alternative pedagogy, subjective and collective cartography, methodologies of action research, urban tactics and urban interstices. The Platform published a website (www.peprav.net) and a collective book, Urban ACT, which assembled the work of twenty-two groups and a number of theoretical texts addressing the issue of agency in the city. All the groups identified by the PEPRAV project work locally and within specific contexts, yet at the same time they are together reinventing traditional urban practices. Their commonality lies in their desire to be not only critical of ways of living and working in their cities, critical of traditional professional structures but also to be creative in proposing alternatives, in being transformative and generative within their particular contexts.??

Rhyzom - collaborative network for local cultural production and trans-local dissemination was another EU funded project held by Agency in partnership with aaa (coordinator FR), Public Works(UK), PS2(UK) and Platform Garanti/ Cultural Agencies (TR). The project consisted in a series of field trips, workshops and publications which were meant to map local cultural practices across Europe and reinforce them through a collaborative platform animated by the core partners. One important output of the project was the book Trans-Local-Act: Cultural practices within and across, which presents reflections and practices around issues of local and trans-local cultural production within different contexts in Europe.

Practice

AGENCY is interested in education and research which address new models of architectural practice to confront the big social and political questions of the future. Such models need to be more collaborative, participative and ethically driven and address the social and political responsibility of the architect in a period of rapid global environmental and economic change.??We have developed a series of research projects on these issues, for example, PEPRAV and collaborated with innovative practices such as atelierd architecture, public works, GLAS, citymined, PS2, MetroZones, and Cultural Agency. We have also participated in one of the pioneering pedagogical programmes developed by the School of Architecture, which encourage students to take professional and civic initiatives and explore new forms of practice: the Live Projects.

Live Projects are student-led projects, happening in real time with real people, in a real context. Architecture students work in teams with a range of clients including local community groups, charities, organisations and regional authorities. In some cases the projects involve actual building, in others design of urban master-plans or consultation exercises. We see the Live Projects as important in educating architects of the future. Too often architectural education establishes a set of remote values which are then used to define the profession; these centre on the myth of the architect as an individual, male, hero-genius clinging to a set of ideals that are often removed from the concerns of the real world. By contrast, the Live Projects develop collaborative techniques and skills in communication and participatory practice – all approaches that are essential and absolutely relevant to the future practitioner.

Live Projects that AGENCY has mentored or initiated

EcoRoof (Paris 2009-2010)
Cultural Agencies (Istanbul, 2009-2010)
Remote Control - Reimagining cultural accommodation in rural border regions (Northern Ireland, 2009-2010)
IYO - Inconspicuous Yellow Office - the live project 'live project' (Sheffield, 2006-2007)

Key outcomes

Members of the Research Centre AGENCY have published articles individually and collectively on the topic of agency in leading architecture journals (ARQ, Footprint) and have also produced a book of material drawn from the Architectural Humanities Research Association conference hosted by the AGENCY Research Centre: Agency: Working with Uncertain Architectures (Routledge 2009). As a group, however we are keen to develop a context where our work and research can be reflected on, but also where reflection on the societal conditions in which our practice as architects is engaged might be possible. We are therefore interested in a space of creative and critical production and not the habitual display of knowledge. The journal field: was set up in 2006 by members of the nascent Research Centre AGENCY with this in mind-field: is an international peer-reviewed journal published under a creative commons license and free without subscription. Our intention with introducing this journal was to make the highest quality research in architecture as accessible as possible.

The inaugural issue of field: Architecture and Indeterminacy, was focused on the disparate fields of architectural practice, education and discourse. The second issue Alternate Currents dealt with architecture as a critical and embedded praxis that is much more complex and varied than is often portrayed. The third issue Agency and the Praxis of Activism investigated the broad range of possible engagements in architecture. A forth issue focusses on Ecology and a fifth issue on Education. field: continues to offer an open forum and shared space in which to address the ways in which architecture is a dynamic practice. It includes outputs of AGENCY events, workshops and activities in Sheffield, research and thinking in academia, and beyond, in networks and in practices, making connections across diverse fields of knowledge and experience. The journal field: is not an empty location waiting to be filled but hopefully will continue to be discursively formed and reformed through our practices of research and engagement.

Selected activities and events

In November 2008 AGENCY hosted the 5th AHRA (Architectural Humanities Research Association) international conference at the School of Architecture, giving it also the theme Agency, and hoping that the event would energise the relationships between the humanities, the architectural profession, and society. We wanted to explore ways of understanding current architectural needs, possibilities, and capacities for action. Humanities research has a tendency to be inward looking: Agency´s ambition was to redirect the research towards greater engagement. We hoped to shift the focus away from the objects and processes of architectural production towards an investigation of their wider context and possibilities. We wanted to learn from the papers presented what is meant by `action´ in the different contexts of research and practice. We hoped to discover what kinds of activities were relevant and under what conditions, what prevented the effective exercise of agency, and what the necessary tactics for action might be. We wanted also to address the urgent social and political questions of our time concerning survival and the environment.

Agency also considered the conference structure in itself as an exercise of agency. It was therefore conceived not only as an academic conference but also as a social and spatial event. Indeed, the social, spatial and cognitive productions were continuous overlapping and non-hierarchical. The conference was considered within the school's pedagogical framework and integrated into the teaching curriculum of the MArch course. At the same time, spaces outside the School of Architecture were used and transformed, in such a way that other users of the University could interact with and benefit from the event. In addition to exhibitions and the fringe event programme the event has also generated several publications including a volume in the AHRA Critiques Series, Agency: Working with Uncertain Architectures (London: Routledge, 2009).

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Team Members

Carolyn Butterworth
Cristina Cerulli
Florian Kossak
Doina Petrescu
Tatjana Schneider

Stephen Walker
Leo Care

Nishat Awan
Renata Tyszczuk