Upper Ground, proposal by Yemin Yin, 2009 www.ma-ud-thesis.blogspot.com


The MA Urban Design is the design intensive masters for alternative urbanisms in the School of Architecture Computing and Engineering at the University of East London. The course is growing out of the School’s longstanding preoccupation with urban and landscape intervention. It is set up to develop both intellectual and practical skills for urban designers and architects. Through interrelated design and theory projects, we search for alternative solutions to complex urban conditions.

The course sets out to explore and develop new forms of urban practice in cities undergoing critical change, where conventional thinking struggles to respond to uncertainties and the necessity for imaginative thinking. It aims to prepare students to work in different geographical settings, within different urban agendas and economies through working on live projects in collaboration with local and international agencies. We engage directly with communities, sites and contexts, to be able to develop both practical and innovative urban designs, from the scale of regions and cities, all the way through to neighbourhoods and building scales.

This approach is informed by local and international urban practice, but also emphasizes students‘ individual interests, abilities and intuition, to explore and develop new forms of urbanism. Asking questions, like who is building cities and how to build cities, allows us to open our understanding about finer visible and invisible forces. We research diverse methodologies, like the use of tolerances and time-lines, to enable more dynamic and generative urban processes, allowing a much wider range of people to take part in building cities.

The course provides a platform for the individual student to develop an expertise and an approach to sustainable urban design through the development of urban design strategies and research. As more and more emphasis is put on the importance of sustainable developments by governments and professional bodies, such knowledge and skills will be of increasing usefulness to the students in their professional lives. The programme prepares for work in the public as well as in the private sector.

The MA Urban Design welcomes students as fellow innovators in a programme that is both visionary and hands on in seeking to develop urban futures that are sustainable, distinctive and enjoyable.

Lower Lea Valley in East London by Charlotte Harris, 2008

Context and Methodology

The history of civilisation is in many ways closely linked to cities. From small agglomerations, they have emerged as a global condition. While some cities or regions shrink, large parts of inhabitable ground are undergoing rapid urban restructuring and growth throughout the world. At the end of the 19th Century, less than 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. Now, with around 3 billion urban inhabitants worldwide, almost half of them do, a trend that is increasing.

Today, we only begin to understand the complex interrelationships of humans with themselves and our planet as a whole. Science, art and a variety of other disciplines have helped us to sketch a more comprehensive picture of us being shaped and in return shaping our world around us. Nevertheless, current global developments and future prospects raise pressing questions. They demand imagination and alternative proposals, for example relating to modes of living, future of city building practice, nature of scale or environmental systems.

A closer look at the school‘s immediate context allows us a deeper insight into current dynamics, as it compresses and intensifies a number of global processes. The course is on the UEL Docklands Campus and it is located in one of the largest and most diverse redevelopment areas of Europe, East London and the Thames Gateway. It takes advantage of the University’s London location in this global laboratory, with work on development sites and links to the culture of the city. Many forces, which shaped cities around the world in recent decades, can be studied here. Industrial and urban restructuring, modes of transportation, containerisation, regeneration, different housing and planning approaches, migration and appearance of service industries, like global financial institutions, are some of many dynamics present here. The implied urban issues extend far beyond London and give students the opportunity to explore and work creatively, from the local to the global scale.

Centre Pompidou in Paris

With each design project, the students research particularities of social and spatial contexts, to be able to make places in an invigorating way. The acknowledgement of spaces that speak about something more than just measurable dimensions, requires an intensive process of students‘ engagement. A more profound way of working with people, buildings and urban space may allow students to read and understand the extraordinary in the ordinary. This aims at developing very unique design propositions by identifying a sense of place. For example, the understanding of specific urban forms in relation to social habits may allow us to give a more complex structure and appearance to cities. In this respect, the course examines also the boundaries between urban and landscape practice, through emphasising their interdependence. The relationship of topography, climate, light and materiality may give rise to specific solutions to generic questions. The making of a place is about the careful dialogue between real and imagined qualities of urban life. This process also brings about a neglected notion of sustainability, the value of design itself. Both, students‘ way of studying and the subject of study itself are allowed to have distinct qualities.

The variety of urban issues starts to explain why a range of scales matters. Scale is about size. But it is also about proportion, distance and proximity, with other words the very relationship of things in space to one another. That space is potentially vast and urban designers have to be able to deal with this more than most other professions. With some decay, human interaction may influence very distant locations. A small intervention can have a rippling effect within a system. At the same time, larger contexts may be felt directly as a bodily experience. For example we can read a city through its materiality. Almost each detail in a city bears traces of it‘s much larger context. The course work is centred on the potential of scale relationships and we explore a variety of spatial conditions, their boundaries and edges as well as their complex interdependencies. Students search and uncover synergies, to be able to make coherent spaces, from urban through to detail scales. It is a creative process that often results in most unusual design responses.

"Cityspace... our performance as spatial beings takes place at many different scales, from the body, or what the poet Adrienne Rich once called ‘the geography closest in‘, to a whole series of more distant geographies ranging from rooms and buildings, homes and neighbourhoods, to cities and regions, states and nations, and ultimately the whole earth - the human geography furthest out." Ed Soja in Postmetropolis, 2000

Site section and plan by Charlotte Harris, 2007

In the MA Urban Design, we explore how urban designs enable people to engage in cities in variety of ways. Over the last few centuries, cities have diversified and we can observe very different urban designs side by side. As mentioned before, this is especially true in East London, where the diversity of housing forms alone speak about changing societies, cultures and economics. For example, people inhabit and adapt buildings that are traces from past societies. Beside it, we find a housing scheme that may question what a city actually is or we can see a building not for inhabitants, but as a commodity in a speculative market. Very different approaches have been hailed at one point and have been condemned at another. Nevertheless, the ones that have successfully survived in the long term, have embraced a whole wealth of urban design practices, a matrix of sometimes even contradicting issues. They might allow neighbourliness and strangeness, stability and change or beauty and ugliness. Above all, they allow very different kind of people to take part in a city that is more than just the sum of its parts, more than the sum of its buildings or inhabitants. The critical mass and proximity of people in urban space allows for a variety of generative energies, a crucial source to build cities.

The course explores the potentials of these energies in urban design and architecture. Spatial form and design principles may play a vital role in enabling people, especially the ones who have formerly been excluded from urban life or city building processes. As part of this interest, we ask questions of what sustainable communities are and how to design and build them. For example, the course investigates potentials of community workshops as design mechanisms or how people could build their own homes collaboratively and change them according to individual needs. In such a design approach, one can always find stimulating friction between many interests, ideas and visions. We look at participation in a much broader spectrum, from design and decision making all the way to the moment when the city takes care of itself, when urban designers are almost no longer needed.

CD-G Workshop with members of the local community at the AVA, 2008

"The neatness of architecture is its seduction; it defines, excludes, limits, separates from the ‘rest‘ - but it also consumes. It exploits and exhausts the potentials that can be generated finally only by urbanism, and that only the specific imagination of urbanism can invent and renew."
Rem Koolhaas "Whatever Happened to Urbanism" in SMLXL

In the MA Urban Design we research methodologies from around the world. Architectural and urban design methodology is only to some extent similar and it differs in many other respects. Certain ways of doing are simply common sense, while others demand each student‘s creative ability to explore new design territories. Especially urban designs, for a whole range of scales and for participation, do not just look at the idea of one, but at the ideas of many. Cities are open systems, yet they need definition, not to lose their very way of functioning. This brings about a crucial dialogue between the tolerance to do something and the determination of a framework. Furthermore, cities, human environments and subsequently urban designs are subject to different temporal modes and change. We use time as an active design element, a dimension that allows more dynamic processes.

Students explore methodologies on many different levels, physically as well as programmatically. We use models, drawings, photography, movies and texts to visualise and describe complex situations, parameters, possibilities and processes. As part of this approach, urban design and theory are treated as one field of study. The involved issues in urban design are very complex and social and spatial layers are interrelated in many different ways. We have to work with our mind, hands and intuition in order to be able to navigate between the various complexities of cities and to be able to develop a more critical judgement. On our journey to building cities, we can experience and touch real ones and we can simulate imagined cities with scenarios and bring them alive through our way of designing.

The world is changing dramatically and cities play a crucial role in this transformation. Cities are a collective ‘project‘ and it can‘t be just the one of an individual. But it needs our individual energies, creativities and visions, where each design has a place in this world that is for all of us.

Olympic Boundary, diverse timelines of spatial and human relationships by Charlotte Harris, 2008


Cityness - Cities are our critical starting ground and ongoing territory. Cityness is hereby a form of being together and it is expressed in an interrelated matrix of cultural, social, spatial, environmental and time-based layers. By sharing space and spatial habit, cityness is more than the sum of its parts.

Tectonic - Is the understanding of physical forces that have given rise to cities, a constructed and material reality.

Tolerance - To be able to link, connect, and suture parts together. The notion of tolerance is a measure of the articulation of physical and social propositions in cities and their degree of fit into existing urban contexts. Tolerance is hereby a question of material, technical and programmatic precision.

Process - Refers to both, the practice of urban design and the inherent time-based processes of the build environment. The way of doing things has a relationship with what we do and produce. Cities, human environments and subsequently urban designs are subject to different temporal modes and change.

Participation - To have a share or to take part in a range of scales. It enables integrative social and spatial processes and addresses research, design, planning, decision making, building, inhabitation and management.

Course Structure

The MA Urban Design forms part of an enriched Masters in Architecture programme within the School of Architecture and the Visual Arts, including MSc Computing & Design, MA Sustainability & Design, MA Interpretation and Theories and the design intensive MA Landscape Architecture. The MA Urban Design takes advantage of this diverse expertise through ongoing interdisciplinary collaborations.

The MA Urban Design is organised in two parallel taught modules followed by the Thesis module. Both, the urban design studio www.ma-ud-design.blogspot.com as well as the lecture and seminar series in urban theory www.ma-ud-theory.blogspot.com, work hand in hand. They form a common educational platform for personal research and explorations. After successful completion, students begin the Thesis work www.ma-ud-thesis.blogspot.com. It is self-directed and comprises individual designs and theoretical writings in an interdependent manner.

Public Space and Private Ground in Shoreditch - Mapping by Yemin Yin, 2008-09

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