How do we know? Who knows? A history of enacting spaces of learning. Julia Udall & Sam Vardy

Spatial practice and urban studies have seen a diversification and politicisation over recent decades. Although professional and institutional forces still dominate, approaches grounded in relational thinking, activism, art practice, socially engaged initiatives and counter-economic strategies have a powerful lineage. Entwined within these histories of spatial practice is a narrative concerned with crucial questions of how we might learn about such spatial praxis; about the historical and contemporary urban condition and the relation of the subject within it; about future imaginaries of what it might mean to be, or to become, an architect, urban designer, or spatial practitioner; and about learning how to learn.

Global crises around capitalism and climate change, including extreme inequality, mass displacement of people and devastation of biodiversity, make urgent the need to take responsibility and understand the potential agencies of a spatial practitioner. At the same time, the increasing bureaucratisation and the limited imagination of the neoliberal institution about what society might be are reducing the scope of educational programmes. This limitation extends to the understanding of the roles and competencies such practitioners may require, and where and how they might intervene.

How might we make better accounts and take responsibility in the way we learn, practice and research? Such complex concerns are not limited to one domain and, as per Guattari, require operating transversally. This means working across disciplines and practices, uniting practice and theory and bringing together the social, political and pedagogical:

“Learning to think differently is both a political and a pedagogical project since both pedagogy and politics involve processes of change and transformation. Indeed, change and transformation are critical in the area of environmental education and environmental politics, both of which […] presume and reinstate a separation between what constitutes ‘us’ and the ‘environment’.”

Applications of a mobile classroom. Photo by Abelson.

The Spaces of Learning traversed and established by Urban School Ruhr in response to these conditions reflect a historical lineage of critical activity that transposes pedagogical experiments within and across the urban realm. It is the specificity of this relationship that we would like to pursue in particular as a line of flight through this complex entanglement of the spatialities of alternate pedagogies. If pedagogy is, as Paulo Freire suggests, about challenging relations and subject positions, spatiality and the urban are crucial, since, as Margaret Kohn states: “[s]pace is one of the key ways in which the body perceives power relations. The physical environment is political mythology realised, embodied, materialised.”

Such an approach and finding out is necessarily a collective endeavour, which involves experiential, critical and projective actions. One less known, but important example is the pedagogical work of Célestin Freinet. In rural France in the 1920s and 30s, Freinet brought a printing press into the primary school classroom that he taught in. This press was to be used by the children to collectively print their own stories and information based on their explorations out in their local spaces and which they had gathered together on “learning walks”. Thus, the children carried out collective processes of exploration, gathering, reflecting, editing and writing before printing newspapers and journals of their work. These documents were then sent in the mail to other local and regional schools to share their findings and ideas with other children; sharing their efforts and supporting the learning of others.

We see Freinet’s work as a crucial precursor to the notion of spaces of learning at USR, as it embodies the complex, anarchistic and anti-essentialist view of both pedagogy and of spatial practice that underlies these endeavours. “New assemblages began to be created […] replacing traditional, institutionally designed directives and government mandated forms of teaching and learning […] The end result was a release of new desire that escaped the impasse of the State.”[1] Freinet’s work was influential in the development of what became the field of Institutional Pedagogy (as conceived by the brothers Jean and Fernand Oury) and also inspired Felix Guattari’s work on transversality and the production of subjectivity outside institutional mechanisms (specifically his experiments to allow roles to be changed at the La Borde clinic where he worked, including between patient and analyst).

The process that Freinet coordinated based around the printing press was radical and is relevant here because it encourages and permits assemblages of collective activity without prescribing outcome or content; it was “utilised in such a way that the act of learning became entwined with a process of collective social organisation […] transforming the space of [the] school and [the] students’ work into a source of micropolitical activity.”

Official book launch of Aristide Antonas ‘Archipelago of Protocols’ on a public reading on the stairs of Philopappou Hill – under the Greek Acropolis. Photo by Gary Hurst

Better known than Freinet for his ideas about education and the city was the anarchist educator and architect Colin Ward, whose books Streetwork: The Exploding School [2] and The Child in the City (Pantheon, 1979) emerged from a pedagogical tradition that brought anarchist ideas to education, allowing children to have a different relationship to their learning and understanding that was fundamentally tied to the city: “[the] city is in itself an environmental education and can be used to provide one, whether we are thinking of learning through the city, learning about the city, learning to use the city, or to control or change the city.” [4]

Ward’s work “created an entirely new discourse and practice” about (in this case, but relevant far beyond) primary school education by showing how learning in, from, with and for the city, in the spaces and with the various actors of the city, could offer a radically different experience of learning. Not least, Ward’s work encourages us to con- sider the potential of the city space, as he imagined multiple uses for streets (in response to the dominance of the motor car). This raises crucial ideas about the social pedagogical potential of the street – what can we do there and what kind of learning does the street/city make possible or encourage? Ward’s contribution did not only offer alternate pedagogy, but also started to critique the professional and political authority of the production and use of urban space. The subtitle of Ward and Fyson’s book was informed by a report called Environmental Education that was published in 1970 and which suggested schools “exploding into the environment”. For Ward, “there was never a more apposite moment for such an explosion. For theirs is not only a crisis of confidence in the school system; there is also a crisis of confidence in the wisdom of the decision-makers who shape our urban environment.” This highlights how initiatives such as USR are politically challenging the way that urban/spatial professionals, as well as other actors, are constructed, how they understand both themselves and their object/subject of study, and the epistemology of the city – how do we know? Who knows?

These questions, following the work of Ward and Freire among others, inspired a range of alternative approaches to architectural education, which, as argued by Beatriz Colomina following her Radical Pedagogy research project, significantly informed the wider architectural discourse in the late twentieth century. Colomina suggests that these experiments in education constitute forms of architectural practice in their own right. “Pedagogy operated as an active agent in the processes with which it was concerned, rather than through modes of detached or complacent reflection.” Cedric Price’s influential tenure at the Architectural Association in London in the 1970s saw studio projects conceived as manifestos or educational tools and learning as holistic process that did not just occur within the academy. Architecture was understood as process not product and a building was not always the answer.[5]

Rooted in this historical lineage, such pedagogical experiments as those at USR seek to mobilise and enact spaces of learning which are socially and relationally active. This requires taking a position that acknowledges fluid relations between subjects and the city, characterising those who take part as active citizens rather than fixed in the roles of “teachers” and “students” orientated toward the city as fixed subject. Feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti speaks of the importance of minor voices and taking minor positions in the process of developing knowledges. In doing so, she valorises the notion of connecting with characteristics ascribed to the Other as a way to understand difference as site of discursive problematisation. Such work seeks to redraw new and possible power relations between multiple (always becoming) subjects and break down artificial dichotomies (teacher/student; school/city; child/adult; public/private; human/nature).

The class immersed on an intense discussion about Autonomy and its implications during the Autonoma Conference at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens. Photo by Gary Hurst

Meaningful and productive encounters with others in spatial practices require the development of tools for embodied vision and for encounter. The use of fiction in such contexts allows for radical speculations about how the future might be constituted. The convening or staging of speculative and playful conversations between subjects who would not usually speak together can be understood as potentially transforming subjectivities and understandings of power and agency.[6] To convene stories as a spatial practitioner is to be aware of the embodied nature of vision,[7] making tools for intervention that allow for the prototyping of new ways of acting in “public” – with the “other”. Practices such as muf, public works, and raumlabor have employed interventions (at the scale of a body, interpersonal or urban) to mediate relations and perform space differently.[8] Fiction in urban and spatial practice is a game, with props, taken seriously as performative knowledge making.

Spaces of learning are therefore performatively enacted rather than predetermined, meaning that, following Judith Butler, the spaces are brought into being as they are “performed” by the complex range of actions, events, movements, negotiations and so on that they both enable and are constituted by. The processes of learning that USR set in motion might be said therefore to be productive of certain kinds of experimental space, since, as John-David Dewsbury remarks, “[t]he performative is the ushering in of the worlds that it affects: it is an actualisation, a series of practices … [that] does not provide blueprints, models, ideals, or goals. Rather, it experiments; it makes; it is fundamentally aleatory; it is bricolage.”[9] The activities of USR can be thus be read as alternative processes of the design as well as the production of different kinds of knowledge. By nomadically traversing the urban space, by connecting with local actors, by sharing stories and experiences, a multiple, sometimes contradictory, continually in-the-making version of the urban space is collectively produced. Far beyond simply learning “in” space, spaces of learning might establish conditions that help us to search for and produce new kinds of social relations, spaces and situations to attend to the urgent political, cultural and environmental pressures of this moment. As Dewsbury suggests:

“Performativity is the sense of experimentation that greets us everyday; it is our ongoing tentative endeavour to enact local utopias that seek to create situations for joyful encounters, to enact performances that work in such a way that they do not question the superiority of one body over another, but rather compose a rhythm that sustains and eases.”

The work to test and build capacities and relationships, and collectively rethink and remake both what is possible and anticipated could be understood as a “prefigurative” practice, which seeks to “enact commitments for the future within creative processes”.[10] This is to recognise that as well as dominating discourses, there are critical and subjective capacities within us all that allow us to see beyond the everyday, normative approaches. The bringing together of the social, spatial and the political is a pedagogical strategy to mobilise resources, shift meanings and values, and to actively change spaces, relations and desires.

—Julia Udall & Sam Vardy, ‘How do we know? Who knows? A history of enacting spaces of learning.’ Explorations in Urban Practice. The Urban School Ruhr series [dpr-barcelona, 2017]


[1] Matthew Carlin, “Deleuze and Guattari: Politics and Education”. Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory (Springer, 2016), pp.1–5.
[2] Together with Anthony Fyson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Books, 1973)
[3] London: Woburn Press, 1978 / New York: Pantheon, 1979
[4] Colin Ward, The Child in the City (London: Woburn Press, 1978), p.176.
[5] Royston Landau, “A Philosophy of Enabling: The Work of Cedric Price”. AA Files (8)(1985), pp.3–7.
[6] Felix Guattari, “Transdisciplinarity Must Become Transversality Theory”. Culture & Society, Vol. 32 (5–6) (2015), pp.131–137.
[7] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988), pp.575–99.
[8] Katherine Shonfield, Adrian Dannatt, and Rosa Ainley, This is what we do: a Muf manual (Ellipsis London Pr Ltd., 2001); Kathrin Böhm, If you can’t find it, give us a ring – public works (ARTicle Press Publishers & ixia PA Ltd 2006); Berggren, K. and Altés Arlandis, A., “From Berlin to the polar circle: a conversation with Francesco Apuzzo and Axel Timm from Raumlabor” in Intravention, durations, effects: notes of expansive sites and relational architectures (Baunachy: Spurbuchverlag, 2013).
[9] John-David Dewsbury, “Performativity and the event: enacting a philosophy of difference”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(4) (2001), p.195–196.
[10] Valeria Graziano, “Fake it until you make it: prefigurative practices and the extrospection of precarity”. Mapping Precariousness, Labour Insecurity and Uncertain Livelihoods: Subjectivivties v and Resistance (Taylor & Francis Group, UK, 2017).


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