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REdistribute: A Glass-House Event at The University of Sheffield by Zoe Nicholls

Posted on 12 June 2023

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Enjoy this blog from Zoe Nicholls, a participant who attended our REdistribute event at The University of Sheffield earlier this year as part of our 2022/23 WEdesign series, Relearning Place.

On 1 March 2023, The Glass-House charity came to the University of Sheffield’s Arts Tower to host a WEdesign event. The WEdesign events are a series of workshops, supported by the Ove Arup Foundation, in which students, built environment professionals, policy-makers and citizens can question the future of placemaking. The theme of the WEdesign events this year has been ‘Relearning Place.’ Each event, held in different locations around the UK, was titled a subtheme of this idea: REvalue, REdefine, REpurpose, and the event I attended in Sheffield: REdistribute. 

The event was a chance for blue sky thinking. What if we could redistribute power, time, resources and values within communities? What effects might these ideas have? We split into four groups to consider these questions with respect to the environment, education, community and practice. I joined the table considering architectural practice.

Image credit: The Glass-House Community Led Design

Led by third year architecture students, we considered the role of architectural practice today. We questioned whose voices are heard in practice and how our designs can be more inclusive and climate positive? We also wondered what the importance of involving other disciplines in practice besides architecture might be, and how to do this. Our challenge, set by The Glass-House team, was to collate these ideas into something physical. At the end of the workshop, we would gather round each of the four tables and discuss what we had made.

Image credit: The Glass-House Community Led Design

Scribbling on our paper-wrapped table, we began by contemplating breaking traditional ideas of the architect as a lone genius. Instead, what if architects in practice considered themselves as place facilitators? What might the effect be of inverting the notion of an architect placing their stamp on a place, to a movement in which architects, users and place all influence each other? It would be a redistribution of power. If architects could enter a place looking to uncover what already exists there and rekindle the visions of its users, the role of the architect is to design something that celebrates this and that creates reciprocity between architect, users and place. All this requires is people to listen to each other, beginning with architects in practice. Not only would this be a redistribution of power, it would be a redistribution of time to listen, of the value placed on listening, and of the resources redirected to where the users wanted them. This idea of listening seemed to facilitate answers to our other questions. Creating inclusive communities, supporting the environment and involving other disciplines all begins with communicating and listening to a diverse range of people.

Image credit: The Glass-House Community Led Design

This resulted in our physical representation emblemising listening and communication. Ears made of pipe cleaners rested on pedestals to elevate their importance. We made question marks to highlight the impact of learning to ask the right questions. Drawing someone doing sign language and making gender signs out of pipe cleaners suggested the diverse types of people who need to be consulted in place making and how important it is to learn effective communication.

Image credit: The Glass-House Community Led Design

After the workshop finished and the eclectic mix of people I never would have crossed paths with otherwise went back to our separate lives, our discussions of the future played on my mind. I began researching real life examples of where these ideas had been attempted, and what their practical successes and limitations were. This developed into an essay for my degree titled: How can the Creation of a Sense of Place through Participatory Architectural Design Help Revitalise Contemporary Communities? I have included a summarised excerpt from the essay below: 

Belmonte Calabro is a small mediaeval village in a coastal and mountainous region of southern Italy… The London Metropolitan University’s Centre for Urban and Built Ecologies leads a research initiative called Crossing Cultures. Students from the university have been running residential trips to Belmonte since 2016. Whilst there, they run architectural workshops and interviews with the locals, asylum seekers, and local and regional governmental bodies to research the impact of participatory architecture on cultural integration.

Seven piazzas dissect Belmonte along an east-west axis, tracing the mountainous ridgeline. The students instigated collaborative architectural interventions for each one… 

In response to the spacious fourth piazza as the tipping point between the village’s regal and everyday architecture, the students had participants activate the space with special and everyday activities. Stirring traditions of the village’s historical carnivals, the students provided building materials for villagers and refugees to build carnival props together. They also initiated a sewing workshop, contrasting the occasional with the everyday. 

This activity led to a carnival procession one evening, in which the locals carried the floats to the seventh piazza. Reflecting the everyday nature of the piazza, the most everyday activity took place: dining. Underneath the canopy of the floats, refugees embroidered their memories and aspirations onto a tablecloth, which were discussed over food.

Image credit: Silvia Gin and Zeshan Mazhar

Participants reflected that it was through collaboration during these workshops that made previously unfamiliar people now feel part of a community. The thread that makes these interventions successful is reciprocity. The spatial memories of the architecture and the bodily memories people bring are reciprocated through the choice of collaborative craft.’

I hope the ideas we discussed at The Glass-House event and the workshops I researched for my essay spread to wider, common architectural practice. It’s a big step from applying this approach to temporary workshops to scaling it up to permanent architectural projects, but I believe the impact will be phenomenal if we can.

Zoe is about to start her fourth year of a Masters in Structural Engineering and Architecture at the University of Sheffield. She is interested in the impact of and the mechanisms by which community builds can work, and how to better integrate engineering and architecture disciplines in industry. Aside from her studies, she enjoys playing piano and mountaineering.