Four Ways of Knowing: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Teaching Community-based Design


Vol. 4 No. 1 (2007)
Research Articles
April 5, 2007


Design education, especially in an undergraduate course of study, seeks to prepare students for professions and for citizenship in a world they hardly know. The studio typically provides only a surrogate experience in addressing formal and spatial problems, and is limited by time, by its geographic space, and by a dialogue that is more often than not, self-referential. It very rarely engages systemic questions of public policy, or the specific challenges of implementing at full scale ideas that are conceived through representational means. The constrained intellectual context is most poignantly seen in the urban design studios where problems are situated in the real world, and where issues outside the purview of design are found embedded in a place. Form-focused studio exercises that are necessarily a part of beginning architecture education are inadequate for exploring the indeterminacy of urban space and the complexity of human environments. When students enter an urban design studio, especially when they undertake community-based projects, they must take up the mantle of citizenship and engage in an enterprise that is fundamentally relational and grounded in experience. They need more information and more ways of knowing the world than traditionally the design disciplines can offer. This paper presents the outcomes of an experimental neighborhood-based teaching project undertaken as a collaboration among classes in architecture, landscape architecture, urban geography and the fine arts at Temple University. Although initiated through the architecture faculty's desire to enrich its own undergraduate urban design studio, all the collaborators shared our concern about the narrowing effects of disciplinary bracketing on student learning, especially when the goal was to address real world situations. Each discipline brought to the project its particular disciplinary culture -- its language, methodology and areas of concern -- and a shared aspiration to puzzle together these diverse perspectives around questions of making places that are meaningful, humane and sustainable. The struggles and synergies among disciplines were alternatively inspiring, annoying, challenging, rich and imperfect. But intense engagement with a community re-centered the dialogue from inside the academic context to outside, and framed a multidisciplinary way of thought. The community itself proved to be a powerful coalescing agent; the inherent layering of issues in the real-world context made it virtually impossible to remain insensible to interdependencies in life that transcend disciplinary boundaries. Here Richard Sennett's definition of what constitutes a democratic urbanity was applicable. The Greek term for "public”, synkoikismos, means "to bring together in the same place people that need each other but worship different household gods.” (47) This deceptively simple public-making concept became the basis for a process of learning, and a vehicle for working with the larger truths about how cities are formed and experienced.