Designing frameworks for engagement: The architect-activist as mediator

In: Udall, J., Forrest, D., Stewart, K. (2015) ‘Locating and building knowledges outside of the academy: Approaches to engaged teaching at the University of Sheffield’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(2), 158-170

Udall et al. (2015) present three case studies based on ‘engaged’ teaching activities in three disciplines (Architecture, English, and Journalism) in modules which emphasise “public-facing, co-produced knowledge” (p. 158) as core components. Udall et al. argue that along with developing students’ discipline knowledge, approaches which integrate public engagement into the curriculum facilitate “the development of citizenship attributes and employability skills … in ways that deepen, rather than dilute, intellectual rigour” (ibid.). The case study considered here is from within Architecture.

This case study explores the partnership between the civic partner (the Portland Works, a metalwork factory) and the University of Sheffield (a number of departments in the Social Science and Arts and Humanities), who work together to collaboratively develop a vision for the civic partner’s future, as part of the students’ core curriculum. The case study author (Julia Udall), representative for both the Portland Works (PW) and the Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA), was strongly motivated to embed reciprocal relationships within the partnership, and in the case study report (cf: Udall et al., 2015, pp. 160-163), she considers how such projects are best structured and the kinds of relationships required to ensure success.

Udall explains that the pedagogical approach employed in their work drew on the Aristotelian concept of Phronesis[1], Freire’s (2000) liberating education and problem-posing pedagogy,  collaborative inquiry principles (Heron and Reason, 2006), and participatory techniques. The project brief, including both partners’ explicit aims, was written collaboratively between PW and university course leader, which was seen as “crucial for any co-production methodology” (p. 161). This ensured the work conducted was useful and of value to both students and the community partner. Underpinning all project work was a rejection of the separation between theory and practice whilst students engaged in important Architectural methods including “creating briefs, using visual representation, combining detailed and large-scale study, being ‘propositional’ and facilitating relational practises such as ‘client meetings’ and participatory techniques” (ibid.). All project work was integrated into the student curriculum, with tutors working together closely from the outset. PW and University participants took on both teaching and learning roles at different times, to ensure a genuinely collaborative approach within a Freirean ‘liberating education’ and ‘problem-posing education’ framework. Collaboration was framed explicitly as ‘co-learning’ and students were encouraged to engage in critical reflection in relation to this. Students were on site and a social part of the wider ‘Live Projects’ (see Udall et al., 2015) campaign, as well as negotiating and engaging critically with complex situations and a diverse client group in the context of a continually evolving and changing project. This enabled students to develop nuanced understandings of client visions and values, as well as project materials and potentials. Udall notes that some of the work produced related to specific issues, while other work (e.g. an urban design scheme for a conservation area) were broader and more speculative, facilitating reflection upon the development of people’s localities. Some work was also submitted to the local Planning Department to support campaign objectives; and in this way, students were able to see potential for effecting real change. In terms of assessment of the achievement of learning outcomes, in this project, ‘success’ was understood by all to be contingent upon students actively and critically evaluating their work, as opposed to the project itself being a success, as this was outside of the students’ (and supervisors’) control. The evaluation was based upon cycles of action and critical reflection, between all project participants – students, clients, and tutors. This sort of evaluative approach “enabled students to take risks in framing their work, supporting experimentation and fostering originality” (ibid., p. 163).


[1] “the design of problem-solving actions through collaborative knowledge construction with those who have a legitimate stake in the concern” Greenwood, 2008, in Udall et al., 2015, p. 158