Alternative Pedagogies: On Fostering Freedom and Agency


The Atlas of Distances workshop enabled an exchange of pedagogical methods among three design studios from three design and architecture schools, creating a fertile testing ground for the development of alternative pedagogies. As the following dialogue underscores, this approach centred on promoting experimentation among students, challenging disciplinary conventions, and embracing various forms of diversity within a framework of structured freedom and student agency.

The dialogue is an edited transcript of the panel discussion that took place during the Pedagogical Activism and Cultural Geographies Conference held at the Polytechnic University of Timișoara on 23 September 2023. It featured Loredana Gaiță (Bright Cityscapes coordinator, and architect, urban researcher, and lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning, UPT), Cristian Blidariu (head of department, Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning, UPT), Martina Muzi (Bright Cityscapes curator, and studio leader of Studio Technogeographies at Design Academy Eindhoven), Roberto Pérez Gayo (social designer, researcher, and educator at Studio Technogeographies at Design Academy Eindhoven), and Negar Sanaan Bensi (lecturer and researcher in the Borders & Territories studio, TU Delft). 

Loredana Gaiță: The Atlas of Distances programme invited three design departments from three schools to collectively develop educational and design strategies for working with cultural geographies and shared spaces. What were the diverse viewpoints and approaches that you all brought to the workshop, which initiated the process?

Martina Muzi: As curator of the Atlas of Distances programme, I wanted to bring together various approaches to address the primary challenge of working across individual and institutional boundaries. 

From my role as leader of Studio Technogeographies at Design Academy Eindhoven, this entailed broadening the scope of classroom activities and amplifying their reach in order to encompass other institutions, and the wide array of perspectives presented by the 54 students and eight tutors actively participating in the initiative.

Roberto Pérez Gayo: In addition to the expansion of the group’s size, the challenge of the Atlas of Distances workshop involved the creation of a system capable of accommodating diverse values, priorities, and individual trajectories. To facilitate this, we adopted an activist approach, departing radically from the limited idea of individuality. Rather, we aimed to establish conditions that would highlight differences and allow for negotiation, and the use of these relational processes as a foundation for knowledge generation. This was integral to respecting each school’s approach, while also fostering a dynamic, ever-evolving space that encompassed every aspect of the workshop. It was about being honest about our achievable goals, while preserving the value of each school’s contributions and creating a complex, fluid environment in continuous negotiation.

Negar Sanaan Bensi: In the workshops, we tried to encourage embracing the continually expanding realm of architecture. Students were supported in confronting the inherent uncertainty in their field. Having myself travelled the academic path from master’s student to PhD candidate and now tutor, I can advocate for the value of finding one’s place in this realm of uncertainty and perpetual evolution. In this pedagogical approach, nothing is taken for granted; instead, everything is subjected to reevaluation and reconsideration. Traditional paradigms, such as the simplistic figure-ground representation of cities, are no longer sufficient to grasp the intricacies of contemporary urban environments.

The Atlas of Distances workshop provided students with opportunities to gain fresh perspectives. Through exercises like urban walks and workshops, students saw beyond the narrow confines of architectural conventions. By doing this, they developed a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the built environment. The workshop also placed significant emphasis on understanding what constitutes the collective, and how this intersects with and complements individual endeavours. This emphasises the importance of collective efforts in architectural education and practice, fostering a dynamic interplay between collective and individual work.

LG: Novel design and research methodologies increasingly play a crucial role in design and architecture. A lot of traditional education however still prioritises the end product. What are some of the alternative pedagogies that you use to stimulate students in developing radical practices?

NSB: Methodology is not a pre-given recipe. It’s something that is very much related to content. It’s a procedural and dynamic method that gives weight to experimentation, especially in an educational setting. It’s important to dare our students to experiment and to find a position. This is evident in one of the central teaching methods for Borders & Territories—the act of mapping. This is not just cartographic tracing, but it is intertwined with the idea of activism as a mode of activation of those aspects and dimensions that often remain invisible and marginalised. The act can also be understood as a process of  counter-mapping, establishing alternative relationships within a certain territory. A major challenge in design education is also facilitating the transition from research to design. Our students undergo intensive workshops where they translate two-dimensional concepts to three-dimensional thinking in an iterative process that ensures that individual interests are materialised and spatialised.

Cristian Blidariu: I’d like to mention the pedagogical method of placing students in unfamiliar or uncomfortable environments. In a particular exercise, students were assigned a specific industrial area with minimal instruction, and were directed to explore and gather as much information as possible, unaware of its eventual application. This unconventional method, juxtaposed against the norm of assigning sites with aesthetic potential, immersed students into a world that might seem devoid of architectural quality. But the underlying lesson is to discern and discover quality in unexpected places. This hands-on approach pushed students to confront preconceived notions, and challenges them to find potential in seemingly mundane or challenging environments.

MM: The essence of the studio’s pedagogy revolves around interconnecting various systems and aspects, fostering diverse learning experiences. When speaking about methodology inside our studio there are two moments to look at: while preparing the semester and during the semester. First, there is the composition of the studio’s pedagogical strategy, which involves crafting steps along the year, considering learning objectives. and inviting tutors. The combination of the tutors’ approaches, expertises and practices shapes the overarching studio methodology. Second, inside the studio we encourage each student to test, experiment, and find their own individual methodology of research, engagement, and making. These moments encapsulate the process of designing a pedagogical programme and keeping it flexible in the classroom. The evolution of the semester becomes a collaborative effort between tutors and students, both playing a central role in shaping the process. This makes the methodology of the studio not static but a continued experimentation around a shared vision of design.

RPG: There is a necessity to recognise a wider spectrum of knowledge, experiences and individual positions in shaping an educational methodology. Education’s primary concern shouldn’t just be about selecting specific types of information and topics, but rather it should examine these types of information and engage with them, taking into account various conditions, be they evidential, result-oriented, or actionable insights. 

This is why, instead of placing methodology at the forefront, we suggest a more radical approach; that is, simply, starting with the student’s experiences. This promotes reflexivity, encouraging students to constantly introspect about their positions and urgencies. By delving into the effects and ethical nuances of our interactions with other individuals, spaces, technologies or knowledges, our intent is to create the conditions for the continuous development of pedagogical methodologies characterised by diversity, hybridity and exchange.

MM: For me, the beauty of this collaboration between the three design studios is bringing together the diverse goals and different methodologies of the studios. This is really thanks to the freedom and experiences of the tutors. Every tutor brought a unique experience and clarity to the workshop, regardless of their age, practice typology, or tutoring experience.

NSB: I agree with Martina about the importance of diversification. It’s important for students to identify themselves based on what they resonate with or reject. There should be no issues around peoples’ differences or oppositions—diversity should be thoroughly embraced with all the complexity that it brings forward to become productive. Students need a range of options to find and position themselves.

CB: The experimental partnership we embarked on for this project aimed to change the school’s traditional teaching approach. Instead of set programs, students could choose their project’s scale and focus, and it’s thanks to supportive colleagues that we were able to introduce this flexible method.

LG: It is notable that across all your diverse perspectives and approaches, two key components seem consistent elements, which might lie at the heart of the Atlas of Distances collaborations. Firstly, there’s the need for structured freedom in the educational process, allowing students to operate within a defined framework, yet with significant autonomy. Secondly, there’s the concept of ‘student agency’, emphasising the importance of giving students responsibility, and empowering them to push boundaries.