2017 Winter School: Housing from Above and Below

As the world’s population is estimated to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, affordable and sustainable housing is one of the most pressing issues of our times. In February 2017, the Urban Studies faculty of the University of Basel held a one-week Winter School on this topic. “Housing is usually viewed through a technocratic, policy-oriented lens,” said Prof. Dr. Kenny Cupers. “Too often, this brings with it a level of abstraction that tends to obscure the lived experiences of inhabitants and communities,” said he. The mission of the Winter School was to help students critically examine global housing from an interdisciplinary perspective that attends to complexities on the ground. In doing so the Urban Studies faculty calls for global action for sustainable cities and communities, the 11th goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Bringing the World to Basel

A total of 22 students from Britain, Colombia, Finland, Ghana, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland participated in the Winter School. This diversity of perspectives enriched class discussions during a week of rigorous sessions on Abidjan, Cape Town, and Paris. Cupers, who led the session on Paris, is an architectural and urban historian trained in Belgium, Britain, and the United States. The Cape Town session was led by Prof. Dr. Sophie Oldfield, an urban and human geographer based at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Prof. Manuel Herz presented the session on Abidjan. He is an architect with a record of award-winning projects in Germany, Israel, and France. “The Winter School was a really lovely opportunity for us to experiment with pedagogies and our different threads of disciplinary expertise,” said Oldfield. “In an interactive way, we shared that interdisciplinary conversation with the students and posed concrete questions around the urban debate because such an interdisciplinary approach to Urban Studies is not anchored in teaching at the University of Basel.” That is soon to change with the launch of the new English-taught Master’s in Critical Urbanisms in Fall 2017. Indeed, the Winter School served as a pilot program for the new Master’s degree; and if the students’ feedback is any indication, it is poised for a successful debut in September. “I really enjoyed the different perspectives from each of the three professors,” said Greg Labrosse, a native Québécois who has lived in Cartagena, Colombia, for 15 years. Labrosse’s Master’s thesis dealt with the use of public space in Cartagena. To broaden his perspectives on Urban Studies, he crossed continents to attend the Winter School. “The syllabus, the teaching, and all the research we [did] as groups was very, very exciting stuff,” added Philip Banda, a Briton from Birmingham. Banda earned a Master’s degree in disaster and risk management – and he hopes to further research the relationship between urbanization and seasonal floods in Zambia, the country of his birth. Franca Fellmann, a Bachelor’s student studying geography and sociology in Basel, held similar sentiments. “I learned that housing is more than a shelter. I learned to see housing architecturally as a building, but also as a social place for people to meet, and to question its geographical location – where it is built, and why,” said she. “The multidisciplinary view opened my mind and broadened my horizons.” Fellmann was drawn to the Winter School after having participated in an excursion led by Herz to the refugee camps in Calais, France.

A Tale of Three Cities

Abidjan, Cape Town, and Paris all share a common heritage: A record number of state-driven housing projects that have undergone remarkable transformations due to rapid urbanization. To add historical context to classroom discussions, the three professors each incorporated their experiences from the field. Cupers presented a session on the banlieues of Paris – some of which have metamorphosed from promising housing experiments in postwar France to modern-day sites of social segregation. Cupers’ book, The Social Project – Housing Postwar France, offers the first in-depth architectural and urban history of these housing projects in postwar France.

“The students were familiar with the big, grand narrative of South Africa – from apartheid to democracy. But the realities are much more complex,” said Oldfield, a former president of the Society of South African Geographers. Cape Town saw its population expand by nearly 30 percent from 2001 – 2011. This phenomenon was ripe for deconstruction in Oldfield’s session. “Housing in Cape Town is deeply important – it is the ability for people to access a better material condition, citizenship, and political inclusion. But the delivery of housing also exacerbates existing inequalities,” said she.

The relationship between architecture and nation-building is a subject for which Herz is well-versed. He led the session on Abidjan, a city once dubbed the “African Riviera” by state actors bent on rapid modernization. Herz examined public and private housing projects in Yopougon and Cocody – two suburbs in Abidjan with disparate living conditions and architectural histories. Herz’s book, African Modernism – Architecture of Independence, is a tome that examines the architectural histories of Sub-Saharan African countries during the decolonization period.

The Case for Critical Urbanisms

“One of the key aims of the new Master’s program is to overcome the persistent binary in urban thinking dividing the global North from the global South,” said Cupers. Therefore, students will spend a compulsory semester at the University of Cape Town. This is an immersive opportunity for students to examine contemporary urban debates in an African city where policy and poverty often coalesce to disempower communities. The Master’s program is further distinguished by a Research Studio taken in the first and third semesters. Jointly taught by core and affiliated faculty with regular visits from experts in the field, the studio will spark “interdisciplinary conversations that are global but very rooted – theoretical but immersed in questions of practice,” said Oldfield. Students will work in a dedicated studio space on a range of creative outputs that would be collectively assembled and edited for a public presentation. The Winter School experimented with a winning formula in pedagogy and praxis. Prospective candidates for the new Master’s in Critical Urbanisms are invited to apply to build upon it.

Ramatu Musa is a Master's student in African Studies at the University of Basel

Cape Town
© S. Bushra
© I. Baan
Noisy-le-Grand, Paris
© K. Cupers