Interview with Prof. Peter Staub

28.10.2018

Professor Peter Staub joined the Schindler Global Award as co-chair with Kees Christiaanse for the 2018/2019 cycle, after guiding students in the 2015 and 2017 entries. He is an architect and leads the Chair of Architectural Design and Theory and serves as Head of Institute of Architecture and Planning at the University of Liechtenstein.

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Prof. Peter Staub

Schindler Award: What was your experience as someone who taught the Schindler Global Award as a design studio in 2015 and in 2017?

Peter Staub: It was a very positive experience, for the students and me alike. The SGA set a specific framework within urban design, within the metropolitan area of Shenzhen and Sao Paulo. It fit perfectly with the teaching format and its cultural context, I mean the design studio, where a heterogeneous group of people from all around the world had to negotiate and discuss pressing urban issues. Each member of the studio came with their own “backpack,”, with their individual cultural perspective. This created a fascinating and fruitful environment to establish design proposals within.

At the same time, the SGA provided a lot of freedom to experiment. Yes, we had to deal with a specific site, but there was no didactic or methodological approach specified or required for the competition. This is what interested me most as an educator, to develop a studio brief that would allow the students to approach the complex competition topics in a way that they could come up with not only inspiring competition entries, but also a common educational experience that would reflect the necessities of architectural education.


What was the value of involving students in international competitions, both with sites that were very far, and very different from their home contexts?

We had a lot of discussions about the fact that we could not visit the site. This was particularly the case with Shenzhen. I had been to Shenzhen, so I had some idea of what the city was like, but that was a few years before the 2015 competition. The city had changed substantially in the interim of course. I would say it was almost as foreign for me as it was for most of the students. In the second competition we were lucky to have a student from Sao Paulo in our studio, who would provide us with the contacts and the necessary information for the site. So, it was a slightly different scenario.

The students felt that on the one hand their lack of firsthand knowledge about the site made things a bit difficult, because in our educational milieu, a comprehensive understanding of location and context are seen as crucial in urban design. We tend to engage deeply with local issues on site, with local stakeholders, and so on.

On the other hand, it was liberating for the students. We could discuss and design things that we knew were unlikely to be realized, but that as concepts and ideas could be critical contributions to the discourse on urban design, and would hopefully open some people’s minds, whether that’s local politicians, or practicing urban designers, or even other students, about how to approach particular issues. There’s a bit of ambivalence there, the freedom to do utopian projects, which is fantastic, but also kind of missing the context at the same time.


In some architecture departments urban design is a mainstream part of the department, and in some it is not, it is more of a side topic. How do students interact with urban design?

I’m not an advocate of this division between architecture and urban design. But it is very present throughout academia and the profession. I think as an architect you cannot be ignorant about urban design and as an urban designer you cannot disregard architecture. At the University of Liechtenstein we run a Masters program in architecture, and we always have one or two urban design studios that try to bridge architecture and urban design. I think it is crucial that the students begin to think of the different scales, from the building to the region and beyond.

Yet to me it is not simply the scales that relate to urban design which are important – it’s the social and economic components that are integral to it. If you have a single building you usually have an owner with whom you have to negotiate to realize the project. On an urban scale there are thousands, possibly millions of people who are potentially your clients. This includes people in government, activists, professionals, inhabitants; that complexity is fascinating, and challenging to deal with for students and faculty. If we want to make any difference on this planet, in this world, we have to be able to interact with all of the stakeholders, and we have to be able to mediate the resulting discourse through design. I think this is one of the real benefits in working with the SGA, because it opens up eyes. The SGA briefs are prepared very carefully in order that participants are immediately aware of the different stakeholders and the decisive parameters that make or break a good design.


Based on your experience, what would you recommend to students who will not have the chance to visit the site and who want to engage with the range of issues inherent to an urban design project? What did you find worked or didn’t – and how did your students conduct their research?

The first thing my students did was that they tried to get into contact with people local to the competition site. They had no issues getting in touch through social media with groups from the area, with students from Shenzhen or Sao Paulo respectively. Within days they had reached out to a wide network of people. They wrote to professionals, sometimes even to politicians – sometimes getting an answer and sometimes not. They never started with a map or drawing lines, they first found people and contacted them, to discover what the issues on the site, in the city, really were. So even if a student can’t visit the site and see it firsthand, they can still learn a lot through the narratives resulting from newly found contacts and networks. I was amazed at how broad the networks were and how quickly my students established them. You don’t need to be part of a studio to do this kind of groundwork.

For students who are looking at becoming professionals involved in urbanism, what avenues are open for them to act at the urban scale? Cities face problems that are social, economic, and political in origin. What could the role of urban design be, both in how it operates now and how it might operate in future?
It is very straightforward. Urban design tries to improve a situation, thereby improving people’s lives. That can happen at any time, at any scale. I always encourage students to go through this world, through its cities, with open eyes and if they feel something is not going right they should think about how it can be addressed, together with the people who are affected by it. If anything, I would like students to be activists, acting as open minded people who use design to help people improve their situation, help to develop a positive way forward. As a methodology, medium for communication, and agent for change design is fantastic because it is visual, it is narrative, and it is physical once you implement it. It can operate at all scales, from something very small to something very large.


Now that you have been to Mumbai and seen the competition site, how do you think urban design could be part of a response to the issues that you observed?

First, I’d like to say that I was deeply touched by my visit to India. I think that the site is a really fantastic setting to tackle some of the fundamental issues in Mumbai. For example, if you look at the question of migration in India, people moving from rural areas or other cities to Mumbai, one big challenge is certainly connectivity and transport. This is probably the largest scale that needs addressing. The next scale down is on the level of community; there are diverse religious communities and caste communities only to mention two. Then there is a diversity of neighborhoods, including the slums. Particularly interesting is how they self-assembled and how the government’s proposals for their upgrading. The final scale that I’m interested in is the streetscape. I was shocked by the streetscape to be honest. People take care of their property, their own four walls, but in communal spaces, in public spaces I felt there was little stewardship and care. Changes to the streetscape, the communal and public spaces could dramatically improve the lives of a lot of people in Mumbai.


The central theme of the SGA is mobility. You mentioned connectivity at the largest scale of concern. How do you think that comes down to the scale of the street or communal space? How might students connect all of the complex issues in the competition using mobility as a backbone?

The chosen SGA site is long, stretching several kilometers. It is embedded between the shore and a series of transport lines such as the main train line and highways and thus cutting it off from the rest of the city. A key questions to be answered here is how to better connect the site with the developments happening to the west while not disabling some of the micro-economies established by communities already in place. In many neighborhoods in Mumbai there is a vibrant microeconomic dynamic. Better mobility, more accessible options for how to move on the site and in the city as a whole – or even the region – could broaden the economic spectrum and provide new opportunities and synergies for Mumbai and its inhabitants.


What advice would you give to students who are considering participating who aren’t part of a studio group?

I know students who participated in the past competitions without a studio – and they were very successful! The brief is very clear, so this makes it absolutely possible. I would suggest that students who participate independent of a studio look at previous work done for the competitions in Shenzhen and Sao Paulo, to understand how the competition is judged. The high-profile jury includes both academics and practitioners. Each one looks at the entries with different eyes, but there’s a common understanding of what constitutes a good project. I suggest that students “think big” and try to look at the bigger picture, and not at the smaller details, because from a distance that’s impossible to do well. Lastly: be visionary.


For professors considering integrating this into their studios, what would you advise?

Do it. It isn’t easy as one has to guide students through a set of complex themes. However, that makes it an exciting challenge and a huge benefit for all involved, because it goes beyond the mere studio experience as it links the studio to a larger global network. The results will be published in a publication and if you win a one of the generous prizes there’s a trip to the site and an award ceremony to go to. This prospect hopefully drives both the students and the professors supervising.


What feedback have you gotten, from students and from other academic faculty?

The students found it tough but rewarding. Because of the complexity of the theme it isn’t an easy task but they really enjoyed it. The fact that my students had won prizes in Shenzhen was a substantial motivator for my São Paulo studio students. The ones who won were understandably ecstatic, but the other studio members were also proud. We did things as a group, students shared their research and design proposals, and all felt in some way part of the winning teams. That is very gratifying.

Feedback from other faculty members was more nuanced, but equally as positive. When it came to assessing the work as part of the academic system, especially with the diploma projects, the required criteria for assessment were diverse. Each project was so different that it took a high degree of objectivity and reasoning as what the values of each project were. It was beneficial for the faculty to have these kinds of discussions, which are unusual in a small school like ours, but they made everyone realize the common complex issues that we all need to address, at whatever scale.


Does the competition help you as an educator, who is interested in the integration between scales and in breaking down the artificial boundary between architecture and urbanism?

Yes, as long as you keep a constant discourse with other people about it. The SGA enables you to involve people from outside your field of expertise, and even from outside architecture and urbanism to contribute by providing their knowledge to the students – and the educators themselves. This means that we start to understand architecture and urban design as much more integrated and diverse practices than we used to. I think this is the way forward.


The SGA interacts with issues in cities on a public level. It is one thing to build a new project or make a masterplan, but it is another to have a competition that has a public dimension, with press coverage, and which engages so many schools across the world.

The documentation and communication about the competitions in 2015 and 2017 is fantastic. It has grown in stature and content since I was first involved as an outsider. Something I think we could do in the future is to have it visible on the ground more. There was a fantastic exhibition following the 2017 award in Sao Paulo, and I think we could build on this.

I think the power of a global student competition like the SGA is that it generates fantastic and sometimes unexpected ideas and results, which in turn can change people’s perception and minds, politicians and communities alike. . We architects and urban designers are visionaries; we are in a privileged situation, to be able to think of ideas and communicate them through design.