Dialectical urbanism: Tactical instruments in urban design education (2023)


Volume 29, Issue 6,

December 2012

, Pages 358-368

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For the last decade, the Advanced Architectural Research Studio at the Department of Architecture, Middle East Technical University of Ankara, has concentrated its efforts on different cities in order to question their underlying problems, from social to physical; and to search for alternative urban design solutions. Relied on the premises of the theory of dialectical urbanism, two terms, “context” and “programme,” have been revisited in order to decipher the complexity of alternative urbanizations, in which architectural transformation processes have come under question using such themes as border, memory, accessibility or interface. In this respect, this article forms part of this scholarly investigation with which the theme, “hybrid” has been utilised to overcome the spatial shortcomings of a specific town in the Balkans – Pogradeç. Combining insights from sociological and political realities of the context, it introduces a critique of the transmission model of design education, which renders studio works as passive abstract practices removed from social and cultural realities. This critical pedagogy not only challenges the limiting framework of contemporary architectural education but also calls back the creative political formations developed during the foundational years of the school.


► This architectural studio investigates an experimental method for urban design education. ► Context and programme design are introduced to re-assess the social and political parameters of an alternative urbanization. ► The theme, “hybrid” is utilised to overcome the spatial shortcomings of a specific town in the Balkans – Pogradeç.


For many decades, planners and architects have been addressing contemporary urban issues with the aim of not only offering better solutions to the increasing spatial crisis but also addressing social problems. In this endeavour, design education in particular plays a central role in putting innovative methods and models to use, and it is believed that contemporary conditions can only be properly understood and improved through such alternative processes of education. Such processes, however, when used in parallel with other disciplines and fields, bring about a momentum in the generation of new ideas and urban design proposals. A generation of architects and urban designers are now producing buildings, structures and forms by critically engaging with natural and man-made environments that re-interrogate design practice and design education (Kelbaugh and McCullough, 2008, Larice and Macdonald, 2006, Savage, 2005). However, alternative urban design methods, as counter-measures to recent practices, are still needed to criticise and make contemporary urban design education relevant in actual contexts.

By combining social and political realities of the given context, this research studio introduces a pedagogy that critically assesses the abstract models of design education, which detaches studio works as passive abstract practices from social and cultural realities. The complex relationships between urban environments and social conditions require more than pure methods of formal analyses and the abstract definitions of social theories. In this regard, the objectives of the studio are to prove that urban design education needs a broader viewpoint if it is to question urban space in relation to environmental problems. This dialectic between built environments and social contexts is believed to offer critical perspectives. Accordingly, this research challenges the existing studio education with three major premises: (1) the critique of abstract theories, (2) the reintroduction of the social responsibility of modernist implications, and (3) the recollection of the founding principles and the major mission of the Middle East Technical University (METU), Department of Architecture.

The critique of abstract theories refers to the recent conceptual approaches that have distanced design education from the realities of existing conditions. In this respect, studies of urban forms in relation to social contexts have long been criticised, for it is now believed that such complex relationships between the city and social conditions should be questioned neither in pure methods of spatial analyses nor in the abstract definitions of social theories alone (Günay, 2005, Günay, 2009). Rather, the effective use of urban design in the social realm requires a broader perspective that questions how urban space is produced in parallel with the processes of social relations (Inam, 2011). For this reason, one needs to question how and under what circumstances the production of urban space is exercised and how social relations are in tune with the means of space production (Lefebvre, 1991). Leaving culturalist interpretations and morphology analyses aside, this article critically questions how urban space should be designed, in particular under the pressure of recent developments. Accordingly, under the intensifying burden of urban and environmental problems such as urban decay, social and political upheaval, industrial pollution, global warming, earthquakes and floods, or the exploitation of nature, contemporary urbanism is now providing ample room in its curricula for the setting up of a new rationale, thus enhancing the designer’s position. As such, the field of Urban Design should also be more eager to incorporate the socially and politically creative dialectic between built environments and social contexts into its fields of inquiry (Calthorpe, 1993, Ellin, 1996, Waldheim, 2006). In addition, with access to new conceptual tools, scholars should also be encouraged to offer critical and challenging viewpoints from which the significance of urban and social theories, as principal fields in the betterment of both urban and social environments, can be emphasised.

Section snippets

Dialectical urbanism: a critical perspective

In contemporary works, it has been suggested that there are differences in how urban design paradigms and social studies conceive meta-theories in assessing the city’s relationship to its social environments (Ellin, 2006). Scholars of social studies are skeptical of the potentials of urban design, believing that cities have always been regulated by market relations (Gottdiener, 1997, Katznelson, 1994). Building their narrative into formal analyses, architects, as well as urban designers,

The context

As part of its founding commitment to its international context, the METU Department of Architecture has long been conducting scholarly surveys and international research studios with the aim of developing an academic environment for the provision of surveys of pragmatic issues. This commitment certainly includes further inquiries with which a new set of urban design methodologies can be reformulated, and academic surveys conducted either to describe the paradigmatic shift historically, or to

The programme (functional expansion)

Pogradeç lost its significance as the port town of Lake Ohrid and immediately became a site of conflicting positions. Both the middle class and the urban poor used the once state-owned public lands as a tool for their own social improvement. For the middle class, these lands were synonymous with wealth; however, in the hands of ordinary people, it was basic survival that was sought. The excessive rights for appropriation, random spatiality and ad hoc design strategies brought about a sudden

The theme – hybrid

The word “hybrid,” as the theme of this experimental studio, was introduced to discuss its pre-eminence as the basis of any spatial organisation and expression. Regardless of the discrepancies in its definition and the ambiguities in its relation to space, the term hybrid refers to an interaction of two unlike genes resulting in a new breed that is different and unique in nature. At a deeper level, the term reveals that it is at once both the process and the end-product with which the

Studio works: urban tactics/projects

What is required from the students is an urban programme that considers the assigned theme of hybrid. It is expected to be socially responsive and yet manipulative, contextual in nature and yet scaleless, historically relevant and yet universal. In accordance with the primary studies and findings of the fieldwork, the studio then intends to further what local authorities have already normalised and deepen the inquiry into a new mode of design procedure (Sargın, 2004, Sargın, 2008). As is

Epilogue: dialectical urbanism as a pedagogical method

Today, under the full enforcement of neo-liberal policies since the 1980s, not only has laissez-faire become the governing mode of the political-economy, but the overall effect of liberalism has drastically altered many of the orthodoxies from welfare states to a culture of modernity – including the socialist programmes that had long been established and ideologically affective in the Balkans throughout the 20th century. The new era, in fact, has been regarded as the final accord of

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