notes from England (North of London)

I recently visited the University of Manchester’s Architecture Research Centre (MARC) for a workshop on the Politics of Design. There were people at the workshop from all over the world and the program was provocative. In keeping with my previous geographic post, here I report on a few English initiatives that I came across at the conference that are relevant to the topic of design activism.

MARC logo.jpg

MARC itself is interesting because it combines social sciences with architecture and design to “reveal the connections between built environments and societies.” The group has a number of impressive and ambitious research projects going, for example on climate science and urban design, eco-cities, multifaith spaces, radicalisation in the urban environment, and mapping architectural controversies.

In the case of radicalization (or radicalisation, if you’re in the UK), Ralf Brand’s “The Urban Environment: Mirror or Mediator of Radicalisation” ( took the case study cities of Belfast, Beirut, Berlin, and Amsterdam. The project looked at how the urban environment reflects and influences polarisation processes in cities. The project resulted in a very interesting “Charter for Spaces of Positive Encounters” available for perusal on the website. Elsewhere in the Architecture department at Manchester, the projects group aims to engage student work with life outside the university and an example of their work is “Sharing the City” (

Another interesting group that presented at the workshop came from the University of Sheffield. The School of Architecture there has an “Agency Research Centre” that focuses on “transformative research into architectural practice and education.” The group also publishes a journal called “field:” ( and volume 3, for example, covered agency and the praxis of activism.

One of the ongoing research projects is called “Spatial Agency” which looks beyond “the building” to consider wider practices of spatial production and how architects are both agents but also able to facilitate the involvement of others. The website contains a database of projects and people through which to explore the negotiation, deliberation, and contention that arises in this field of spatial agency, with examples ranging from community builders to known architect’s studios and from famed neighbourhoods to historical experiments. These examples map out the how-where-why of spatial agency. Although the website navigation is somewhat abstract at this stage, the project and its contents are worth a good look.

Meanwhile over at Loughborough University, the research project “Adaptable Futures” is exploring a different aspect of change in the built environment. The research aims to incorporate the dynamic of time into building design so that buildings can better adapt to change. Although this is in many ways a construction engineering project (it’s based in the Innovative Manufacturing & Construction Research Centre), anyone familiar with Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn will find it provocative. This project, more than those mentioned above, is tied into the commercial realm with a focus on non-domestic buildings and partnerships with a number of large companies. This is perhaps why speakers from this project talked more about the politics of public agency negotiation. But it strikes me that the implications of the Adaptable Futures work could be far-reaching in activist terms.

example of Adaptable Futures building components


I stress that this is not a comprehensive summary of work going on in the United Kingdom, rather, it reflects some of the interesting work I encountered at this one workshop–particularly in areas north of London. As always, readers are welcome to add to this review through comments or contacting me directly.

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