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What an Architecture Summer School Taught Me about Spatial Planning and Design

For two weeks in July 2022, the Faculty of Construction, Cadaster and Architecture of the University of Oradea in Romania organised an open-entry summer school intended to be a student ideas laboratory regarding the rehabilitation of the city’s university campus. Here is how it went and what participating in such an educational event taught me about architecture and spatial planning.

Read until the end to find out more about similar, multidisciplinary summer schools which will be organized by the University of Groningen (RUG) and our Faculty of Spatial Sciences (FSS) here in the Netherlands, in the summer months of 2023 ! 

At the end of every academic year, students of architecture are required to assist in a real life construction project of their choice for about two weeks, this obligation being called the “practical assignment” – or simply “the practice”. The idea is to accommodate the future architects with the work place environment and to afford them the chance to comprehensively apply their various skills hands-on onto a specific site. 

What was this summer school about?

In 2022, the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Oradea prepared a more special kind of summer time practice when it announced the first edition of a so-called summer school, wherein both students and professors from different fields and specialties of the built environment would work together to propose solutions and modernisation plans for the old university campus. The University sponsored the accommodation and meals of participants from outside the city, as well as a one-day trip to the nearby city of Debrecen in Hungary. In total, about 40 students and professors participated, numbering among them: architecture and civil engineering students from Oradea and Cluj-Napoca, landscape architecture students from Sapientia University in Târgu Mureș, as well as high school students in the architecture track from Satu Mare. Because I am studying spatial sciences at the RUG, my curiosity pushed me to enroll and take a closer look at how architecture students learn, think and work. For me, this close-up experience was the equivalent of a bachelor’s open day, but instead it lasted 12 days!

Group photo: students and professors of the 2022 architecture summer school of the University of Oradea, in Romania, while visiting the neighboring University of Debrecen campus in Hungary (left) & Dr. arh. Guttmann Szabolcs István, coordinator of this architecture summer school, explaining to the students the university campus’ history and geography (right)

On the very first Monday morning, the summer school participants gathered inside the university library’s conference room, which would act both as a lecture hall and a design atelier. The school’s main coordinator, dr. arh. Guttmann Szabolcs István proceeded to address us. He said that “we architects”, unlike in most other jobs, “ought to love learning about and caring for the spaces surrounding us”, especially with the historical heritage which embodies architectural values and classical beauty (his sayings reminded me of our Faculty of Spatial Science’s own motto of “let’s make places better together”). Therefore in these two weeks, we would struggle to understand, measure, photograph, draw and finally rehabilitate the old University of Oradea’s campus, in order to make it attractive and more accessible to students, professors and the larger public. The final result would consist of several large posters to be printed and publicly showcased in the city center  for everyone to see. Kudos to the professors for trusting their students to not disappoint them! 

Students discuss a sketch glued on top of a topographic map of the university campus (left). The professor joins the students in sketching and debating how should the campus look like (right)

Rehabilitating the Campus of the University of Oradea

After the introduction speech, we proceeded to tour the university campus* and listen about its history, as we explored the tree-lined alleys, the ornate facades, as well as the inside foyers, staircases and classrooms of the buildings. The academic nucleus is made of a set of 4 buildings displayed around a circular square and erected between 1906-1913 in the Jugendstil style by architects from Budapest, brothers József and László Vágó. However, this whole compound was originally designed to be an army training school – complete with dormitories, bathhouses and horse stables – until 1963, when it renounced its military function in favor of civil higher education. During that transformative socialist era, the campus was extended with new student dormitories, a cafeteria, and new sport fields like football, tennis and athletics. Since the era of democracy, the campus received a wooden Orthodox church, a library, a music conservatory, a new sports hall and some new dormitories. While the greatest investments in infrastructure extensions were announced in a new master plan in 2019, the summer school participants were nevertheless asked to imagine their version of a rehabilitated campus.

*To compare university campus architectures and the student housing situation in different countries like the Netherlands, Ireland, UK and Romania, read this previous Girugten article: https://www.girugten.nl/student-housing-around-the-world-perspectives-and-solutions-for-groningen/ 

The last activity of day one was to list, explain and assign the design themes conceived by the organising professors. Basically, this large and complex campus was divided into smaller sections, reasonable to manage for individual teams made up of ±6 students and an assisting professor. Students got to choose their preferred theme and the teams were formed that same day. In the beginning, the bucket list had 12 points of interest, but some of them were very interconnected, so in the end, they were lumped together into 6 different design themes (see pictures of the final posters* below).

* To see a higher definition version of each poster, click this link. https://arhicon.uoradea.ro/ro/evenimente/universitatea-de-vara/ 

  1. Ideas for transforming the northern entrance gate of the campus into a FORUM STAGE (open-space square). 
  2. Surveying the previous GUARD’S HOUSE and transforming it into a tourist INFOPOINT.
  3. Ideas for the JUNCTION between the North-South public road (to be turned pedestrian in the future) and the (future) East-West grass lawn.
  1. Rehabilitation of the original CENTRAL SQUARE from 1912.
  2. Surveying and rehabilitation of the dilapidated GENERAL’S HOUSE into a     coffee shop.
  3. Ideas for an abstract SCULPTURE and for a new square surrounding the campus LIBRARY.

The objective I opted for was related more to urbanism and landscaping – the space between the buildings – and my team included freshmen and sophomore students. In turn, the more experienced 3rd or 4th year students were assigned a more technical task, to 3D scan* an abandoned residential house and imagine it as a café, and refurbish the guard’s house into a tourist info point (These design ideas remind me of “Power of Design”, a first year course from SPD, wherein we had 2 similar fieldwork assignments, in which students proposed optimal facilities for underserved, but promising places). 

*The process of measuring the lengths and widths of all the chambers, staircases, windows and doors of a house, then inserting this info into a computer model, is called SURVEYING. You can also read about the technology of 3D scanning and indoor mapping of buildings in one of Girugten’s articles: https://www.girugten.nl/black-box-mapping-indoor-environments/ 

The daily schedule was quite standardised and consisted of a working period from 9:00 to 17:00 (which included discussing, sketching, ideating, but also on-site measuring, 3D scanning, computer modeling etc.) with a breakfast and lunch break at 10:00 and 13:00. In most days, either during the atelier hours or between 18:00-19:50, we were invited to learn about architecture good-practices in lectures given by the architecture professors from Oradea or by guests from Cluj, Timișoara, Tîrgu Mureș and even from Budapest! In the evenings without lectures, we visited museums and other tourist attractions of the old town, while one day we were even invited to the city hall. On Saturday, we visited the city of Debrecen in Hungary, where we examined the impressive Debrecen University campus. Their on-campus multiconfessional church had a tower which resembled that of Stanford University’s campus in the US – Google it! Our Hungarian architect guides were, in fact, the designers of a modern medicine faculty building inside the campus, and everyone was impressed with the high quality of the learning environment. It challenges the campus of the RUG in Groningen, too! Speaking of Dutch architecture, in one informal evening of this summer school, students and professors had lots of laughs while watching the hilarious movie “Koolhaas Houselife” – a documentary about the struggle of being a housekeeper in a modernist house designed by architect Rem Koolhaas in Bordeaux. I recommend architecture enthusiasts watch it too!

The University Library hosted the summer school design studio, as well as several architecture posters from previous years, for inspiration purposes (left). Participating students visit in the picturesque old town of Oradea with their professors, after a long day of work in the design atelier (right)

Thoughts and Comparison between a Spatial Planner’s and an Architect’s Craft

The very nature of architecture – be it regular or of the landscape – makes it different from spatial planning (which – fun fact – has its origins in the subject of geography rather than in the former), because they work at different scales in space. This dialectic can be compared with two courses from the bachelor of Spatial Planning and Design (SPD), my programme at the FSS in Groningen. While the course Spatial Design Atelier (SDA) focuses on the regional scale of metropolitan areas, the  Urbanism Atelier (UA) course deals with smaller urban land plots. So, too, architecture work is concerned in great detail with buildings occupying a well-defined land plot, while spatial planning mostly relates to the zoning and regulation of large amounts of surfaces. Nonetheless, what both architecture and spatial planning have in common is the design component.

Throughout this summer university, similar to the SPD design courses, it was possible to distinguish a “design cycle”: the comprehensive process regarding the work of architects and spatial planners alike, which runs from analysing the beginning problem statement, to ideating, debating and settling on the most promising design, and finally to crafting the finite design project and presentation posters. The beginning design phase for us participants in this summer school was very fuzzy. At least I myself had troubles understanding where the professors were hinting at with their sketches, as in what objects would be reasonable to keep and restore, or rather remove altogether within my design theme of modernising a public square (tiny communication flaws…). However, in the end, my pragmatic architecture student friends settled on a design and hurried up in the last three days to finish the computer models and assemble the final posters. After all, they are the ones being graded here.

In the studio where we improvised a design atelier, we all received several tools such as measuring roulettes and drawing materials to work with, including topographical maps of the campus and tracing paper to sketch our design solutions. Coupled with many back-and-forth site visits (which was easy to do, since the library itself was located in the campus) and guidelines from practicing architects or landscape students, we gradually, albeit slowly, got to understand what we were dealing with, what was missing and what original solutions could we implement. During all this time, I remembered the guiding principle that I learned from the design courses at our FSS faculty, namely “what-goes-where-and-why?”. In this regard, my colleagues who study architecture or landscaping were more technical on the visual aesthetics of their proposed plans and gave clear details in the type of pavement, or benches or trees and bushes they proposed.

The most obvious difference between spatial planners and architects may be the fact that architecture students can draw professionally. For instance, by only using crayons and liner pens, they can draw a technical blueprint of a wrought iron fence. In effect, enrolling into an architecture faculty practically requires students to have learned beforehand how to draw geometry and 3d space perspective. But one freshman student revealed to me that he had to master the art of perspective drawing all by himself, and he was preparing early to learn computer modeling alone too, but that is just how things go in most architecture schools. Learning by doing. To an extent, SPD students use pen(cils) and paper too when we sketch on tracing paper, but we do not need to bother about exact contours or emulating the reality as in a photography.

Architecture student sketch depicting the library, dormitories and the wooden church: perpendicular (left) and oblique P.O.V. (middle) + For comparison,  perspective drawing of “Veendam, circa 1873” in the Netherlands, sketched on a whiteboard by a RUG SPD student during a spatial design atelier (right)

An architecture student’s drawing depicting the University of Oradea’s main entrance gate and fence. Achieved with liner pens, crayons and various rulers.

Regarding computer software used, architects have various programmes for different stages of their project: the laborious 3D modeling is done in either ArchiCAD or AutoCAD (CAD=Computer Aided Design), but SketchUp is also a common tool for simple 3D building models. Then, they might use the Lumion app to achieve nice renderings with natural day or dusk light. Finally, they all use the Adobe arsenal to edit their posters. In this regard, SPD and architecture require similar digital skills. We both use InDesign or Illustrator, but architects focus more on Photoshop, for instance, to add smiling people walking on the streets they just designed. Architects are taught well how to highlight and sell their projects.

Architecture students in the design atelier, drawing and sketching on paper (right), doing 3d computer models of buildings on the ArchiCAD software program (left) and lastly making visuals in Photoshop and the final posters layout in InDesign (middle)

This architecture summer school ended on the second week’s Friday morning when, after the 2-meters-tall printed posters were placed in front of each 6 design objectives throughout the campus, the participating students provided a open-air, walking tour presentation to the Rector of the University. He awarded us not only accolades and a diploma, but also support towards the architecture students’ direct involvement in the campus modernisation process. It was also announced that future editions of this multidisciplinary event would be organised in the next years.

In conclusion, by participating in extracurricular events such as a summer university, I observed not only the tense working environment and the requisite technical skills of architecture, but I got to meet many awesome people, enjoy fun times and laughter, explore new places and make lifetime memories. Perhaps the RUG’s Faculty of Spatial Sciences could organise its own kind of summer school in Groningen, a sort of design atelier, either for outsiders or for students to learn from practicing architects. Because deep inside, spatial planners, geographers and architects are all nerds of the built environment. 

N.B.: the University of Groningen does in fact maintain a yearly list of every summer school organized by its various faculties -> https://student.portal.rug.nl/infonet/studenten/opleidingen/meer-studiemogelijkheden/summer-winter-schools/summer-schools/sorted-by-theme/

Groningen’s summer school “Sustainable Landscapes – the Wadden Experience” will take 20 “talented bachelor, master and PhD students and professionals in the field of spatial planning, economics and business, landscape ecology and human geography” on a 5 day sailing trip  around the World Heritage Wadden Sea Region starting in August 28th 2023. “Leading experts will guide participants in lectures from different fields such as: cultural heritage, coastal tourism, landscape stewardship, regional food production and sustainable entrepreneurship”; so as to help students resolve the conflicts between economic activities like fishing and tourism with the “utter stillness” of nature.Upon successful completion of the program, the Summer School offers a Certificate of Attendance that mentions the workload of 84 hours (3 ECTS; 28 hours corresponds to 1 ECTS).

The design challenge “Save the Fochteloerveen” 2023 will take place in a village next to a 2,500 hectare heath nature reserve on the border of the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Drenthe. For 3 days between June 25-27, five teams of 3 students each will analyze the nitrogen fertilizer pollution problem in light of both agriculture, the local farmer’s livelihoods, as well as nature conservation urgency. Being hosted by design professor Terry van Dijk, this event will bring experts on hydrology, ecology, agriculture and economy and also politicians to give inspiring lectures on this very current topic. By using the what-goes-where-and-why? principle, the teams of FSS students will pitch a local spatial design to the jury of experts. While this contest promises to be an unforgettable experience, it is outside of the University’s official summer schools programme, therefore no ECTS are given at the end. For comparison, the summer school in Oradea used the “stick method” and compelled architecture students to deliver a good poster for their mandatory practice assignment, but this optional design challenge employs the “carrot method” by rewarding the team with the best design proposal with €500! A great call for arms, but not as important as the goal of making places better together.  

Thommy Pantis
Thommy Pantis
Bachelor student of Spatial Planning and Design at RUG's faculty of Spatial Sciences. Interested in public administration, local politics and media.
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