On Architecture, From Architecture

Translating Academia into Practice

Sudeshna Sen (MAUD '19)


Source: Urban Omnibus. “Teaching Urban Design.” Urban Omnibus, 12 Dec. 2017, urbanomnibus.net/2011/03/teaching-urban-design-2/.

What is the dependency of the discipline of urban design on architecture? Is there a necessity to distinguish urban design from architecture?

For me, this is a vital question that arose as I reflect back on my first year of academia in the discipline and venture into its practice for the summer. It is a culmination of thoughts that manifested after attending a book talk at the MIT Press Bookstore followed by a conversation between Brent Ryan, Alex Krieger and Rahul Mehrotra. The Largest Art, written by Brent D. Ryan, is an effort to redefine the discipline as an art – an art that differentiates it distinctly from other building arts. The book seemed to have focused most of it energy in illuminating aspects which sets urban design apart from architecture – the incompleteness of form and the temporality of interventions.

But before one can venture an answer to such a question, one must understand the foundational dependency these two disciplines share in their intertwined histories. As an academic discipline, urban design was founded at the Graduate School of Design in 1960. The very founding of the discipline was generated around a series of conferences by Jose Luis Sert during the years 1957-1965 to understand the need for and the responsibility of this discipline in the making of contemporary cities.  

In essence as I understand it, the foundation of the discipline of urban design grew out of an attempt to combine the disciplines of architecture, landscape and planning and emphasizing a need for a ‘bridge’ discipline. However, over the years, the attachment between architecture and urban design has only strengthened: urban design interventions are largely considered to be architectural interventions across scales. This dependency seems to have grown out of the need for the discipline of urban design to rely on that of architecture as a visual language and mode of representation.

Cities have been designed long before any formal training in urban design was given. Indeed, the most exemplary urban designs were conceived by engineers, lawyers and socialists. The matters of contestation in the urban realm does not rise simply from spatial incongruencies but from an accumulation of socio-political circumstances. Intervening in the urban requires distinct forms of action arising from the specificity of its geopolitical context. So, the question then arises, how did urban design become so entangled and reliant on the field of architecture to define it? How do we start moving away from architectural design as the solution and start introducing multiple modes of engagement in the learning process? How should we learn urban design and therefore how should we teach it?

Architecture is critical as a visual language and as a methodological tool which helps illuminate scalar and spatial relationships. However, we must not confuse architecture as a representational tool with architecture as a methodological solution to urban design problems. While understanding the need for architecture as a visual language, we must also understand its limitations in communicating essential aspects of urban design projects – among others, these embodying concepts of incompleteness and temporality. Furthermore, since urban design already expresses in-depth knowledge of design thinking processes, its education can and should explore how these processes apply to policy creation, advocacy initiatives, private-public partnerships and community collaborations that are so intrinsic to the forefront of the discipline, issues that recede when urban design is framed as ‘architecture’.

Rather than defining (or re-defining) urban design, maybe we should start by re-evaluating the way we teach it. A methodological academic shift can have huge implications in the way we approach the practice of urban design today. In thinking of urban design as a way of intervening and critiquing the contemporary city, we must acknowledge the complexity that surrounds issues of urbanization. A focus on ‘design’ as the primary skillset has led to the extensive use of architecture as a solution, whereas the applied practice of urban design requires us to be much more versatile in incorporating research and contemporary issues into design, rather than resorting to default modes of ‘architectural design’ interventions.


1. “Teaching Urban Design.” Urban Omnibus, 12 Dec. 2017, urbanomnibus.net/2011/03/teaching-urban-design-2/.

2. Krieger, Alex, and William S. Saunders. Urban Design. 2009.

3. Ryan, Brent D. The Largest Art: a Measured Manifesto for a Plural Urbanism. The MIT Press, 2017.