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Projet d'architecture 4.11 : UN - Urban Nature

academic year

Course teacher(s)

Mar Nadia CASABELLA ALVAREZ (Coordinator) and Axel FISHER

ECTS credits

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Language(s) of instruction

english, french

Course content

The design unit Urban Nature focuses on a reconfiguration between humans and non-humans in our cities. The merit of the notion of the Anthropocene (or a new geological epoch, defined by an unprecedented human disturbance of the earth's ecosystems) has been to make it visible today that we are inextricably linked to the other inhabitants of the planet, human and non-human, and that we have no choice but to take this into account and change our anthropocentric worldview. However, the “great scission” between humans and the living earth, a legacy of modernity, prevents us from feeling intimately linked to the latter. This distancing has been at the root of the construction of cities since the dawn of time, and was exasperated by the industrial revolution, with the emergence of hygienist considerations that pushed any living element out of them. Urbanism is therefore historically dependent on this distancing between humans and non-humans, which, as relevant and legitimate as it was in its time, could today have lost its raison d'être.

Designing our cities differently will therefore imply reconceptualizing them beyond the human, “ecologyzing” us i.e. shifting the focus of attention of our professional and intellectual practice as to make possible new modes of existence where ecology will no longer be the “out there” without connection with us, but will be there where we breathe, where we fight.
The name of the studio alludes to these questions in a double sense: what is the nature of the urban and what is nature in the urban? Can we still accept them as opposites and continue to inhabit “infernal alternatives” that seem paralyzing: either people or biodiversity, either sanctuarized nature or the city, either the romanticized countryside or the hostile urban life, either autonomous architecture or situated urbanism?

The pedagogical unit does not seek the application of tools known to respond directly to well-defined symptoms, but rather an “imperfect holistic exploration of a holistic problem that is beyond us”. To make this exploration possible, tools (maps, models, participating observations, workshops, dialogue of actors and contrasting knowledge, etc.) will have to be tested and adapted each time, following Deleuze and Guattari when they invite us to “think through the environment”, that is to say both without forcing our investigation into an ideal goal and without separating the object of our investigation from the environment it needs to exist.
The endeavor, no doubt risky, seems urgent to us to suture the modern scission that keeps us away from the entities that contribute to making the planet habitable. Indeed, the survival of humans today is, more than ever, intrinsically linked to the actions of non-humans. We cannot imagine or think of a habitable world made of sustainable cities without including everything that is world with us.

This year 2021-22, our work will be articulated around two collaborations between the design unit and external parties. The first consists of the Co-create project funded by Innoviris  “SUPER TERRAM”, in partnership with BRAL, and the 51N4E design practice, which wants to give more visibility to urban soil, one of the most complex ecosystems and one of the most diverse habitats on Earth, as well as a key element of the resilience of cities. The second collaboration is with the University of Daegu in South Korea (Faculty of Engineering, Urban Landscape Division). In both cases, these collaborations should make it possible to develop a multicultural perspective and a comparative dimension to this year’s task. They will also help to develop our English language skills, the language of instruction of the design unit.

Objectives (and/or specific learning outcomes)

If the design education inside the faculty is normally approached from the point of view of the “design project” mediating disciplinary integration, and therefore with an emphasis on the “how”, in Urban Nature we would like to slightly divert this focus towards questions such as “where”, “what / who”, “why / for whom”, which also seem important in the task of instructing architects.


Architecture is about being “somewhere”. It’s knowing where you are and how to belong to that “somewhere”. It is this “where” that intrigues us the most and this “where” of architecture is a reality that is far from easily apprehended. You can take pictures of it, draw a plan, sketch a cut... But this information may not be enough to feel “somewhere”. This “somewhere” is woven with long narrative threads that take us from the geological formation of a place, its substrate, to the networks of services that support it or to the history of its occupation/dwelling.

All explorations are possible as long as they allow us to “land”, as Bruno Latour suggests. The first methodological ambition is therefore to make the bodily experience, to identify, represent, understand the places before transforming them.


Work in the design unit is therefore seen as a form of knowledge production (or Deweyan inquiry). This production constantly makes choices, most of the time it is heuristic choices, derived from previous experiences. But there is nothing innocent about these choices. First of all, these spatial choices are intertwined with the material world around us, its material configurations: no practice exists in a vacuum, but it is located and contingent. Second, these choices reveal or reflect the way society imagines itself living in the future. By designing places, we are not only apprehending the world but more in shaping it in a particular way. And by doing so, we exclude ways of living there as well. 

What for?

Architecture is about the transformation of places. But why should we achieve these transformations? What are we trying to change and why? Rather than developing projects in terms of solutions, we propose to bring the questioning itself into play. To Jacques Lucan's annoyance at the “irresistible rise of landscapers” in France in the 1990s, Sébastien Marot did not answer simply: they may not have the solutions, but they have the merit of stating the right questions, of asking the problems. This problematization requires exploring different possibilities and rethinking existing frameworks, inviting students to free themselves from existing norms and to reframe them. We choose for a pedagogy of emancipation, therefore, rather than explanation, developing a curious and stimulating research, along with opening questions by experimenting, manufacturing, manipulating.

For whom?

“Seeing the Planet as [our] client” (Farrell and McNamara, 2017) involves redefining the “subjects” of the architectural project. The debate on biodiversity in cities is in tune with the times, and increasing the opportunities for cohabitation with wildlife therefore seems an obvious imperative for both the urban and architectural project. Post-humanist thought (beyond-humanism / more-than-humanism) however invites to consider fauna, and other elements of nature (flora, site, climate) as “minorities”. From this point of view, “seeing the planet as [our] client” is equivalent to broadening the field of beneficiaries and uses of architecture: animals small and large, crawling and flying, root plants but also rhizomatic, edible and not, but also all those “humans” who still, in function of their age, gender, ethnicity or social status, and despite of everything, will constitute minorities too.

New agents and alliances

The ambition to understand and care for what exists, and the contingent way it has followed to be what it is, requires us to realize that we are part of it. To understand this “something”, this “somewhere” is also to be affected by it. But “cohabiting” implies in a certain way “being one with”, weaving assemblages and ecologies based on architectural solutions that are more flexible, recyclable, “metabolic”, fair and equitable, or simply inviting and collaborative. We, architects and urbanists, operate in a material world. We are fully “inside” it in our daily practices, influenced by the technologies and artifacts we use, reproducing asymmetric distributions of resources. We cannot continue to deny these entanglements.

Teaching methods and learning activities

We normally start with a guided tour of the site, a first confrontation with the reality of the site, introduced by the actors linked to the site and / or the task of the semester: architects, public authorities, citizens ... This visit allows us to identify what we value, what strikes us or fascinates us during our first contact with the site.

After this first visit, we all meet and review these things that have touched us the most. We bring together students with similar interests and they start a small survey (RUMMAGING phase) that will help them deepen the subject. In a second step (ASSEMBLING phase), the subject is explored by exposing the links it has with other things, which makes it "numerous" and articulated with its environment before deciding on an intervention that elaborates the first fascination.

Otherwise, the schedule is organized into a series of strict deadlines and design phases (the name of which is in English, the language of instruction of the workshop). Meeting these deadlines is the key to a relaxed evolution of each term. It also ensures a correct collectivization of the results among the workshop participants. In the workshop brochure, published online, you will find a full description of these phases and how they are articulated.

Contribution to the teaching profile

At the end of his training, the graduate of the Faculty of Architecture of the ULB will be able to design an architectural project:

A. Instructing an architectural question. This means to get hold of a given question and to translate it into architectural terms through the development of several hypotheses, putting in relation the different parameters of the question by means of an iterative approach.

B. Develop a spatial response through critical inquiry, relying both on specific constraints and values (environmental, landscape, artistic, cultural, socio-economic, ...), and mobilizing the discursive and graphic languages of the architecture discipline and its design tools.

C. Implement a spatially situated response, across the scales: from the object to the territory. This response should encompass the material context of the project, the associated resources it will deploy as well as the local constructive realities.

D. Experiment, show inventiveness, in the face of the encountered situations, whether technical, formal, social, collaborative ...

References, bibliography, and recommended reading

Abu Lughod, J. 1999. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. America's Global Cities. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

David, B. 2020. At the dawn of the SixthExtinction. Grasset.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1980. Mille Plateaux. Paris, Editions de Minuit.

Dewey, J. 1967. Logic, the theory ofinquiry. Paris.

Di Chiro et al. 2014.De the universe closed to the infinite world. Outside.

Douglas, I. 2013. Cities. An Environmental History. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, NYC.

Farrell, Y., McNamara, S. 2017. FREESPACE MANIFESTO, 16th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice. https://www.labiennale.org/en/architecture/2018/introduction-yvonne-farrell-and-shelley-mcnamara

Haraway, D.J. 2015. « Sympoièse, SF, embrouilles multispécifiques », in Debaise, D. and Stengers, I. (eds.), Gestes spéculatifs. Dijon, Les Presses du réel, pp. 42-72.

Haraway, D.J. 2016. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, Duke University Press.

Koolhaas, R.; Bantal, S. 2020. Countryside: A Report (exhibition catalogue: Guggenheim Museum). Taschen.

Latour, B. 2017. Where to land? How to orient oneself in politics. Editions La Découverte.

Latour, B., Weibel, P. (eds.) 2020. Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. Cambridge, The MIT Press.

Latour, B. 2021. Where am I? Lessons from confinement to land use. The fishermen to think in circles.

Lucan, J. 1995. “The irresistible rise of landscapers”, AMC Le Moniteur Architecture, n°44.

Marot, S. 2019. Taking the country's side: agriculture and architecture (exhibition catalogue), Lisbon Architecture Triennale.

Marot, S. 1995. “The alternative of the landscape”,  The Visitor, n. 1.

Moore, S.A., Karvonen, A. 2008. “Sustainable Architecture in Context: STS and Design Thinking”. Science Studies, 21:1, pp. 29-46.

Stengers, I. 2013. In the time of disasters: resist the barbarity thatcomes. Paris, La Découverte.

Isabelle Stengers. 2012. “Reclaiming Animism”, e-flux Journal #36. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/

Course notes

  • Syllabus

Other information

Additional information

The design unit Urban Nature will be coached by:

  • Nadia Casabella and Benoit Burquel in the Fall term
  • Nadia Casabella, Lisa Raport and Uri Wegman in the Spring term


For any questions regarding the design unit Urban Nature, please contact Nadia.Casabella@ulb.be




Method(s) of evaluation

  • Project
  • Practice work
  • Oral presentation

The evaluation focuses on the coherence and relevance of the spatial proposal in relation to the “research by design” path of the student or group of students, for each term separately. It also takes into account the quality of graphic documents and oral presentations.
The evaluation is composed of:

  • a “continuous evaluation”, throughout the design unit sessions, presentations and intermediate presentations, agreed by the design unit instructors.
  • one or more evaluations by a jury composed of invited guests.

The work of B.Arch-3 and M.Arch-2 students must also meet the evaluation criteria shared across the faculty’s design units.

Mark calculation method (including weighting of intermediary marks)

The construction of the overall mark is the sum of the final jury mark (50%) and the continuous evaluation. The latter is calculated as the sum of the evaluations of the presentations organized throughout the design unit sessions: comparative analysis, scenarios, sketch, project.

Language(s) of evaluation

  • english
  • partially in english
  • (if applicable french )