Street Society « Canning Town Caravanserai

Street Society

Street Society is a weeklong design event facilitated by architecture staff from the School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast. As an annual outreach project, it brings clients from not-for-profit community and voluntary sectors together with talented students of architecture, to produce in five days something remarkable.
Street Society first formed eight years ago. It arose out my own previous experience of being taught and teaching architecture through live projects so it’s a central methodology for me. Street Society resides in a small corner of the architecture curriculum at Queen’s University Belfast, bringing together 1st year students both from the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees courses in architecture for one week. At different stages students from other disciplines (Music, Anthropology, etc) have been involved but live projects are reliant on commitment, self organisation and a healthy ability to improve – so it’s not for everyone.
The ambition of Street Society is to work with communities beyond the university. In the first 6 years this came about through existing networks and calls-out – and it was successful with students working with a range of community organisations – bringing their skills, and enthusiasm to an identified problem. But typically the community groups were already informed and knew the benefits of working with young architects. Our ambition however has always been to use it to empower those people in society with the least access to architects or universities.
Two years ago Street Society began to be funded by the Department of Communities in partnership with the Urban Villages Initiative, which sits within the Executive Office of the Northern Irish Assembly. That funding allows five postgraduate students to work with communities in the five designated Urban Villages approximately four months in advance to develop a brief that teams of 7-8 architecture students later respond to over one week: researching best practice, carrying out historical and contemporary analysis, mapping, constructing and/or proposing designs – much as any other live project would run. The students are located out in the communities for the full week – it’s difficult at times to prise students from their white, wifi-ed studio spaces but being physically located in their respective communities for the week is a purposeful part of the learning process – even though finding suitable venues for over 100 students has its challenges.
In this context Street Society is contributing to the Urban Villages’ strategy for community consultation and engagement. Urban Villages, as defined by the Executive, are areas of high deprivation across Northern Ireland. They are the communities that suffered the most during the period of Troubles /Conflict and they are regarded as the places where violence could again erupt if peace building is not sustained. But equally they represent areas of high potential and it’s in this light that we address them.
The purpose of Street Society is as a place of shared learning. The students learn from one another and from the clients, and the community clients gain insight into the process of design and the value of their immediate built environment. This open learning-design process does not result in deliverable architectural solutions: instead it is about demonstrating possibilities; capturing ideas that already exist at community level; and demonstrating their value. The process places students and the interested community on the same level: with no hierarchy. Ideas, needs and aspirations are voiced, listened to and, with skill and youthful passion, translated into proposals.
Street Society does not want to compete with practicing architects nor community consultation processes. Instead the students- together with their clients- demonstrate and achieve in one week an enthusiasm for listening and learning; and an ability to visually capture ideas, releasing new potentials and new unfolding futures.
The outputs of Street Society are sketches, plans, 3-D images, maps, models, artifacts and ideas: some of which come back into the community for further discussion, some become embedded in community plans or inform funding bids. In addition a few projects are taken into the capital pipeline of the Executive Office for further brief development. So if you come back in 3 to 5 years time, you might see how some of the projects have developed. It is however difficult and highly politicized territory where decisions and actions progress with caution…..But the really valuable outcomes are richer awareness and the new relationships that grow between community organisations, university structures, and future built environment professionals: it’s really a societal dialogue about the built environment at street level.

Ruth Morrow is Professor of Architecture at Queen’s University Belfast where she teaches and researches around ‘spaces of rehearsal’ (Street Society is one such example, as is her work with the arts organization PS²) and ‘material practices’. @buildingclouds