MIT OpenCourseWare


Questioning Urban Design Politics

Exercise One

Assigned: Ses #2
Due: Ses #5, but presented to the class on Ses #5, Ses #6 or Ses #7 (depending on the best fit of your topic).

Consider the questions that have emerged from the first sets of readings for this seminar: How is political power constructed through space? How is the past manipulated to serve the present? How is meaning conveyed? How does gender (or race or ethnicity) affect design? Who benefits from urban development? Whose perspective matters?

Taking one or more of these questions as a point of departure, please pick a designed environment that has meant something to you and discuss its urban design politics. In what ways has politics influenced the design of this environment? You may wish to emphasize either political symbolism or political process, but do try to say at least something about both. If you gain access to some degree of documentary evidence to support what you say, that would be best, but don't be afraid to trust your own powers of observation as well.

Your response should be three to five typed pages, and you should present it in class on the date where your chosen topic best fits (please discuss this with me). The idea is for you to introduce the class to a relevant example. Illustrations (either in the form of slides, overheads, or some kind of handout that you can distribute to everyone) would be very helpful. You are encouraged to use this first paper as a trial run on your longer term paper for the class.

Exemplary student responses to this assignment are included below. All work is courtesy of the student named and used with permission.

"Monuments and the Construction of Political Power - Case Study: Humayun's Tomb, New Delhi" - Sadaf Ansari (PDF)

"Designed for Glory: Huey P. Long’s building program in Louisiana" - Jeffrey Hébert (PDF)

"Olympiastadion Berlin: Embodying Nazi Politics through Architecture" - Todd Kohr (PDF)

"La Grande Arche de la Défense, Paris" - Jacob Simpson (PDF)

"Stealing the Show: Ed Rendell and the Urban Design Politics of Philadelphia's Mummers Parade" - Annis Whitlow (PDF)

Final Paper

Due: Ses #12 (earlier is preferred!). Presented in class on Ses #10, Ses #11, or Ses #12.

This final paper may be an expansion of your first paper, or else may address an entirely new or related topic. In any case, it should address the "design politics" of some place or issue. You may wish to emphasize "process politics" questions (e.g., who benefits from development?) or "symbolic politics" questions (e.g., the meanings attached to urban design interventions); ideally, the paper will address the confluence of both aspects. At base, the paper should somehow address the ways that urban design (however broadly or narrowly defined) affects the balance of power (political, cultural, or social) in some place(s) or institutional setting(s)

In the past, most papers have run approximately 15-20 pages. There is no prize for length - it shouldn't be any longer than it needs to be to make and illustrate your argument.

I am expecting that approximately 4-5 of you will present your papers at each of the last three class sessions (Ses #10, Ses #11, and Ses #12). I will ask each of you to rank your preferred presentation dates, and we'll hope for an equitable solution (tempered by some effort to group sessions by related topics, if at all possible). Presentations (including time for questions, discussion with the class) should therefore be about 25 minutes. If you present your paper at one of the first two sessions, you do not need to hand it in at that time (although I'd be happy to get some papers early!). Presentations should include some form of illustration that you can project (slides, Microsoft® PowerPoint®, overheads - I have no preference) and some sort of 'souvenir' related to your project that you can distribute to the class.