​Rifat, Mumtaheena & Eskilsson, Robin (2021). LOCAL-NON-LOCAL. Re-appropriating Design Methods for Remote Collaboration in Community Development Projects

Design Activism Beyond Borders

ACEX35, Masters’ thesis direction, 2022/2023

“If we start thinking that every line on a piece of paper is an act of social responsibility, then every line assumes significance." Jeremy Till

Description and aim  


spatial agency, design activism, local and international collaborations, extreme environments, applied architecture, socio-political and ethical design 


This thesis direction is built upon the backdrop of the myriad of current global crises and emergencies, within extreme environments, both in low- and middle-income countries as well as in our more familiar ‘western’ urban contexts. This thesis direction navigates through the complexity of the challenges that disadvantaged and unprivileged communities face, often due to normalized spatial and environmental injustices and irresponsible architecture and planning practices. This polarization in the distribution of wealth and power in contemporary society requires a design activism approach to the architectural profession. 


To tackle this, the Master’s Thesis direction Design Activism Beyond Borders aims to explore design processes and methodologies dealing with the concept of Spatial Agency, which involves a reflection on the professional role of the architect in practice. Spatial Agency develops through other, non-normative, radical, collaborative, interventive – ways of thinking and doing architecture. The concept and method of Spatial Agency is supported by the following principles: 
•    architectural design knowledge in a sustainability framework is set beyond the technical and the aesthetic tasks of building design. 
•    architectural practices have the duty and responsibility to engage with socio-political and ethical aspects of the development of society in relation to the development of the built environment. 
•    architects are understood as only one of the agents of change and therefore this framework rejects the idea of an autonomous creator in favor of a design activist approach that works across disciplinary borders and empowers local communities. 

Practice and theory:

With a high focus on design practice, the work in this thesis direction is strongly based on the application of theoretical concepts in a case, and the use of different methods of research by design, avoiding solely written and theoretical explorations. 


the contexts of the projects are often marginalized, stigmatized or socially deprived areas both locally and internationally. The development of these types of environments requires a spatial agency approach which operates beyond conventional professional borders and praxis. In some cases, the thesis may include multiple contexts or non-geographical contexts (such as social, cultural, historical, or economical). 


as methodological and pedagogical references, the following masters’ courses in architecture and urban design are presented as tightly connected to this thesis direction (although it’s not compulsory to have attended these courses before, we strongly recommend you consider them as useful training for this thesis direction):
•    Design and Planning for Social Inclusion (design studio) 
•    Reality Studio (design studio) 
•    Beyond Sustainability (crash course) 
•    Dare to Build, architects (summer course) 

Method and process 

With a strong engagement with the respective socio-cultural and physical contexts of each project, the methods and processes used in this thesis direction include among others: 
•    Manifestos (clear graphical and written discourse/project statements) 
•    Non-technical graphical production (delimitation diagrams, stakeholders’ mapping, conceptual collages, norm-critical illustrations and perspectives, etc.) 
•    Field work (both distance-based and in-situ are accepted, and it includes preparation and training, and dealing with dimensions, prototyping, challenges and questions of ethics, decolonialization and human rights) 
•    Qualitative methods of social analysis (participatory mapping, interviews, workshops, focus groups, other media such as film, etc.) 
•    Speculative Design (through, for instance, role-playing, deconstruction, scenario-making, back-casting, fictional case-studies, implementation plan, etc.) 
•    Construction of new methods and tools for design activism (development of games and other workshop methods for co-design, etc.) 
•    Implementation plan and prototyping as thesis design outputs (production of manuals or handbooks for direct application in different contexts, prototyping and testing design concepts within real or simulated scenarios, etc.) 
•    Applied research by design (iterative and integrated development of design and research within the thesis process, applied to a specific context or case study)  
•    Co-design and co-creation as insurgent (sometimes radical) practices of design activism 
•    Collaborative projects involving real-case partnerships and pedagogies internationally and locally 
•    Continuous graphical reflections (graphical essays, annotations, thesis journey notebooks, etc.) 

Graphical material:

all material in this thesis direction is to be explored and explained predominantly through graphical forms and formats, not necessarily technical drawings, but still involving the main tools and skills of the profession. 

Specific evaluation criteria 

1.    Well-motivated, contemporary and relevant thesis questions and research within the scope of the thesis direction (in relation to Spatial Agency and design activism). 
2.    Quality and clarity of the discourse and position of the thesis beyond sustainability (relate to UNSDGs) and in relation to design activism.
3.    Level of coherence throughout the process, and between the research, the (learning) outcome and the design output. 
4.    Proper use of (written and graphical) material to define discourse statements, design contextualization and application plan. 
5.    Quality and coherence of all visual and graphic material (including manifestos, diagrams, illustrations, etc.) in how it properly explains the complexity and coherence of the work in a concise and logical way. 
6.    Clear positioning of the thesis within a Spatial Agency approach. 
7.    Quality and depth of the reflective material regarding the role of the profession, the agency of the thesis, ethical aspects involved (including an intersectional reflection) and a decolonialized approach. This includes showing capacity to deal with failure in a constructive way. 


Approved/not approved. 

Specific submission requirements 

It is strongly recommended that the students who want to apply for this thesis direction have attended at least one of the above-mentioned courses (Design and Planning for Social Inclusion; Reality Studio; Beyond Sustainability; Dare to Build, architects). A short portfolio of samples from previous work which are highly relevant for both the thesis proposal and this thesis direction should also complement the Project Plan. The relevance of such collected samples can compensate for the case of not having attended any of the abovementioned courses. 

Suggested literature and projects  

Examples of Literature: 
•    Architecture sans frontières International (2012). Challenging Practice: Essentials for the Social Production of Habitat. Retrieved from https://challengingpractice.wordpress.com/  
•    Awan, N., Schneider, T., & Till, J. (2013). Spatial agency: other ways of doing architecture. Routledge. 
•    Chipchase, J. (2017). The Field Study Handbook. (Ed. 2) 
•    Frediani, AA; Fench, MA; Ferrera, IN; (2011). Change by Design - Building Communities Through Participatory Design. Urban Culture Press, New Zealand. 
•    Lepik, Andres (cur.) (2013). Think Global Build Social, ARCH+ nr. 211/212 – Journal for Architecture and Urbanism. 
• Garcia, C. & Frankowski, N. (2020). A Manual of Anti-Racist Architecture Education. (https://waithinktank.com/Anti-Racist-Education-Manual)
•    Hamdi, Nabeel (2004). Small Change. About the art of practice and the limits of planning in cities. New York: Earthscan 
•    Hamdi, Nabeel (2010). The placemaker's guide to building community. London, CPI Antony Rowe. 
•    Kaminer, Tahl (2017). The Efficacy of Architecture. Political Contestation and Agency. Routledge, NY 
•    Martin, Bella; Hanington, Bruce (2012). Universal Methods of Design. Beverly, Rockport Publishers 
•    Petrescu, Doina; Trogal, Kim (2017). The Social (Re)Production of Architecture. London, Routledge 
•    Pitera, Dan & Wilkins, Craig L. (2014). Activist Architecture: Philosophy and Practice of the Community Design Center. Detroit Collaborative Design Center, USA 
•    Roussou E., Brandao E., Thuvander L., Adelfio M. (2019) Social Inclusion When Community Outreach Becomes The Core Of Architectural Education. Chalmers University of Technology  Available here: https://research.chalmers.se/en/publication/511204 
•    Schneider, T. & Till, J. (2009). Beyond Discourse: Notes on Spatial Agency. https://jeremytill.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/post/attachment/29/agency_footprint.pdf 
•    Sinclair, C., & Stohr, K. (2006). Design like you give a damn. Architectural Response to Humanitarian Crisis. London, Thames & Hudson Ltd. 
•    Till, Jeremy (2009). Architecture Depends. MIT Press 
•    TILT (2013). Codesigning Space. London, Artifice Books on Architecture 
Examples of reference international practices and agencies within the network of this thesis direction: 
•    Architecture Sans Frontières International (https://www.asfint.org/en) and all member-organizations 
•    Architecture for Refugees (http://architectureforrefugees.com/) 
•    Atelier d'Architecture Autogérée (https://www.urbantactics.org/); Assemble Studio (https://assemblestudio.co.uk/); Construct Lab (https://www.constructlab.net/); ONOFF Berlin (http://www.onoff.cc/); Raumlabor Berlin (https://raumlabor.net/); Recetas Urbanas (http://www.recetasurbanas.net/) 
•    Failed Architecture (https://failedarchitecture.com/)  
•    Forensic Architecture (https://forensic-architecture.org/) 
•    The Funambulist magazine (https://thefunambulist.net/)  
•    Live Projects at Sheffield University (https://liveprojects.ssoa.info/)
•    Loureaders (https://loudreaders.com/)
•    Masters Programme in International Cooperation and Sustainable Emergency Architecture at the UIC (http://masteremergencyarchitecture.com/program/)
•    Monoskop, a wiki for arts and studies (https://monoskop.org/)
•    Unit for Urban Citizenship at University of Pretoria, South Africa (https://www.up.ac.za/architecture/article/2933010/Urban-Citizenship)
•    WAI Architecture Think Tank (https://waithinktank.com/)

Exemplary thesis projects  
• Bell, Alicia (2020).
Not just sorry, but thanks: an investigation into colonialism within Sydney’s Built Environment. https://projects.arch.chalmers.se/alicia-bell/ https://odr.chalmers.se/handle/20.500.12380/301650
• Haferkamp, Barne & Sandman, Karl (2022)
Changing Perspectives. Alternative Border Realities. https://projects.arch.chalmers.se/wpcontent/ uploads/2022/06/sandmankarl_50043_2189477_Haferkamp_Barne_Sandman_Karl_MTBooklet _2022.pdf
• Hifzy, Khuloud (2020).
Hidden Threads. Reweaving a divided social urban fabric in a postconflict zone. https://odr.chalmers.se/handle/20.500.12380/302159
• Larsen, Claudia (2022).
Forest in Chains. A call for ethical approach when building with timber https://projects.arch.chalmers.se/wpcontent/ uploads/2022/06/larsenclaudia_46767_2193663_Larsen_Claudia_MTBooklet_2022.pdf
• Marttila, Johanna (2018).
Towards Local Lab. Developing Tools for Short-term Practices to Become Regenerative and to Create Continuity in Participation. https://odr.chalmers.se/handle/20.500.12380/255184
• Rátkai, Márton & Wirth, Linda (2022).
Mind the Gap. Developing age-inclusive public space in Frihamnen. https://projects.arch.chalmers.se/wpcontent/ uploads/2022/06/Ratkai_Marton_Wirth_Linda_MTBooklet_2022_compressed.pdf
• Rifat, Mumtaheena & Eskilsson, Robin (2021).
LOCAL-NON-LOCAL. Re-appropriating Design Methods for Remote Collaboration in Community Development Projects. https://odr.chalmers.se/handle/20.500.12380/303850
• Siddu, Aschyut (2018).
Education Against All Odds: Liberating learning from the circle of despair and hope. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327931397 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7n4wWf8Jyk
• Zachrisson, Lina (2022).
Hidden in Plain Sight. Uncovering migrant geographies in the external borderlands of Europe. https://projects.arch.chalmers.se/wpcontent/ uploads/2022/06/zachrissonlina_14911_2193562_Zachrisson_Lina_MTBooklet_2022.pdf
• Zorawska, Eve (2018).
UN-seen cities: strategies for building community in transience. https://issuu.com/eve.zorawski/docs/unseencities_online

Direction faculty 

Emilio Brandao, brandao@chalmers.se 
Liane Thuvander, liane.thuvander@chalmers.se  
Marco Adelfio, adelfio@chalmers.se 
Shea Hagy, shea.hagy@chalmers.se   
Doina Petrescu, d.petrescu@sheffield.ac.uk

Page manager Published: Mon 12 Sep 2022.