“What values make a good architect or urbanist?” is one of the questions that new master students get to answer in the 3-day introduction program of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. They are asked to draw a mind map with a picture of an architect or urbanist in the middle, and around it the knowledge, tools, skills and values that (s)he needs to have. The exercise has been done for three years now. In about 25% of the cases, so associate professor Roberto Rocco shared in the recent DDfV Playground Meeting on teaching design for values, the figure drawn in the middle by the new students is a guy with thick, black glasses. Why? Because world renowned architect and urban planner Le Corbusier (1887-1965, see picture above) wore such glasses.

There is much that can be said about the controversial legacy of Le Corbusier, “the man who changed the way we live” (as the BBC put it in a 2016 article). Rocco limited himself to remarking that this was definitely an architect and urban planner who claimed to have all the answers. So what does it mean that he is apparently still the role model for so many new architecture and urban planning students? It seems, he suggested, that students come to a technical university with an attitude of ‘solving problems’ and ‘finding solutions’ rather than ‘asking questions’ and ‘exploring different perspectives’.

What Rocco would like to see happening in architecture and urban planning is a paradigm shift in which sustainability, communicative rationality and spatial justice become the core values of the discipline. In the DDfV Playground Meeting he shared a bit about his efforts to bring this paradigm shift about, including the development of a handbook on spatial justice (the fair distribution of the burdens and benefits of urban development) and integrating these values in three different master courses that he teaches. The latter is a challenge for students, he has noted.

Rocco’s experiences with his three courses turned out to be very much in line with the experiences that the other two speakers in the DDfV Playground Meeting had. One was associate professor Ingrid Mulder of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, who spoke about her recent course providing a ‘deep dive’ into design for democracy. The third speaker was assistant professor Cynthia Liem, of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Computer Sciences and Mathematics, who in the past years has been fostering critical thinking about artificial intelligence in her computer science students. All three speakers noted that students “get very uncomfortable when there is no clear-cut exact best answer” (Liem) and often ask “am I doing this right?” with some degree of apprehension (Mulder). This is, they noted, even more the case with students with certain non-Dutch cultural backgrounds.

The three presentations led to an engaging discussion on various topics, including:

  • the need for students to have ‘heroes’, or role models for who they want to become as a designer or engineer;
  • how to prevent them from just adopting ‘the voice of the master’;
  • how to created a safe environment for students to open up and discuss their views;
  • the role of diversity in such discussions, both in terms of culture and in terms of disciplinary background
  • whether or not the sort of critical reflection that we want to stimulate on values is only truly achievable in small-scale electives rather than more large-scale mandatory courses;
  • how to grade students in courses where involvement and critical reflection are key.

The conclusion that the Design for Values Institute draws from this meeting is that there is an interest in more inter-faculty exchange and mutual learning on how to teach design for values. We thus intend to further explore with our members how this can be given shape in the coming years, possibly through a workshop on the pedagogy of teaching design for values. If you are part of the TU Delft community and would like to be involved in initiatives in this area, please contact my colleague Linda Rintersma, community and project manager of the DDfV Institute, at L.Rindertsma@tudelft.nl.

We will definitely also involve other people at TU Delft that we know share an interest in the topic, but that were unfortunately not present at this playground meeting. For example, Pieter Desmet and Anna Pohlmeyer of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering are organizing a 1-day conference on teaching design for well-being on 5 April. And our colleagues of the philosophy section of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management have also a lot of experience in teaching students from various faculties to reflect on values. In fact, they have just launched a website on teaching ethics and philosophy of technology to engineering students.

  • Ilse Oosterlaken
    Ilse Oosterlaken
    DDfV Project Manager