Most schools of architecture offer urban topics as undergraduate electives and, for many years, VUW students have been able to choose from a range of optional urban design studios and seminars. Now, increasing demand for these electives has encouraged the School to shift one course into the core curriculum. Student preferences reflect renewed interest in urban living as well as growing demand for urban design skills in the workplace. However, the curriculum change is not entirely “market driven”. From a pedagogical perspective, urban design is beginning to be seen as an essential part of any well-rounded architectural education. Raised expectations from clients and public agencies mean that all new buildings need to contribute positively and sustainably to their social and physical contexts. In New Zealand, as in most countries today, these contexts are predominantly urban in character.
Elective courses feature
Elective courses in urban history and optional studio-based urban design projects remain a feature of the VUW BArch. Students can combine these offerings with an urban theme in their graduating design project to achieve an informal urban design “specialisation” within their BArch. Next year, the Wellington School may give official recognition to degrees which have been customised in this manner. If this occurs, the architectural profession will begin to see graduates with BArch degrees “tagged” with an urban design focus.
The curriculum changes at VUW invite wider reflection on the place of urban design within professional education. Aside from the traditional elective offerings in bachelor degrees, urban design teaching is usually confined to masters-level programmes geared to graduates from architecture, landscape architecture and planning. The Wellington initiative suggests that these higher degrees might be complemented by more deliberate teaching at undergraduate level. It might even be possible to devise entry-level courses which treat urban studies as the common foundation for a collection of professional degree programmes ranging from industrial design to landscape architecture.
If this idea is familiar to some readers, it may be because the concept of “100-level” urban design education has long been promoted by Rob Adams of City Projects in Melbourne. In Rob’s view, many urban design principles are quite elementary. If these principles are introduced to a wide range of students early in their training, good urban design practice is more likely to permeate the design professions. VUW’s re-shaped BArch may be a step in this direction.