Talking to UIA – Architecture and Children members: Krisztina Somogyi

13/09/23 | UIA


Text: A series coordinated by arch. Monica Popescu


Editor: arch. Monica Popescu

Photographs: Krisztina Somogyi, students’ photographs


Reading time: 8 minutes

More than half of the world’s population lives at this moment in urban areas. The United Nations states that 68% of the world population will be living in cities by 2050. It’s not bold to say that as much as we, as professionals, are shaping the built environment, it shapes us in equal measure. Our well-being, as city dwellers, is deeply connected to how well our environment is planned, designed, shaped. This puts on our shoulders, as architects and urban planners, a huge responsibility. But we are not alone in sharing this responsibility. Together with the authorities and law-makers, we have the duty of providing a sustainable built environment, suited to the needs of the people living in it today, as well as for the future generations that will inherit it. Keeping in mind all of the above, it is quite obvious why the citizens, the communities, have an important stake in how our built environment is designed, as much as the professionals do.

In order to improve how our built environment is planned, globally there’s been a wave, a movement, in which professionals are raising awareness about the importance of built environment education. If more and more people become aware of their surroundings and get involved in reshaping and improving it, the result will be a better co-existence within the smallest or largest of communities, an improved quality of life, in direct link to the quality of the built environment.

As a member of the UIA (International Union of Architects) – Architecture and Children Work Program, we undertake this mission to raise awareness about built environment education (BEE). In 2020 we launched a new series of interviews with the members of the Work Program, to better understand how our international colleagues implement BEE activities, what is their vision and approach in their specific set of circumstances and what we can learn from it. The series can be found here and we are happy to continue our journey to the neighbouring country, Hungary.

Krisztina Somogyi is an architect critic, a visual communication expert and an environmental psychologist. Krisztina is the delegate of the Hungarian Association of Architects (AHA) to the UIA – Architecture and Children Work Program and an associate professor at the University of  Széchenyi István, University of Győr, Faculty of Art, Department of Design. In 2019 Krisztina Somogyi presented her PhD Doctoral Thesis: “Common Experience – Common Architecture, A Qualitative Research of the Architects’ Viewpoints of School Buildings Based on Their Own Common Experience” at the Doctoral School of Psychology, ELTE, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary.

DAA: Why would different groups of people (pupils, teachers, parents, architects, etc.) be interested in studying the school building and school environment? What insight could they gain? Please tell us about your investigations and conclusions into this subject in connection to your doctoral studies.

KS: Our built environment is meaningful: not only it stimulates our senses and directs our behavior, but it sends complex messages about who we are in society, therefore takes part in forming our identity. Research proves that these messages are decoded by students (by everyone) to different extent. To give some examples: a nice, clean and well organized modern school may suggest that education is important. A new principle of space organization of the school or a new classroom design sends the message that education changes, there is space for new ideas and the needs of new generations are taken into account. The quality of school gardens and the time spent outdoors during school tells something about a healthy lifestyle.

One of my researches was conducted in a catholic secondary school located in a heritage building in central Budapest. Students took photos of the school to show its qualities. They had a deep interest in their immediate surroundings, they interpreted it richly and they were keen to speak not only about actual problems or possibilities, but also about symbolic meanings. It was a nice case study to see how a professionally renovated heritage building conveys the importance of tradition and suggests the continuity of culture. On the other hand, the large and empty corridors and the fancy environment in the same school had some negative connotations, too. History was also a heavy reality for the students. They felt as if they could leave no marks on the school. No physical marks were possible, so no images, messages placed out on the corridors therefore, on a more abstract level, they felt they had no intellectual impact… As if big things happened only before World War II. During our BEE workshops and research process students were very active and happy to become agents of their own environment. They were proud that we asked them about their school. The experience empowered them in their communication with their teachers, but also sent them the general message about the possibility and necessity to pay attention to the environment. Teachers were also happy to understand students’ attitude and they reacted very positively to their demands. Place identity, place attachment, place memory and the sense of place are maybe the most important terms introduced by environment psychology that call attention to the deep impacts of school experiences on people’s life.

DAA: Why do you think it is important to introduce into the school curriculum an architecture and built environment education (BEE) course for children and youth? Why should the young be interested in how a city works?

KS: Everybody goes to school to learn the basic knowledge that is needed to have a successful life. Built environment is the natural habitat of most people – we have to understand it. That is why everyone needs BEE, not only those lucky ones whose parents are willing and capable to pay for BEE as an after school activity.

More generally speaking, I think we need to re-discuss what issues – not subjects necessary – are relevant today, as the disciplinary system of the 19th century is outdated. There are connections in our lives that are essential: we need a healthy and reflected connection to ourselves, to our families, to other people, but also to our environment. How can we prepare the next generation for a successful life that will expand to the 22nd century? There are over 8 billion people on Earth, raw material is missing, clean air and water is not available for many – we have to prepare the next generations to be more conscious, responsible, proportionate and cooperative in their behavior. BEE, if implemented well, can offer a complex experience not only about the physical world, but also about the social. School is an adequate location to improve on our connections. So, BEE for me would be a necessity, but only if it is a professional, enjoyable, physical and typically cooperative experience, if it is a complex project, not another intellectual lesson to listen to.

I hope I am clear that school for me is both a location, but also a tool for BEE education. As I have argued previously, school is a reflection of society, a place rich in different messages, and with lifelong effects. Bronfenbrenners’ Ecological Systems Theory about the psychological development of children models life as a complex system with several layers or dimensions. From the Microsystem of the home and the school, through the Mesosystem of the network of primary used locations to the Exo- and Macrosystem, places, things, people, values, ideas, rules interact. They exist in a complex transactional relationship. The interest of a child expands both physically and mentally over the years. Environmental psychology describes the importance of this expanding interest, the need of exploration as an important, healthy process. The anthropologist Margaret Mead calls a toddler a “knee-child”, while an elder one “schoolyard child” to name phases of the expanding explorative behavior. A healthy teenager explores the city and then the world with curiosity. So interest for the environment starts with the immediate space around the person and expands from the home and the school towards the city.

DAA: Why do you think it’s beneficial (or not) for architects to work with children and how can they integrate in the school environment to better teach a BEE course in the classroom?

KS: Professional BEE is about experiencing the built environment and the world around us in several dimensions, therefore we need professionals who have a deep and creative knowledge about space. Architects are such people, while art teachers at schools are more often painters, graphic designers, and visual artists who have no experience in 3D design. It is often mentioned that visual and spatial intelligence is key today, however, there is a dominance of images and not only at school. Information not only became more visual, but also digital. We consume the world through the mediation of digital images and today with AI generated pictures more and more. 3D experiences, reality of the body moving in space and physical activity has been pushed back. Children are less able with 3D manipulation tasks than they used to be. So, it seems to be really important for children to reconnect with physical reality. I am not only arguing for the presence of an architect – or a spatial expert – in BEE, but also for project based activities that have a connection to the real world. These activities may expand the frame of the classroom, but not the educational system. Of course, BEE also needs pedagogical skills, so, or architects are thought to be teachers, or teachers to be 3D experts or, as a third option, BEE is executed as a team work. As I am for project oriented activities, I think mixing school experts and professionals coming from outside the school is a good solution: it also sends the message that learning is related to issues in real life.

important to communicate more about architects who participate in BEE activities not only to honor their contribution, but also for the image of the profession. Participatory projects of BEE could be the mediator between people and architects. In a more general way, we could reposition architecture not only in the mind of architects, but also in its meaning in culture with presenting BEE.

DAA: Please tell us briefly, from your own experience, how did you manage to implement your projects in connection to this subject (BEE), what are the elements that ensure the desired impact that you’ve set from the beginning? What would your advice be for those people or organizations that walk the same path?

KS: Preparation work was a most important part of the project: communication with the teachers in advance is key. It is important to make them understand the goals, process and outcomes of the BEE. In my experience, having the trust of the teachers first, enabled our team to communicate successfully with students. It also helped to stay flexible during the process. The closing phase was also important: while participating students and teachers were all very happy and understood the relevance of their experience, it was important to tell the other teachers about the outcomes. A short presentation and a booklet helped them to appreciate the students’ achievements, but also to change their attitude towards architecture and their own school building.

DAA: How do you think citizens perceive the profession of architect and the role of the architect in society? How do you think young people and children see an architect? Why did you choose to become an architect critic?

KS: Architecture is the projection of culture, it is not only physical, but also metaphysical. The more we learn about it, the better we understand the built world. Learning the language of architecture fascinates me – I think I am also arguing for BEE because I think architecture, just like music, can be a great source of pleasure for many. However, pleasure and harmony is often not accomplished nor in the communication between users and architects, nor in our cities, villages and landscapes.

My father was a civil engineer and he took me to buildings since my early childhood. I visited and admired the raw concrete skeletons of huge sports halls at the age of 5, but also I remember being in small country houses made of adobe and straw. Early on I realized that the beauty of the environment has a major role in my life, but I was always equally interested in the human aspects of architecture. So I learned aesthetics, psychology, linguistics, art and design theory and became a visual communication expert and an environmental psychologist. As an architect critic I am interested in the whole process of making and using. My research focus is the reception of architecture and architects, and within that frame, the communication between architects and non-architects. BEE is an effective way of communication for me in a most important period of life. There is a lot to do. Architecture is a double-faced profession today in Hungary: people see its potentials and capacities to create an important and inspiring environment. There is power and magic to it.

On the other hand, there is anger and a dislike as people often consider architects responsible for their bad living conditions, uniform neighborhoods, the phenomena of over urbanization and the withdrawal of nature. That also means there is little knowledge in our society about the complexity of processes or about the role of the architect. For many people the architect is still an egocentric person with power and not an expert who is open to dialogues about spatial decisions. It would be important to communicate more about architects who participate in BEE activities not only to honor their contribution, but also for the image of the profession. Participatory projects of BEE could be the mediator between people and architects. In a more general way, we could reposition architecture not only in the mind of architects, but also in its meaning in culture with presenting BEE.