Talking to UIA – Architecture and Children members: Suzanne de Laval

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 are launching 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. Our first article in the series was an interview with Dr. Barbara Feller, our colleague from Austria, and can be read here.

We continue our newly launched series with an interview with Suzanne de Laval, our colleague from Sweden. Suzanne de Laval graduated with a Master of Architecture from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1977. She has a Doctoral degree, PhD in Architecture: Design Methodology, from the same Institute, from 1997. Suzanne has been practicing as an architect in Uppsala for fifteen years and as planner in Uppsala local community for two years. She has worked for six years as Educational Manager for the architects in the biggest Swedish architectural company, Sweco. Since 2001, Suzanne is running a freelance research business in Stockholm, Arkitekturanalys, working with R&D-projects concerning Built Environment Education (BEE), school-planning research and Post Occupancy Evaluation. Working on a voluntary basis as chairperson in the working group ARKiS, (Architecture in School) for Built Environment Education within the Swedish Association of Architects since 20 years, Suzanne has been publishing books on architecture in school-education, Walk-Through Evaluation and recently, on school-planning research. She has made films about some of the evaluation projects that are available to watch here.

Suzanne de Laval is a member of the Swedish School Building Society, working for research and better knowledge about school building amongst professionals, is a board member of Arkus, an organization and foundation working with Architectural R&D projects, former member of the board of the Museum of Architecture in Stockholm. From 2018 Suzanne is the co-director, together with Heba Safey Eldeen of the UIA WP Architecture & Children, and as a member of the Work Programe, representing the Nordic Countries, Suzanne has published summaries of the Golden Cubes Awards 2011 and 2014 on the website of the UIA WP Architecture & Children.

Photo by: Örjan Wikforss

⌂ Why do you think it’s beneficial for architects and city planners to work with children?

Children are a big group of our citizens with different needs and experiences in ages from 0-18. They are without formal power and they have certain needs for having a good childhood and to grow up as healthy persons.

Architects need to learn from children and with children how they use the environment – in different ages. Then, architects and planners can be better professionals and make plans that can be beneficial for children and young people.

⌂ What insight do architects and city planners gain from having children participate in the planning process? How do children take part in this process?

One insight – a planner I cooperated with recently commented on the participation of children in a planning process and concluded that the comments of the schoolchildren (age 11-12) were very much similar to those of the grown-ups. The planner was surprised. Schoolchildren can absolutely participate in formal planning processes. What we did in that actual plan was to present the plan properly to the schoolchildren and then let them comment on it. Before that, we also did a walk-through tour in the area that was supposed to be transformed.

⌂ What do children learn when they take part in a planning process as consultants?

When schoolchildren take part in the planning process, they learn a lot about how the society and the political system work. They can also learn about different technical levels of planning (traffic, electricity, water supply, etc.). They can have the opportunity to meet planners, architects, engineers, social workers, etc. and they can reflect on a possible future occupation.

⌂ Please tell us briefly, from your own experience, how did you manage to better implement your projects in connection to this subject, 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? 

I work preferably with projects about public participation in planning, mostly with children and young people involved in different ways. When I am asked to be a consultant in a public participation project I always ask – “Can we involve children? Can we take contact with the nearby school?” If it is possible, I try to arrange a meeting between planners and schoolchildren. They have questions to ask each other and they all can learn a lot.

I usually use “Walk-through Evaluation” as a method in order to have a good dialogue. When people are walking in the area that is to be changed, they can have a discussion and look at the environment at the same time. The dialogue can be free when everyone is asked to point out what is good and what is bad at places where the walk-through stops. Everyone is also asked how the place can be improved. Walk-through works very well with adults and also with schoolchildren. Adult groups should always be mixed with people that have different connections to the area (inhabitants, users, planners, architects, property managers, property owners, etc). It’s better for schoolchildren to walk separately without other grownups. The teacher, and perhaps one planner, is the maximum needed to participate in a school-walk-through.

⌂ Why did you choose to become an architect? 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 you as an architect?

I chose to become an architect because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make good plans and houses for people. Quite early I realized that you have to have a good dialogue with the users, both in a renewal project and in a future planning project. So, I changed focus from designing to research and I undertook a doctoral degree in Architecture, Design Methodology, and specialized on dialogue methods.

From my experience, most schoolchildren don’t know what an architect is or what we do. They are certainly curious when you present yourself and the actual project. Grown-ups are more biased with ideas of what an architect is – and they can be impolite, if you are unlucky. Usually, in Public Participation projects, the participants are interested and creative – according to my experience.

What is the most important factor in Participation is that all participants are truly informed about what they can do and have an impact on and how the time schedule for change is planned. When you have a dialogue, it is essential that you give feedback, not only once, but during the whole process.

Since many years I have been working with the question of how schoolchildren can learn about architecture and planning in school. As I see it, the teachers have to learn more about the subject. To create a help for the teachers, I wrote a book in 2007. Later, I published a website to help and inspire teachers: Arkitekturpedagogen and also on Facebook.

What I am hoping for in the future is that the subject of “Architecture in school” will become more and more formalized in many countries. We have it optional in the curriculum in Upper secondary school in Sweden by now. Something is now happening in our UIA Architecture & Children Work Programme since we are networking all over the world and exchange experiences. There are doctoral dissertations popping up in different countries and the subject is establishing in the universities. This is a wonderful progress and the UIA network is really meaningful.

*The article can be read in Romanian, here.