One year at TU Delft – Discovering the “Dutch Approach”

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Ramsés Grande Fraile ist Architekturstudent an der TU München und absolviert von September 2016 bis Juli 2017 ein Auslandsjahr an der Technischen Universität Delft. In dieser Zeit wird er über seine Erfahrungen als Student in der Niederlande berichten

And suddenly, without further ado, the teachers and students in the room started clapping with a smile on their face, indicating the end of the mid-term presentation. One by one, they stood up and slowly left the room with the darkened windows and dispersed outside, each one at their own path, in their own direction. My first impression of the cold outside were the warming sun shines that reached my face. The trees on the sides of the street stood entirely free of leaves, with their nude branches pointing like needles towards the sky.
After a moment, I turned my head to my watch and looked at the date. Only then, I realised that I had been four months in Delft already…what a surprise!
As time flies and Christmas approaches, I start to look back at my experiences made along the way in the Netherlands as an Architecture student at the TU Delft. All of the first-hand impressions gained during my last months and the knowledge accumulated on-site serve me now as the material on which to elaborate an empirical reflection on the characteristics of architectural education at TU Delft and an overall approximation on the mentality of the university, which I englobe under the concept of the “Dutch Approach”: a focus on research and interdisciplinary work, a strong connection within academia and with practitioners, and a future-oriented approach. All of these contribute to shape a unique university landscape, in which students can develop their interests and contribute to answering the questions of tomorrow. This approach is different of my previous architectural education in Germany. For this reason, I have tried to highlight the values of such innovative method through my own experiences in the Urbanism Minor: “Green, blue cities – Neighbourhood of the Future” for the following article:

Research by Design:

One of the aspects that stand out to me the most at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment of Delft is the research-intensive approach of their work. This characteristic is deeply embedded in the academic programmes of the faculty, for instance, Bachelor students learn how to work with academic papers and are trained to write academic reports on their projects, such as for their Bachelor´s Thesis. A strong emphasis is put in teaching the methodologies needed for scientific research in Architecture and Urbanism and for the critical evaluation of design projects. Amongst them, “Research by Design” stands out as the overall methodology, taught extensively during the Bachelor and Master design studios. The design process, as an iterative cycle between analysis and design, is understood as a way to develop new knowledge on a problem. With the help of evaluation criteria, such as multi-criteria analysis, students are encouraged to reflect critically on the effectiveness of their design proposals.
This approach differs from other Architecture universities, in which a more artistic vision of Architecture is pursued, that can be described as “Art by design”: The architectural design process is, at the same time, an artistic process.
An important aspect in research is sharing your work results with academia. Every month, there is at least one conference at the Architecture faculty, in which this takes place. For the Minor Neighbourhood of the Future, all of the students were asked to participate in the City Makers Congress in Rotterdam as “field researchers” for the Social Resilience Fieldlab of the Veldacademie, an urban design field lab based in Rotterdam South. During the congress, we interviewed participants on the topic of social resilience and highlighted the main contributions during the panel discussions. In addition, we had the chance to present posters on our current studio work: a Spatial Transformation Strategy for Rotterdam South. A glimpse on the impressions of the congress can be seen in the following video, which we edited and showed at the end of the congress:



Working across disciplines:

TU Delft is very engaged in promoting interdisciplinary education and research across all eight faculties situated on the TU Delft campus. To overcome the physical distance between the different faculties, many joint projects and events take place to bring students and researchers from various disciplines together.
A good strategy to promote interdisciplinary education are the so called “Minors” that have been implemented throughout the Dutch Bachelor education system. For one semester, usually the fifth one, students from all Bachelor programmes are required to choose a Minor programme related to their field of studies at any university of the Netherlands. This way, students from different subjects, faculties and universities work together on interdisciplinary projects in which they can benefit from each one´s academic background. The Minors offered at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment deal with the House and the Neighbourhood of the Future, Heritage and Design, Archineering or Retail Design. Thus, every student can deepen into a neighbouring field of Architecture and foster his interdisciplinary working skills within his Bachelor programme.

Students from the Minor Neighbourhood of the Future on a site visit to Rotterdam, in front of the new central station of Rotterdam.

Connection within academia and with outside practitioners:

In our Urbanism Minor we are taught by guest lecturers from different disciplines, who are invited by our course tutors to talk about their areas of expertise. This is only possible due to the intense communication amongst academic staff at TU Delft and at the Faculty of Architecture. Researchers and practitioners are asked regularly in courses and outside class to present their work to students. This approach is very insightful, as it provides a constant connection with the ongoing research and with the architectural world outside academia. Furthermore, it is a way to assure that the content taught to the students is up to date and relevant for their future work.
Over the last months, we have had lecturers from Civil Engineering on Transportation Systems, as well as workshops on GIS-mapping from the Department of Spatial Planning. For the course Sustainable Urbanism, we had the chance to make several fieldtrips to current projects related with sustainable urban design, as well as to the delta management institute Deltares, where we learned about flood risk analysis.
Another aspect that contributes to foster knowledge exchange within our faculty is the fact that the academic system in the Netherlands is less hierarchical than in other countries, where academic titles create “barriers” that hinder communication between students, tutors and professors. At TU Delft, the relation between students and staff is much closer, facilitating collaboration and dialogue and resulting in a much more productive environment.

Future-oriented approach:

But it is clearly the future-oriented approach of TU Delft that stands out the most and is a trademark of the university, as it says on its slogan: “Challenge the Future”. In almost any course, seminar or guest lecture, there is no single event in which students and researchers are not confronted with questions and problems about our future. And it is reasonable, because the belief in solving problems through technological innovations that improve society stands at the origin of technical universities. The TU Delft has been devoted to this cause since its foundation in 1842, but the Dutch problem-solving tradition dates back much longer: The Netherlands is a country that has seen itself always as “testing ground” for technological improvements, necessary to make the country inhabitable. Since the eleventh century, Dutch “engineers” have been rethinking their future constantly by building polders, a system of low-lying land enclosed by dikes, out of which water is artificially pumped out, which has allowed them to settle, cultivate and expand their land under the challenging conditions of a huge delta landscape.

Dutch tradition: Windmills were used for centuries to pump out the water of low-lying polders onto higher-lying waterways, such as canals, called “boezem”.

At the Architecture faculty, a new Urbanism chair is being introduced to further deepen into the relationship between Urbanism and delta regions, which house largely populated areas and face increasing risks due to the expected sea level rise and other effects of climate change: Delta Urbanism pretends to throw new light on this interdisciplinary field at the cross border between Urban Design, Landscape Architecture and Delta Management.
In addition to this, ongoing research is focused on the ways in which we can build sustainable houses and cities in the future, which are more just and liveable for their inhabitants. By using the right technologies, our cities can become smarter and more socially resilient towards changes in climate and demography. Especially the rapid urbanization in developing and emerging countries is a hot topic in the Department of Urbanism. Besides collaborating with UN-Habitat for the Habitat III Conference in Quito this year, several events have highlighted the tremendous urban growth expected for Africa in the following decades. The challenges of managing such an “urban explosion” throughout a whole continent will be the task of the urban designers and planners of the near future. TU Delft is engaged in keeping up with those challenges and providing suitable solutions.
Finally, the ambitions of TU Delft in designing technological solutions for metropolitan regions has led to the creation of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS), an interdisciplinary research institute between TU Delft, Wageningen University of Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their field of interest lies, not only, in urban metabolism, city sensing technologies and connected cities and their expertise combines design, analysis and engineering.

As a whole, Delft University of Technology stands out as an “incubator” for new ideas, produced by engineers and designers trained for the challenges of the future. After four months already, I start to understand the “Dutch Approach” with more detail and I look forward to discovering much more about this fascinating country and its people in the following year!

My Facebook blog “Inspiring Architecture”

Ramsés Grande Fraile


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