Fachsemester / Subject Semester – Unlocking the Zürich Commons

Research Studio (063-0857-20)
Organizer: Chair of Prof. Avermaete
Lecturers: Prof.dr. Tom Avermaete, Dr. Irina Davidovici, Nicole de Lalouvière, Dr. Cathelijne Nuijsink, Dr. Hans Teerds, Maxime Zaugg
Time: HS 2020, Tuesdays & Wednesdays
Location: HIL D 75.1


Cities have always been places of common resources and common practices. While designing and constructing the architecture of the city, architects, urban designers, builders, and inhabitants have had to engage with a pool of common resources in particular places and geographies: inherited common-pool resources (water, nature, air); material common-pool resources (clay, brick, stone, wood); and immaterial common-pool resources (craft, knowledge). Time and time again, they had to think about how the development and transformation of the city could relate to the existence and the pooling of these common goods.

This understanding of the city, as related to common resources and practices, has gained renewed attention, as neoliberalism replaces ever-shrinking welfare structures, and global urbanisation is accompanied by rising inequality. It is not only architects and urban designers who are again becoming interested in alternative principles of pooling common resources, but also political circles and society at large. Some of these issues – generally called ‘the commons’ – have also received growing academic attention in the last decades, in the fields of critical urban studies, urban history, urban geography and the social sciences.

In most studies, however, ‘the commons’ are predominantly approached as social processes, with little consideration of their material, spatial or urban implications. This Fachsemester wants to probe into the rich history of ‘the commons’, understood from an architectural, spatial and material perspective. It will investigate the urban structure and territory of the city of Zürich through the prism of ‘the commons’. It will explore how common practices and resources have affected the architecture of the city, and conversely how the built environment has structured common practices and facilitated access to common resources. The research will unlock an alternative reading of the urban and architectural qualities of the built environment of the city.

Objective: Exploring the Zürich Commons

The Fachsemester focuses on 'the commons' both as concrete spaces in the city where shared resources (inherited, metrial and immaterial) are unlocked in alternative ways and as innovative collaborative practices among citizens that contribute to urban development. The Fachsemester holds that the focus on ‘the commons’ might offer us a fresh way to comprehend the distant and recent history of the architecture of the city.

The Fachsemester has two objectives. First, is to develop an ‘Archeology’ of Zürich Commons. In this part, the work of the urban historian or theoretician will be understood as an archeological venture: the city will be regarded as an enigma that needs to be deciphered. It will be approached as a matter of ‘historical sedimentation’ in which various realized and unrealized stances towards the commons can be recognized. The city will be studied over the long term and in a condition of pepetual incompletion. The result will be a systematic, analytical account of how the architecture of the city has time-and-time-again provided a framework for commoning, how common resources manifest themselves, and how, as urban figures, they impact the fabric of cities.

Second, is to develop an ‘Ecology’ of Zürich commons. In this part of the Fachsemester the question of how the commons are experienced, practiced and developed in the city of Zürich until today wil be scrutinized. The Fachsemester will probe into the city to analyze the character and role of common pool resources (green space, open space, water, materials, typologies, etc…) and the way that the citizens of Zürich have engaged, and are engaging, with them. The Fachsemester will investigate, draw and understand these resources and practices as elements of an ‘ecology’ of human and non-human actors. Special attention will be paid to the role that the built environment plays in articulating, defining and unlocking the common pool resources.

Methodology: Exploring the Tools and Knowledge of the Architect

The main hypothesis of the Fachsemester is that historical and theoretical research can gain from a profound use of the tools and knowledge of an architect. At the moment, students can engage with the work of gta Institute through a variety of research ventures: essays, research papers, and Vertiefungsarbeiten. However, the majority of these research ventures remain limited to investigations based on bibliographical and archival research, presented in the final format of a written report. In the Fachsemester, the goal is to broaden and deepen the toolbox and heuristic strategies of the researcher in the field of architectural and urban history and theory, by exploring the tools and knowledge that belong to the very heart of the field of architecture.

During the Fachsemester, students will employ specific architectural tools, such as drawing, writing, and model making to explore historical and theoretical realities. Students will be urged to explore various methods of composing analytical and interpretative drawings. They will reflect upon the capacity of drawing methods from the field of architecture—such as plan drawing, sectional drawings, mappings, serial visions, public drawings, diagramming and perspective representations—to act as tools of historical and theoretical research. At the same time, they will be asked to investigate various analytical and interpretative modes of scale-model making. Students will look into such various types as structural models, mass models, counterform models, landscape and territorial models, as ways to historically or theoretically explore the reality of the city.

Far from being simple graphic or artefactual representations of the city, these drawings and models will create morphological, thematic or theoretical links between various occurences in the city, such as squares, trails, stairs, terraces, quais, parks, (communal) gardens, public buildings, housing blocks and so on. These methods of drawing and model making will be combined with more conventional investigative methods in the fields of history and theory—such as discourse analysis, iconographic studies and compositional investigation—to support a better historical or theoretical understanding of specific occurences and conditions in the city of Zürich.

Students will also be stimulated to use their spatial, formal, material and constructional architectural knowledge to offer alternative historical or theoretical interpretations of the realities that they encounter in the archives, in the library or in the city. They will be asked to activate their specific spatial, typological, compositional, technical, material and constructional expertise to probe into the various historical layers of the architecture of the city in innovative ways.

During the Fachsemester, students will explicitly start their analysis of the city from their specific architectural knowledge. In other words, they will first explore the heuristic potential of their knowledge (about space, typology, composition, technique, material and construction) that belongs to the autonomous field of architecture. In a second instance, they will be asked to confront it with knowledge (on politics, economy, the social and cultural) that belongs to the heteronomy of architecture. In the relationship between autonomous and heteronomous knowledge, a new understanding of the city will be constructed.

The combination of these tools and methods will offer an in-depth mode of historical and theoretical research, wherein the students will retroactively explore the spatial, formal, material and constructional features of a certain situation to uncover and reconstruct the logics that have led to a certain urban condition. On the basis of this research, students will be able to develop an architectural hypothesis of the developments in the city of Zürich.

Result: A Retroactive Manifesto

The final product of the Fachsemester is a ‘retroactive manifesto’: a profound historical or theoretical work which offers new insights into the driving logics of a particular urban condition of the distant or recent past. Such a project will reflect a clear hypothesis on the logics of that urban condition, offering not only a better understanding of the circumstances of emergence and development, but also of its future potential.

During the Fachsemester, students will work simultaneously on collective research as well as on individual research projects. The collective research will focus on a fragment of the urban structure of Zürich, as it is related to the common resources, and will result in introductory texts, drawings and models. For their individual research, students will focus on a singular site, and investigate how this site has been developed; in time and in relation to the available common resources and practices until today. Alongside text, these individual projects will be presented through a defined set of maps, drawings, and models.

The collective and individual projects together will offer an alternative reading, which retroactively traces the urban territory and architectural quality of the city of Zürich back to the local common resources and common practices. The different materials – texts, drawings, models – will be combined in an atlas, which presents this alternative reading to a larger audience. This will unlock aspects of the urban and architectural quality of the city that still influence our experiences today, but have been regularly overlooked. As such, this atlas is also a manifesto: facing the situation today, it urges such alternative readings as important lessons from the past as well as alternative guidelines with respect to future developments.


This Fachsemester is offered in the Fall semester of 2020. Students gather regularly on Wednesdays (afternoon).

Wednesday September 16, 2020
Meeting 1 - Introduction
[introductory lecture on ‘the commons’, site visit]

Wednesday September 23, 2020
Meeting 2
[collective research – resource elements: water, nature/topography/soil, air, (archives, library)]

Wednesday September 30, 2020
Meeting 3
[collective research – common-pool resource elements: materials (archives, library)]

Wednesday October 7, 2020
Meeting 4
[collective research – immaterial resource elements: crafts (archives, library)]

Wednesday October 14, 2020
Meeting 5 – Mid Term presentation 1
[Collective model, drawings / defining individual project]

[Seminar Woche]

Wednesday October 28, 2020
Meeting 6
[Collective research: collective model, Individual research: resources]

Wednesday November 4, 2020
Meeting 7
[Collective research: collective drawings, Individual research: common-pool resources]

Wednesday November 11, 2020
Meeting 8
[Collective research: collective atlas, Individual research: immaterial resources]

Wednesday November 18, 2020
Meeting 9 – Mid Term Presentation 2
[Collective research: collective atlas, Individual research: project in three perspectives]

Wednesday November 25, 2020
Meeting 10
[Individual research: alternative history – drawings, models]

Wednesday December 2, 2020
Meeting 11
[Individual research: alternative history – drawings, models]

Wednesday December 16, 2020
Meeting 12 - Final Presentation with visiting critics


This course is limited to 6 students. If you are interested in participating in this Fachsemester, please send a 300 words motivation letter to Hans Teerds by e-mail, hans.teerds@gta.arch.ethz.ch. This short text should address the reasons why you are interested in participating in this course. In the letter, please also include your name, student number, and year of study. Your motivation letter must be submitted before Friday August 28, by 20.00 PM.