Interdisciplinary Studio for Territories in Transition

Anticipating culturally and ecologically resilient transformation

ISTT is an interdisciplinary research unit at the Faculty of Design Sciences at the University of Antwerp. The research unit positions itself at the point where architecture and urban development meet. The research is focusing on territories with shifting building cultures, spatial practices and spatial transformations at the tipping point between tradition and globalisation in post-colonial, non-Western contexts and superdiverse neighbourhoods in Flanders. Deploying design driven participatory action research (DD-PAR) we want to find culturally and ecologically resilient solutions to challenges and concrete needs in these research areas. Examples are rural historic settlements on abandoned plantations and bauxite mining sites in Surinam and informal neighbourhoods (favelas) in Recife in Brazil. The renovation and transformation of these settlements could alleviate housing shortage and yield alternatives to urban sprawl. Very often, in contrast to the usual suburban allotments, these settlements are informal environments where cultural traditions of various cultural groups are thriving. ISTT looks for possible transformations that embed these traditions; support the health of residents; strengthen the neighbourhoods economically and ecologically and make them resilient to climate change.

ISTT projects are all the result of extensive long-term fieldwork which is carried out in joint efforts by our partners and local students.

Masterthesis research, interdisciplinary teams, post-colonial non-Western contexts

In the research unit, mixed teams of students of the Master Program of Architecture, Heritage Studies and Urbanism and Spatial Planning undertake masterthesis research in Flanders or in Suriname, Brazil, Nicaragua, Egypt or Morocco. In addition, ISTT-researchers also carry out regular research assignments in these contexts. The interdisciplinary cooperation within ISTT is supporting collaboration and synergy between the different master programs and research groups at the University of Antwerp.

For the masterthesis research abroad students engage in internships of two to three months, mentored by our partners at the local universities. Very often UA-students team up with students of the local universities. Doing so they acquire intercultural and international experience. Students work with an urban fabric with a cultural identity, economic and political factors and social patterns different from their own. Unlike designing in and for a known and own and known society, these factors are initially unknown. The design research process begins with an open view, goes beyond the learned academic framework and seeks to use tools and skills to engage in entirely unprecedented contexts. The image of an area will be constructed out of the student’s own frame of reference, fed by new insights within a different cultural framework, both transcultural and transnational.

Cultural resilience at the heart of the research

An important activity (when developing solutions to urban or architectural issues) is to identify existing hopeful initiatives, practices or processes. Initiatives that are already up and running and promising because they are bringing people together, strengthening the community, or improving the spatial environment in a sustainable way. These practices are often initiated by a charismatic person or committed organization and can be considered as signs of "what lives among the people". The aim is therefore to scale up and support such small-scale initiatives through design research, but also by connecting them with each other, as well as with other actors, such as NGOs, enterprising citizens or government partners. In this way, ISTT is making efforts to break the traditions of cultural groups by mapping them, presenting them to new audiences to form an actor network and thus improving community access to resources.

Our partners

By means of project grants of VLIR-UOS (Policy for higher education & science for sustainable development of the Flemish Interuniversity Council) and the International Credit Mobility of Erasmus+, ISTT achieved longstanding collaborations with the Department of Infrastructure and Civil Engineering of the Anton de Kom University of Suriname (ADEKUS) and the Department of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidade Católica de Pernambuco (UNICAP).

ISTT can also boast on exciting research projects with academic partners in Morocco, Egypt and Nicaragua.

In 2023, ISTT, ADEKUS and UNICAP became partners of USOS, the University Foundation for Development Cooperation of the University of Antwerp.

USOS facilitates collaborations between UAntwerpen and higher education institutions in the Global South. The foundation will support our local promoters in Suriname and Brazil. In addition, USOS will also offer intensive training to student-researchers that will prepare them for intercultural communication and research in the Global South. Incoming students from ADEKUS and UNICAP will also be able to count on their support.

The collaboration with USOS will also allow ISTT to involve the other partners of USOS (in Congo, India, Morocco and Nicaragua) and other faculties of the University of Antwerp in ISTT research.

Researching DD-PAR

The exchange with teachers, researchers and students at our partner universities, is also feeding research on the DD-PAR method and the exploration of its educational opportunities to increase the societal relevance of pedagogical programs.

Fieldwork in Frimangron, Paramaribo, Suriname