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(21-22) Retrofitting Suburbia

Retrofitting Suburbia

Thesis supervisors: Martino Tattara and Andrea Migotto

Individual Master thesis

Academic year 2021/2022

Campus Brussels


Suburbs are arguably one of the most controversial legacies of the 20th century. They embodied a way of life driven by the pastoral dream to live away from the city. However, the bottom line of suburbia was the idea of private property as the fundamental social datum of liberal democracy and the consolidation of the nuclear family as the socio-economic foundation of Fordist Western societies. Nowadays, triggered by long standing transformations of our ways of living, producing, reproducing and performing care, suburbs in Europe have undergone a process of decline as both social and environmental construct. And yet, very few architectural and urban projects dare to address their transformation. The thesis will reflect on the opportunity represented by this decline to propose a gradual yet radical structural transformation of the suburb, one involving both the remaking of their settlement form and the fine-tuning of their social contract. The thesis will be based on the collection, the analysis and the discussion of a series of relevant reference projects that deal with the retrofitting of suburbia from a multiplicity of perspectives—from the issues of typological transformation to the landscape/environmental question, from the perspective of property and ownership to the problem of the upgrade of often quickly aging buildings. By constructing a reference atlas and understanding the conditions and the means of the transformation processes at stake in the analyzed cases, the thesis aims to advance a possible agenda for the future retrofitting of suburban settlements in the Flemish territory. The definition of such agenda will be based on the understanding of the local conditions of Flemish suburbia, its cultural and physical features and the reasons behind the multiple efforts that have recently been put by different stakeholders in addressing the problem of the suburban subdivision.

Research Framework

This written thesis runs in parallel to the design studio The Settlement Retrofit and is part of a longer design-research trajectory that will be developed over the next few years with the aim of drafting a new architectural design manual. This, rather than aligning with the trend of endlessly inventing new urban forms and typologies, supports the comprehensive transformation of existing housing forms. Arguably, one of the big challenges for architecture over the next decades is to remedy to the processes of urbanization of the past rather than coming up with new models from scratch. What we need the most are strategies and guidelines for the gradual retrofitting of what is already there, with the scope of transforming the existing built environment into a more just, socially inclusive, environmentally responsible and affordable inhabitable place. The work of this written thesis will intersect with that of the design studio at several instances and is aimed to develop a theoretical background to the design work of the studio. Yet, differently from the work of the studio, this thesis aims at proposing autonomous and well-argued design agendas and/or policies by means of tools which are alternative, yet complementary, to those typical of architectural design. The case studies to be analysed will be decided together with the student based on his/her interests and the ability to access resources and conduct potential fieldwork.


The student will meet around four times with the supervisors (Martino Tattara and Andrea Migotto) in the winter semester, and on a weekly basis in the spring, with the goal of producing a written thesis between 15,000 (minimum) and 20,000 (maximum) words. Good command of writing in English is expected together with the capacity to develop the necessary drawings and graphics. This thesis is intended to work in parallel to the thesis design studio The Settlement Retrofit (MAIB42 campus Brussels) by Martino Tattara. In addition to the individual tutorial activities, the student will therefore take part in the thesis workshop of November (8-12 November 2021), in the seminars that will be organised during the year and in the field-trip of February 2022 with the other participants of the design studio.

For any question please email to martino.tattara@kuleuven.be or andrea.migotto@kuleuven.be

Picture: Dan Graham, Alteration to a Suburban House, 1978/1992