< terug

Rural studio: Supporting mountain communities.

Master Dissertation Studio 24-25

Supervisor: Ignacio Galán.

Campus: Gent.
Language: English.
Engagement label: Urban Cultures.
Type of master thesis: Studio (ca 10 students)

Cover image: Picture of the depopulated but temporarily used settlement of Otal, at the Spanish Pyrenees, Aragón. (Source: Galán 2019)


PROBLEMS AT STAKE. Mountain communities under pressure.

Rural territories in Europe and their communities have undergone deep transformations in the last decades. Local communities face increasing pressures, which are especially notorious in mountain areas.

First, the economic decline and transformation of traditional farming economies, as well as the emergence of mass tourism are perceived.

Second, growing environmental challenges, like global temperature rise, water scarcity or bio-diversity loss, affect especially mountain territories.

Third, important social and demographic changes result from the socioeconomic inequalities that these areas face. The unequal distribution of services and access to spatial opportunities in rural territories leads to lack of diverse economic offer, to population ageing and social isolation.

The displacement of rural communities under external pressures and internal decline generates a substantial cultural loss for these territories, but also creates opportunities towards rethinking new ways of living, dealing with climate change, supporting short-chain production, etc.

Drone picture of the valley of Ansó. (Sources: Movimiento Tecnologico Rural BRUTAL 2022)

Pictures of the settlement of Ansó and its valley. (Sources: HuescaLaMagia; CasaUrsula; CasaBareton 2022)

CONTEXT. The village of Ansó, at the Spanish Pyrenees.

Ansó (42°45′00″N 0°49′00″O; 860m.a.s.l.) is a mountain settlement situated in the so-called Western Valleys of the Spanish Pyrenees, in the region of Aragón, province of Huesca. It historically became one of the most important villages in the area through its farming and herding activity, as well as wood extraction from its surrounding forests. This richness was also reflected in a particular culture, reflected in its characteristic architecture, or in its local traditions, like the Ansotano outfits and its own dialect.

Ansó experienced a strong decline in the last century. Its population decreased from 2000 at the end of the 19th century to around 400 today. This settlement currently faces many of the previously described challenges associated with depopulation, from limited economic opportunities to ageing or social isolation. Most spaces of the settlement and its surroundings preserve their traditional character, which makes this place attractive for visitors, while challenging to be updated to local residents’ needs.

However, the remaining inhabitants are still strongly committed to the settlement and their community. An example of this is the recent formulation of several long-term visions to coordinate the future development of Ansó: the Smart Village Strategy and the Urban Agenda 2030.

Map of the Pyrenean municipalities in the region of Aragón. Highlighted in red, the municipality and settlement of Ansó. The red dots correspond to depopulated or re-inhabited settlements within this territory. (Source: Galán 2022)

Map of the mountain municipality of Ansó, at the Spanish Pyrenees. (Source: Galán 2024)

STUDIO OBJECTIVES. Adapting the rural settlement and supporting local communities.

This studio aims to investigate the ongoing challenges and explore spatial interventions to address them. Local environmental, social, economic, and cultural factors should be responsibly considered during the analysis and development of the strategies.

Fields of action: diverse important themes might connect to the current issues affecting settlements like Ansó. On rural entrepreneurship, productivity and the responsible use of the natural environment; On accessibility and connectivity of rural settlements; On the provision of social services and collective spaces; On access to dwelling for young members and newcomers and exploration of new -hybrid- residential typologies; On the update of the settlement structure and buildings; On the promotion of cultural-natural heritage and sustainable tourism; etc… These -and other- discussions, which have been claimed by the municipality in the last years, could be considered during the analysis of the settlement.

Learning from the past, looking at the future: Intervening in a rural settlement implies transforming the inherited built structures, reconsidering the existing settlement configuration, rethinking the use of the cultural landscape… The studio starts from the premise that the settlement and its community hold some valuable spatial principles and local knowledge that can be adapted, evolved and reapplied.

Pictures of everyday situations in Ansó: ageing of residents, impact of tourism and temporary activities, remaining farming practices, other transforming industries -biomass plant-. (Sources: CimaNorte 2021; ElDiarioDeHuesca 2022; Aitor Borruel 2021; AragonTV 2021)

Historical pictures of Ansó, between 1920-36. (Sources: Ricardo Comparé 1920-36)


Understanding local inhabitants’ needs through on-site interactions: During the field trip to Ansó (organised in SEM1-Week7), the students will be able to observe and interview different local inhabitants. These spatial observations and conversations with specific residents will disclose several narratives from the local protagonists. They provide a closer understanding of their interests, lacks and needs in the settlement.

Drawings and models as research and design tools: Graphic documents, such as hand-drawn sketches, sections, maps, diagrams, collages, and physical models, will be our weekly communication tool. The extensive production of these graphic materials will enable spatial analysis and the exploration of design proposals.

Multi-scale analysis – spatial interventions: In rural contexts, understanding the relation between the village core and its surrounding landscape, or between nearby settlements in the territory, are highly important. For this reason, an analysis at different scales is needed. Yet, the developed strategies must be materialised into specific architectural/spatial interventions, able to impact on a larger scale.

Collective discussions: Although each student will focus on their own topic, many common links might appear. By working in the same geographical context, all students will follow and participate in their peer’s weekly presentations and discussions, learning from each other. Throughout the year, different thematic presentations by guest lecturers and different -remote- consultation moments with local stakeholders will be organised.


The outcome of this studio is an individual architectural/spatial design. It will be graphically presented to an external jury, in the format of an exhibition.

In addition to the design project, each student is expected to submit a reflection paper. It consists of a book that collects the research and design process, and shows the critical perspective of the student on the chosen topic.


SEM1/W0: Starting meeting.

SEM1/W7: Study trip to Ansó, Spain. Collective analysis and explorations.

SEM2: Start of weekly studio sessions. Definition of the research focus and development of individual architectural intervention.


Questions? Please send an email to ignacio.galan@kuleuven.be.

An information session will be organised on Monday 17th of June, at 17h. (Hybrid format)

  • Campus Sint-Niklaasstraat, 211 (2nd floor)
  • Teams link:



Bartolini, N., & DeSilvey, C. (2020). Transforming loss. In Heritage Futures: Comparative approaches to natural and cultural heritage practices (pp. 347–356). UCL Press.

Berizzi, C., & Rocchelli, L. (2019). Borghi Rinati. Paesaggi abbandonati e interventi di rigenerazione. Il Poligrafo.

Caminada, G. (2018). Learning from the village. In On the path to building (pp. 70–72). Birkhauser.

Campisi, M.-T. (2020). Depopulation of small urban centers. Cultural landscape as a resource for local communities. Resilience between Mitigation and Adaptation, 3.

Careri, F. (2002). Walkscapes. Walking as an aesthetic practice.

Carlos, G., Viana, D., Zanini, L., & Cadinu, M. (2014). Collective and shared spaces. In Heritage for tomorrow. Vernacular knowledge for sustainable architecture (pp. 128–134). Firenze University Press.

Carlow, V. (2016). Ruralism. The future of villages and small towns in an urbanizing world. (Institute for Sustainable Urbanism ISU). Jovis.

Corboz, A. (1983). The Land as Palimpsest. Diogenes, 31(121).

Dezio, C. (2020). Restart from resources. Rural heritage as Antifragile Territorial Capital. Valori e Valutazioni, 24.

Fiore, P., & D’Andria, E. (2019). Small towns… From problem to resource. Sustainable strategies for the valorization of building, landscape and cultural heritage in inland areas. FrancoAngeli.

Franquesa, J. (2023). Rurbanisme o el reequilibri del territori: Berguedà, Lluçanès, Alt Bages. Escola d’Arquitectura de Barcelona ETSAB.

Galán, I., Comeras, Á., Schoonjans, Y., & Gantois, G. (2022). Narrative cartographies. Developing a socio-spatial method of graphic analysis to investigate emergent occupation practices in depopulated rural settlements. A study-case from the Spanish Central Pyrenees. In Architectural Graphics (Vol. 21). Springer Nature.

Galán, I., Schoonjans, Y., & Gantois, G. (2022). The regenerative force of depopulated settlements. Reclaiming rural heritage in Jánovas. ANUARI d’Arquitectura i Societat, 2, 52–85.

Gantois, G. (2018). The deconstruction of rural collective space. In Collective Spaces Revisited. (pp. 54–64). KU Leuven.

Gantois, G., & Schoonjans, Y. (2017). Narrating the Cultural Landscape. Tracing the actual significances of heritage. Territorio, 80, 23–29.

Lawrence, R. (2006). Learning from the vernacular. Basic principles for sustaining human habitats. In Vernacular architecture in the twenty-first century. Theory, education and practice (pp. 110–127). Taylor & Francis.

Leimgruber, W., & Chang, C.-D. (2019). Rural areas between regional needs and global challenges. Transformation in rural space. Springer.

Lynch, K. (1972). What time is this place? MIT Press.

Malaud, D. (2020). From modern utopia to the ‘deep city’. Heritage as history, collective memory and embodied energy. In Heritage and Sustainable Urban Transformations. Deep Cities (pp. 16–34). Routledge.

Oliver, P. (2006). Built to meet needs. Cultural issues in vernacular architecture. Routledge.

Oswalt, P. (Ed.). (2006). Shrinking cities. Vol.1: International research. Hatje Cantz.

Oswalt, P. (Ed.). (2006). Shrinking Cities. Vol. 2: Interventions. Hatje Cantz.

Rudofsky, B. (1964). Architecture without architects, an introduction to nonpedigreed architecture (New York). The Museum of Modern Art.

Scazzosi, L. (2018). Rural Landscape as Heritage: Reasons for and Implications of Principles Concerning Rural Landscapes as Heritage ICOMOS-IFLA 2017. Built Heritage, 18(3).

Scott, F. (2008). On Altering Architecture. Routledge.

UN HABITAT. (2012). Small town development approaches (Habitat III). New Urban Agenda.

Zumthor, P. (2018). A feeling of History. Scheidegger & Spiess.