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(21-22) The Settlement Retrofit

The Settlement Retrofit

Martino Tattara

Master dissertation studio

Academic year 2021/2022

Campus Brussels



Living in sprawling territories represents a consolidated popular idea constructed upon the ‘obduracy’ of apparently natural architectural forms, urbanization processes and cultures of inhabitation. Despite the past and partially current success, it is not difficult to predict that in less than 20 years large part of the stock of suburban homes will become obsolete and loose part of its economic value. The potential crisis of these housing types is linked, first and foremost, to demographic changes specifically related to the aging of the ‘baby boomers’ generation, to the crisis of the nuclear family as the hegemonic social group, to the economic socio-transformation of the conditions of production and lastly to the physical decay of quickly aging materials and construction techniques.

Dwellings in suburbanized territories, supported by an often too old-fashioned legislation and by speculative economic interests, have been and still are conceived primarily for nuclear families, failing to address emerging new subjects and their needs. In Europe, there is a visible trend that sees the reduction of household size to an average of 2.5 persons per house, and a growing mismatch between the number of suburban houses and the newer generations’ desire to live in cities. After secondary school, many people in their late-20s leave their parents’ suburban houses. The rising elderly population of suburban settlements finds itself increasingly isolated and lacking adequate care. While the countryside offers some respite from the hectic life of cities, the increasing depopulation and lack of social services make their lives lonely and devoid of social interaction. This condition is not only negative for the elderly, but also for the social wellbeing of the suburban territory.

In addition, while production has never been as ubiquitous as it is today—despite and beyond the current pandemic emergency—in popular imagination the home is still understood as the sanctuary of privacy and intimacy detached from the conditions of work. Yet behind its familiar veil, the home has always been a productive space, as the locus of the most important form of production which are ‘reproductive activities’ such as cleaning, cooking, childbearing, and caring for the sick, the elderly and the self. On top of this, with the rise of freelance work, domestic space has become a new kind of integrated workspace: the kitchen and the living room, even the bedroom, besides being traditional sites of ‘homework’, become an improvised office or studio. This reality of the home conflicts with the ideology of domesticity which since the 18th century rests upon a strict separation between private and public space, living and working.

This condition of crisis is often reinforced by the physical condition of decay of this housing stock. On the one hand, many houses built in the post–war period are in need of extensive (and expensive) renovation to meet pressing energetic requirements. On the other, many of the older suburban homes have a dated layout comprising many rooms, small corridors and steep stairs. This condition leaves little freedom to adapt the domestic space of the home to new functions such as for example a workspace. Rigid zoning codes—introduced only after the chaotic spread of detached homes has already taken place—additionally prevent the possibility to retrofit existing properties and to thus transform for example the single-family house into a multi-family dwelling.

What the political and economic process succinctly described above has left on the ground is very difficult to modify or alter. Not only are domestic habits extremely enduring and hard to change since they give a sense of orientation, especially within uncertain times, but also, the house itself speaks to a system in which a specific spatial condition is linked with deep-seated social and juridical frameworks. It is hard, for example, to imagine that those who are accustomed to living in a detached home would allow the further subdivision of their property or the sharing of their garden, but certainly the future of baby-boomer-built suburban housing raises many questions.

This proposed design-driven research aims at challenging these and other ‘domestic’ tenets by working on a series of relevant case-studies in Belgium and from around the world. Differently from projects that have already addressed the suburban settlement, the goal of the design studio is to come up with concrete, technical and strategic guidelines for the retrofitting of the existing housing stock. Beside typological and spatial aspects, the design-based explorations that each student will conduct will take into considerations new ownership and management models, possible institutional actors, and emerging social (re)productive subjects able to realistically give form to innovative ways of living.

Research framework

The studio is the second iteration of a design-research trajectory that will be developed over the next years and aiming towards the drafting of a new design manual. Such manual, rather than containing new typologies for living, is to be based on the comprehensive transformation of what is already existing and the retrofitting of the present housing stock, with a special interest towards extensive, urbanized and suburbanized mono-functional residential territories built in the twentieth century. This is a huge and quite composite housing stock, which ranges from typical suburban patterns and typologies to more hybrid and scattered settlements. Given its diversified character, it deserves dedicated approaches beyond the typical ‘one size fits all’ approach of national policies. The fundamental idea of this design research rests upon the conviction that one of the main challenges for architecture and planning over the next decades is to remedy to the processes of urbanization of the past rather than coming up with new models from scratch. Differently, it seems that the social (property, family, domesticity and privacy), architectural (suburban settlements, land parceling, single-family home typologies) and technological (materials, construction techniques) tenets that qualified housing policies after the war still largely dominate current housing practices.


Each student participating in the studio will be asked to select a settlement to work on, with case studies expected to range between typical homogenous suburban patterns and the hybrid settlements of many European sprawling territories. Case studies can be selected in Flanders, in the Brussels Capital Region, in students’ country of origin or in the country where the student will be spending his or her winter semester (if on an exchange program). While there is no preclusion towards any case study, the choice needs to take into consideration issues related to accessibility to resources (in terms of data, plans, drawings etc.) and the feasibility of conducting fieldwork.

Studio organization

The studio is organised in two parts, each corresponding to one of the two semesters of the academic year. During the winter semester, each student will explore a research theme related to the selected case-study in addition to developing first design hypotheses. An essential reader together with a list of bibliographical resources will be provided at the start of the year. The second semester is fully dedicated to the development of the project. The studio will meet around four times during the winter semester and for a full-week during the thesis workshop in November (8-12 November 2021). In the spring semester the studio will meet on a weekly basis until graduation. A four-days study trip will be organised at the start of February 2021 if the current pandemic allows for. Teaching activities include tutorials, field-work, internal seminars, lectures by invited speakers and reviews with external guests.


Each student is expected to develop an architectural project that will be presented through three main components.


  1. The book

The thesis book contains the results of the preliminary research work aiming at the exploration of a selected project theme, the presentation and analysis of the project site and the presentation of the design proposal and its process.

  1. Panels and models

The design proposal will be presented through a limited number of carefully developed set of drawings and images (panels) and models. Much attention will be posed on the representation of the project idea and in exploring specific representation techniques that are expected to be mastered by the end of the year.

  1. Presentation

The third component is the digital presentation of the research and of the project proposal, that will form a consistent singular narration. During the year, there will be several occasions in which each student will present his/her own work in front of a jury, defend his/her own ideas and argue for his/her own position. The presentation is considered a fundamental medium to communicate design ideas in a synthetic and intelligible way to peers and the wider public.


Please email: martino.tattara@kuleuven.be

Picture: still from Arcade Fire, The suburbs, 2010, official video.