Radical educators: The Independent School for the City

Mike Emmerik

Mike Emmerik is School Director and Coordinator at the Independent School for the City in Rotterdam. The school is an international post-graduate education institute for professionals in the field of architecture, planning, sociology, history and other urban studies. Mike is also a Partner at Crimson, a collective of historians and urbanists, who, together with ZUS Architects, underpin the school’s approach combining a critical, activist approach to the city with effecting real change through architectural and planning projects.

Radical educators: The Independent School for the City

What are you trying to achieve and why?

With the Independent School for the City we aim to create an independent and critical community of learning for all professionals who work on the city. It is a school in, of, and for the city. We build on the conviction that strategies for the city – architectural and economic, spatial and social – should be based on real, first-hand, empirical research. Empirical because the reality of the city offers interesting conflicts and unpredictable synergies to learn from and build upon. It is a school that is not constrained by the formalities of academia or disciplinary boundaries. Participants and teachers form one team in which the advanced and less experienced inform each other. Our courses and the research conducted within the school, is not necessarily solution-oriented or focused on final designs, and may not come to design as such, but will lead to a text, a film, an exhibition or an action. Our approach is open-minded but critical, inclusive but discerning, flexible but precise. With this, we hope to offer the participants and ourselves the full intellectual freedom to research the city in the broadest sense. It will give us the chance to have seemingly coincidental encounters with parts or aspects of the city where clashes of various kinds take place, where otherwise invisible realities reveal themselves. These are, we believe, the instances that can teach us fundamental things about the city in all its complexity.

What’s your business model?

The Independent School for the City mainly runs on subsidies and donations. Only a small percentage of the costs are covered by ticket sales and the fee for participants in our courses.

How do you measure success?

Happy students and in-depth conversations and projects. For us it’s most important that people develop their own critical position towards urban issues that they find important. We create a learning community that should facilitate this.

How did you get where you are today?

We founded the school in October 2018. It started with a bold idea based on the work that we’ve done over the past 25 years within our own practices Crimson Historians and Urbanists and ZUS (Zones Urbaines Sensibles). At Crimson we’ve always followed two parallel paths in our work: on the one hand, the traditional role of the architectural historian who researches, gives his opinion, stands on the sidelines and contributes to the debate through reflection. But we have also always tried to get actively involved as well, so that criticism and reflection can become operational. We found ZUS in their activist and critical position as designers and have worked together on various projects. While many members of our team have been teaching at different universities around the world, we realised that this more activist approach, in which empirical research is translated into compelling stories and critical strategies, was not educated anywhere yet. We worked out a project proposal for the school and discovered there was a lot of enthusiasm for the initiative. We managed to get some subsidies to start it up and here we are.