Radical educators: Urban Learners

Venetia Wolfenden

Venetia Wolfenden is the Founding Director of Urban Learners — an organisation that aims to provide young people and children, from all backgrounds, with a platform to contribute to their city through creative and aspirational learning experiences. Venetia is also co-Leader of the Celebrating Architecture initiative which hosts design workshops at London pavilion structures for 175 young people (aged 9-18 years) from all backgrounds.

Radical educators: Urban Learners

What are you trying to achieve and why?

I want to give everyone that wants to be part of the world of architecture the opportunity to succeed to their full potential within it. Equality is important in all aspects of life and is extremely relevant in the making of our cities, which will only successfully reflect the people they are made for, when they are designed by professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Urban Learners and Celebrating Architecture are committed to bringing diversity into the built environment professions (so that our future cities will reflect the people they are designed for). We are also passionate about highlighting to industry the decline in numbers of students taking GCSEs and A levels in art, design and technology (due to government policies) and the impact this will have on the number of young people from non-traditional backgrounds, to our sector, entering creative industries.

We are addressing this issue of increasing diversity in the world of architecture by developing and delivering a variety of enrichment programmes for young Londoners from all backgrounds and ages. Our activities support and promote the teaching of creative and core curriculum subjects and are a place where our pupils can meet professionals that look like them. These experiences are inspirational and aspirational for our pupils, the majority of whom would never normally get the opportunity to work alongside architects or visit exemplar architecture and city spaces. The workshops also start to empower young people with the knowledge and skills to have a say in making their cities better places to live, as active citizens and potential future designers.

Architecture and design students from diverse and non-traditional backgrounds assist us in delivering our workshops. Their input is vital in keeping our activities fresh and relevant, and in helping to inspire our pupils, and by supporting our freelancers and volunteers we help them develop their practice.

How did you get to where you are today?

I made a sideways career shift from being an architect to educator 10 years ago. I was made redundant which was the push I needed for change. As an architect I had worked almost entirely on designing educational buildings, a combination of this and having a young child made me curious about the different methods and practices of teaching and the connections between learning and design processes. I was lucky to go back to university, as a mature student, to study a master’s degree in Design Education at Goldsmiths, which was an amazing learning experience and where I gained the foundations for what I do today. Immediately after gaining my master’s degree I became education manager at Open City for nearly five years, which gave me the confidence to set up Urban Learners in 2018, which along with Celebrating Architecture have gone from strength to strength.

Who or what inspired you when you were at school?

I remember being taken to the Architectural Association (AA) for lunch by my godparents when I was about seven years old, and thinking what a fantastic place it was and how I’d like to be in that kind of  environment when I grew up. That experience was the beginning of knowing I wanted to work in creative industry, and with the help of my brilliantly bohemian and caring art teacher I made it. I actually did end up studying at the AA thanks to their initiative in the 1990s to give bursary scholarships to UK students (‘thanks’ to Mrs Thatcher, the AA as an independent school had their right to provide a free education removed from them in the early 1970s, resulting in the vast majority of students from then onwards being international).

What lessons have you learnt / what advice would you give your younger self?

I would advise myself not to worry so much – and say to myself you can do it. That there is no need to be such a perfectionist and that you can’t possibly know everything, and that you’ll always be learning. Learning new drawing and model-making techniques, learning new software programs, learning about educational pedagogies in order to be able to design schools, learning about the latest environmental technologies, learning about the importance of diversity, learning about the national curriculum, learning from our pupils’ observations of the urban landscapes that we explore together – always learning.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in trying to do your job?

There are several challenges:

  • Making sure that the learning activities I design are engaging for the pupils, teachers and architect volunteers;
  • Helping our architect volunteers ‘lose’ their rhetoric during workshops, which can be one of the biggest barriers to accessibility into architecture for young people because they don’t understand the language being spoken to them, and can therefore feel excluded. Communication is key. It’s fine to use specialist words, such as ‘section’ or ‘cantilever’, but only if you also explain what they mean, otherwise the ‘door isn’t opened’ but kept firmly closed to them, however well-intentioned the volunteer.

What’s next for you?

During lockdown I have almost gone ‘full circle’ in my career as an architecture educator, as Celebrating Architecture and Open City have teamed up to deliver a creative learning platform – ‘Learning from Architecture’ – a new website bursting with design challenges and architectural activities for families, teachers and young people in London during lockdown and beyond.

This is a fantastic initiative and it’s a pleasure to work on such a collaborative project. We hope to collaborate with others in the future and the ‘new normal’, to provide creative opportunities for young people from all backgrounds, which I hope will once again be able to take place back in classrooms and cultural spaces, and until that time please look at and be inspired by Open City.