The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Riccardo Conti, Joana Dabaj and Laura Antona

Riccardo, Joana and Laura recount their experiences of studying MSc Building & Urban Design in Development at the Development Planning Unit


I started developing my interest in understanding how architecture was affecting people’s every day life from the first year of architecture at Politecnico di Milano. The first urban design studio I conducted at Politecnico di Milano was luckily oriented toward what today I believe architecture is really about. We were studying a social housing neighborhood in Milano and we were asked to go on site, talk to people, sit with them, discuss together and really get involved with the everyday life of the neighborhood. I probably didn’t really realize it at the moment but I am quite sure that at this point, that first urban design exercise really shaped the decisions that I took later on concerning my career.

While conducting my studies I also interned for an architecture magazine called Lotus. During that experience I was mainly investigating the topic of urban agriculture and so I began to investigate different ways of looking at architecture rather than the traditional technical profession that most of us have in mind when they start this career (at least I had). The interest for urban agriculture brought me later on to Kenya where I was conducting field research for my bachelor degree’s thesis.

The project I was developing was focused on urban agriculture in an informal settlement (slum) of Nairobi called Mathare. Again, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to collaborate with an NGO on developing this research that then later developed into a pilot project of urban agriculture in Mathare. Mathare, as many other slums in Nairobi, is a result of certain global and regional dynamics of urbanization.

Working in that environment made me think about the role of the architect in relation to the global processes happening in the world: urbanization, climate change, migration and so on. At that point I felt that I couldn’t answer these questions alone and that is why I decided to do a Master in development, which brought me to BUDD. I left Kenya, Italy and I moved to London, in September 2013, where I started the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development at DPU (UCL). After one year the Master was completed and with Joana and Laura we co-funded the not-for-profit design studio CatalyticAction.


I received my bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the American University of Beirut where I developed specific interests in urban design, mapping, sustainable development and cultural heritage. I have always been curious about the relationship of the person to the building.

The phase of the design studio that I enjoyed most was that the initial one where I got to go on site meet the people, understand the complexity a space can bring, developing a site analysis, action research, mapping, and then coming up with design solutions. I remember when I was in my 2rd year of Architecture we were asked to “document Beirut’s connective and disjunctive tissue through an example” and the example I chose was to highlight how migrant workers are living in urban areas.

I still look back at the pictures I took that time (2009)! Recalling that time when I immersed myself into a context I am not familiar with, and now realising that this is where architecture makes sense to me, and that is the context I want to be working in from now on. 

Soon after I completed my bachelor degree I joined the local expert team of the “Saida Urban Sustainable Development Strategy”, an initiative of MedCities; this experience allowed me to interact with the several actors involved from the local community, researchers at AUB, municipality of Saida, and other international actors.

Soon after, I got the opportunity to join the team of the Planning and Urban design department (PUD) at the international company “Dar Al Handasah”, that is where I started to question my role as a practitioner, I did not agree with the top down approach to design, I did not enjoy it.

One of my (favourite) professors at AUB contacts me one day telling me that a group of professors from the Bartlett-UCL are coming to give a lecture at our university, come meet them, check the master’s program to be able to pursue your higher education in Urban Design.

So that is when I met the director of the course Camillo, and was absolutely fascinated by the idea that this kind of masters program exists “Building and Urban Design in Development”!! The one-year program was an eye opener on the several case studies happening around the world from South America to East Asia. I would say that what I learned most was through the group of people I have met throughout this year. 

The culminating point was founding CatalyticAction with two of my colleagues, as well as involving members from BUDD as well as other MSc programs like: Alaa Barri, Stephanos Theodotu, Stefania Gyftopoulou, Charlie Ensor, Alberto Piccioli and Pedro Pablo Mora. 


Prior to the BUDD MSc I had attained my BSc in Urban Planning, Design and Management; a field which I very much enjoyed studying, but questioned when it came to practicing. After working in a local authority in the UK, and for an international design agency, I started to question how it was possible that I was making decisions that would impact peoples daily lives when I hadn’t even visited these places.

I grew increasingly frustrated with the priorities of these organisations and the way I was being expected to work; with little care given to how appropriate the design was for the particular space and group for whom it was aimed. I was also finding it hard to understand how big organisations in London were designing and building infrastructure, homes, and in fact whole cities, in countries which no member of staff had visited or understood culturally. It was for this reason that I wanted to complete BUDD; to gain a more critical approach towards design and understand the issues associated with the ‘expert’ and practice more generally.

After studying the BUDD course I went on to gain some experience teaching as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant in the Bartlett School of Planning, and am now completing my PhD at LSE. The critical frameworks around the notions of space, the urban, development and the global north/south, have developed a curiosity which has lead to my current research; focussing on migrant domestic workers and their rights in the city.


We collectively felt that there was a space missing for the type of work we had theorised about. We felt that there were fundamental issues with the practices of many development agencies and we wanted to create our own platform through which we could drive positive change. The BUDD course forced us to confront our own position as a designer and practitioner; making us question the different ways in which we could create a practice that stems from local needs and ideas. The concepts of gender, marginality and exclusion, which we spent much time theorising about, became of central importance for us all. In feeling this lack of opportunity, we decided to create our own organisation; to put into practice what we believe is a better way of doing things. 

Keeping up-to-date with the events happening around the world, the Syrian crisis is the world’s largest refugee crisis for almost a century under UNHCR mandate. The neighbouring country Lebanon hosts more than 1.2 million refugees. This triggered a conversation that started last December 2014, with our Lebanon local partners following their efforts in providing Informal schools for the Syrian refugees in Bar Elias, Lebanon. This conversation developed into the recently completed project in Lebanon, “Ibtasem playground for Syrian refugee children, to cope and to heal”. 

Across 9 months we were able to engage in participatory exercises, design a space, fundraise and then organise and complete the construction; which involved running an international design-build workshop. Our first pilot playground has been a huge learning curve and has catalysed change for these children, as well as the development of new projects for CatalyticAction. 

flickr/Instagram: CatalyticAction