City as a Text: Exploring the DNA of Saint Petersburg

Like a living being, every city has its own DNA that shows through its historical and socioeconomic features, architecture, culture, art, and politics. This year’s “City as a Text”, a special course at SAS, was devoted to understanding the DNA of Saint Petersburg.  

The city DNA determines everything from the way the city is organized to the values system of its inhabitants. Like living beings, cities are born, they develop and grow, they change and fight for existence. On the one hand, city spaces undergo constant movement and development. On the other hand, there is something about them that remains unchanged.

The “City as a Text” course is an integral part of the educational process at SAS, as well as its life and culture. It is an important step for every first year student since the course enables them to understand how interdisciplinarity works in practice, and learn to analyze, combine and package knowledge received.

Alexandra Kamyshenko, first year student: “During the 10-day course we challenge the city, its climate, and ourselves. It is a chance to test one’s abilities and stamina, one’s skills to create a decent project following a very tight timeline and to defend it, as well as to check one’s team player abilities. Through “City as a Text” one learns to communicate with Saint Petersburg, look at it (and into it) through different angles, seek connections in history, architecture, and city infrastructure. In the end, these connections comprise the unique text of Saint Petersburg.”

Within the course the city space was viewed as an interdisciplinary research object. For this purpose, each lecture of the course looked at particular units of the city's DNA: economy, tech, architecture, culture and art, literature, history, cinema etc. Each day the students received a new task from their lecturers, analyzed the city from a completely different angle, and checked the practical applicability of theories from different domains.

Andrey Shcherbenok, Director, SAS: “The course is structured as a system of disciplinary sections of the city. After each lecture on a particular topic the students conduct fieldwork at various locations and study what they involve. In their final presentation, they then need to combine all disciplinary sections and explain how they work together. This is where the metaphor of a city as a text stems from: the city is a connection of threads that intertwine and create fabric, in our case, the fabric of the city.”

During the fieldwork the students visited over 40 locations. In order to collect case study material in a particular place on the city map (at times not touristy at all, but thus not less interesting) the students had to quickly learn how to navigate an unknown space, as well as prioritize under the pressure of tight timelines and multiple unknown variables. How do incompatible elements organically coexist in a single city space? Why do city systems function in this particular way? How does the city and its inhabitants influence one another? What is the impact of literature and cinema on the city’s appearance? What is the relation between the city’s economy and geography? Fieldwork develops the skill to deliver under uncertainty and overcome hurdles. It is not easy to swiftly grasp the essence of the task in a completely new field, find respondents, create the research plan on the go, and even follow the changing weather Saint Petersburg is famous for.

Eva Burbo, Associate Director for Education, SAS: “This year we gave the students an ambitious task to combine all the layers of a city space: architecture, history, politics, the city economy, literature, and identify the city DNA. It has been great to observe how they got to know the city step by step and discovered something new, and how they proved wrong the things that used to seem correct. Every day was a challenge for them since we looked at new topics on a daily basis. Consequently, the task became even more difficult because they needed not only to reflect upon the topic of the previous day but also to suggest a new hypothesis. The students succeeded, but not entirely flawlessly. Nevertheless, mistakes are also a useful experience.”

The students’ work was supervised and curated by senior student moderators. For them, it was an opportunity to exercise their leadership skills based on their own experience of the course, of the SAS culture, and their accumulated academic knowledge.

Vlada Zemlyanukhina, moderator: “As a moderator I felt great responsibility over my group because I organized the way my students approached ideas and I was equally responsible for the result. The course teaches you not to take criticism too personally since you are defending your project and not yourself. This way, feedback becomes a lot more valuable.”
Yuliya Arkhipova, moderator: “City as a Text” teaches you to find answers to questions and welcome new challenges within a collective effort in contrast to the individual problem-solving students are used to. Moreover, this course like no other helps you find a connection with the city, Saint Petersburg in our case. This connection creates a thoughtful and deep understanding of the city structures and interrelations we are studying.”

To solve the case studies the students needed to competently use the expert lecture materials as well as the relevant knowledge acquired during the academic year. However, it was not only the interdisciplinary understanding of the matter that the success of the course depended on. Soft skills, coherent teamwork and responsibility division were among the important factors, alongside the art of observance and creativity, as well as the talent to find an unusual approach to the task. The course helped structure, prove, and articulate one’s thoughts on paper during written reflections, and verbally during presentations. The students learnt by doing, whether it was asking the right questions, verifying hypotheses, quickly finding alternative solutions or questioning not only the viewpoints of others, but also their own stance.

Anton Lapin, first year student:“Apart from the fact that “City as a Text” is extremely effective in bringing students together, I feel this course to be an absolutely unique opportunity to hone skills that might seem quite ordinary and yet are crucial to study at SAS. Intense team work, developing logic and reasoning, argumentation - all these skills are extremely important to succeed at SAS. “City as a Text” enhances these capabilities in an unusual and unforgettable manner in the unusual and unforgettable city of Saint Petersburg.”
Ahmed Elghandour, Coordinator, SAS Academic Writing Center:“This course clearly illustrated the educational process at SAS. We gave students a platform to reflect, exchange opinions, ask questions, and achieve their full potential in the fields they are interested in. The goal of the course this year was to study Saint Petersburg from an interdisciplinary viewpoint and look into the development of the city since its inception.”

As a result of the course, the students delivered 75 projects. The final group presentations were aimed at demonstrating using the examples of different locations how a diverse set of components of the city (its economy, its past, its appearance in literature and cinema, for instance) work together to create what we mean by Saint Petersburg.

DNA is a complex structure, and its research requires particular laboratory conditions. The city DNA is unseen, nevertheless it organizes the way the city space functions. The “City as a Text” course is a laboratory conducting city DNA research.

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