If you see a small group of twentysomethings lying around on benches in the Canary Wharf's financial district having earnest conversations with security staff, do not worry that a minor piece of public disorder is going to break out. It's only Masters students from the University of East London (UEL) investigating the differences between public and privately owned spaces in London.
Among them is likely to be George Soiza, 24, who is in his second term of an MA in sustainability, architecture and design. "Part of what we're doing is exploring the urban environment, and the importance of public spaces," he says, by way of explaining the Canary Wharf exploits. "But in London, lots of public spaces are actually privately owned – such as Canary Wharf and Paternoster Square near St Paul's – which affects what you can do there. So we've been testing what you can and can't do in these places."
While sprawling on benches might sound a bit student-prankish, it's all linked to the core architectural pursuit of trying to design public spaces that will be used by workers, residents and visitors in a way that ensures they are respected and valued and as a result, ensures they will last – in other words, be sustainable.
Soiza came to this course having finished his three-year architecture degree at Portsmouth University, which gave him a degree but not a full professional qualification as an architect. After Portsmouth, he worked for an architectural practice in London for two years, as part of a team tendering for contracts on projects including schools and housing.
"The practice I worked for was quite big on sustainability and they won a couple of awards, so I wanted to take that route in my Masters, because it's the future of architecture," Soiza explains. "There were a number of places I could have done this course, but I wanted to stay living at home, keep in touch with the practice and perhaps do a bit of part-time work for them."
There are seven other students on the sustainability, architecture and design course, all based at UEL's new site alongside a stretch of water on the Thames, which used to receive big ships bringing in produce from all over the world.
"It's a nice campus with great facilities, and when you have a break you can go out and have a coffee looking at the former docks, with London City Airport across the water," says Soiza.
As for the course itself, so far, it's proving to be even more useful than he'd hoped. "I'm actually enjoying it more than I thought I would, partly because it's a real topic that's relevant to everyday life, and it's nice to work in a small group. Plus, the two tutors are really enthusiastic about sustainability, which comes across in the way they teach us."
The group has already been on a study trip to China to look at a concept there called urban villages – formerly small, rural communities that have now been swallowed up into expanding urban areas. "That was a real eye-opener for me," Soiza enthusiastically recalls, "being a tourist but at the same time, looking at these places and how the space is used."
The bulk of the work for the year for each of the students is to design something themselves and write a report about how the idea was developed, how their creation would be used and, in some way, change the way that urban space is used.
"The project doesn't restrict you in that you don't have to design an actual building," Soiza explains, "and it doesn't even have to be something that's physical. The important thing is that you do the research into how public space is used."