“I do not believe in throwing good stuff away. Every IABR edition builds on earlier editions. We refocus, change perspective, pick up new elements; we re-use and reconfigure, and then we scramble and stir. Compared to most other Biennales, we’re poor and small, so we have to be smart, not waste what we have, choose our battles, break rules, find shortcuts, work with good people, make friends and truly commit ourselves.” - George Brugmans
IABR, International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam is the most engaged urban Biennale in the world. Supported by the Dutch Government, the city of Rotterdam, the municipalities where the IABR runs test sites and the collaborators from NGO's, this urban biennale continues to discuss, engage, make, critique and invent solutions for pressing problems regarding the present and the future of the cities in this so called urban century with rapidly growing megalopolises and populations.
IABR holds that when we would all be living in better-made cities our future would be more sustainable, socially as well as economically. It therefore considers Making City to be the principal imperative of our times.
This is my second interview for Archinect with the Executive Director of IABR, George Brugmans, and the conversation continues from where we left it two years ago.
by Orhan Ayyüce
PART 1 Making City
Orhan Ayyüce - Can you describe this year's 5th IABR, MAKING CITY, and its agenda?
George Brugmans - When you and I talked about two years ago, it was just after the 4th IABR closed and we spoke about how the IABR, in 2008 and 2009, had been collaborating closely with the Municipality of São Paulo’s department of social housing, SEHAB, to work in Paraisópolis, a huge favela in the central area of the metropolis. SEHAB had already been working there for several years, yet it decided to open up the process and bring us in. As a consequence the project was temporarily taken out of its normal trajectory. It made what I later christened a “sabbatical detour” by temporarily becoming a project for the Biennale. That’s to say, for a given period the project became an object of research, design, reflection, it had to publicly express itself in terms of lectures, publications and exhibitions in Rotterdam and São Paulo, and so forth, before it went back to where it belonged: Paraisópolis. In other words, this local project temporarily escaped into a free space, an international setting in which it got better because of the exchange of ideas and expertise, and the fusillade of design and research proposals to which it was submitted.
SEHAB was really upbeat about how the collaboration had enhanced the project itself as well as enriched its own modus operandi, and it subsequently decided to implement the results and continue the partnership with the IABR.
This intrigued me. Would it be possible to make the method of the “sabbatical detour” the engine of the next IABR? Would it be possible to find the right partners and to work on or even initiate and run real urban projects? Would it be feasible to temporarily integrate two very different processes, “making city” and “making biennale”, into one single and mutually beneficial trajectory?
To make a long story short, in order to test the concept of the “sabbatical detour” we set up three Test Sites: the first one in São Paulo again, together with SEHAB, and with Fernando de Mello Franco of MMBB Arquitetos as its local curator; the second in Istanbul with Asu Aksoy of Bilgi University as the local curator and the Municipality of Arnavutköy as our partner; and the third in Rotterdam where Kristian Koreman and Elma van Boxel of ZUS were the local curators. These three Test Sites were made the engine of the 5th IABR development process. On each of these sites we build alliances with local stakeholders. The Test Sites were about concrete, real urban projects, while they were also a platform on which we could ask pertinent questions about how to make city. That basically was the core agenda of the 5th IABR, to run three Test Sites and ‘make city’, as well as to use the biennial proper to reflect in public on what we were doing, and how others are doing it, to come to terms with what ‘making city’ is in this specific period in human history, when rapid urbanization is so prominent.
OA - The “sabbatical detour” is a very creative definition and idea. I understood it as a multi functional productive platform that led to “Making City.” Can you expand on it?
GB - You’re right, a direct consequence of committing the IABR to concrete urban projects was the very theme of the 5th Biennale itself: Making City. That transpired to be a bit of a challenge though. Initially it came across as being indistinct, or even outdated. We were given advance warning that we would certainly run the ship aground. Society isn’t makeable, didn’t we know?
But that’s not what we meant. We are going from about half a billion to about 7 billion city dwellers in a period of one hundred years. Just look at what cities literally are, and you have to admit that we do not necessarily know what we’re doing. Ants are a lot better at building anthills than we are at making city. That should worry us, as we know that we’ll have to make city for about another 4 billion people over the next four decades. That’s more people than live in cities now. So making city is the principal imperative of our times, as Bruce Katz of the Brooking Institution in Washington advocates in the film we produced to introduce Making City, it follows that we face a common challenge, shouldn’t we make the future of the city the guiding principle of our political, economic, and social actions? Introducing ‘making city’ as a verb was a way for us to broadcast the need to have such a verb in the first place because we need the action the verb implies. And that then became another part of our plan; the wish to more precisely delineate what that action is so that it may become a point of departure for an urban agenda.
OA - Along with your 'Test Sites' for the 5th IABR, you have also selected a number of 'CounterSites.' Can you give us some insight into those operations?
GB - When we had our Test Site projects up and running, we needed to contextualize them. We needed a set of best practices to verify our own testing if you will. We needed sites that the Test Sites could respond to, CounterSites.
We got over 300 responses from all over the world to our Call for Projects and selected 23 CounterSites. Their representatives joined in the urban meetings, in 2011, when we brought all participants together in Rotterdam for a series of five meetings in order to have an exchange of best practices, knowledge and experiences. Some of the CounterSites were precisely that, best practices, that we used as cornerstones, such as New York’s High Line, the La Défense project in Paris and the 50.000 new housing units project in Bordeaux. Other CounterSites, especially those still in development, actually used the Biennale process, the sabbatical detour, to get something out of it for themselves – as they should.
OA - You say “Introducing ‘making city’ as a verb was a way for us to broadcast the need to have such a verb in the first place because we need the action the verb implies.” Did it work, do you get any feedback?
GB - The first specific feedback we got was from the CounterSites. The issues we tabled proved to be real and urgent, very much what politicians, administrators, designers and other stakeholders locally cope with on a day-to-day basis. The urban meetings, moderated by Joachim Declerck, of Architecture Workroom Brussels, and a member of the international curator team of the 5th IABR, have been very rewarding. The Making City-project itself got a boost out of it; it produced lots of material and insights we could feed back into the project. And the participants’ response too was very encouraging. To see their local projects being meaningfully and globally contextualized in a common Biennale-project energized everyone and triggered ideas that could be taken back home and put to work, with clear and tangible results.
Let me give you a few examples. Guatemala City’s Council approved new legislation instigating programs for social housing that were developed in the project that Posconflicto did for and with the IABR. And new strategies for redevelopment in ten cities located on the Ohio River in Kentucky got a boost in political and communal support because of how the initiator, the University of Kentucky, used its participation in the Biennale to not just enrich but also create visibility for the project – I don’t think we’ll have as many mayors from Kentucky for the Biennale opening ever again.
Another good example would be our collaboration with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. Henk Ovink, the Director of National Spatial Planning at the Ministry, insists that we have to rethink the relationship between design and politics. He feels that generic top down planning is a bit of a dead end, and that we must really go about it differently, with strong local alliances, with good design, and from a genuinely urban agenda. In his position, representing the central government, he’s clearly thinking out of the box. So I asked him to consider actually doing something out of the box too and to join the international curator team of the 5th IABR. He accepted, and this led to a very stimulating cooperation. The Atelier Making Projects was conceived, meant to be a temporary haven, a transient space for free and fresh thinking on seven urgent main spatial challenges in the Netherlands. These became a special category in the Making City-project, governmental exercises in testing the role of design in the planning process. International benchmarking was an essential aspect of it. Atelier Making Projects involved three Ministries, several municipalities, and design offices and design schools from Holland and abroad.
In terms of feedback, which is your question, I can say that the Ministry greatly valued both the approach and its results and the government recently decided to incorporate the Atelier Making Projects program into its new Architecture Policy for 2013 – 2016. On top of that it has made the IABR its lead partner when it comes to boosting the power of design in tackling in local and regional challenges in the Netherlands. In other words, we are going to apply what we’ve learned in São Paulo, Istanbul and Rotterdam and use similar methods working with municipalities in Holland over the next four years.
This approach and this kind of commitment forced me to rethink the role of the IABR as a cultural operator. The fact that we moved to a position where we would actually make our hands dirty, so to speak, by tangibly interacting with the real world, and by concretely cooperating with the national government and with municipal governments in Holland and abroad, was of course an opportunity I welcomed. It is now starting to provoke yet another dynamic, one that results from this new role we are adopting. Because seen from another angle the sabbatical detour is obviously also an inquiry into the social function of the cultural realm. It questions the traditional role division where the cultural operator gets funding and where the funder, the government or municipality, keeps its distance. What the Test Sites have been meta-testing is a mix of funding and co-financing, where sometimes there’s distance and sometimes there’s a very direct partnership, and sometimes there’s both at the same time. That is delicate, a kind of uncertainty principle operates, but we live in interesting times and we can’t find our way to the future on automatic pilot.
OA - A lot has changed since last we talked in our previous interview two years ago. Some things got more dire in their urgency, and, on the other hand, there is more engagement with the city in terms of activism and ideas. A lot more people are talking about what we should do or can do in order to make better cities and urban thinkers are suggesting more holistic and sustainable solutions. In short, 'making city’ IS becoming a verb.
Rapidly increasing density is a huge challenge, so are the global environmental issues triggering agricultural problems and food production, non renewable energy depletion, housing shortage and the lack of political and economic stability to name a few. We are living in more consequential times, demanding more rapid thinking and action for the cities where most people are living.
IABR operates via the cultural realm and the educational activities for the decision makers, namely politicians, NGO's, students and the city dwellers. What is in the future of the cities given the forecast? Are there any signs that 'we the people' will make better cities and make the lives of billions of fellow people better? How can the outreach be enlarged?
GB - That’s a big issue that touches on different though interrelated topics. It has to do with something we have also discussed in our earlier conversation, that the nation states were established about four hundred years ago to solve problems we no longer have, while they obviously cannot solve the problems we have right now. The global environmental crisis is closely linked to worldwide population growth and resulting exponential urbanization. Soon 7 billion of us will live in cities producing over 90% of our wealth. Is this sustainable - and I mean sustainable in every sense of the word? There is this amalgam of ecological, demographic and economic issues, which spatially manifests itself in and even as the city. You mention some of them; they include poverty, scarcity of resources, energy and food, migration, pollution, lack of access and so forth. All these issues have an urban origin or at least an area of overlap with urbanization. We will therefore not be able to resolve these issues until we address our urban problems. So if the challenge is whether we make the future of the city the guiding principle of our political, economic, and social actions, whether we’re ready to take guidance from an urban agenda, then what we need is a call for action to cities and citizens to get their act together and liberate themselves from the constricts of the nation state system. The city must no longer be primarily a territory for the accommodation of the market, or a battleground for national political parties, but a catalyst for social and economic emancipation of all its citizens.
Now back to your question, which is whether this is in fact starting to happen? Well, I think something is definitely starting to happen. There are so many small initiatives that make one hopeful. Take for example the exhibition in the US pavilion at 2012’s Venice Biennial, “Spontaneous interventions: design actions for the common good”, which documents projects initiated by professionals –designers, architects– and also, and I quote from the program, “everyday citizens that bring positive change to the public realm”. This shows the growing role of the citizen, how the role of making city shifts from the privileged to the people. There are many more examples of this shift. Urban agriculture, temporary architecture, crowd funding, pop-up economy, guerilla bike lanes, what have you, if this is what you’re looking for then you may easily think it’s spreading like wildfire.
However, given that this is indeed starting to happen, my question is whether this does reflect the individual’s understandable need to cultivate survival strategies in hard times, or the need of curators and intellectuals to turn this into more than it is, or whether this is truly a new political movement in the making?
Honestly, I don’t know. There’s obviously a link out there between new social movements and alternative urban practices and it’s clear these new alliances act and experiment out of necessity or opportunity, because we have a very serious crisis on our hands. But whether these initiatives also herald a better world or not, whether they can be up-scaled, is pure speculation.
Sure, I would like to think that we are witnessing the beginning of something that heralds a deep shift, a huge transition away from obstructive nation states and dumbed down politics, and towards a new world, with a global economy run by dynamic solution driven networks of strong urban regions, internationally active green corporations and smart NGOs, and that what is happening will prove to be the beginning of the reinvention of democracy, or rather, of bringing back democracy to where it started, the city, while at the same time making this democratic system work for all of us and on a global scale.
But you know, that’s kind of big, that’s fine for when you and I go to a bar and chew on how to make this a better world. The morning after I’d still be running a biennial. So I have to be practical, think about how we can add our two cents. Like I said, we opted for making our hands dirty, for interacting with the real world, for pushing to the limit what a cultural operator such as the IABR can really do. And one of the things we can do is to identify and support these innovative practices, put them on a platform and call on municipalities and political institutions and what have you, to get on board and find out what the potential of these new alliances for meaningful change is. As Alan Kay famously said, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. That’s why we had the Test Sites, testing as inventing. And exactly because we operate in the cultural realm, or seem to operate strictly in the cultural realm, we offer the political institutions a special zone, a safe haven where they can have an open brainstorm, think in a less risk averse way, where they can rock and roll and connect to new ways of thinking.