In many ways architecture is evolving into a discipline which it does not quite understand yet. As practitioners, academics, and critics try to define and chart these emergent conditions of the new urban reality, the current popular architectural practice is increasingly becoming inadequate and powerless in providing for the needs of rapidly urbanizing communities around the world. For the first time in human history, the majority of people are living in the cities and the old urban design models and traditions of city making are no longer workable.
by Orhan Ayyüce
The all too familiar search for alternative resources and methods of building is underway, yet we are at a moment of socio-economic, cultural and political bottleneck. Thus these efforts are too slow to reach the large populations who matter and are in need.
The current transformation of the world has accelerated and billions of people are struggling to survive. The next decade or two could be the only opportunity we get to set things straight for the future.
In the presence of deteriorating circumstances, these are critical times.
The reign of the architect as the sidekick enabler of the powerful and privileged patron is finally becoming much less relevant. Today's architects need to be ever active organizers, proponents, producers and design guides to everyday people living in densely populated cities.
The urban age is underway.
A new breed of architect is now necessary.
International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam, IABR , is a 'dynamic platform,' unlocking this moment of opportunity and issuing all relevant subjects into the open that the discipline of architecture needs to address and urgently act upon.
I have interviewed the director of IABR, Mr. George Brugmans, for Archinect.
Orhan Ayyuce- You talk about creating a contemporary platform, via the IABR, for architects, urban planners and thinkers to make concrete contributions to diversity, vitality, and livability of the urban condition.
Can you talk about these conditions in place that have triggered the Biennale's goal of creating this platform? And what might be the dire consequences of lacking these actions?
George Brugmans– The Biennale has not so much created a platform as it is a platform. It was set up to be one. Conceived as a research-oriented event, each edition links the contemporary Dutch agenda to the international context and invites the design disciplines to examine an urgent political or social issue in relation to a particular urban condition. The theme and program reflect current international discourse in architecture and urbanism. Each Biennale edition serves as a place of exchange, a catalyst and a mediator between local and global cultures, in short, as a dynamic platform.
The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam was founded on the conviction that architecture is a public concern and that its main challenge is not the production of icons, or to help cities brand themselves to survive the global competition, but that it is the design of decent day-to-day living conditions for billions of people.
“[...] I’m personally convinced that the nation state as we know it, will not make it into the 22nd century.” For us architecture is about the city. I hold, maybe somewhat provocatively, that in the 21st century cities will become more important than nation states. And I’m personally convinced that the nation state as we know it, will not make it into the 22nd century.
Cities can be part of the solution; nation states are part of the problem. We therefore need a new paradigm. We have to learn how to look at the most pressing problems in the world –a mix of mutually reinforcing social, cultural, ecological and economic crises– through the perspective of the city.
The world needs an urban agenda. The IABR investigates tomorrow’s cities and in doing so we hope to be able to make a contribution, however modest, to the development of such an agenda.
For its 4th edition, the IABR has chosen the theme Open City: Designing Coexistence. Its curator, Kees Christiaanse , has explored the question of to what extent coexistence in the city can be engineered, and of how the condition of being open—in the sense of creating space for people to live, act, and work together—can be rethought and implemented. In doing so this biennale deliberately aims to establish a relation between architecture as a discipline and an important and urgent social issue: social sustainability.
The Biennale is not only a platform; it’s also a producer.
The challenge is clear: if we can’t solve the problems of the city, if we can’t find the right balance between rapidly increasing urban populations, ecology and economy, and if we can’t turn some of these runaway processes around before the middle of the century, we’ll be in dire straits.
Our ambition is to challenge architects and urban designers to come up with concrete and tangible contributions and projects, and to see them implemented.
Architects, especially when they are open to multidisciplinary teamwork, are experts on the city, so we want them to come up with solid solutions.
If they do, we think architecture can become relevant again.
OA- I quote from you, “Architects, especially when they are open to multidisciplinary teamwork, are experts on the city, so we expect them to come up with solid solutions. If they do, architecture will again become relevant.”
This is an especially nebulous area since architectural profession trying to survive with the support of developer designed and propelled engine. In its current definition, a service providing industry, at least in the United States, for the neo liberal ‘investors.’
I am observing most developments in urban cores are semi open 'commercial enterprise spaces' without any social sustainability concern and with a mild form of apartheid build-in. The other day I was approached by three security officers for just trying to take a picture of some buildings here in corporate area of Los Angeles called Century City. There are endless examples of these ‘off limit to public’ spaces both physically and economically.
What role architects should or could assume in the city making process that allow them to provide concrete solutions in this context? What power they have? In what stage they should enter the ‘social’ contract of city making?
How do we take the profession out of the studio and put in the social realm, in order to impact the city making, for this, would current economical systems need to change? This is a very complex proposition because it goes all the way to architect’s education to the way architectural contracts are written etc... Are we suggesting the ‘architect as a social activist’ role? This should be interesting because it is practically kept away from the discipline.
GB– That is exactly what I’m suggesting: ‘an architect as activist’ role. In fact, we’ve already decided this is going to be the leitmotif of our research for the next Biennale: design as politics.
At IABR we’re saying: “look at the cities, it’s obvious we’re in dire straits, something’s got to give, somebody’s got to do something”.
We have hit a wall. We have been on a wild ride into the new millennium, high on a heady mix of free-market faith and clever plans in which not even the sky was the limit. That ride is over. Dubai World is falling apart as we speak. Global investors are getting black swanned, their models weren’t that smart after all and now it’s a mountain of debt that is growing into the sky.
“The continuous flow of cheap goods, cheap money and resources, which has sustained that wild ride, can no longer be taken for granted.” The unfolding drama of the global financial crisis is fundamentally different from the kind of theater that celebrated the conspicuous consumption we got used to. The continuous flow of cheap goods, cheap money and resources, which has sustained that wild ride, can no longer be taken for granted. We are confronted by a vulnerable energy supply, economic contraction and an impending food crisis. This triple crunch emphasizes the need to reconsider our patterns of consumption, and how we design them.
Both the environmental and the financial crisis are essentially caused by patterns that shape our communities around large centralized rigid undemocratic and unstable systems on which we depend for energy, water, food, credit and transportation. What has made these wasteful and aggressive systems possible at all, whether in the U.S. or China or Europe, is that they plundered the earth and made all of us live on borrowed time and borrowed money.
Let me quote the Financial Times: “ Officials insisted that Dubai knows how to take advantage of the misfortunes of others. We live in a violent and unstable environment, they would say, but that makes us a magnet for people and money fleeing other volatile spots. This is the Dubai model. This is the Dubai miracle.”
There was nothing miraculous about it though. On the contrary, in a neo-liberal world Dubai was supernormal.
Now never mind the darker scenarios, although they may prove realistic. Let’s concentrate on what we can still do. We face the challenge of how to get away from the state of pre-crisis supernormality and re-think the way we live on and off this planet in order to enter in a post-consumption society. What we really need is a new angle on how to define, benchmark and experience quality of life. It’ll take a really serious Houdini, a feat inconceivable without a very profound and deeply motivated desire to re-imagine.
To design is to desire to re-imagine.
If you go along with that, it follows that design as politics is the desire to re-imagine how we live together.
“To design is to desire to re-imagine. If you go along with that, it follows that design as politics is the desire to re-imagine how we live together.” The way we now imagine our future cities is still very outdated. I think the idea of design may well be facing one of the most compelling paradigm shifts in history. What we will need to leave behind us are the big wasteful aggressive structures we can now see for what they are, 19th century constructs and 20th century Fordian systems. This was and is creation and construction predicated on eternal economic growth while what we urgently need is new feedback loops with deep implications for the relationship between user and designer, and between user and user. We must move from wasteful to sustainable production; from manufacturing to remanufacturing and recycling; from conspicuous to just consumption; and from creating systems to mending our ways.
The French theorist Bruno Latour has observed that “… design as a concept implies humility that seems rather absent from the word ‘construction’ or ‘building’, (…) design implies an attention to details that is completely lacking in the heroic promethean hubristic dream of action.”
To design would then be to want to depart from a given or a problem, and to turn it into something more vivacious, more viable, more usable or user friendly, or more sustainable.
Latour speaks of the remedial in design, as “… an antidote to hubris and the search of absolute certainty, absolute beginning, radical departure.”
It’s from this position, this remedial perspective, that we challenge the profession: do not ask what the city can do for you, but ask what you can do for the city.
“Do not ask what the city can do for you, but ask what you can do for the city.” It’s also why the IABR has not been doing projects in ‘hot spots’ such as China or Dubai, and already years ago decided to work in cities such as Sao Paulo and Caracas, in collaboration with design offices like UTT , MMBB and Arquitectura 911sc . I find South-American cities show more of an interesting balance between top-down and bottom-up processes. The favelas or barrios are not to be romanticized, yet it seems to me the informal city has something to offer us because of the way it has created exactly some of these feedback loops we now know we need in the formal city.
The informal city does not create systems; it permanently mends its ways. Why? Because it has to.
When we ask what we can do for the informal city, one possible answer is that we may help it leapfrog the formal city: provide for access, connect it to infrastructure, rethink the food-waste cycle, bring in urban agriculture, create job opportunities and other alternatives to the criminal economy, etc. and do it in such a way that the informal city becomes more resilient, economically more viable and ecologically sustainable, in short, more crisis proof than the formal city.
OA- One part of the Biennale is called “Squat” in which the possibilities of informal communities whether they are called gecekondus, barrios, favelas (photo,© George Brugmans,) slums or shanty towns, banlieues, fringes, etc. are discussed. These communities becoming essential part of 21st century cities as you also mention. Can you talk about “Squat” a little? And what an active role architects can take within their (infomal communities) integration into the new city planning and design practices?
Also, in my recent interview with urban writer Mike Davis, it was mentioned by Mr. Davis that (generally speaking,) “yes there is a lot to be learned from self organization and human ingenuity of the informal settlements but we must not ignore the fact that these conditions are usually the bitter fruits of political neglect and dictatorships, unequal distribution of wealth, and subsequent poverty based on these reasons.”
Can you also talk about the ways IABR’s “SQUAT” section addresses these issues Davis mentions?
GB– Mike Davis of course is right when he states that these conditions are more often than not the upshot of political neglect and dysfunctional government. True.
Yet here we are. Because what’s also true is that these conditions will not just go away. On the contrary, when the world’s urban population grows with another four billion people over the next three or four decades, as has been estimated, we know at least three billion of them will have to build their own ramshackle house and will have to survive in exactly these conditions.
What can we do? Something surely. We can dig holes on Mars. So we have the know-how and technology to tackle the city’s problems.
However, we live in a political world, as Bob Dylan tells us. The biggest impediment to levelheaded action – as everyone, including Mike Davis, seems to agree–is politics as we know it. The city is not the #1 priority issue on the political agenda you’d think it would be the moment you realize the predicament it’s in. In the political market fear –of crime, of strangers, of racial or religious or cultural tensions, you name it– is a much better selling product than the long-term agenda that it takes to meet the challenges the city’s plight poses. And your average politician is just not going to sell you a project he won’t be in office anymore to take the credits for.
“What can we do? Something surely. We can dig holes on Mars. So we have the know-how and technology to tackle the city’s problems.” I was impressed by the American drama series The Wire . It may well be one of this decade’s most perceptive representations of the contemporary urban condition. It portrays a neglected and corrupt Baltimore: impoverished, dysfunctional, jammed, and fragmented, managed in a rambling and oblique way, its public realm jeopardized and its sense of community lost.
The Wire has Baltimore as its arena, but it tells a tale of many cities. Whether it is Detroit or Rotterdam, Paris or Johannesburg, Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro, cities worldwide are showing waste and neglect, albeit in different gradations. They are more often than not incoherently managed and haphazardly designed, and it is very rare for consistent urban development to be a political priority.
How will all these derelict cities survive, and, even more to the point, how will we survive these cities?
This political world we live in is run by competing nation states, and by gangs of united nation states, and these are not going to overly exert themselves when it comes to formulating and supporting an urban agenda to tackle the problems the cities are facing. The nation states and the sort of politician they produce are part of the problem, not of the solution.
Yet, exactly as you say, the favelas and gecekondus are becoming essential parts of the 21st century cities. It seems to me, and I realize this may come across as ironic or even as a bit naive, that exactly because in these informal communities alternative forms of leadership have emerged, they offer opportunities the formal city does not. Here it’s easier to think out of the urban box and as a result there’s an opportunity for experimentation. It is very conceivable that exactly these communities would willingly embrace new urban policies to help them survive and they offer better conditions than the formal city to develop the new and multidisciplinary coalitions we need to put a remedial strategy in place.
Of course these alliances cannot succeed without the input of partners with the power to implement. So the bottom line is that architects should not only team up with local stakeholders, NGO’s, ecologists, planners, film makers, artists and economists, but also with those urban managers and city officials who feel it’s time to act, sometimes even in spite of what their political bosses tell them.
We are now picking up on what we have learned from our collaboration with the City of Sao Paulo (photo, © Fabio Knoll) over the last three years. Maybe we can evolve the experience into a working model, which I tentatively call ‘the model of the sabbatical detour’. We hope to be able to use the 5th IABR to test this model in two or maybe even three cities.
The IABR had been establishing links with partners in Sao Paulo since 2006, not just with architects and offices, but also with city officials. Rotterdam and Sao Paulo have a strong interest in each other, they are sister cities, and that made it relatively easy to connect on several levels. So when we started to think about where to situate our research projects for the 4th IABR, back in the summer of 2007, Sao Paulo was high on my list. We felt we should seriously look at how to incorporate what was happening in the informal communities of South-America’s cities into our Open City-project. The result is Squat, one of the six smaller exhibitions that, together with the so-called forum, make up the main exhibition of the 4th IABR. It is the product of extensive research processes in Sao Paulo and in Addis Ababa curated by Jörg Stollmann (Technical University of Berlin) and Rainer Hehl (ETH Zürich).
In Sao Paulo, we teamed up with architects such as Fernando de Mello of MMBB. Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner of UTT came in from Caracas, Alejandro Aravena of Elemental from Santiago de Chile, and Christian Werthmann of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from Boston.
What’s very important is that also Elisabete França , the director of SEHAB, the Sao Paulo Municipal Housing Secretariat, was an important and very motivated partner from day one. She had the full backing of Elton Santa Fé Zacarias , the Municipal Housing Secretary. Elisabete França involved young local design teams. It was decided to focus on Paraisópolis , a favela in the center of the city, and right away connections were made to the local community and its leaders.
“Although all the local stakeholders were always involved, the projects themselves were temporarily taken out of their local political context.” To run a long story short, what happened was that the combined efforts of all these different people–community leaders, architects, researchers and urban managers from Brazil and from abroad– produced seven projects for Paraisópolis (photo,© SEHAB,) Sao Paulo
geared towards a presentation in Rotterdam. Although all the local stakeholders were always involved, the projects themselves were temporarily taken out of their local political context. They left town on a ‘sabbatical detour’, so to speak, to be discussed, mulled over and presented abroad. Workshops were organized in Rotterdam and at the ETH in Zürich, where Christiaanse is a professor. The projects were developed in a relatively ‘free space’. Although the IABR insisted on schemes as realistic and implementable as possible –an approach we try to bring to all projects we’re supporting– implementation as such was never a condition nor was it ever discussed until much later. Only when the projects were finished and ready for presentation on the platform of the Biennale were they presented into the Brazilian media and was it announced that the Municipality had allocated 400 million BR to realize the projects.
When it was made, this announcement came as a surprise, also to me. But I immediately realized that the fact of the detour had been one of the factors that had contributed to the possibility of implementation. Take something as fractious as urban renewal away from the killing fields of local bickering, couch its development in a careful process of academic research geared towards a relatively risk-free presentation at a prestigious international exhibition, and you can ride back into town with a result that is much easier for everyone to commit to.
Taking this venture as our guidance, the objective would be to develop projects with the support of stakeholders as well as city administrators but to keep these projects out of the spotlight of the media and away from politics-as-usual as long as possible.
If such a strategy proves viable, it would be practicable for those architects who do not want to connect themselves to the hubristic processes of ‘construction’ and ‘building’ that Latour mentions. Instead, because of the detour, the in-between offered by the Biennale –or any other exhibition that would stress the importance of implementability– and that would include extensive research, international dialogue and the need to reflect in public in the form of essays, lectures, interviews and debates, architects have the opportunity to concentrate on remedial change, and on the more livable, more usable or user friendly, or more sustainable. They can thus practice design as politics, exactly because they don’t have to cope with politics-as-usual.
One imagines that, when we go beyond the current crisis and hopefully will have developed a new urban paradigm with the sustainable worked into the equation, such an approach would also be economically feasible –as I do of course realize architects have to eat just like the rest of us.
OA- ”They can thus practice design as politics, exactly because they don’t have to cope with politics-as-usual.” This is interesting. It reminds me Latour talking about things/issues becoming objects of politics ie: ‘slow food’, ‘climate’, ‘energy’, ‘health’, etc.., and likening them to pixelisation of politics (via Sloterdijk), do you mean architecture can also be added to this list of ‘objects of politics?’
“[...] Design can grow to be a form of activism and of confrontation, and architecture can be an object of active politics [...] .” GB– I’m not exactly sure how to respond to this. Everything an architect does is political. I think we can all agree on this. The act of design as a matter of course intervenes in different localities and sites, public as well as private, on various levels and scales, and in many forms and networks. That much is obvious. It’s probably true though that what we see more and more now are small aggregates, sets, collections, new or hybrid forms that originate in expertise and experience formed within skill pools and grouped around situations of unease and potential for change. In particular in such settings design can grow to be a form of activism and of confrontation, and architecture can be an object of active politics; indeed, like the environment or food.
OA- As for the new paradigm;
Schools have to educate architecture students in ways so they can discover that beauty in buildings not only exists in their physical format but also in their social placements. This must be indexed as much as we are indexing the component design and materiality of the buildings. I have seen many buildings absolutely gorgeous to look yet weak in their inclusion of the public context/realm/benefit. Many schools are still teaching the ‘less relevant’ format of architecture via what I call, “ the exquisite corpse of the form-giver.” How do we change this closed circuit curriculums to get architects work on “matters of concern,” (the bigger picture of things) as Bruno Latour calls it?
GB– Just a few weeks ago, at the Biennale, it was announced that Wouter Vanstiphout of Crimson Architectural Historians , one of the sub-curators of this Biennale, would be installed as professor of Design and Politics at the TU Delft. This recently established chair is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment (VROM) . We are now discussing specific Design and/as/of Politics programs for the next Biennale with Henk Ovink , the Director for Spatial Planning of the Netherlands at VROM, who strongly believes the city is a magnifier of all the issues we are facing and as a consequence makes our spatial challenges political. And we welcome others to the table. An obvious partner is the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Its director, Ole Bouman , has just published what almost amounts to a call to arms: Architecture of Consequence , an introduction to his future policies. He calls it a rescue operation: “The architect as sinner can only be redeemed by the architect as saviour, in the person of an architect who faces up to the challenge.”
The Rotterdam based Berlage Institute was the curator of the 3rd IABR , in 2007, on the theme of Power: Producing the Contemporary City. Architecture has always been very much an object of politics at the Berlage Institute.
Together with the Rotterdam Academy for Architecture and Urban Design and the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam we have produced Parallel Cases . This exhibition displays 45 Projects for the Open City from schools all over the world. The projects are fascinating and inspiring, they have a very high level, are all very political and quite a few of them bring an activist attitude to the challenge. You should check them out on our website, or head to Paris where in January a selection of them will be exhibited at the Ecole d’Architecture as Projects for the Open City.
“There are many schools, in Europe and other parts of the world, which teach their students to work on 'matters of concern.'” So something’s happening, and not just in the state of Holland. There are many schools, in Europe and other parts of the world, which teach their students to work on “matters of concern”.
And of course others don’t. Some schools are just better than others. Students as well as staff have the freedom to choose which school they go to. That’s, I guess, where the activism should start. There’s no relevant architecture without architects who take responsibility for their own choices, from day one.
OA- Let’s say we are at an architecture degree zero, which I exaggeratedly think we are, and we need to define the ‘Open City and co-existence,’ what then, would be a good way to define it?
George Brugmans– What’s driving Open City: Designing Coexistence is the desire to constantly re-design the cities we make as well as have to survive. Underlying the project is a keen awareness of the fact that the condition of ‘openness’ is vulnerable and temporary. Open City opens a series of windows on a possible, or even a desirable new urban condition, and its curator, Kees Christiaanse, has refused to articulate a systematic urban vision. It focuses on what architects can do, how they can concretely contribute to diversity, vitality, and livability—in short, to the social sustainability of the urban condition and to the modification of the overall dynamics of urban space.
I am by training a historian, so I am not entirely at ease with the degree zero statement you make. Things can always get worse. But from where architecture now is –too close to a “the market knows all”-ideology– and from the perspective of what the 21st century city needs –a better balance between top down and bottom up, and market parties ready and willing to work with both sides– there definitely is a lot of upward potential. And there’s some way to go before new forms of sociability will emerge that associate with new forms of urban space.
In the last analysis Open City: Designing Coexistence is an appeal for a program of multidimensional social and spatial change aimed at supplanting the two- or even three-pronged crisis we are in.
“So let’s concentrate on the potential for change, think remedial, scale up and be more confrontational.” As Laura Burkhalter and Manuel Castells indicate in a recent article on what should be done in Los Angeles to combat the crisis, “… the connection between conscious social movements and alternative urban practices experimenting out of necessity” has been made in many practical situations. “In fact, we have learned from [this] practice. It is now a matter of scaling up these urban innovations and convincing planning agencies and political institutions.”
So let’s concentrate on the potential for change, think remedial, scale up and be more confrontational. That is our adage for the next Biennale, which we are now laying the groundwork for together with Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman, the two founding partners of ZUS , who have been campaigning to put the political back on the urban agenda and to redefine the role of the designer in the public realm.
Open City has generated a lot of fine thinking as well as some very tangible projects; the next Biennale edition will unequivocally insist on the encouragement of activism.
Orhan Ayyuce- Thank you. I look forward to next issue of Rotterdam Biennale and keep exploring this one and the previous ones.
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