Crossing borders for the common good

Debate Zilele Arhitecturii, 16th June 2013

Crossing borders for a ‘common good’? / Depasind limitele pentru un ‘bine comun’?

Modernist tradition told us that architecture can save the world. In the words of Le Corbusier himself: “Architecture or Revolution. Revolution can be avoided”. Later on, during the 60s, architecture was criticised due to its obsession of control, and over-determination of people’s lives. The social role of architecture was put in peril, and the social role of the architect has been diminished. DIY actions, participatory architecture in which the architect’s role has been at best marginal and in which the layman’s expertise was enshrined, have taken over the the discourse of the social role of architecture. Architecture, as profession, has lost its social role. Today we are witnessing another revival of the social role of the architect and architecture. City mine(d), collectif etc., studioBasar and undaverde are part of this revival. We will try to find out directly from them:

– is architecture still unable to work towards the ‘common good’? what does the collaborative practice with other professions (crossing the border) bring to the social role of architectural interventions?

– how do we define the ‘common good’? how important is ideology in these kind of practices?

– what is the recipe of success for collaborative practices? How do they achieve trust, reciprocity with the other actors and users?

Participants: Cristi Borcan (studioBasar); Jim Segers (city mine(d)); Klaus Birthler (unda verde); Emmanuelle Guyard, Maxence Bohn (collectif etc.)

Moderator: Dragos Dascalu


Q1: During the 20s and 30s, at the beginning of architectural modernism, architects thought that they could bring a new society into existence through the buildings they designed. Should architects and architecture reclaim the role of “avant-garde” in the creation of a new society?

CB: I don’t think that architects should reclaim anything. They should just do. That’s a problem with the profession, and I think it’s not only a problem in Romania, or “in course of development” countries. They should not reclaim anything, they should just do. We lost this role of social activators, we architects and urban planners, but architecture has changed and redefined itself in the last 10 or 15 years. Architects are not only creating form, or they should not only create form, but nowadays they do a lot of other things. So architects should not do this or that, or reclaim any role, they should just act in the social sphere.

JS: The short answer would be: “I don’t know, I’m not an architect”. When we started off at city mine(d) I think our major concern was giving people a voice in cities, and mainly the way it become most apparently is often in the built environment because they lack social space, they lack shared space, so what we did, what we built, the actions we set up were about reclaiming public space and  using it. That brought us very quickly in the realm of architects to the point that after three or four years architecture schools have invited us to do workshops. A memorable one in Sheffield, or rather in Belfast was called “Think outside the Box” and the conclusion for city mine(d) was: Which box? And it think that’s what makes us interesting for architects: we don’t have this tradition, this weight, this canon we take with us. On the other hand we are interested in shaping the built environment so that would introduce us into that realm. Now if we are referring to the modernists there is another warning I think we should consider and that is social engineering. I think the weakness about the modernists is that they wanted people to behave in a certain way, a good way and I’m not sure people do that and that’s sometimes very disappointing but that is something we have to take with us: you cannot engineer people.

KB: What we are doing, we are not doing it consciously. We are not conscious that we have to change but we are reacting to an environment or a political situation. I was very curious how we should discuss because we come from very different countries, from very different situations, and architects are known differently. I am living in a city of 30 000 inhabitants and I am the only architect so the people don’t know what the architect does. So I have to prove to them that using me, an architect, is more economical than using other resources. And for me, this is the only possibility that our profession can survive. I am curious if we could reach a conclusion for the other countries, France and UK, the same conclusion. Especially after the crisis (economic, political, social) we architects must be prepared to survive. Anyway the idea is that the architect’s role should be that if people come ask you for a project of a big house, they should leave with a small house.

MB: As you see, we are very young and with very little experience. We graduated three years ago. After two years of different works we find it very important to say that: We are architects and we can make this kind of projects! Because all the time politicians, big architects or big urban planners say: you are artistic industries who are doing something with the inhabitants. They do not understand our work. It’s a pity because we fight in every meeting saying that we are architects. The social context is very important for us and we fight for this. But there are people in France who work like this for 30 years now so it is very complicated for us to be seen as architects. When we manage  to have a lot of people around the table, politicians, professionals, inhabitants, associations it is nice to see that everybody is concerned about the way we transform our buildings and our city today. I think it is important that we work and explain to people why we work like that and do this or that, as an architect. EG: I just want to add that at the same time we are saying that this is architecture but at the same time it is not inside the border of architecture and we want to go across it and that is why we are working with a lot of people who do other things and we like to work with associations and a lot of other people. In projects in France we take from the budget of Culture and of Public Space so we open the discipline to create something more global, because it’s not only social but it is also cultural – education. The way we work is also not only as experts but we are doing other things that we learn, so we are basically trying to open the field.

DD:  I think this is what we saw specifically in your presentation today when you were talking about developing new tools for talking with this kind of people: administration, associations, individuals, etc. Do you think that specific architectural tools are becoming useless and should we abandon them?

MB: Not useless, but we think we can explore. So we try to make movies, sound, design. There is a lot of stuff that we never tried at school. At school it’s important to learn that (architecture specific tools) but there is plenty of other things that now we can experiment. Everyday there’s experimentation and we try to integrate creativity every day. It is very important to act creative every day, about other things to do, not to repeat the same things. We try to invite people from cinema, sound, music to work together in architecture and urbanism problems. EG: Also, this kind of movies, sounds, they are new tools to talk with people about urban problems or architecture. It is a way to open things.

DD: So, for adding this social touch to architecture, you just need to develop new tools and to reinvent the bag of tools that the architect has?

KB: I work as a consultant at the Reghin Town Hall and I discovered that communication is very important, and it is the main source of problems. And I was doing the same, films and some visualizations, and they worked, and that had a big impact on the city. I did this as a consultant for the Town Hall and it was more difficult than I thought. I said that this has to be done by professionals, by entire teams. What I did were small and quick films to show that this is how you can show your projects. But I think that new small tools should be developed to talk with the administration and clients. Small and fast tools.

JS: I think we should be careful not to blur the discussion too much, because there is architecture on the one hand, and to find ways to facilitate architectural ideas. In that context I had the chance to talk with Lucien Kroll for a long time, and he is known for participatory architecture. What I found interesting in talking to him and disappointing at one point is the aesthetic result. I mean it’s the mish-mash of everybody’s idea and my conclusion was (not being an architect) that there is an architect missing. So, there’s that side of the story. The other side is the tools we invented: I think that, as I am an ideologue or a politician in the sense that I am somebody who eagerly wants to change the world. I know we will reach that question at the end, but it is about the common good and in the 15 years we worked the conclusion was very simple. There were three things we were working around: democracy, solidarity and ecological sustainability. Projects get other focuses but that’s what we do, that’s what we work around. What city mine(d) can do is that we never build anything that lasts for more than 5 years. The thing we built for the longest was a tower, a wooden structure we built for four years and then we took it down, took it to Belfast and built it again. It was more installation art than architecture. My point is that our aim is not to make those things. Most of the times we take other people into the team to make them. The actual architecture is done by somebody else but our ultimate aim, the work of city mine(d) is what I call: shuffling the power structure. Shake them so the people who are at the bottom for once end up at the top, and that worked sometimes and that’s what the tools are for.

CB: Fortunately, the tools are there (workshops and all). You ask about the social role of architecture. The main thing is to go outside, the social is about the people and the people are like us. You just have to go outside and talk to them. Fortunately for us, the tools are already there. We didn’t have to invent anything. But the tools are not important, the goal, what you do with them is most important. The classical architectural tools (the plan, perspectives) are also important, but there are other tools. When you work directly with communities you don’t have to invent tools, they are already invented.

DD: We will talk now about the collaborative practice that each of you are involved in. Either with NGOs, artists, administration. What parts of the process do you think that the designer should be in sole control, and what should be left to the non-expert? How much power should the architect have in the building process?

CB: Participatory processes is what we learned from others. Participatory processes are when you share power, not when you go to people and give them pens and paper to ask them some questions and then you look over them and say that they like this or they don’t like that. Architects have some power.

DD: But how much do you share, and how much do you keep for yourself as architect?

CB: That’s a good question and there is a very thin line, because you can go completely one way, sharing all the power, which sometimes is not that good. Democracy cannot work in a very horizontal way. There are groups of people that are organized. You cannot ask everybody, everything. The line is drawn as a collaborative process between all actors involved and it should not go in any of the extreme directions. I don’t know how you control it, but this kind of practice is generally open ended. You don’t plan. It’s more tactics, rather than strategies. Because strategies are done in the office, while tactics can be adapted during work.

JS: There is no such thing as a citizen I think. Going back to my earlier example of Lucien Kroll I expect, in a group, from the architect, that he has an oversight and a way to organize things that other people don’t have. That’s what they bring to the table. Others might bring experience of living in a particular area where the building or the edifice will be built, they bring that to the table, but it’s as valuable. I, for my part, have an experience working in particular areas in different cities so my belief is much more that there should not be a line at all. That sounds very naive and I know it is but I think that new technologies will allow us to do that. The project that I am going to expand about more tomorrow is about architecture of systems. That before a project we should built an architecture of systems that has nothing to do with systems but has to do with procedures – how we do things, what forms, who and what can do and say what. This is derived from information technology but it’s also from the idea that procedures should be in place to give everybody a voice all the time, be they elected politicians, local residents, or homeless persons. And I think that’s where your avant-garde comes in again. Look at the future not at how it was in the past.

KB: I think that participatory processes are very important, especially now and especially in Romania. According to the consciousness of people concerning architects, people know about architects that they are people who do something very nice. But, as I’ve seen, people don’t believe that real solutions come from the architect. I think that participatory processes are important for collecting information first and then propose and show solutions and then taking again feedback and then build. We are doing now an experiment in a village. Two residents asked us to build a public space in the village of Batos and we went there and asked them what you want. They told everything that they wanted and it’s like going to the doctor and saying just that it hurts. I think it’s important to listen and feel the input of the people, then show them a product and see their feedback, because it’s possible that you didn’t understand it well. If the feedback is good than we should build it together with them. We are not finished in this village and we are curious what result will be.

EG: We talked a lot about this question, the co-creation issue. It’s the line between doing too much and not letting a place to the people and not doing anything at all and letting them do all. It’s very complicated to find this line. Maybe sometimes the participative process can be to give them some tools to create the project. To create the rules of the game and letting things open for them to create, design some things. At the same time to keep the expertise we have to say It works or not. To help them do the things they want. MB: As architects we have to build the framework of the matrix. In our projects we try every time to prepare the framework and after we invite people to discuss the concepts and have a moment of creation. It’s important to have these three moments. But we collectif etc. have to think about the framework because the project can go anywhere and lose its meaning. We are trying to have this moment before and after everybody can come with their tools and with their knowledge and everybody can share and learn from each other. It’s very important for us to control, I don’t like this work control, but as architects we have to be there. Patrick Bouchain, who worked on this issue for 30 years said that architects has to be like a “meteur en scene” (director).

JS: I think the word is not control, but compile. If you look at open source development there was the idea that a lot of people can contribute very small bits of code to one big program. That’s all good and well, but at one point you have to bring them together into one program. To make that work you have to write another program that brings them all together. That is called the compiler. If I’m thinking about the architecture of systems, of systems put in place – as you said, this matrix that allows people to come in and to play the game, then someone has to run the compiler and maybe building the compiler can also be a collective effort but it’s a different effort than doing the job and that’s for me the shift..

KB: I also had this feeling to be a mediator, to filter and let everybody talk.

MB: In France we use this word “participative” a lot. It’s very bad because for big projects now politicians say that we did a participative project because we asked people to choose between blue and pink for the color of the facade. This is a term we don’t use now because it’s used so much and in different ways. We use another word: “capacitation” – help people do stuff, be activated.

DD: Empowerment?

MB: Yes, empowerment.

CB: That’s what I was talking about, sharing power. Participatory … In ROmania it’s not [used] that much. Our process is about sharing power. How much power do you want to share?

EG: And about sharing power at different times, different moments. We were talking about consultations before a project just to make people speak and share a moment of creation, we can share in a lot of moments.

DD: When we talk about collaborative practices, it’s sometimes such a painful and inefficient process in what concerns time to achieve a result. Starting from your own projects that more or less succeeded, what can be a recipe for success for a collaborative practice and how can you achieve that sense of trust and reciprocity with the other parties involved?

CB: We do a lot of “public’ projects, different festivals, different events. It’s interesting for us, and what we can do in Bucharest is that we can leave a lot behind. You cannot do that in France or Switzerland. So, we build stuff for these festivals and just let them there. We try to find these in between spaces, unused spaces, and do this kind of projects. For a festival in Sinaia we did an intervention, workshops with children and some local actors, for the Architect’s Ball. What happened, and it was very interesting for us, is that a network of local people resulted out of this festival. For two years now we started a process of building this network and tried to build a project. It’s an association that deals with youngsters. It was interesting for us that this project started from a public project and goes towards a common project. That’s another thing, the distinction between public and common and can they coexist or we should change from public to common. This project started from public and now has shifted towards a common project, participatory project.

DD: How do you achieve that good communication that develops into trust in the process?

CB: As I told you in the beginning. You have to be there, go outside, away from the computer and mouse and take a hammer in your hand and just communicate with other people because they are people, they are not scary. They should just go to the people on the street. That’s how you achieve this communication. Especially here, in this part of the world we tend towards a much closed profession and we are starting to lose a lot of things. For instance, an architect now is not doing the facade of the building, he’s not doing the public space of the building. In Sweden there was this project of public space and they invited only artists and landscape architects. The profession is losing bits of things and we are not conscious about this yet.

JS: I like your conclusion about the fact that you have to be present. We do another type of work but still the project I think it succeeded most where we had the chance to be there one year, two years on site. We are doing one in Bruxelles now that started very, very small, in a small derelict space and we go there starting to serve drinks and it grew from there. Two years now and it’s still growing. It’s in the Garden of the European Parliament and two weeks ago the President of the European Parliament invited us to start a dialogue. It’s one of those things that snowballs. That’s really nice. To illustrate your example of allowing local residents, clients really, in that case between pink and green, for a facade, I tell this because the structure is not yet in place, the architect is not yet working. An example we had a few years ago in Barcelona in a neighborhood called Poble Nou. It was a very poor, post-industrial area. We first squatted an old factory, and it transformed slowly into workshops for artists. We got the confidence of the local council to have an input into what the building should become in the long return. We tried to facilitate the dialogue between the local council and the residents. Slowly but surely, the dialogue was there, the residents got organized and they could do a proposal for the building and they proposed a Museum of the Franco era. Just what we don’t need! But why did they do that? For them it’s such a rare occasion, that they pushed forward the most extreme thing they can do to use this dialogue and they said: “there is a channel, let’s use it to the maximum”. This has been living for such a long time so that is out there with no result in site. Jean Nouvel put his park out there and that’s it. What we learned from that is that it is not about setting up a dialogue bringing all those people around the table, but making it an actual dialogue, that there is a feedback loop. That you can make a proposal that it can go back and forth, back and forth. That’s what we are working right now, in participatory processes to have a feedback loop.

DD: Are you talking about small achievable projects or actions?

JS: One can build on the other and I have a deep belief that this infrastructure will be in place in not such a long time. Look at the development of information technology where 5 years ago the telephone was a closed box and you could use it or not use it. Then came the IPhone where you could put your own apps on and that made it more interactive. Now Google gives you an operating system you can completely change. There is this trust and this dialogue that grows and makes things more interactive.

DD: What was the experience in Reghin, working with all these actors and the local administration?

KB: First of all I did voluntary work. I demonstrated that they could use a space in a certain way and there was an “aha” effect. That is important because then they said: “Just come and we will make a contract with you and you should advise us what to do next”. So first there was voluntary work. If there was that click and if they saw that is more economical to use the space like that, they did it. They found some of the projects to be very good but they were not economical. People were not prepared.

We tried to shape a riverside and there were two categories of people. There were two zones. The river was crossing them, it was Canalul Morii. In the first apartment buildings there were people about 40 – 50 years, and in the others there were people of 70 – 80 years. We tried to implement our project first where there were young people. The old people didn’t want the project. They had their garages on the riverside and said that we still need our garage. Yesterday I was there and there were gardens on the riverside, private gardens near this apartment building. That’s also good. Maybe it’s not that good for the public space but for a community it’s good. The mayor tried to force his idea that the project was good, but in fact it wasn’t good for the community. It depends very much on the community that lives there. In other projects we did, we had a very difficult communication because people have other problems, they don’t have the feeling of community. They are very self-oriented, and have their own daily problems. Sometimes they see us as crazy people working for I don’t know what. And they don’t know for what. They don’t know that we are doing this for the community.

DD: You work in very different places, from small villages to quite big cities. How different is this jump from St. Etienne to Busseol for example in collaborative practices?

MB: It’s difficult because we are very young so I don’t know if our project succeeded or not. We can say that for us it’s very important to spend time on site. Time is very important for a good project. You are not obliged to stay all the time on the same space. We think that you have to be there, to go back often, to make something different, to invite different people, to make new stuff every time. We tried to do this in one of our projects in St Etienne. We did a month of open construction and after six months we go back, we cleaned up and added trees. After one year we invited some designers to do something else. I think that for a good project we have to create “moving places / place en mouvement”. You have to be creative in places if you want them livelier. For us, in our project, the object we made was not important, but the purpose of the project. This process is good if it is a very long process. We made one week or two week projects like in Busseol, but every time it is part of another project led by an association. We are there just to help them to build stuff. We are talking to the people for one week or two weeks. We have tools to meet them. After we leave there are architects or associations on site who keep this work and continue to use it. That is very important.

KB: This is mainly for temporary installations.

MB: Sometimes we are making projects for one year, two years or more. Temporary is very…

KB: As architects we think that we finish the project, the reception is signed, but we also return on site on see that “that stone doesn’t look very well there”, or something could be made better. I think that we have to change something but who is going to pay for it? How do you solve the issue of money?

EG: In Rennes we had this conversation with the city authorities. We were saying that if public space costs 1 million euros for 10 years and if you cut the budget in 10 and put a little budget every year you can change the public space in a temporary way. It’s not very experience but you can change it every year.

KB: There are some solutions, small solutions that have a great impact.

EG: Someone said to us that we are: available architects. Availability is interesting to us because we are working on available spaces (wastelands where we can do things) and working with available people: people in the street, people who don’t have work … available forces. To be available is to be here and to give time.

DD: More or less each of your practices has defined some sort of a common good that you want to achieve through your projects in general. How important is ideology in this kind of practices. Should it be declared from the start and attract people who are more like you, or should it stay like a latent background? How serious do you take ideology when you do your projects?


JS: Ideology is crucial to what we do, it’s the thing that drives us. I wish I could say that city mine(d) gives a voice to the voice of the marginalized but that would be too ambitious. The problem in most of the cities where I had the chance to work is institutional. People don’t get a voice because the institutions block them down and power is concentrated with elites and they don’t have access to. That’s not something we will solve at city mine(d). In as much as we won’t solve the housing problem for the homeless or practical things like food supplies of cities. We will never solve them, and sometimes that is very disappointing. What we do through our work, we shake things up that people might solve them themselves and that’s empowering. To sum up our ideology, it really is shuffling the power structures in a fun way. Always. If it’s not fun, we won’t do it.

DD: When it comes to ideology, the problem is very sensible in Romania. Here it might distance people away.

CB:  Ideology is very important, even for architects, urban planners. For us, I think we chose the middle way. We didn’t go that far left or far right. It’s very shaky nowadays to talk about ideology, what is left, right. I think that there is another way. There is a middle way. We fight for the good guys.

DD: It is clear that if we take and analyze your projects you can feel it.


CB: We try to find the middle way. In The middle is the way. I’m not talking about politics.

KB: I’ll give an example. We shaped the riversides and we didn’t put so many benches. And they were with the back because there was a pedestrian way, the river, another pedestrian way. We put these benches without the back rest. The administration said that we need some more benches because people are coming and don’t have where to sit. They ordered new benches with backrests and they put them with the back to the river. Our ideology that we should face the river, it’s gone. We only saw this when the benches were there. But it’s also true that the mayor has changed. The first mayor understood better what we wanted … to give the river a new face. The new mayor said that we need some more benches and with the back to our ideology. I think that it was only us that are seeing this in a negative manner. I’m thinking that people who are passing by find it ok. Probably, that’s the most important thing, that people are feeling well. Ideology should be there somehow, but let free.

DD: Your projects are mostly fun? What about ideology?

EG: We tried two weeks ago to write all the things we wanted to fight for, to defend. We spent a whole day to write 20 sentences. We are a group and we all have things we care about, ideologies. Sometimes we meet outsiders while having fun, doing things for and with the people. Not to think and say what to do, but do.

MB: Speaking for architecture and urbanism, for us it’s very important to create new ways of discussing between actors. In every project we tried to speak to all of the actors and have a horizontal discussion. In St Etienne, two weeks ago we managed to have the leader of the construction firm on site under the rain with his assistants, on the ground, one gardener, a guy from the association, three local residents, two architects and us. We thought that the ideology in the project was there. Everybody was discussing about what we are doing now, what to do in the future. We were just looking and we said that for us, this is a very important moment. Maybe it’s not ideology but we search that in our projects.

DD: You managed to get this consensus of different interests from all the parties in the same space. I think that in other projects it wasn’t like this. There is always a conflict between other common goods from other people.

MB: Of course, but we are choosing our projects for that. It’s important to have this condition before. We don’t care about politics. If there are the conditions for making a good project and everybody wants to go in the same direction we are doing the project. If there are problems we don’t go. Sometimes it’s difficult and the moment of [gathering all actors to} discuss is very important. It’s important not to have the discussion in the big fancy government office, but in a bar or coffee shop.

CB: We organized these kind of discussion. There are a lot of commons wanting different. There is a problem mixing them up. There is also a wrong way for these projects – they can become closed. Just one community using one particular space. That’s a question to think about when doing community projects. People tend not to mix. One bad thing is that they can go in a very bad way and become gated communities.

Growing up in communism, in the 50s but also in the 80s, it was all about the people. Art and architecture should be for the people, for the masses. After the Revolution everything was about groups or individuals. Now we are talking a lot about people again. I can see a very strange situation and I’m a little confused. This is especially the case of art. With participatory art it’s not about the end of the process but about the process. For 20 years now the artists lost the end but that is different from architecture.

DD: How did you manage the conflicts?

KB: I had a conflict. We wanted to build a bike lane, demolishing garages. It was very ambitious. There was a demonstration against bike lanes because old people living there had their own garages on the riverside. It was very stressful because most people are for bike lanes. You have to listen to them and think that you didn’t plan well. We were not attentive when we planned. Conflicts shouldn’t appear if there is good communication. A month ago I was in Germany and there was a public presentation about decision in communities. They were talking about sociocracy not democracy. About working in groups and come with results and after that taking a decision.

JS: In our wider group of city mine(D) there is a researcher, Eric Swingdal, a geographer. He got obsessed with the idea of post-politics. The idea is that politics tries to avoid all conflict. We agree on everything. In the end there is no politics. The metaphor that explains it best for me is: if you are taken and put on the middle of a perfect ice lake you can never move, because in order to move on ice you need friction. In terms of conflict, the project I worked longest on 1999 –2000, was the construction of a tower that took us more than a year and then, when it was there, the neighbors took it as their own. It was built to highlight that there were three buildings missing in the area and it was up to the local council to pay for those buildings. At one point, after four years that the building has been there, we decided that we want our building back, just to make this brass statement. That led to a conflict with the local community we worked it. I enjoyed that very much because that forced them to take position into saying that you are not working or arguing for an edifice or a statue, you are working for housing. If you are running away with our building, and going to the city council saying that problem is solved [site is clear now], the problem is not solved.

DD: Isn’t there a privatization of these spaces?

JS: I think that’s the reason why we claim them temporarily and then go away. I agree.

DD: There is always the chance that these projects can go bad.

JS: I don’t know that privatization of that space is a bad thing. The spaces that we claim are always derelict. The reason why we claim them is not because they are dirty and unused. That’s a consequence of the fact that they are the unregulated. I think that we can do the stuff we do in spaces where there is no regulation. Very often these spaces are already private, they are just not revealed. I’m not sure if our practice plays a role in the privatization of space. They are not public spaces to begin with.

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