Gepubliceerd in Rijnboutt magazine #5 ‘Nieuwe Posities’
At the conference “Groot” [de Architect and AIR, NAi, On the future of large urban structures, April 13, 2011] you opened your lecture with an optimistic vision of the economic situation that Europe has run into. You stated, “Viewed historically, periods of social change have proved most fruitful for efforts to improve our cities.” In your opinion, what is the most noticeable and positive effect of the present crisis on the city?
“What really stands out, in my view, is that the crisis presents us with the arguments to change the path that the cities took previously. If you would have asked this question five years ago, nobody would have listened to our suggestion that the cities must change their course. But the politicians, the technologists, the people that are in charge of cities, they now all have come to realize that it is wise to give up the path that has led us to this unbalance, to the crisis that we are suffering from now.
What follows naturally from that is that we, as independent professionals, have to recognize that not all demands of our clients are necessarily selfevident. We have to busy ourselves more with our clients, not just to ease their problems, but also, occasionally, to damp their ambition. The city has always been a place that offers advantages to people who want to invest in the city. This concerns the city dwellers too, because why would they want to live there otherwise. The most important feature that the city has to offer to its users is a hopeful vision of the future.
As designers, it is our role to create new images, to formulate a new paradigm for the changing conditions that the cities have to face up to. Urban planners are not the only practitioners that pursue urban development as a discipline, but this does not imply that urban planners or architects can renounce their responsibility for the process. Everybody wants to take part, because people want to be heard, but in the end they expect you to help them to make the right choices. Ultimately, the position that a designer takes up to the society, to the client, or to other professionals is a matter of personal ethics. The crisis makes us aware of the fact that our thoughts about the city can change and that we need to adapt them soon. This crisis bears evidence of the shared need for a reset.”
At the conference “Groot” you also presented the notion that we are witnessing “great changes in the patterns of urbanization,” owing to global processes. In your words, “Cities grow with no ‘limits’ or borders, and telecommunications are so powerful that urban development seems to be possible anywhere.” How do you connect this upscaling with the notion of the city as an identifiable entity in its historical continuity?
“I think that what is happening to the cities today also happened fifty years ago. Supposedly the city already had lost its limits when Van Eesteren designed his plans for Amsterdam, but nobody was aware of that at the time. One explanation might be that we, urban designers, like to believe that every city has a well-defined shape. When we plan a ring road, we assume that the city will halt there, that the ring road will function as a boundary between the city and the countryside. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; the city will expand immediately beyond the ring road. At first we assumed that the city is the city, and outside of that you’ll find the natural space, the agricultural area, the domain of nature. The city walls were the initial proof of that. Now we find that the city needs to fit in better with the natural space and that ‘nature’ must be a part of the cityscape.
It may come about that the city transforms in response to its geography, the infrastructure, or its relation with other cities. As a matter of fact, cities all over the world are shifting toward their airport. You won’t find that mentioned in a handbook on urban planning, but this is what cities do, because the airport has become their main gateway. Whether – and if so, to what degree – we should try to balance the rest of the city with this tendency, will define the debate on urban planning in both Amsterdam and Barcelona.
There is also the principle that cities love water, and they tend to shift toward it. Less than a hundred years ago, the city’s perspective was quite different. In those days, cities hated the water, it was only a vehicle to get rid of their waste and sewage. Does this mean that people have gone out of their mind since then? No, but it tells us that our culture has changed, that we have become aware of the reasons why we should handle water with care. Only when all these changes are clear to us, we will be able to plan the city and influence its design. The design of a city never starts from scratch, even when you start afresh.”
Throughout your works, you have shown a strong belief in the historical continuity of the city, in its specific cultural context and values, and in the importance of its genetic code. In order to be able to understand the city, one has to know its history. You and Aldo Rossi share this view. Some voices, however, claim that as a result of globalization, the cohesion of the city is disintegrating and that continuity and linearity aren’t consistent any longer with the way in which the city organizes itself, even beyond the control of urban planners. To what extent does this recent development affect the readability of the city and its historical layout, and how do you deal with that in your practice as an architect and urban designer?
“Since the beginning of the modern era in the late seventeenth century, cities have had a global dimension. From those days on, cities have been looking at one another to find solutions for their problems. When the Opera House of Milan was constructed, the other cities were watching with interest, and this influenced the design of the opera houses in different cities. This gives one the idea of the existence of certain typologies that can be used as a model. But architects are not busy making blueprints in order to apply them in every situation. The question is, what can we learn from the other cities? Each inquiry into the designing methods and experiences of others – of which the operational value has been proven – is invaluable for us. Even though we may be looking for completely different experiences today compared to twenty years ago.
We can, of course, transfer the blueprint of an airport of one city to a similar airport of another city. But the ‘generic city’ doesn’t interest me. The things I find fascinating about the city are its specific characteristics, such as its climate, culture, traditions, and the materials that have been applied. We must try to understand the processes that make Rio different from Shanghai or Barcelona. I don’t feel that global consciousness is contrary to the notion of genius loci, to the specific aspects of a location. I am convinced that the opposite is true, it is global consciousness that makes the genius loci more interesting. People visit Amsterdam because they want to experience its uniqueness as a city, as a spot that differs from other cities that they have visited. And the more Google enables us to explore cities virtually, the more we really want to go there. Recently it has been demonstrated that people who use the internet regularly also travel the most. People like to explore, to search for things, to learn, and to experience.
A decade ago, we said that the cities would become homogeneous, that we were on the threshold of a single global culture. But that vision has shifted, our view on the situation is different now. When people visit Shanghai as tourists, they want to go to McDonalds. It contributes to their impression of a certain urban quality, that is to say, they know what they are going to get. But subsequently they will look straight away for other things, they will open themselves up for the things they do not know yet. That way we find that there is no such thing as a single pattern, and that is what makes urban planning so interesting. You could say exactly the same about architecture – people look for something interesting. But you cannot construct a city just on the basis of exceptions; you’ll have to create a number of patterns. That doesn’t imply that we have to return to the nineteenth century city, but, then again, we could learn from the nineteenth century how to find different routes, and that could give us a better understanding of the present condition of the cities.
When we design a city or intervene in its design, the city itself always comes first, and not one’s intuition or one’s knowledge as an urban designer. Without that knowledge, however, one cannot discover what is going on inside the city. We architects tend to have some preconceptions of the city, and there are many architects that will design anything anywhere. But it should be kept in mind that the sun is different in Amsterdam, and such things always have to be taken into consideration.
I love historic cities, you can always discover new things there. The same goes for my hometown, Barcelona. I know the best part of it, but I still like nothing better than to get lost in it and discover new routes. In Barcelona I am a stranger. That’s a matter of principle to me.”
In a historic city like Amsterdam, it is easy to acknowledge the importance of its cultural heritage. Thus it is perfectly understandable that some people develop certain ideas about conversion, in particular in relation to buildings that could be seen as signifiers for future development. But what then can be done with regard to the ‘conversion’ of all those anonymous buildings in the city, the nondescript, unidentifiable grey bulk of office buildings that have been built recently and still carry a certain financial value but remain vacant? How should we, as a society, relate to that part of our history?
“In the nineteenth century, we can recognize two different attitudes. One of them is represented by Haussmann, in the way he endeavored to impose a new order, a new system, on the city by introducing avenues and straightening out existing roads. The other approach laid emphasis on monuments through the reconstruction of axes, the creation of squares, the restoration of monuments that had been demolished, and the devastation of monuments by rebuilding them in ‘more authentic’ ways than the original. The protagonist of this last attitude was Violet le Duc. We can learn something from his approach and his agenda for the city. According to Violet le Duc, transformation means the modification of all things existent as far as possible. But you must not believe that there is just one model that can be applied to the city at large. Certain processes can lead to situations in which you might cross over to demolishing the city.
There was one project in northern France in which we invested five years. It was a model of the modernistic ambition: a system of blocks that had a footprint of only ten percent; ninety percent of the surface was meant to be green. Only social housing estates were involved. These buildings were destined to be demolished, because nobody wanted to live there anymore. We attempted to arrange a transformation by starting up a process of partial demolishment. In that way, we were able to bind private investors to our project, and that helped to determine its success. In this project, redoing the form of the city was not our main concern. For us it was just as important to create possibilities by which other people – in this case investors from the private sector – could participate in the project. In that way, the rather limited social structure was broken up. And that is my recommendation on how to proceed with conversion and transformation. Prevent the emergence of areas that solely have a public or a private disposition. The city needs both options.”
It makes no difference how you look at the city, cultural heritage exists, and it has been a thing of all times. A city is the sum of its built mass and the unbuilt space in between as well as the stories involved, the outcome of the ways people acted in their time, pursuing their dreams and wishes, including the heritage they cherished or rejected. Could cultural heritage play a vital role in the development of the city under the present conditions? Do you see specific opportunities or threats?
“Many pressure groups in Europe and in the United States use heritage as a form of protectionism. They are opposed to certain urban developments, and they use heritage as an argument to raise barricades or to exert public pressure on the people concerned. That doesn’t interest me. The conservation of heritage depends on the question of its durability, of its future value, and thus of whether we have a certain use for it. If that is not the case, we should demolish it. I am serious about this, a city is not a museum; it is there to be used. When we were constructing a program for the center of Barcelona, I remember that there were areas where I could not walk alone – even though this is my hometown and I speak Catalan. These areas were unsafe, nobody controlled them. Whenever I went there with a friend, they told me, ‘What a nice place this is, a bit run-down but fascinating.’ Then I would ask them, ‘Would you like to live here?’ The answer was always, ‘No.’
Our strategy for improvement consisted of acquiring vacant houses that we then renovated. In that way, we could offer new, clean apartments to city dwellers from a different housing block. Subsequently we could demolish their block. In this way we created the squares and parks that give air to the urban fabric. The people living there now evidently feel that they are better off. They enjoy the green spaces at hand.
I am a devotee of old cities. I have fought many battles for the old cities of Europe. I concentrate on improving the living conditions of city dwellers. When it is said about a place, ‘I couldn’t live in that spot,’ it is no place at all.
Investigating the manner in which cities move and the research of the history of the city, leads to a better understanding of the city that we all live in. The city that we can call ‘heritage’ is the city of yesterday, the city as it has been explained to us by our parents. I don’t want to make any generalizations, but without possessing a profound knowledge of today’s city, we should not be allowed to plan its future.”
Text and interview: Jan van Grunsven
Photography: Herman Wouters