Lilet Breddels is an art historian and director of Archis, a cultural think tank promoting debate on spatial and urban urgencies and is the publisher of Volume Magazine. Archis initiates projects, exhibitions and debates worldwide. She is a guest teacher, curator and lecturer covering issues at the crossroads of art, architecture and its influence in society, and has edited several books on these topics.
NEW ECOLOGIES & NEW COLLECTIVES
Time I think is crucial because it has everything to do with continuity. Once you become a designer, a politician or a policy maker, you step into the domain of the city, and you have to realize that everything you do either remains or is temporary. It has a time effect. So it not only has a spatial effect, but also a temporal one. I think it is crucial to realize it and to really design this into one’s projects.
URBAN ASSETS & DIGITAL TOOLKIT
Trust is crucial in the sense that it is lacking at the moment. We could say that is a negative reason, but the lack of trust between politicians and citizens, citizens amongst each other, and between people generally, is such a disruptive factor in society that I think it is crucial to really think not about how can you create something, or how you create a design that people trust to use, but think more fundamentally – ‘How can you design trust?’ It is very difficult but ultimately very crucial.
Lilet Breddels chose not to select four words and instead chose two words - twice - time and trust. In the interview she explained why she thinks it is important to add them to the domain of the urban debate and how the lack of both is currently shaping it.
How do the terms you proposed relate the umbrella topics we have been working with for this project?
In talking about New Collectives & New Ecologies, I think the relation is more between time and nature, and nature and culture. Time once again is a very important because of the need to understand continuity and because, in nature, you intrinsically deal with the temporal. I also think the element of time is critically important in the matter of community building, whilst trust is something essential to the digital realm. People really lack trust within this environment, because few understand it and you can’t grasp it anymore. So if you think about the entry of digital tools as assets into the urban realm, trust is a very important issue to resolve.
This project is about the role of the vocabulary and how it can facilitate or hinder communication, specifically in settings that are becoming more interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary. What is valuable in having a common vocabulary?
I think it is extremely difficult to create a common vocabulary but it is essential in beginning to try to understand one another. Working together, collaborating with different disciplines and people from different backgrounds, is becoming more and more crucial to understanding the world and reaching a better understanding of the urgencies that currently face our cities. At the same time if you don’t speak a common language you cannot even start to understand or start to talk to one another. You need a vocabulary and to be aware of the fact that what you say with that vocabulary might not be understood in the same way by another person. You don't always need to use the same words – having the same understanding is what is more important. That is what your project is aiming at and therefore I think it is important.
Working together, collaborating with different disciplines and people from different backgrounds, is becoming more and more crucial to understanding the world and reaching a better understanding of the urgencies that currently face our cities.
From your experience do you have a situation where the lack of a common vocabulary has led to something funny, interesting or disastrous for your collaboration?
At some point we thought, and that is now about 8 years ago, that the increasing omni-presence of digital tools across the city presented an important new situation. We also observed the architecture world withdrawing from that arena and not taking it seriously (or not understanding it fully). At the same time, the coders and the companies behind them were becoming the new ‘designers’ of the city whilst urban planners and architects were just standing separate from them.
We thought we needed to connect the two but were aware that maybe they didn’t speak the same language. There was almost complete misunderstanding of almost every word used between the two groups. It is hard to pick out one example, but there was a mutual interest in each other that did make them look for common ground, and that was by starting to work, to do something, and then being fascinated by what the other did. There is one thing from that experience that stood out and I think that was the notion of authorship. Architects still possess a very strong notion of authorship – ‘This is my project’ - which was so completely different to the concept of authorship understood in the digital world. This distinction really stood out. Another example is the notion of public space. It is hugely broad term that, in Holland, has a very specific meaning, and abroad it is interpreted in completely differently terms whilst at the same time remaining widely used by everyone. So I think that is also a term through which we regularly encounter misunderstanding.
Architects still possess a very strong notion of authorship – ‘This is my project’ - which was so completely different to the concept of authorship understood in the digital world. This distinction really stood out.
Can you give some examples of how public space has been understood differently within a different context?
Public space through the lens of the public is often seen as a square or a park, but for design professionals it is rarely about that. Instead it is about creating a space which is generally public. Where a public can negotiate with each other and the community can use it freely and to change it in the ways they like. That has everything to do with ownership. Sometimes it is physical ownership and law, other times it has to do with people taking over the space. That can also be considered an ownership via a certain community, a certain group within the community claiming the space and in a sense making it non-public. These kinds of discussions are not just about a physical space such as a nice park.
In your work with Archis you have dealt with an incredible diversity of urban topics. What would you identify as the most urgent issues at the moment for our cities?
It is difficult to choose one because there are so many. However, the issue of segregation is one that is quite scary and one we really have to work hard on how to solve. I said that it is difficult to choose one, because there are many problems and the way they are interconnected makes it very hard to find a path towards resolving them. These have to do with political systems that are struggling to address these issues. There are all kinds of systems on which we build our cities that are no longer functioning effectively. We need to build new ones and to do so we have to step out of our own system to create that new one. This is not an easy thing to do so it is not only a problem for cities but it is certainly concentrated within cities.
And what do you think is the role of publishing in stimulating this critical discourse?
It becomes more and more about choosing, curating and giving meaning to information. There is of course a huge amount of information and data but there is a lack of deepening knowledge about that information: How do you interpret it? How do you analyze it? How do you give meaning to that information? It is really about organizing information and creating awareness.
ARCHITECTURE OF PEACE
A GOOD CAUSE
Stroom, The Hague
I would now like to focus on a specific project -‘The Architecture of Peace’, because it is one of your longest running projects and maybe also one of the most well known. It essentially looks at how architecture and urban planning can affect change in places where the political situation is unstable and a lot of institutions have been compromised. Are there any lessons that you have learned from this project and from looking at those cities elsewhere that could be useful for European cities?
For us this is exactly the moment in the project, which started around 2008 that we have come to the point where we want to take the knowledge we have gained home, to see how it plays out in conflict areas of our own cities. A lot of lessons can be learned and we have tried to come up with good examples out of this project. We try to analyse what goes wrong in post-conflict situations and what goes right. The exhibition we created is called ‘The Good Cause’, and it is placed within quotations because the way to hell is paved with good intentions. Under the ‘good cause’ we can do a lot of wrong. We analysed that and try to show the complexities of operating in situations like these. The project and the exhibition present good examples, which we analysed to derive the behaviour, the mentality and everything that we might call the ‘the factors for success’. I mentioned trust earlier and trust is one of the crucial characteristics here. Time was another one as well as modesty when you operate in these unstable places. How do you create ownership over the project for the ones you created it for? How do you create safety? How do you create employment? All those factors were presented and are just as applicable here as they are in conflict situations. As we progressed, we started to talk about the creation of an ethical code for architects, like the medical code for doctors that can be used to guide us in these situations.
EXHIBITION: THE GOOD CAUSE
images courtesy of Archis
by Saskia Sassen
Oftentimes segregation is the result of very specific policies or agendas that often have good intentions behind, but they do lead to unfavourable results. How does it relate to what you said before about the problems common to post conflict areas and here, and the need for an ethical code for architects?
I think of Saskia Sassen’s now famous book ‘Expulsions’. There she shows these frightening figures of foreign companies or countries buying property all across cities. Her concern however is not with who buys it but the distance and lack of care distant landowners have for the local sense of place. This remote ownership of land is a huge problem and leads to segregation, however it is something that we can, as a design community, point out and make political difference. This is because it is about policies and decisions. Politicians in European countries are loosening their grip on public money whilst private money is increasing, so the power structures are fundamentally changing. I think Holland and Amsterdam specifically have beautiful examples of effective public expenditure, that show the good side of city renovation and revitalisation but it takes a careful collaboration between politics and of urban planning – thinking: 'Who is going to live there? How will a feeling of belonging be created?' I think it is crucial that 100% of the effort of city planners goes into this direction of thought.