‘We need to set the agenda for what is being built’
Cet article, issu du hors-série A+287 Practices of Change, vous est proposé en anglais. En effet, les hors-séries sont édités uniquement en anglais.
Today more and more projects are emerging that are driven by a desire for public, social or ecological change. Lisa De Visscher, editor-in-chief of A+, and Roeland Dudal, founding partner of Architecture Workroom Brussels (AWB), engaged in a roundtable discussion with seven practices that are bringing about that change through their work and asked them about their vision, their instruments and the obstacles they encountered.
Lisa De Visscher & Roeland Dudal: We agree that, under pressure from climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor, the need for affordable housing and healthy food for all, and the demand for appropriate care, there is a real need for a spatial transition. This in turn has a direct impact on the built space as a whole, but also on mobility, green space management and so on. In the meantime, the question has become a critical one and, thanks to the realization of various projects, this change is prudently getting under way. How have your practices contributed to this change and what steps did you have to take to achieve this?
Ward Verbakel (Plusoffice): For a while, the profession of architect was limited to that of designer. For the past ten years, however, there has been more room for other, equally necessary roles that the architect can assume: that of process supervisor, questioner or researcher. At Plusoffice we want to take on this role in relation to themes that are close to our hearts, such as the economic, ecological and social transitions that are in the air or climate adaptation. As an architect this also allows you to make the connection between concrete assignments and project definitions, and ongoing academic research. At the same time, we are still an executive practice. We’re neither a think tank nor a research office. We want to carry out real assignments and so make a difference. But by questioning assignments, we also notice that the result of an assignment does not have to be a building per se.
Tim Vekemans (Re-st): That’s right. Ten years ago we, too, felt constrained in the straitjacket of the executive architect. We then decided to devote 10 per cent of our time to research. Unsolicited and unpaid. We wanted to be the architect again, as defined by the critic Geert Bekaert back in 1968: someone who names societal needs from his or her design ability. Based on this research, and thanks to the time we took to read again, to write opinion pieces and think about questions that nobody had asked us, we reached the conclusion that we didn’t want to build so many new buildings, but work more with those that are already available. This is how our current practice of ‘not building’ came into being. Meanwhile, that 10-per-cent unpaid self-study has evolved to 40-per-cent paid research or self-initiated projects, almost always in collaboration with other architectural offices. As an architect, we are like a ‘double agent’; we always have two clients: the future owner and society.
Annekatrien Verdickt (Architectuurplatform Terwecoren Verdickt and founder of Filter Café Filtré): Yes, society is our client, but a lot is wrong on the political level. Policies often don’t serve society. That is why with our office we have taken on the dual role of architect and activist. Our dissatisfaction with the quality of the public space has driven us to take action with local residents, to push the debate about fewer cars in the city and to challenge politicians. We always do this from our position as designers, with concrete spatial proposals, so that we can show how things can be done differently and that a new vision can also result in a built project.
Dieter Leyssen (51N4E): Spatial policy in Belgium is not only very fragmented but also geared to the duration of a legislature, so a maximum of five years. Even the procedures and relevant administrations of public services such as Spatial Planning and Urbanism are fragmented. This far-reaching fragmentation is a source of frustration to us. We try to overcome them by organizing our practice in such a way that, through the design, we can still work transversally on shared objectives across all projects. One of those transversal lines, for example, is what we call ‘civic design’. We redesign the collaboration and decision-making structures or development models that are necessary to achieve good projects. 51N4E is a large office and we work with partners who don’t always see the need for transition or perhaps interpret it differently from those around the table here. We respond to this with our practice, among other things by organizing our way of working differently from a traditional office.
LDV & RD: In order to stimulate and flesh out the transition from the perspective of architectural practice, do you have to give up the traditional organization and methods of an architectural office? What role do other disciplines play in your activities?
Aglaée Degros (Artgineering): It was never really our objective to set up a classic architectural office. But our anger at the poor quality of public space, especially in relation to mobility, was so great that we had no choice but to roll up our sleeves. Infrastructure projects involve a lot of people we weren’t used to working with at first. Besides engineers, there is a lot of political interference and, of course, local residents are also quite vocal. So we had to develop a completely different work method, with, of course, a very interdisciplinary team that was able to handle both the technical aspects and the participatory actions.
Tim Devos (Endeavour): We work very differently than a traditional architecture firm. To start with, we don’t see ourselves as designers, but as mediators in a context of spatial transition. In our opinion, change doesn’t necessarily have to go through the design process. We, too, started as activists, we were so incensed at the rotten quality of civic participation, where citizens are only asked for their opinion when everything has already been decided. For us, Endeavour is a vehicle for research and activism. We have built up a business model by broaching new themes, such as cooperative entrepreneurship, and initiating projects within our field of expertise. For this purpose we collaborate with a great many different disciplines, such as landscape designers, communication experts, sustainability and real-estate experts, and of course also with architects, because we are firm believers in the power of research by design.
Antoine Crahay (Citytools): We are a hybrid player. Our team includes architects and urban planners but also lawyers and sociologists. We put together a specific crew for each assignment, with members from the team, but also in collaboration with other agencies such as Plusoffice or Annekatrien Verdickt. We work on urban projects and soon noticed that there is a major shortcoming in the preliminary phase of such projects. You have to organize surveys of the citizens and examine the economic and social embedding of the site long before drawing up the project definition of the master plan. In France this is a clearly defined task entrusted to the programmiste. In Belgium we have less experience with this process. We’re happy to take on this role but to do so we have had to develop our own method.
LDV & RD: Has this approach resulted in paid assignments? Who are your clients?
AC: Originally we only worked for public clients, but now 40 per cent of our clients are private developers. We also take initiatives ourselves, especially when it comes to assisting clients.
TD: In the beginning we didn’t really have any clients. We took an activist approach and made our own projects. By now, these self-initiated projects have also led to real (research) assignments. Public clients, such as municipal services, also know how to find us if there are difficult or complex themes on the table. We have noticed that these are the kinds of assignments behind which there is often a hidden agenda. We question the assignment and in doing so expose that agenda.
LDV & RD: What assignments are we talking about precisely?
TD: Antwerp’s public-space department asked us to join the reflection on the social safety of public space in the city. When we looked more deeply into this question, it appeared that the municipal services were looking for an integrated approach, as a counterbalance to purely repressive measures and solutions, and we wanted to anticipate this. We then developed methodologies with them to better understand socio-spatial issues and to stimulate knowledge-sharing and cooperation among various municipal services. But we initiate a large number of our projects ourselves. For example, when we heard that the city of Antwerp wanted to sell Den Oudaan – a valuable piece of Renaat Braem’s modernist heritage from 1958 – to the highest bidder in a sealed envelope, we were so outraged we tried to buy the tower ourselves with a group of fellow activists. We didn’t succeed, but research into a cooperative form of property development now forms the basis for a further process, leading us to a collaboration with CERA Bank – actually a cooperative with thousands of partners who want to invest in prosperity and welfare – where we are researching the opportunities for cooperative housing development in Flanders. In a similar way, initiating a debate on alternative development models for housing for refugees led to a collaboration with the non-profit organization Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, where we are investigating the opportunities of a solidary housing platform that wants to raise awareness around obstacles and solutions for the housing of refugees and their families.
AV: This past summer, in the context of the lockdown brought on by the outbreak of Covid-19 and the widespread indignation over the lack of quality open space in the city, we launched a project around ‘summer streets’. We closed the rue Picardstraat in Brussels to traffic and gave that space back to local residents. It was a great success: the children could play in the street again, neighbours got to know each other and organized barbecues together, and there were workshops on the future of the neighbourhood. We received subsidies from the Brussels-Capital Region and were immediately asked to re-organize it next summer. That’s very nice, of course, but it can’t come down to one-off actions. We have to evolve from activists to agenda-setting architects who stimulate debate and encourage politicians to initiate change through spatial practice. And for that, we have to mobilize our design strength.