Wild west of Zagreb

 

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Took a walk in the western suburbs of Zagreb where the Industrial and the Informal city meets in a sharp contrast. The walk was just about 1000 meters but it felt like worlds apart. From an area that could be called “Cities for People” (thanks to Jan Gehl) via “Cities by People (that I enjoy) to the “City of greed”.

In the “City of Greed” the same  (profit maximising) industrial logic applies to both the  businesses, the shopping centre and the housing. ” The City for people” is a good example of very well functioning and popular housing from the Yugoslav times, (but when I saw it first time I thought it was the ugliest place on earth).

The “City by People” is where the self build houses tell stories about who are living there and how the houses and the neighbourhood has been created over time. It is a place where the unpredictable beauty in an aesthetic sense is present along with the strong sense of the other kind of beauty that relates to the creation and use of these houses.

See more Photos on Flickr here

Danish Architecture and Greenwash in China

When I went to the Biennale of Architecture in Venice in 2006, the theme for that year was Cities, Architecture and Society. The Danish pavilion won the Golden Lion (Best National Participation) for 4 different designs for new cities in China done in collaboration with Chinese students of architecture.

I was surprised to see that in many ways these 4 designs were not very different from the visionary ideas of Corbusier or the very concrete suburbs where the grand plans have led to widespread “Social China Syndromes.” The major difference  from earlier plans was that now the focus was on public transport and not the car. But it was based on the same type of rational planning that ignores that a city needs a soul to grow from – just as it needs the necessary infrastructure etc.

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The whole biennale was focused on this particular type of sustainability: how to save energy, create less sprawl, save the rainforest and the last green frog but there was a spectacular lack of social and political aspects in this effort to save the planet. In other words could these sustainable cities be build in an undemocratic society that would violate human rights, freedom of speech, inhuman working conditions or where thousands were forced to leave their homes in order for new cities to be build just to name a few unsustainable social aspects?

The 4 Danish winner projects all used the same check list for sustainability called the Equator Principles, “a voluntary set of standards for determining, assessing and managing social and environmental risk in project financing (….) which have become the de facto standard for banks and investors on how to assess major development projects around the world” according to Wikipedia. Why the curator of the 4 projects chose a checklist made by the big banks is not clear, but these principles do deal with a mix of social and environmental issues and they could be a guarantee against the above mentioned focus on only the rational and physical aspects of the city.

Already being annoyed by the biennales take on the “sustainable” city I couldn’t help being amused by some of the rather helpless answers on the checklist such as:

a) Assessment of the baseline social and environmental conditions?

The Jiading region as such is a fairly well-functioning part of Shanghai, with a brand new F1 track and a planned eco-park at a nearby site. In the midst of becoming the number one cluster for the car industry in China, the region is booming with optimism and the gradual urbanization of the region will distribute social and economic welfare from the inner city to the fringes.

i) Socioeconomic impacts? 

Due to the special qualities of the area and the high quality architectural design more investments will be attracted to Chongqing, which is believed to have a positive knock-on effect on the community within as well as outside of the site.

n) Consultation and participation of affected parties in the design, review and implementation of the project?

Not applicable.

One can sense the (perfectly designed) echo chamber where architects sit together padding each others back talking about how architecture itself will one day save the world – a world booming with optimism by the way. If there is any problems it is the sprawl and the car. Everything else is OK.

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So far it still felt a bit naive and the text might not really be that important since the illustrations were quite striking in their beauty. Yet I started looking into the “real” Equator Principles and found out that the checklist used in the 4 projects was an edited version of the original where several of the more political issues were left out or watered down such as “human rights” that became “human health”

This is three issues on the Equator Principles list:

d)  protection of human rights and community health, safety and security (including risks, impacts and management of project’s use of security personnel)

e)  protection of cultural property and heritage

f)  protection and conservation of biodiversity, including endangered species and sensitive ecosystems in modified, natural and critical habitats, and identification of legally protected areas

This is how it was boiled down in the Biennale text:

Protection of human health, cultural properties, and biodiversity, including endangered species and sensitive ecosystems?

The list used in the Biennale projects were taken from a Wikipedia article on the Equator Principles that apparently had been “edited”. What it does reflect is a rather sloppy way of handling a potentially hot political potato. One wonders if this sudden interest in saving the Chinese people from the awful consequences of SPRAWL. Could it be, that it is much easier to work on  grand designs similar to those Corbusier was dreaming of in a society where they are more concerned with “human health” than “human rights”.

 

Opbyggerne – Urban Innovation in Copenhagen

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One of the things that I would envy my son was an experience some years ago where he and hundreds of other people in Copenhagen started building on a beautiful spot close to Christiania. The initiative was taken by a group of activists who called themselves “Opbyggerne” – a play with words that both means those who build up or those who are constructive in a conversation. The action was really joyful, spontaneous and open where everybody was welcome – as a passerby buying a drink or listening to music, or those who would take part in discussions and eat in the improvised street kitchen. But off course the main point was to build something together.

“Opbyggerne” had picked an otherwise impossible narrow strip of land along a road that went past Christiania (and a part of the old Copenhagen Ramparts) on one side and on the edge of the canals that surrounds other old army facilities that now are turned into expensive housing (as a stark contrast to Christiania – also being an old army base but with a different and urban life). The lazy ones would build on land either on the road or on the edge of the water. The more ambitious ones would build floating constructions that would inhabit the water. Materials were either found, supplied by sponsors or in the case of my son found on Christiania.

After passing the place one day he decided to go for it with he’s friends the following weekend. On the same day they managed to get materials (plywood on Christiania), build a very small tent-like house and sleep there (three boys) for the night. Very basic but so fundamental for the way we could work with a city and let it become a place for concrete and fun creation. Where each building is an expression of the dreams and needs of very different people and how these change over time. In this case The tent-like structure became too small for the boys so they started adding on to it and made it possible to sit in the new construction also letting in more light. Now it was possible to have visitors.

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The whole place became a hectic and creative melting pot of desires and the possibility to realise these within a day or a week. At times these desires also worked against each other and heated discussions or more constructive dialogue made this experiment an example on how you can build a city and discuss the way it works in the same movement.  It is a way of expressing yourselves in a much more concrete way that is based on action instead of abstraction (talking, writing, drawing etc). The concrete act of building structures as an expression of your desires (and capability of building) makes it possible for people who might not care about sitting down and talk but rather do it – the building then becomes a part of a discussion.

It makes the urban dialogue more inclusive and it makes the sensory and emotional experience of the city much richer. And all of that also adds to the interaction between people helping and inspiring each other, and setting off ideas for other projects and initiatives. This potential for urban innovation has to be seen in the perspective of the beautifully designed public squares of the “Urban Renaissance” and the talk about the chance encounter in these public spaces. In many cases these very controlled and often market dominated spaces (often the success criteria is that there are a lot of people there drinking cafe latte) are the opposite of “Opbyggerne.” In the urge for beauty, these spaces becomes architectural monuments, unable to be appropriated, but predictable and popular with the interests that wants to make money there – not that far from the shopping centre: “a mall without walls.”

The potential for “urban innovation” could be exemplified with the goal of “unplanned collaboration” of Pixar, the computer animated movies studio behind movies like “Finding Nemo”  og “Wall-e”. Their first success was created in the typical surroundings of a start up company: run down buildings in an unattractive area that made the rent cheap but maybe more importantly the building(s) were possible to appropriate and if you wanted a hole in the wall thats what you just made. So it had many possibilities for spontaneous and improvised appropriation of that space and when the company needed to get everybody “under one roof” to avoid the fragmentation that came from sitting in many separate localities they build with the goal of “unplanned collaboration.” The result doesn’t look fancy from the outside and inside it has the aesthetics of a classic factory building with a large common space as the equivalent of a “public space” that can de changed into what the situation takes – the fun company gathering or building large scale mockups of movie sets. More important is probably how they kept the possibility of appropriating the personal workspaces and in that way the personal space becomes an expression of what you like and who you are. To free the full urban potential one have to move from the less ambitious goal of chance encounters to the much more dynamic goal of “unplanned collaboration”.

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Many cities has embraced the idea of “creativity” as a way of staying on top in the competition with other cities in the new globalised race. The main inspiration for this was the book of Richard Florida that promoted the 3 T´s: Tolerance, Technique and Talent. One of the main references in the book and the following implementation of he’s ideas was San Francisco and it is interesting how Pixar probably couldn’t have started anywhere else than in that city. The problem now is that municipalities set up zones for creative industries – like digital games etc both defining what is creative and where it should/could happen. It is almost as uncreative as if the wanted more new companies like Apple to start by building suburban garages and looking for collage dropouts (and orphans) to populate these.

The reaction to the miniature “summer of love” next to Christiania that the “Opbyggerne” created was very telling. It was tolerated by the municipality during the summer (apart from some intimidating policing) but when summer was over the area was evicted in a way that didn’t leave a single trace of what had happened. They even cleaned the road of graffiti and made the place look more like it used to be than before. Going there was like entering a time machine where it all seemed a bit unreal, knowing was used to be there.

Instead “creativity” has been allocated to zones with old industrial buildings or in ghettos where they in one case try to emulate the meatpacking district of New York. The municipality has succeeded to some degree in the sense that entering one of the local bars, where designs and pricing of the drinks are done by famous artists, made you feel like being a part of an episode of “Sex and the City.” What happened here and what is the problem with this particular perception of the “creative” is that the slow and unavoidable gentrifying process in a place like the meatpacking district has been cut down to zero making this creative ghetto to an instantly controlled and gentrified public space that does not have much potential of urban innovation or “unplanned collaboration.” You have to look  for somebody else and elsewhere for that. Where you can feel free to start building something together in many different ways.

See more photos here

Rådhusplads: Den urbane metropol

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The text below is an article published in the danish newspaper Politiken in 2006. 

Rådhuspladsen er et af de helt centrale mødesteder i byen. Det er her, man fejrer landsholdet, tænder juletræet og demonstrerer mod krig eller nedskæringer i børnehaverne.

Ud over at være et fysisk rum, der kan diskuteres ud fra smag og behag, har denne plads i byen en central demokratisk funktion som et sted, der helt konkret lægger rum til byens mangfoldighed. Med planerne om en ny metropolzone i København er der lagt op til diskussion om Rådhuspladsens udseende igen. Og netop fordi pladsen har så vigtig en funktion for demokratiet i byen, burde denne diskussion være et forbillede for, hvordan meninger kan brydes og alligevel føre til en konstruktiv proces, der ender med forslag til en plads, der ikke findes mage til i hele verden. Noget kunne tyde på, at diskussionen tager en anden drejning.

Politikens leder ‘Storbydrømme’ fra sidste lørdag skriver om, at det skal være slut med kværulantisk brok, der bremser arkitekternes ambitioner, som det f.eks. var tilfældet med Krøyers Plads på Christianshavn. København skal ifølge lederen være en såkaldt ‘Kreativ Monopol (sic!) – med fokus på Teknologi, Talent og Tolerance’. Der skulle naturligvis have stået ‘Metropol’, men skrivefejlen kunne minde om den slags fortalelser, der ikke er helt tilfældige. Lederen overser bl.a., at medierne også spiller en rolle i forhold til, hvordan folk udtrykker deres mening og agerer i det ‘offentlige rum’. Eksemplet med Krøyers Plads viser, at det var først, da debatten blev til den kedelige sort-hvide brok, at medierne for alvor begyndte at dække sagen – eller var det først, da medierne trådte ind, at debatten blev sort-hvid? Hvorom alt er, så belønnede medierne dem, der stod stejlt.

Krøyers Plads er desværre et eksempel på, hvordan et kæmpe potentiale i form af en masse engagerede mennesker, et visionært projekt og byens populæreste strandbar bliver spildt i en ukonstruktiv debat eller byudviklingsproces, der endte med at sætte alle parterne i hver sin bås. Enten får de rollen som brokkehoveder med højdeskræk eller rollen som visionære arkitekter med det ‘kreative monopol’.

I byudviklingslaboratoriet Supertanker arbejdede vi med at bryde disse fastlåste mønstre ved at gøre mødet mellem byens parter mere urbant gennem åbenhed og jævnbyrdighed. Vi brugte en lang række metoder til bl.a. at gøre de borgeres ønsker mere konkrete og konstruktive. Vi var i høj grad inspireret af, hvordan Havneparken på Islands Brygge var blevet til i et sådant konstruktivt samspil mellem de lokale byboere og Københavns Kommune. Vi oplevede, at det var muligt at bryde disse ukonstruktive mønstre, men at de grøfter, der allerede var gravet på Krøyers Plads, var for dybe, til at der kunne bygges bro mellem parterne.

Politiken har med netop Rådhuspladsen selv leveret et godt eksempel på, at det ikke behøver at være sådan – at det ‘kreative monopol’ kan brydes ved at lade andre end arkitekter og byplanlæggere komme til orde. I 1997 da den nye busterminal havde afskåret Politikens Hus fra resten af pladsen, iværksatte avisen en artikelserie og en konkurrence for alle læsere med idéer om, hvordan pladsen kunne udformes. Konkurrencen blev formet på en måde, så alle kunne være med, bare man tegnede sine ideer ind på et præfabrikeret foto af Rådhuspladsen. Der indkom en stor mangfoldighed af projekter – fra van(d)vittige ideer hvor hele pladsen blev til et stort vandbassin, man kunne sejle rundt i, til mere realistiske ideer, med smukke belægninger og pæne tegninger. Det var især den sidste type, der blev præmieret, herunder mit eget projekt, der modtog en 2. præmie. Ud over lidt medieomtale skete der desværre ikke mere.

Konkurrencen er et eksempel på en mere urban måde at skabe en unik ny Rådhusplads på. Man kunne også samle de bedste unge arkitekter, sociologer, kunstnere, iværksættere osv. fra hele verden og lade dem gå helt tæt på den lokale virkelighed. Ved at arrangere workshop, hvor borgere og byens øvrige parter deltager, kan der skabes et udfordrende møde mellem det lokale og det globale. Pointen er, at alle parter skal udfordres, og at det sker i et møde, hvor alle stilles lige. De uforudsigelige urbane mutationer og den dynamik, der skabes ved at lade tilblivelsen af den mest centrale plads i byen foregå i det ‘offentlige rum’, vil sætte København på det internationale landkort.

København kunne profilere sig som en åben by, der virkelig appellerer til et væld af forskellige mennesker ved at gøre byboerne til medskabere af deres by. Det er på tide, vi dyrker det simple faktum, at vi lever mange sammen, og at vi udnytter det potentiale, der ligger gemt i at skabe udfordrende og konstruktive møder mellem byboerne.

En urban metropol.

Jens Brandt, arkitekt MAA og urbanist. Medstifter af byudviklingslaboratoriet Supertanker. Senest har Supertankeren udsendt sin ‘Urban Task Force’ i Københavns Sydhavn

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Urbaniteten handler dybest set om, hvad der kan ske, når en mangfoldighed af mennesker lever på samme sted under konstant forandring. En væsentlig side af det urbane består i en åben og respektfuld ‘urban’ måde at omgås hinanden på. Byens liv og evne til at forny sig er afhængig af de nye og uventede ideer, netværk, osv. der opstår i det urbane møde mellem forskellige mennesker.

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Plan RH: Den overordnede idé er at understrege overgangen mellem den gamle ”langsomme” by  til den nye og dynamiske by. En samling af pladsen sker ved at nedlægge Vester Voldgade og lægge H.C. Andersens Boulevard ned i en tunnel. Mod den gamle by på solsiden er der lagt op til nydelse med et rigt caféliv og en badstue under et rundt vandspejl. Mod den nye by fungerer overdækningen af H.. Andersens boulevard som busterminal for at understrege byens mobilitet og dynamik. 

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H. C. Andersens  Boulevard med ny busterminal ovenpå den gennemkørende trafik. Overdækningen sikrer en kobling mellem Strøget og Vesterbrogade og udvider således City. 

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Lurblæserne: Denne plads er en overset perle med masser af sol. Her skabes der en intim plads, hvor kroppens dimension understreges af en badstue under et cirkulært vandspejl.

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RH set fra oven: Dette var den ”obligatoriske tegning som alle, der deltog i Politikens konkurrence som et minimum skulle tegne. Pladsens motto er ”alting på hjul” så brugen af pladsen hele tiden kan ændres og f.eks. kan pølsevogne og byinventar hurtigt ryddes af vejen til den store fest. 

A good shopping center is a bankrupt shopping center

I used to live on top of a shopping center in Geneva and wrote about it a couple of years ago. The conclusion was that it is not possible to make a “more urban” shopping centre just because it is more integrated into the urban fabric.

Now in Zagreb I had a look at the Cascada Commercial Center placed in an especially insensitive way in the old part of town. Only good thing is that its empty after it went bankrupt. One could hope that it would discourage investors to build more of the same or simply deem it a “crime against urbanity.”

The Heart House and a Blog break

After a brief detour to Tumblr this blog is back in business.

A lot of things happened (in danish) at the Hjertehus blog.  The name means the heart house and documents the long process of designing a summerhouse with and for my family.

In brief the process went from building a “fun” house out of cardboard that was used to “spatialise” the dialogue about how a new summerhouse should be (and look) and prioritising these thoughts in order to build a 1 : 1 prototype of the house.

After that the work turned to more traditional methods building a scale model and drawing something serious enough to get a building permit. Yet the idea is that there will be more 1 : 1 sketching to work with the final design of windows and the interior after the foundations and the roof has been build.

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Urban Key Note – Listening to the City

Can we really hear the city and its wealth of stories? Or is it possible that there is a whole range in frequencies that are outside maybe not the human ear but outside the range that is dominated by a view of the city as a mechanical and plannable thing (and the talk about creativity as a (market driven) driver in the development of the cities does not radically divert from that).

What made me stop and think recently was the story about how the languages of elephants were discovered not many years ago. It was not a story about how technology suddenly opened up for new ranges of sound, but technology confirmed the discovery which was made in a more bodily and accidental way. In short the researcher, Katy Payne,  one day went to the ZOO and standing next to the elephant house she could sense something both in her ears and body. A sound deeper that the normal range of the human ear was discovered and then confirmed afterwards using sensitive microphones. After this discovery the researchers has been able to get an insight into a whole new world of the elephants talking to each other.

This might be a good image for how to listen to the city using the most diverse sensor that still exists: being there with your eyes, ears, nose, hands etc, and remembering how often one tend to focus on certain things and thereby exclude others. Both being conscious about sensing what you know you don’t know but also what you don’t know that you don’t know.  Here the techniques of the situationists come in handy as a way of introducing unplanned encounters by using little games like walking backwards, blindfolded, systematically taking turns left and right. Just like the accidental discovery of the low sounds of the elephants this playful and very personal sensation of the city is necessary to avoid projecting your own established vision of the city onto the city and instead try to be as open and receptive as possible.

What needs to be discovered and acknowledged is this urban key note – a language that is part of the life in the city and just like the language of elephants and humans shapes the way we are able to think and express ourselves about the city and a language that is shaped by the life in the city.

In recent years advances in technology both in the development of new sensors, wireless communication and computing powers has led to the idea of “Smart Cities” which is driven by the wish to make cites more efficient – using less energy and for example getting an ambulance faster to its destination. These advances can make life easier for us and save energy and money but a presentation some months ago by Carlo Ratti from the SENSEable City lab, MIT, in Boston made me think about some possible problems with this approach. Among other things he talked about these technological advances and used an image of Corbusier standing in front of he’s big car (a Voisin – “the perfect machine”) to underline the point that technology shapes our cities and the way we live. I got reminded of my work in the suburbs of Copenhagen where this fascination of the car dominated technology had a very negative consequences.

To my surprise this was meant as a positive thing and Ratti went on to present the possibilities of todays technology by referring to the successful Ferrari race cars where the whole drive is monitored by a vast number of sensors and a team of 20 people watching the data from the sensors during the race. The point of this was to show how it is possible to monitor the city in the same way as the race car and all the advantages this have. It struck me that just like the fascination of the car had disastrous consequences the same could be said about the present technology and the somehow very masculine “need for speed” without knowing exactly what the disasters would be this time.

One thing that is similar in the use of any technology is the danger of giving too much weight to the rational and abstract aspects that drives technology. In the case of Corbusier and his Plan Voisin from 1925 (named after the car of the same name) he went even further so the industrial building techniques was not only a means to an end; Corbusier celebrated industrialised production as the perfect creation: ‘If houses were built industrially, mass-produced like chassis,’ Le Corbusier said in his manifesto Towards an Architecture, ‘an aesthetic would be formed with surprising precision.’  In Rattis presentation using the Ferrari race car as an analogy of how technology could improve the city we get close to the same fascination for technology. The image fits into the present discussion of cities in a competition against each other and how to make this “machine” run faster, better and stronger (to quote Daft Punk).

This way of thinking can be blamed for producing a city (mostly the suburbs where people don’t go except if they have to) that is very vulnerable to social meltdowns and its rational and abstract focus makes it harder to correct the mistakes of the past and see the potentials for a more poetic and playful (and stronger) city. To use another analogy it could be compared to making a movie where the engineers that designed the hardware or software also were the ones to decide what the story should be like depending on the capabilities of their technological contribution. This movie probably wouldn’t be a box office hit (just like a car that Corbusier designed).Then why did so much of  this industrially produced city get build? Many people didn’t really have a choice. The process behind the production of the suburbs was a strange dance couple where market driven industrial production went hand in hand with idealists who wanted to produce housing for the “masses.”

With riots in London this summer, riots in suburbs in Paris and many other places it should seem obvious that we are missing some points about how we work with cities – or maybe we are just ignoring them. How to open up to the possibilities in the city and how to produce a city in a way that empowers and opens for involvement of people in the continuos process of creating the city? As a start just being in public space using the best sensor for the rich sensory and emotional diversity of the city: ourselves and our senses. Taking time to allow more openness and play to experience the unexpected stories and sensations or provoke new ones. Always knowing that the urban keynote is out there and we will probably hear it where or when we least expected it.