Take it to the streets – Architecture that ‘spatialises’ the discussion about space

When I graduated at the School of architecture in Copenhagen I left a place that I thought was happily lost in its on world far away from the very real world that surrounds the school and the students (and the profession as such). When i got to know the UK architect Jeremy Till years later it made me feel much better when he told me that he thought that the Copenhagen school was one of the most decadent schools he knew with the students sitting in the well renovated buildings and with easy listening music on the iPod. At the time I finally had my diploma I was disillusioned on behalf of a profession and a vocation that I thought (and still think) has a great potential. Instead I joined Supertanker and worked on a team that was obsessed with the city like myself, but saw the problems to be solved in the way the dialogue on the future of city was polarised and unconstructive.

Writing texts like this one marks a return to the architectural and spatial aspects of this dialogue since we have gradually learned that making the discussion about space more spatial also makes it more inclusive and potentially fun. In this way architecture so to say ‘spatialises’ the dreams, drifts, needs and interests that flows through the city.  Thus, architecture perceived as a craft or art form in an urban context, can– act as a spatialising moment in the collective and continuously changing oeuvre, the city. One could see this as an urban version of the Master builder in the Bauhütte who sets up a temporary structure in public space and starts to design and build while this is being discussed with the passerby.

These spatial aspects became more clear when Supertanker 4 years ago developed an ambitious project for a housing project in the suburbs of Copenhagen where the problems on the surface was crime, unemployment, etc. that could be called the “Social China Syndrome” since it is so hard to reverse this negative trend. It looks like a certain type of housing stock combined with a failed welfare state model that promotes a “one size fits all” in both a physical and social sense and thereby creates a high degree of passivity. We set out to build a base (workshop/office/common space) in a way that reflected the ideas we had about the 5 year project there. These ideas can be boiled down to slowly discover and map the potentials and problems of the area and to promote small self organised and concrete projects as a result of an including, empowering inspiring and challenging process the especially involving the young people in the neighbourhood.

To challenge and inspire both the Supertanker team and the local residents we invited a group of architects, artist and urbanists to take part in a camp we called “local Interaction.” During the camp i became clear that the “base” had to be a mobile and actually we should stop talking and drawing and start just building and being present in the neighbourhood.  So what could have been a neat little pavilion ended up being a yearlong building and learning process for us and for some of the boys in the neighbourhood who were singled out as the troublemakers. We bought and old and beautiful circus wagon that needed repair but had a lot of character. The wagon was driven into a central green area and could be seen by most of the residents. Suddenly our presence was much more visual and the comments started coming in from residents who otherwise kept silent. Some of these were the troublemakers that visited the wagon during the night braking the lock but otherwise nothing. The troublemakers were then involved and became the design team that did much of the designing and the manual work that gradually became involved in too.

The potentials of this quite slow process (that meant we had to wait for a real base for more than a year) was many: building up trust with kids that otherwise had lost most of their respect with authorities and making them experience the results of their own work as a central and very visibly part of the neighbourhood. Like this the boys learned a lot of new things but more importantly, the neighbourhood learned that these boys could be a resource if given the right opportunities. By making the process of designing the interior of the circus wagon more concrete (it was design in 1 : 1) the boys were able to use their hands, arms and bodies to measure the size of a table etc. From this Supertanker learned that the methods of urban dialogue became much more inclusive by making the discussion  more spatial and less abstract. This would attract the people who couldn’t care less about taking part of an otherwise great workshop since they like to get hands on and see action instead of abstraction.

This demands that the profession gets much closer to the world with real people that walk around with real bodies in a physical space where they dream about a bright future or fear the day of tomorrow. The tendency to reduce this real world into an abstraction that can be turned into beautiful drawings or wonderful models that instead produces a mirage that is very popular with developers (or politicians) who need to make investors or voters believe in something that is still not there. I once went to a reception held by some architects in Zagreb (very successful today) and talked to an urban planner of the older generation who had the theory that urban planners were in fact closest to being artists since they were creating these wonderful plans that could be seen as colourful abstract paintings.

The way architects normally interact with the world feels old fashioned when they still talk about the architect and client relation and thereby signalling being the obedient and passive part of a hierarchy. In contrast to (or because of) this, architects tend to take the role of the romantic artist with inspiration from a higher power and leading the way with that inspiration. Only the artist creates paintings on the walls might not affect many people in a negative way but for the architect this illusion of a vanguard position becomes much more problematic when he of she influences the socio/spatial conditions for the lives of people living in the city. In a recent article in the Danish daily newspaper the architecture editor for the paper wrote an article on the contested part in the Copenhagen harbour where the 3rd proposal now was on the table (and where Supertanker came into being). Learning from the previous massive resistance the developer had involved local citizens discussing the plans and the journalist concludes: One reduces the risk of forgetting the human factor, but the chance for a visionary project is equally reduced.

In his book, Architecture depends, Jeremy Till tries to argue for the architects to get closer to the real world that they depend on in spite of the illusion being a visionary vanguard in a perfectly designed mirage.  Till writes of a more humble role for the architect creating “low-fi” and everyday architecture and uses the example of Elvis Costello who would listen to a new song on a cheap radio standing on the kitchen table instead of the perfect studio sound system far away from the “real world”. Costello can also be used as an example of a more urban approach to music when he took to the street and played in front of the hotel where CBS records held a conference in order to get their attention. (More recent examples are the Arab spring on Tahrir square or “Occupy Wall Street”) The potentials of the architect actually contributing to the urban oeuvre starts simply by being there and taking architecture to the streets.

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