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by Peter Hemmersam

Is the European city aging?/ being emptied?/ dying?/ unsustainable?

These questions were asked during the public and academic program that accompanied the 2011 Europan Forum of Cities and Juries in Oslo with invited experts from the Europan organization and Europan juries. The answers of the experts deals with planning and the form of cities, but also with self perception and practice of the planning and designing professions.

New forms of cities

Thomas Sieverts claims that we have to face the fact that growth as a paradigm in European urban planning is gone. Along with the social critique of modernism, and the neo-liberal critique of the welfare state, the green critique of growth has left planning nonplussed and unable to function in the current situation. Germany will will loose 20% of its population before 2050, a trend that is mirrored around Europe. But there is little or no awareness of crisis in European cities – catastrophies are always going on in other places – and the experience of crisis that existed after the Second World War is now dead.

A paradigm shift is required, but according to Siverts we do not know how cities will adapt and change to meet the challenges ahead. And even though architects think that compact cites is the solution, we have to think about this in a much more differentiated way. He argues that no one can really say for instance what the adoption of new forms of sustainable energy will mean for the city – just as no-one knew what the car would mean for the city in early 20th century. In fact you can learn very little about the future form of cities from the industrial age. According to Sieverts, the idea of the Compact City represents an old fashioned urbanism, and we can no longer solve anything by technical engineering. Compact cities do for instance not deal with water, and the introduction of new forms of sustainable energy may lead to new urban and regional forms when adopting to diverse (local) energy sources. You can not generalize at all as to how the introduction of sustainable energy sources shape cities : district heating concentrates cities, but technologies like horizontal geothermal heat pump systems requires open space and favors low density, dispersal and even new forms of regional urbanization.

Sieverts argues that a completely new philosophy of architecture and planning is necessary: Things can no longer be technically controlled, and the basic business of the practice of architects is now uncertainty – it is impossible to have any certain prognosis any more. But uncertainty means a degree of freedom and a possibility for a lot of experiments on cities. And even though certainty is gone, aesthetics will continue to play an important role in developing resilient ad robust architecture and cities because if spaces and buildings are not considered attractive they will not be found valuable enough to maintain and adapt to new uses. Only the beautiful is truly robust.

Architecture as found

Lisa Dietrich argues that the challenge for planning and architecture is that we now have to confront things that exist and deal with them, rather than imagining or materializing objects and spaces that meet some real or projected future need or desire. There are no new needs in today’s European cities, and sites without programs are the new problem for the architect. We are now faced with the challenge of the reuse of whole cities, and we are searching for tools have not been developed yet. We find ourselves left with abandoned structures and landscapes, but also with city atmospheres that we have to grasp and learn to build on. When there is no predefined program, we have to find new ways to work with cities and urban landscapes ‘As Found’.

Liza Fior agrees with Dietrich that we can not (or should not) have any preconceived ideas or predefined needs to fulfill when we address a situation. Rather, projects emerge from the context itself. She believes in developing small scale interventions in addition to traditional planning, and in the need to ‘slow developments down’ and making the developers see what they are dealing with and the potentials in a situation.

A new practice of architcture

The experts agree that new or alternative forms of practice are called for in the new framework of the changing European city. In times of crisis public manifestations of different kinds or activism in the city is often on the agenda, and the European city has become an arena for activism, and also for the emergence of alternative architectural practices that critiques and addresses the practice of architecture and the logics of commercial real estate development and public planning. They experiment with subject areas and social contexts, that often fall outside traditional design based architectural interventions. Often including a wide range of professions and disciplines in developing a much wider approaches to the city as lived space.

Jens Brandt is disillusioned and thinks that it takes too long time for the individual architect to make a difference, but Liza Fior argues that the architect has a ‘Duty of Care’ – a long term commitment to site and project. The good architects should spend a long time understanding a site or a project, and not distinguishing or prioritizing built form over social processes and ideas. The architect should be engaged in developing urban design frameworks which should include change, and she believes that architects should be trained to handle these processes by taking classes in economics, real estate investment etc.

Thomas Sieverts argues that not just the architecture but also the program should be part of the architects business. We have to work with temporary measures and see what happens and what the reactions are.  We are looking at a new profession where the architect has lost responsibility over construction and budget, but manages a place over time, and have to become experts of other fields, such as communication.

But adapting to this new role of the architect is not unproblematic according to Liza Fior: Firstly, alternative architectural practices (or architecture without programs) is often seen merely as a form of ‘say what you want’ participatory planning which really misses the point. Secondly, the problem of architecture is that it costs money. Architects are traditionally “agents of such expensiveness”, which tents to corrupt other issues in designing cities for people. Thirdly, the act of “close looking” by which the potentials of a situation is mapped can be radical by suggesting uses based on what is already there (“use can suggest use”), but it can also be dangerous in the sense that creating knowledge always holds the potential for the production of “Frankenstein” – the co-opting of local resources by capitalist mechanisms.

Uncertain future

Crisis and urban decline generate new possibilities for architects, but also require hard thinking about transformation of practice. Liza Fior thinks that  the crisis is a great opportunity. It leaves us the possibility to experiment with large urban plans, by actually doing it over a long time. Perhaps this leaves us time for thought, and an opportunity to reflect on how to ensure what Thomas Sieverts calls for: the ability for future generations to use what we build in other ways.

Peter Hemmersam is Associate Professor at the Institute of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

Jens Brandt founded SUPERTANKER in 2002 as a trans-disciplinary “project and research network working with urbanity and the city” .

Lisa Dietrich is a critic and editor of Landscape Architecture Europe and ‘scape, as well as a professor and lecturerer at several schools of landscape architecture. She is a member of the Norwegian jury for Europan 11.

Liza Fior is a partner in muf architecture/art which works with “pioneering and innovative projects that address the social, spatial and economic infrastructures of the public realm.” Member of the  Austrian jury for Europan 11.

Thomas Sieverts is a architect and urban planner with wide  ranging academic and professional credentials. He is currently the President of Europan Europe.