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By Beatriz Ramo, STAR strategies + architecture

Chairman of the Norwegian Europan 12 Jury

 

 

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith

 

Part 1.

The Emperor’s new clothes

Imagine the following situation: you need a special outfit for a very important occasion. Instead of giving this job to your trusted tailor many different young designers you don’t know will create their designs for you. But you will not be able to choose your favourite…instead, a third group of persons you don’t know either – the ‘selectors’- will pick ‘the one’ for you. You are a bit scared… this outfit is very important, but you are thrilled by the idea of being surprised, of getting something unique that boosts your image. To ensure the success of this special outfit you give the designers a list of clear guidelines about your size and measurements, your preferences, the description of the occasion, the context and weather, where you will wear it…etc.

You start dreaming, imagining the designs…

Beatriz

After some months the outfits arrive. You can’t wait to see them… However, after having had a quick look you feel a bit confused at first… Why is thirty per cent in the wrong size? And why is forty percent made for summer when you clearly stated that you will need to wear the outfit in winter… Some of them even forgot a part of the outfit… And with some others you have a sense of déjà vu… Others sent you simply a pair of socks…? But you don’t despair. You still find a few that you could imagine yourself very well in.

Then the ‘selectors’ come to make an initial choice of three outfits for you. You have also described to them your size and the occasion for the outfit so they can make an informed choice. You are impatient to know… But imagine how you feel when you see that they dismiss most of the few outfits that were right for your size and your occasion. You start worrying… you fear that almost none of the remaining outfits will suit you, nor are appropriate for that important occasion…ay, ay. You wonder if the ‘selectors’ might be unconsciously choosing the best outfit for them instead of for you. You start panicking when the ‘selectors’ show real appreciation for an outfit in a leopard pattern with pink ribbons, a bit slutty, and two sizes smaller than what fits you. You hear them explain that this is a very provocative and radical outfit that will cause a big stir when you wear it at the very important occasion… Of course, you want to look special that day… but you do not want to be Lady Gaga in her meat-dress at the MTV awards in 2010… Then the ‘selectors’ pick a second outfit that rather looks like a few metres of fabric…but they explain very eloquently that it is a DIY-outfit (do-it-yourself) and that you can participate in the design, too… truly ‘bottom up’. And finally, their third choice is an outfit that you have trouble to identify as an ‘outfit’ at all because it lacks most pieces and you fear that you will end up looking like the Emperor in his new clothes…

You are scared now… You were open for innovation, for new ideas, but you needed at least an outfit in the right size, for the right weather, with all the pieces… Couldn’t an outfit be at the same time extraordinary while at the same time in your real size and for the occasion?

And finally, the ‘selectors’ come to make their final decision… they have chosen the leopard outfit but would like to introduce the DIY concept into it… You are confused and do not know how to react… You cannot go to this very important occasion looking slutty and in a half-finished outfit. You have mixed feelings. What should you do? Should you simply not wear it and ask your trusted tailor to quickly make an outfit for you?

I was there. I was one of the ‘selectors’. I felt the initial optimism of the client, his growing preoccupations, his fear, and his lack of understanding sometimes… and I understood him, often agreed with him, and finally very much sympathised with him.

I had mixed feelings myself. I also questioned the point of pointless provocation, the dangerous lightness of some of the designs, and the use of ready-made formulas to avoid addressing reality directly. Could not at least one of the outfits have made the client look amazing, revealing his true potential, suitable for summer weather, and even able to adapt easily in case the client grows thinner or fatter – and all of this in his size and for the occasion? Was that asking too much?

Who killed the kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

Part 2.

Plug-it, Do-It-Yourself, and Bottom Up!

This is not the title of the sequel to ‘American pie’, but what seems to be the new paradigm governing Europan architectural projects, running the risk of ending up – if it has not already done so – as a platitude.

The current ‘generic’ in Europan is characterised by a captivating lightness and playfulness: soft interventions, bottom-up, acupunctures, plug-in, DIY…and the ‘monopoly house typology’ have consciously or unconsciously managed to avoid getting the hands dirty in the project.

With the sole aim of bringing light to a heavy subject, and without the intention of generalising, here follow some comments, reflexions, and thoughts, inspired by the debates at the Forum of the cities and juries in Paris last November.

Soft Interventions

The things that you call ‘soft’ interventions… are very hard. No one has pointed this out better than Tina Saaby, the city architect of Copenhagen (representing the client) in one of the debates. What might look as a ‘soft’ intervention in space (placing an addition on the roof of an existing building, for example) might be extremely ‘hard’ and complicated in terms of management and ownership. This does not mean that those ideas should be ignored, but they need to be presented with a clear understanding of the challenges. The client needs to see that the participants are aware of what they are doing, and calling the intervention ‘soft’ or ‘easy’ achieves the opposite result.

Acupuncture

An acupuncturist would not believe how often this term is used in architecture – as Robert Prost from the Swiss Jury pointed out. I had to laugh … it seems that one cannot get enough ‘acupunctural’ projects. Acupuncture in architecture is already a platitude. When did it become the universal remedy for all architecture or urban design problems? There are limits to acupuncture treatment… A doctor will never engage in acupuncture to cure a patient with a life-threatening disease or to reanimate a patient suffering a stroke. As Tor Arne Midtbø, Director of Planning in Asker (client for the Europan site at Dikemark) remarked: Acupuncture is not enough. The site is seriously decaying.

Wikipedia has this to say: Acupuncture has been categorized as a complementary health approach meaning that it is alternative medicine used together with conventional medical treatment in a belief, not proven by using scientific methods, that it «complements» the treatment.

Note too, that the ‘placebo’ effect plays an important role in acupuncture…Placebo is a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient.

The Monopoly Typology:

Applied to all scales and materials, to every possible site and all thinkable weather conditions … the playful, pitch-roof house is the generic typology in Europan.

Pop-up, Plug-in, bottom-up, do-it-yourself

Not everything can be plugged-in, popped-up, bottomed-up, or done-by-oneself. That’s it.

The painful aspect of this ambiguous ‘lightness’ is that while all of these strategies were initially thought up as alternative and intelligent ways to pursue a project, today they have forgotten the project in order to become the project itself. The distressing side was to see that among all the participants in the Forum (juries, Europan councils…) it was only the ‘client’ who seemed to have realised that the ‘lightness’ was never mean to the objective, but the way.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste

Part 3.

May the force be with you

Why, among the flamboyant eloquence of the juries and the well-elaborated arguments of the Europan council, was it the voice of the ‘client’ that was the truly refreshing, tempting, and triggering one? Why did I feel like Darth Vader crossing over to the ‘other side’? Why was the ‘other side’ not dark at all, but very bright
and clear?

Are architects at risk losing their relevance to the client? Do clients find us scary? Incompetent? Or simply boring? How can architects better show that they are still relevant and useful to the client? Are architects still able to do extraordinary projects with difficult programmes, heavy constraints, ugly sites, and inconvenient existing buildings?

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste

I tell you one time, you’re to blame
Ooo, who
Ooo, who