Proposal by Blacklinesonwhitepaper and Motsepe Architects

How, then, should we deal with the relation between people and the cities they live in, their daily problems, accommodation, work? Of the five case studies discussed in the conference, Saturday focused on Hidden Cities and Informal Cities. In its proposal to change the water system in São Paulo, architecture firm MMBB emphasises improving existing structures. In contrast to the slums of India examined by Jan Bremen, MMBB sees possibilities to improve the favelas in Brazil. According to the architects, the many small football pitches scattered throughout the seemingly randomly organised self-made structures express a hopeful awareness of collective interest. The collaborating offices Blacklinesonwhitepaper and Motsepe Architects also try to further the emancipation of people living in a district of Johannesburg (South Africa). To accommodate the many visitors to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the architects developed a building system whereby residents can attach a hotel room to their home. Oddly enough, this project was out of tune with the others because of its activist approach. Rather than presenting a new formality as the solution for a wide range of problems – an approach that many architects at the conference fell back on consciously or not – Blacklinesonwhitepaper and collaborators set to work like process managers to actually realise their vision. This raises the question whether in critically assessing the power of businesses, the penchant for spectacle, the impact of the market economy, the forming of ghettos and social segregation, the architect is able to free himself sufficiently from his prejudice to see architecture as the culmination of thinking.

The closing debate was chaired by Lieven De Cauter and Michiel Dehaene. The plea by Elia Zenghelis for a strategy based on form differed markedly from the approaches taken by other architects. That made it all the more regrettable that Zenghelis wasn’t present during the final proceedings. The assumed and implicit similarities among the five case studies weren’t seized upon to arrive at new insights. There was nothing left than to finish with a collection of disparate conclusions by the various participants.

Alfredo Brillembourg (The Urban Think Tank) noted that none of the participating architects had clients. He holds the view that designers themselves should search for clients on the basis of a clear idea of their profession. ‘Architecture runs the risk of repeating itself,’ argued Brillembourg. He mentioned a number of stubborn syndromes that he thinks contribute to this repetition: the Stockholm syndrome, finding your mentor too nice; the Jerusalem syndrome, religion as a mission; the New York syndrome, wanting everything big; and the Holland syndrome, endlessly making forms. This last syndrome can be interpreted as an indirect comment about Zenghelis. Teddy Cruz also seemed to have no need for new forms. Instead, architects should, he believes, search for new institutes that are able to manage buildings on a small scale and, hence, fight poverty. Looking at the city, Pier Vittorio Aureli argued for a renewed capacity of cities to organise the relation between individual and collective spaces. ‘There is hope,’ argued De Cauter finally, ‘but there’s not much reason to be optimistic’.

Architect Elia Zenghelis observed a fluctuation in the belief that holds the profession and its practitioners together. ‘We have now reached a point at which there are no longer any shared paradigms’, according to Zenghelis. Architects have become scared and no longer take on the challenge of converting beauty into form, while what we need now most of all is beauty as an expression of an ideal.

Zenghelis also sees this fear in the contemporary city, a city he says has fallen into the hands of those who treat it as though it has acquired its definitive form. He pointed the finger at star architects who contribute to the pollution of the planet with their buildings. To illustrate this he showed, oddly enough, the CCTV building by Rem Koolhaas. After this sly dig at his former office partner, he concluded his provocation with an unexpected proposal. Architects should again focus on large-scale projects that are capable of accommodating different urban programmes. He backed this up with examples of work by Superstudio and Aldo Rossi.

Provoked further by Teddy Cruz of Estudio Cruz, Zenghelis finally went another step: ‘I don’t believe in bottom-up development. Architecture is a top-down movement that cannot be realised through consultation alone.’ With that he hit on one of the key questions of the conference: In what way should the discipline of architecture relate to the problems of the city and its citizens today?

To what extent was this important question answered during the conference?

Many problems confront the world: depletion of energy resources, over-population, pollution, social inequality, dictatorial regimes. Jan Bremen, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, has conducted a lot of research into the slums of India. The picture he sketches is bleak. Cities with large illegal districts do not further the emancipation of new urban residents. Instead, slumification leads to ghettofication in many cases. Bremen also notes a growing difference between urban areas where formal economic activities take place and areas where informal economic activities take place. Poor people in big cities are prevented from entering gated communities, those parts of the city that house the protected, formal economy. They live illegally and must make themselves available for work every morning, only to be dismissed again that very evening.