From October 21 to 24, 53 young architects from 25 European countries gathered in Rotterdam for the first Young European Architects conference. A day-by-day report from three Dutch participants: Alex van de Beld (Onix), Jan Jongert (2012 architecten), and Klaas van der Molen (BAR).
Klaas van der Molen (BAR)
Sunday October 24
In the Van Nelle Factory keynote speaker Helena Njiric presented the work of talented Croatian architects. Among the schemes were the informal events initiated by Platforma 98 on an undeveloped site in Zagreb, and her own prestigious glass pavilion at the recent Venice Biennale. She believes that a united Europe can lead to an exchange of opinions and experiences and ultimately strengthen the architectural climate in Croatia.
The results of the previous day’s workshops were then condensed into a final statement by Bart Lootsma. In addition to building up a network of young architects, this YEA seminar aimed to define the role, identity and content of the work of YEA and, more particularly, to examine possibilities for architectural, urban design and related research in Europe.
The fact the YEA is not concerned with ideologies but with how to operate within architecture was illustrated by the many differences in approach and by the difficulty in getting architects to agree with one another. An important point was raised by André Loeckx with his identification of ‘the architectural centrefield’, a metaphor borrowed from football. Whereas the sporting centrefield connects defence and attack, its architectural counterpart connects client and architect. Activity in the centrefield ranges from initiating competitions, publications and exhibitions to engaging in political lobbying and education. It is clear that YEA must play a role in the centrefield, but on a European scale.
In conclusion, YEA hopes to become a network of architects capable of exercising influence on the architectural conditions at a European scale.
A danger with this type of gathering, however, is the noncommittal context in which it takes place. It is therefore important that YEA makes itself heard very soon and keeps one step ahead of centrefield competitors. The seminar closed in true Dutch style with herring and gin on a clipper (boat).
Jan Jongert (2012 architecten)
Saturday October 23
The audience woke up to hear Arch+ editor Angelika Schnell offer what was an extensive account of the architectural climate in Germany arrived at an interesting analysis of the young European architect. She characterised him as an individualist with aspirations of being of some significance for the world. This paradox, she claimed, stems from the fact that architects are educated to practice their profession as best they can, yet that is precisely what they’re not asked to do. She sees young architects increasingly play the role of firemen in society. Schnell doubts whether this strategy can produce anything if we don’t let go of some of that individualism.
In the morning sessions the organisers unfortunately decided to elaborate further on the more pragmatic idea raised by André Loeckx, namely that young architects should engage much more with the architectural centrefield (i.e. media, judging, politics) in order to gain positions of influence. As a result, the discussion at my table was far too general. Only a few suggestions for improving the position of young architects were raised: a media offensive on Euronet, and a quota of young architects among the participants in limited competitions. Such ideas, to me, are signs of a rearguard battle being waged by a professional group that has retreated to such an abstract level of significance that it is no longer capable of appealing to large sections of the population. Neither a media offensive nor the forced participation by young architects in competitions will do much to change matters.
More inspiring ideas seemed to have been exchanged in other groups, but I was nonetheless unable to shake off the feeling that most participants, just like myself, felt alienated as they took part in the conference.
Sunday October 24
During the closing debate at the NAi Bart Lootsma read aloud a balanced summary of the combined statements. The potential of the centrefield cropped up again and again, yet little enthusiasm could be discerned among those present.
The most inspiring contribution to the debate came from Freek Persijn (51N4E), who was the only architect to consider the conference venue itself and who felt it left much room for improvement. He looked for the right balance between formal and informal meetings that YEA could organise, and he proposed asking all participants to come up with ideas for the next YEA conference.
In the closing discussion, attention shifted to the possibility of infiltrating existing institutions and creating the right organisational structure. The value of experience was stressed when Alain Sagne (former chair of the European Architecture Institute, ACE) warned against any lengthy search for the right organisational structure that would leave no time for content.
The best idea, it seemed to me, was that proposed by Freek Persijn: stage a competition to create the spatial setting for the next meeting and ensure that the winning design is implemented. And let us please ensure that at least 20% of those invited to enter the competition are older architects.
Alex van de Beld (Onix)
Thursday evening, October 21
After arrival in Rotterdam and checking into the schooners (boats) where we would spend the next three days, the young European architects got talking to one another straight away. The beer and wine were to everyone’s liking, and though the skipper’s combination of kidney beans, bacon, piccalilli and meatballs was new to many diners, it was enjoyable all the same. So too was the young gin that started to flow after the spectacular night-time tour of the harbour. In fact, it was the gin that helped everyone get acquainted very quickly. It was also the perfect nightcap that sent everyone to bed on time.
Friday October 22
The first session had difficulty getting going. After lengthy introductions in groups of 10, we hesitantly explored the idea of working together. We tried to get to grips with all sorts of questions. What is the role of an architect in a European context. Is he still capable of directing the entire process? Should he even want to do that? Should he be content to draw up a draft design and then have this converted into working drawings locally? Can the European architect still decide how he wants to combine one-off and industrial products? And how does he determine the right combination for a particular commission? Is European collaboration an opportunity to let generic concepts and programmes land locally? Does this mean that generic architects fling their concepts around while locals have to translate them into bricks and mortar? Or could we devise a new process of building that relies less on autonomous concepts and more on local specifics?
In short, difficult questions that could not be answered in the first session. But to arrive at a conclusion of some sort, our group drew up something akin to a manifesto midway through the weekend. Not a CIAM-like document, but a temporary source of inspiration with which architects could get to grips with the changes occurring around us. Moderator Bart Lootsma later called it an architecture song. A somewhat naive song perhaps, but then again we were young architects this weekend. The song goes like this:
We want to know each other, We trust each other, We gain knowledge by meeting each other, We share our ideas, We are a Milky Way of stars. We will never work alone. We are open to new diversity. We are visible because we are leaving the building. We think in a direction before we do. We give up our nationality and emphasize Europe.