Group Portraits 2004

‘Fear and space’ is the theme of Group Portraits 2004. A topical theme, since fear is everywhere, dominating public discussion, driving the political debate, making us long for times gone by… An opportune moment, therefore, to examine this phenomenon in the architecture debate too.

Fear is a vague, subjective and elusive feeling that is open to many interpretations. What’s it got to do with architecture? Or rather: what’s the designer got to do with it? According to Urban Affairs, organiser of Group Portraits, designers should certainly address the subject. That is why they chose ‘fear and space’ as the theme of the 2004 series. Group Portraits is an initiative of the Dutch Fund for Architecture (SfA) and the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture (Fonds BKVB). It is intended to ‘make use of the enthusiasm and open attitude of young designers for matters that have a great influence on the spatial organisation of the Netherlands’. The groups participating in GP04 are: DUS, Shine 5.0, Mr. Smith, and Untitled.

The book ‘Fear & space: the view of young designers in the Netherlands’ was launched in December 2004 during the Group Portraits presentation. In their introduction to the book, Theo Hauben and Marco Vermeulen of Urban Affairs argue that ’the desire for safety has stripped and standardised the living environment’. They ask whether there are alternatives, and whether we can also talk about the risks we are prepared to take. They also want to know how security and risk can shape physical development in the Netherlands.

The description of the syndrome Techno-Democratic-Phobia (TDF) by Mr. Smith results in a powerful analysis of the phenomenon of fear in urban space. The description also provides the motivation and framework for the study by Mr. Smith, one of the participating groups. The syndrome of Mr. Smith is local in character, since it emerged on 1st Middelland Street in Rotterdam. But it is also global, since it establishes a connection between the local situation and social-economic inequality around the world. This inequality produces crime and terrorism, which have also found their way to the 1st Middelland Street. The response of the city authorities is control, surveillance and security. What is sad is that features of this culture of control such as security cameras only make Mr. Smith more fearful.

DUS offers a ‘measure of consolation’ as a weapon against fear. One of the results of its research was a performance in public space. At Deliplein in Rotterdam a bar was set up where passers-by could get a cup of coffee. For children, DUS developed a ‘chalk house’ with blackboard walls that could be decorated (and thus appropriated) with coloured chalk. DUS discovered that children dealt more freely with the house when it was erected in a classroom that when it stood outside on the playground. By adding an element, DUS tries to analyse human behaviour in public space.

‘Fear is an illusion.’ That was the starting point of the study carried out by Shine 5.0: ‘Fear is not created by space, rather the space is redefined by mental sets associated with a stereotype.’ At various spots around Rotterdam, Shine 5.0 set up an ‘imaginary living room’ where nearby residents could record their local and personal stories and share them with others. Events in and around the ‘living rooms’ were filmed and the images shown at the next location where the travelling living room stopped. The living room as a weapon against the anonymity of public space.

Untitled also focused its research on fear and space in Rotterdam: ‘From a distance, the Rotterdam skyline promises urban intensity, but little of that remains once you reach the city. What does remain is an urban scenography replete with implements of control.’ Untitled ‘embraces’ the Rotterdam desire for a city full of towers and asks how those towers relate to the public domain down on the ground. Untitled designed two versions of towers with squares. One consists of two towers with a square in between, the other of a tower with a square inside.

Group Portraits 2002 had as theme ‘City Branding’. Each participating (existing) office was assigned locations in two cities. That, too, was a fairly abstract theme, but it did focus on specific locations. The theme ‘fear & space’ is perhaps even less tangible, and no locations were assigned on this occasion. On top of that, the groups taking part were assembled for this project only and had to be multidisciplinary in composition. There was too much to choose or study, and that is probably the main reason for the rather disjointed results.

The publication, the lasting product of Group Portraits 2004, is designed in a matter-of-fact manner but does not amount to an informative introduction to the theme of ‘fear and space’, despite the fact that it contains very sensible contributions from the likes of Benjamin Barber, Joshua Karant and Moritz K√ľng. It would have been more effective if the assignment had been given a clearer framework and if each of the participating designers had been given a different and clearly demarcated aspect of the theme to study. Instead, it contains a thorough analysis by Mr. Smith, a friendly project by DUS, a ‘lightly provocative’ (as they put it) study by Shine 5.0, and a formalist design study by Untitled. Coffee, towers, a living room, and a playhouse as instruments to study fear and space. Anything goes, no limitations: the young designer’s dream. Yet that ignores the fact that freedom is best experienced when it has to be won and that, when anything goes, freedom can have a paralysing effect.