Europan forum prompts discussion

To bring Europan 8 to a close, the European winners congregated in Dordrecht for the weekend of June 30 and July 1 to take part in workshops, collect prizes and celebrate. Robert Verrijt, who made the prize-winning design for the Enschede location with Floris Cornelisse, was in Dordrecht and kept a diary of his visit.

June 30

The two-day ‘Forum of Results Europan 8’ was held in the Energy House in Dordrecht, a perfectly inspiring meeting place for young and ambitious architects from Europe. Having recovered from the news of their victory – the results had been announced back in February –the architects presented their designs to one another for the first time.

On the first day these presentations were held in small working groups in the hope that they would lead to discussion. But the language barrier hindered easy communication, as did the sheer number of projects that had to be discussed. Heated debate was therefore out of the question. There was plenty of cause for debate, however. The Europan competition, which aims to be not only research-oriented and innovative but also feasible, was reflected in the nature of the competition designs. A clear distinction could be discerned between spectacular designs and feasible projects.

July 1

On the second forum day a number of Europan laureates such as S333, OBRAS architects and Pierre Gautier told of their Europan experiences and subsequent careers. The talk by the French office BNR architects was particularly memorable. Their housing project in Saintes contains all the qualities that you’d expect from a Europan project: innovative on account of the radical filling of a housing block, contextual on account of the extremely powerful and precise use of materials (stone from demolished dwellings was reused), clever on account of the housing density – and exquisitely beautiful on top of all that.

The day left more room for discussion. Topics raised during the debates included pressing urban issues such as ‘building with nature’, ‘urbanising with infrastructure’, ‘reuse of urban fabric’, ‘what type of urbanity for residents?’ and ‘generating the new’. Experts illuminated a number of winning projects, though you’d be right to ask if many of them were really that good.

Young architects have now discovered that a Europan prize can signal the start of a successful career. That’s why a number of the competition designs excel chiefly in their urge to innovate and in megalomania. These are impressive projects that pull out all the stops to grab attention. Three pitfalls ensured that most of the designed were totally out of place, however.

1. The theme of Europan 8, European Urbanity, which focused on thinking about and altering the European city, resulted in fairly large competition locations. Many architects succumbed to the temptation of deploying just one architectural gesture to solve all urban problems in one go. The urban-design scale was ignored and architecture was deployed as a revolutionary healing substance. The difficulty, however, is that the architects were oblivious to the problems of public space that such monstrous architectural interventions lead to. A case in point was the ‘Plug-in City’ winning design for the Prague location.

2. The majority of competition locations were in small to medium-sized towns. A number of competition designs for public buildings for these locations wouldn’t have been out of place in the crammed centres of Asian metropolises. A project such as ‘insular laboratory’, for example, is too optimistic about the need for so much public space in an outlying district of Dijon.

3 The Europan organisation is proud of the fact that 45% of the participating architects chose a location outside their own country. That is understandable for a European organisation that aims to foster trans-national links. Unfortunately, it also means that Spaniards design patio dwellings in Norway! Patio-dwellings that not only fail to admit the scarce light available but also fail to frame the amazing views. Innovative? Maybe. Clever? No.

The weekend was brought to a close in spectacular fashion in the charming ‘Schouwburg Kunstmin’ by architect Ravesteyn. Prizes were awarded for the best built project from the first generation, Europan 1 to 4. Of the Dutch winners, S333 was awarded first prize for the Schots in Groningen, and Gautier and Concko received an honourable mention for their housing scheme in Zaandam. The musicians from Stuurbaard Bakkebaard, who livened up the party, had their own opinion about architects. Through their guitar noise you could just about hear them singing: ‘Architect, Architect, Architect? I’ll build my own house!’