Working on the public domain

Architectural Positions is a series of seminars at Delft University of Technology in which the relation between the public domain and architecture and modernity is questioned in different ways. The format of the seminars allows is two architects to give their views on the theme, following an introduction by various eminent thinkers and architects. On Thursday March 22 Felix Claus and Kas Oosterhuis were invited to shed light on their ideas about temporality and the public domain after an introduction from René Boomkens.

The various ways in which ‘time’ manifests itself in architecture was an important theme in modernism. After all, modernity was generally seen as an era marked by speed, technical innovations and continuous change. Architecture is often characterised either as a vehicle of mobility and rapidly successive transformations or, rather, as a counterweight, the last bastion of stability and collective memory. Pitting Felix Claus and Kas Oosterhuis against each other was a clear attempt to contrast the search for architectural timelessness on the one hand and the speed and contemporaneity of digitally oriented designs on the other. This aspect of the theme was discussed relatively little, however.

In his introduction, René Boomkens mainly talked about the public domain and its relation to public space, with references to Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas and Richard Sennett. References to the ideas of these thinkers are often made within the architecture debate as well, but Boomkens tried to maintain a clear distinction between the public domain as an idea and public space as a physical reality. He noted (rightly so) that architects regularly confuse the two.

Felix Claus then indicated he could only speak as a Dutch architect and showed various projects. He related the Dutchness of his work to the social ideal of equality and a sober attitude towards history. In passing he argued that we in the Netherlands have little notion of tradition, given that most buildings in this country exist for just a few years. He mentioned the demolition in the Bijlmermeer to illustrate that Dutch architects are not afraid to rectify the mistakes of history. Nonetheless, he felt that architecture has a responsibility to safeguard continuity.

Oosterhuis himself was not present unfortunately. His place was taken by Marthijn Pool of his office ONL, who was supported by a researcher working with Oosterhuis at Delft University of Technology. The presentation focused on the work of the office and did not specifically address the theme of time, but that did surface occasionally when he talked about the design process and possibilities of new technologies, particularly the incorporation of ‘realtime’ in the design process. Bol also explained how the office’s design method immediately showed how changes made during the design process affect the rest of the design. The consequences of every change are apparent increasingly quickly.

Various aspects of temporality – from the ‘longue durée’ of Rossi to the distinction made by Boomkens between historical continuities and the chiefly contemporary experience of discontinuities – were clarified in the ensuing discussion. But the difficult nature of the theme in relation to architecture remained palpable. Claus introduced the issue of ‘newness’ and timelessness into the discussion. Architects shouldn’t be ‘bound’ by continuity and historical identity. The long course of history is an obvious way in which ‘time’ manifests itself in architecture. But because Claus claimed a certain autonomy for the architect, the theme of ‘time’ was reduced to the issue of innovation and originality. From the audience came the question whether this was perhaps a false discussion, and whether every ‘new’ discovery could not be traced to historical examples, since only very rarely are new things actually made.

This part of the discussion revealed just how difficult it was to get a grip on exactly what the significance of time was (or can be) for architecture and the public domain, despite the efforts of the organisers to keep the theme specific. Oddly enough, the most interesting topic of the evening concerned something entirely different. In his presentation Claus mentioned the ethics of working for fascists and dictators. He found it shocking to see architects like Rem Koolhaas build for a regime like that in China. This diversion from temporality to the ethics of architectural practice was reminiscent of what happened the previous week, which featured lectures on the theme of ‘image building’ and public space by Léon Krier and Michiel Riedijk and an introduction by Lieven de Cauter. The most pressing issue that evening was not so much ‘the image’, as the question of sustainability. In their presentations, both Léon Krier and Michiel Riedijk in their own manner dealt with the issue of sustainability in current architectural practice. In both sessions, therefore, the issues that surfaced weren’t those advanced beforehand.

In that sense the series would seem to be a vehicle for something else, for pressing contemporary issues about values. Not as the ‘standards-and-values’ discussion of contemporary politics but simply a discussion that addresses questions like, ‘what should we be dealing with, what is ‘good’, and how should we shape it?’ And the public domain is becoming apparent in this series precisely in this questioning of the communal framework of social intercourse – whether that lies in an awareness of our interventions in relation to the surroundings and the environment, or in an awareness of the difficult moral dilemmas facing architects, such as what type of client to work for. Another question that arises here is: ‘What is the architect responsible for?’ In these seminars it isn’t the different definitions and manifestations of the public domain that are questioned but, instead, the means and strategies on which the public domain is constructed. Ultimately, these seminars aren’t about architecture and the public domain. Rather, the series itself is an expression of the public domain: an atmosphere of discussing and questioning, in this case concerning what we want our world to look like and how we think we can achieve that. What remains is the issue of public space.