Call for liberation lacks motivation

On April 4, to mark the publication of Volume #14 – theme: ‘Unsolicited Architecture’ – the NAi organised a discussion about ‘unsolicited architecture’. During the evening an emphatic moral appeal was made to architects.

Precisely at a time when, according to the speakers, architecture is both successful and powerless, it offers no answers to important social questions. To turn the tide, architects were encouraged to liberate themselves from the straitjacket of tradition and take the initiative. We were told in fighting talk that we should cast off our traditional role model. But all the enthusiasm only clouded the question why architects should change roles. That’s why the evening needs a sequel.

Ole Bouman kicked off in a mood of expectancy. As director of the NAi and former editor in chief of Volume, he played the twin role of messenger and host. Bouman outlined a changing world where we are guided by our navigation systems and traditional landmarks are losing their meaning. He asked how architecture should react in an era of globalisation in which subjects like migration, digitisation, security and sustainability play important roles. Bouman noted that architects could display a more proactive attitude when it comes to these issues. Architects should place themselves at the fore in the building process, a position that shows a pioneering mentality that is lacking in current architecture.

According to the current editor in chief, Arjen Oosterman, solicited architecture becomes unsolicited when the architect reclaims an assignment, rejects it or reinterprets it. In doing so, he places the relation between client and architect at the centre. He proposed a strategy in which the designer can go beyond the quartet of ‘client, programme, site and budget’. This was summarised in a ‘decision scheme’ that the designer has to go through to be successful. In brief: first find new territories for architecture; then do away with the status quo of ‘client, programme, site and budget’; then make the design itself; and finally develop the appropriate marketing plan with an accompanying financing plan.

The different projects presented by Oosterman to back up his argument were indeed developed without clients and therefore diverged markedly from hardcore architecture. A begging robot from Japan turned out to be more effective than an untidy human equivalent. A design for a wall with niches in the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to store the ashes of people who use the bridge as a suicide location – a response to the lack of sufficient burial spots in the city and a strategy for generating income for the loss-making bridge. Oosterman also showed the mijN470 project by Artgineering. Here people could take possession of the asphalt even before a new road was opened. mijN470 formed part of an art festival organised by the Province of Zuid-Holland.

After that, Kristian Koreman of the firm ZUS explained how for some time he and his partner, Elma van Boxel, integrate ‘unsolicited advice for the city’ into their work. He explicitly indicated that these pieces of advice do not form a part of his business policy. A surprising statement. Claiming that there is unsolicited as well as solicited advice and then proceeding to place it beyond the scope his business left us with a contorted picture. Why can’t an opinion or an analysis lead to new commissions?

3. Unsolicited advice: annex of the Academy of Architecture in station area of Rotterdam, ZUS (2008)

4. Unsolicited advice: Use of Hofplein in Rotterdam, ZUS (2006)

When an office chooses a business form rather than an association or trust, then it’s only right to respond positively to clients who feel challenged by unsolicited advice. Given that ZUS employs the motto ‘putting architecture back at the centre of society’, it’s reasonable to acknowledge and confirm the relation between solicited and unsolicited work. Certainly since the office makes projects of such strong imaginative appeal, such as the Grand Bigard site in Brussels or the design to strengthen the Afsluitdijk – both developed on the basis of commissions.

ZUS presents witty ideas and strong images for spots in the city that, to them, have great potential. Spatial proposals are made on the basis of a bottom-up model, and that enhances the emotional bond between residents and the city. Interventions in the public space invite residents to respond and, in the process, appropriate the city. Koreman and Van Boxel propose, for example, to set up an annex of the Academy of Architecture in the centre of Rotterdam because the institute is relocating to the port area of Heijplaat. They showed an email address to which interested individuals can apply. The idea builds on their calls not to relocate all vulnerable cultural amenities such as film houses far outside the centre of Rotterdam. ZUS also sees the station area changing rapidly, yet the quality of post-war reconstruction architecture is easily ignored in the process. According to ZUS, that is not the way the city should function. But how, then, should a city function? The projects by Koreman and Van Boxel have the character of newspaper columns in the sense that it isn’t easy to grasp their motivations. All the more so given that the relation between the statements, the unsolicited advice and the solicited advice remains cloudy.

The urgent question here is: where is the dividing line between social involvement and good business sense? In theory, ‘unsolicited architecture’ may not form part of the business plan of architecture offices. Placed in the right context, it could be more, and probably also of greater social relevance than when it’s just a matter of claiming intellectual freedom. These unsolicited projects can certainly be deployed in seeking new commissions for realistic projects. They allow an architect to communicate his views and positions on issues and make a portfolio more than just a collection of solicited projects. But when unsolicited architecture is primarily an expression of the desire for more freedom, then architecture distances itself even further from the social field. A field in which the commissioning client is viewed not as a full-fledged player but as a limiting factor.

Not many buildings are a direct translation of the client’s wishes. That is not to say that the discrepancy between request and result is caused by unsolicited answers from designers. Many design processes are a succession of advancing insights. An architect has to take many issues into account when designing, and subtle choices often lead to subtle solutions. Sometimes on the basis of a clear concept, sometimes the starting principles shift back and forth. But if we want to define unsolicited architecture precisely, then what are the boundaries we have to explore? The architects and architecture critics had great difficulty backing up their appeal with arguments from outside architecture. Is it really the case that architecture does not influence society today or adds little to it, as Oosterman argued? Or are we dealing here with the architect’s struggle with how he can reconcile his unsolicited and solicited projects in one model?

The architect finds himself in an intellectual quandary. One minute he pulls his client close to him and the next minute he’s desperately looking for an ‘antonymous zone’. This field of tension needs to be explored further. All the more so since architecture that tries to liberate itself from architecture leaves little to the imagination.