About an office that doesn’t want to build

The very first pictures of the earth taken from outer space changed the way I look and think forever. The earth is our spacecraft, our mother, and home to all of us. (Luc Deleu, 2011)

Under the title The Knight’s Move, the Stroom centre for art and architecture in The Hague is presenting artists, thinkers and architects who distinguish themselves from others through unusual, enlightening and inspiring visions of the city, urbanity and the public domain. In that regard, Luc Deleu — artist, architect and visionary — is an obvious choice on the list of speakers.

The images of the earth floating in space and the poetic name that Buckminster Fuller coined for our planet, ‘spaceship earth’, inspired Deleu to come up with his so-called orbanisme — a form of urbanism and architecture that takes the human scale, as well as its significance for the whole world, into account with every intervention, no matter how small. Or as he writes ‘Orbanism aims for an integrated practice of urbanism and architecture at a planetary scale and tries to view the earth as the spatial and social context for cities and architecture. Orbanisme therefore aims for a balanced organisation of the earth’s space.’

Deleu is not only an orbanist but also a big relativist; his way of talking about his ideas, projects and orbanisme is almost cursory. He sprinkled his presentation with that characteristic humour with which Belgians so unerringly expose the absurdity of our world. Deleu flicked nonchalantly through a number of projects from the early years of his office, including the Mobile Medium University, his proposal for a new university in Antwerp located on three ships. Once these students have completed their studies, they not only possess academic knowledge, they are also worldly-wise.
But despite the numerous jokes, he’s serious. He made that clear not just by racing through his Orbanistist Manifesto (1980). This manifesto, he concluded contentedly, still summarises his vision well. With his work he has also compiled the consistent oeuvre that he aspired to when he graduated and contemplated the question what an architecture office should look like that isn’t going to build, or rather, doesn’t want to build! Deleu devoted the largest part of his lecture to The Unadapted City (D.O.S), an urban study into the alternative use of urban space, which the office worked on from 1995 to 2004.

Deleu’s urbanism is a logical elaboration of three critical premises, namely: that urbanism limit itself to determining the necessary volumes, infrastructure and services; that urbanism do not interfere in private lives; and that urbanism impose limitations on multinationals and institutes that are to the advantage of everybody. That makes this form of urbanism a direct reflection of Deleu’s own critical view of society and orbanisme.

He himself expresses it thus: ‘The central theme is the search for an original form and organisation of what makes a city a city, for what makes everyday life pleasant and gives meaning to public space: an autonomous, three-dimensional and monumental (infra)structure, an example of contemporary collaboration between the private and public sector; attractive public transport and pleasant public space that display the identity of the community in symbolic fashion; a controlled urban space that is controlled and controllable from inside to outside and under the urban roofs, and is provided with a system of public transport that is conceived as a horizontal lift; a space-park / park-space for pedestrians in symbiosis with the peripheral space for vehicular traffic; attractions and amenities for car drivers, intermediate stations for drivers and pedestrians; a public space in open space.’ (La Ville Inadaptée, p.62).

The research into The Unadapted City started with a proposal for a linear city called Usiebenpole on the island in the River Donau near Vienna. On this 22-km-long strip he initially planned 1000 Unité d’Habitation buildings — ’the best apartment building there is of course’ — and then asked himself how he should charge the public space. How many cafes, how many social functions, which medical facilities, where to play sports? These questions signalled the start of an endless data study that he then represented wonderfully — ‘because I simply have to sell my drawings to get by as a non-building architect’. Over the years this unadapted city has grown, and complete districts with names like BricaBrak and DinkyTown have been added. The project ended with a 1850-cm-long model — 1/100th of a nautical mile — of VIPCity, which was presented in 2004 at the MUHKA museum in Antwerp. Since 2006 Luc Deleu has been working on a new study called ORBAN SPACE into urban space on a world-wide scale.

The meta-studies result in wonderful, powerfully formal images, comparable with his artworks in public space. In terms of content, however, the images are much more difficult to digest. The theory and the data cloud that lie hidden behind the images are not to be comprehended in just one evening.

Just how difficult it is to fathom his work became clear when it was the audience’s turn to pose questions. Even though the majority of them were professional colleagues, scarcely any critical questions were put concerning the content of the work. Instead, they revealed the classical lack of understanding for the paper architect and his choice not to want to build. For example, he was asked: ‘What do you leave behind as an architect/urbanist if you do not build?’ A remarkable turnaround. Deleu hit the ball back by saying: ‘I am an architect who wants nothing’. The question from urbanists and architects should be ‘What can I do, or do I want to do, with the work of Deleu as an architect/urbanist?’ His logical and full consideration of the Orbanist Manifesto, which focuses on mankind and the spaceship earth, has not lost any validity, and is worthy of study now more than ever. It is therefore to be welcomed that Stroom does not plan to leave it at just one lecture but will examine the work of Deleu over the coming period and discuss it extensively next year in an exhibition and book.