30-05-10 // THE NEW BLACK – INTERVIEW WITH BERND UPMEYER
Liam Neeson as a turtleneck pullover wearing architect
The Portuguese Contemporary Architecture and Art Magazine Arqa interviewed Bernd Upmeyer on the topic of architecture and market.
Arqa: Given your interest in radical urban research and your activity as editor of MONU magazine, how would you interpret the situation and the current relations between architecture and the global market?
Bernd Upmeyer: In an increasingly interconnected world and ever- growing interdependence of national economies across the world that led ultimately to the emergence of a global marketplace, architects – as all other corporations and industries – are challenged and threatened in their existence more than ever before. Today, an architect based in the city of Lisbon does not only compete over clients and commissions with architects from Porto, but also with architects from São Paulo, New York or Tokyo. But the pressure has not only increased among architects, but also and especially among real estate companies, something that eventually reflects back onto the architectural profession. A Rotterdam-based real estate developer explained to me only recently in an interview that has been published in our most recent issue MONU #12 under the title “Life without Architects” that real estate companies currently consider a price per square meter in building costs over 600 Euros as expensive. This is quite shocking, when you consider that a price of around 1000 Euros per square meter was regarded as cheap. But low budgets are not the biggest threat to architects. The same developer told us that nowadays real estate companies actually try more and more to avoid working with architects and rather collaborate directly with construction companies as they share in their opinion a greater understanding of their profession and are by far cheaper than architects. But this tendency is accompanied by another extreme trend. Ever since projects such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao have proved that very high investments lead to very high revenues for the developing companies – at least that is how it was presented in several articles in magazines and newspapers – more and more of such expensive, iconic and glamorous buildings, designed by famous architects, have been constructed. On one hand, if both extreme trends continue, most of the built-up hardware of our cities will be made out of cardboard in the future and designed only by untalented and uninspiring architects that are working in big construction companies. On the other hand, this vast mass of cheapness will be punctuated by some beautiful and glamorous buildings as “red hot spots of intensity surrounded by a plane of tarmac” as Rem Koolhaas called it once.
A: In the context of the growing affirmation of architecture in contemporary societies, how can the architect take positive action to cope with the current economic and productive forces?
BU: What appears to be going on is that to survive as an architect you either have to become extremely cheap and generic and work in the possible best way directly for a big construction company, or you have to try to become extremely expensive and famous to design some of the exquisite red hot spots of the cities. At first glance that situation might look very depressing. But it also offers a lot of opportunities as in the history of the human race it has never been easier to actually become famous as an architect within a very short period of time. The internet has made this possible. Today it seems that with the help of the internet and a successful marketing and public relations strategy you can reach great fame rapidly and grow an architecture office of a large size very fast. Evidences of such phenomena can be witnessed specifically in Scandinavia, where some Danish architecture offices managed to grow into offices of up to 80 people in only a couple of years. The internet has offered the opportunity to spread information to a vast number of people simultaneously and almost instantaneously. It has accelerated the possibilities of getting famous through blogs, internet forums and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. Architecture offices that exhausted and strategically used up all the new possibilities that the internet offers reached fame almost overnight. But to be able to use the internet successfully, architects have to change their way of working profoundly and become businessmen rather than artists. And since architecture can not remain just an art form, but has to become a business in order to survive, architects are forced to improve their business skills. They have to stop dreaming of being some kind of artistic elite that focuses solely on the artistic side of architecture. Architects have to be become business people who run profit-oriented enterprises instead of architecture offices. They have to become more involved in the management of their company. The days of black turtleneck pullovers seem to be over. Architects have to change their black clothes for suits with white collar shirts and neckties.
A: A subject of recent international debate, which programmes and strategies could make cities more creative? Could you give and justify a real example of a “Creative City”?
BU: Although it might sound paradoxical, but to prevent cities from becoming planes of grey tarmac filled with cheap and low quality architecture with only some red hot spots of intensity, represented by a few glamorous, spectacular and expensive products of famous architects, it is necessary for the municipalities of the cities to regain some of the power they lost in the privatisation processes of the last two decades that took place in most of the European cities. The Dutch city of Rotterdam, for example, sold most of its land to private parties in the beginning of the 1990s. When the land was divested, the city lost a lot of its power and influence. But as in most cases, the city lacks the financial possibilities to buy back parts of the city and the private parties would never sell back their land anyway. The municipalities can only regain power by creating stricter rules when it comes to real estate investments and urban development. That would be the only way to assure for the future the involvement of talented and creative architects in the production of relevant parts of the cities. It finally has to be admitted that the neo-liberal market-driven approach has failed in recent years when it comes to city planning. Nevertheless, developers should maintain a strong position, because without their money nothing will be possible. But their position has to be balanced by strong municipalities that care for quality in the cities and support the production of high quality architecture, architecture that is usually too expensive and too risky for developers. Only this will prevent cities from turning into areas that are reduced to machines for making and spending money. The only reason, for example, why OMA’s “De Rotterdam”, despite the financial crisis, is currently under construction, is that the municipality of Rotterdam guaranteed that it will rent approximately 40.000m2 of the total floorspace of around 160.000m2, which lowered the investment costs. Although the city of Rotterdam is a rather weak municipality, when it comes to architecture and urban planning, I would still call it a “Creative City”.
Title: The New Black
Project: Interview with Bernd Upmeyer
Date: May 2010
Type: Commissioned interview
Topic: Architecture and market
Organizer: Architecture and Art Magazine Arqa
Publications: Arqa #80/81
Interviewer: Paula Melâneo