Hugh Maaskant’s David Lloyd building in Rotterdam

The Milan-based magazine STUDIO interviewed Bernd Upmeyer for their first issue on the topic of Crisis.

STUDIO: Officially today we live in an urbanized world. More than 50% of humanity live in urban contexts. Is this the age of urbanity or the age of the crises complexity?
Bernd Upmeyer: If you ask me like that I would rather say that it is the age of urbanity, because crises always happened. It is not that we are just now having a lot of crises and we never had them before. But I also don’t see exactly the relation between the age of urbanity and the crises we are facing at moment. First of all you have to define what kind of crises you’re talking about. Today we are dealing for example with three main crises: the financial crisis, the climate crisis, but also the geo-political crisis.

S: So this is not an urban topic?

BU: That depends on what crisis you are talking about. The current financial crisis, for example, has of course an impact on cities, but cities did not produce the financial crisis to begin with. If you wish to talk about the relation of the climate crisis to cities, then you can of course also say that the recent enormous population growths of cities did not make the situation easier. However, we can speak of an urban age, mainly because of the vast movements of people from the countryside to the cities, which happened especially in Asia – a tendency that does not happen so much in the Western world, where cities are rather shrinking.

S: From the etymological Greek origin of the word, crisis could be intended as the moment of the choice, of a turningpoint. Which kind of choice do you think is necessary now?
BU: A crisis asks for decisions and choices, but a crisis is first of all never a choice. It occurs and then you have to react to it.

S: Of course, but we have to start at some point!
BU: But as architects and urbanists we are very dependent on political decisions. Of course we can stimulate ideas, making for example magazines and provoking them to do something. If you think for example how the real estate industry has exploited cities in the recent past. That is definitely something that went totally out of hand during the last two or three decades and this has to be controlled more. What is currently happening in politics in relation to the financial crisis should be also applied in politics in relation to urbanism.

S: Could you make a concrete example?
BU: If you look at Rotterdam for example you can see that a lot of things went wrong during the last 20-30 years. For one of our most recent issues, MONU #12 on the topic of “Real Urbanism”, we interviewed the Rotterdam-based architect Andre Kempe, who explained us how the city of Rotterdam sold most of their ground to developers by the end of 80’s, and the beginning of 90’s. Because of this, most of the city developments were ruled mainly by the real estate industry during the last thirty years. And this led to developments without any urban coherence and low quality urban spaces. Now it is really the time that politicians get once again more involved in city developments.

S: How can they do that?
BU: Concretely, the municipalities in cities need to have more influence on certain developments. Selling off of land and leaving the decisions only to the developers has proved to be a failure. There was of course a great hope thirty years ago, because at that moment probably everybody thought that we could get very interesting and exciting cities – but we didn’t! All this has failed and in that case you’re right – that we are at a turning. Things can’t continue like they are, because otherwise this will have very negative consequences for our cities.

S: In the architectural issue too! Don’t you think there was some aesthetic crisis, a lack of contents in architecture? A crisis of ideas…
BU: No, I don’t think so. What we are talking about now has nothing to do with aesthetics or even architecture. I wish architecture could be so influential and powerful. But it is all about economics and I think by the end of the 80’s there was not a crisis of ideas when it comes to the economy. There were great ideas at that moment. I mean, let’s just think about Thatcher’s ideas of a deregulated financial sector and the focus on the sale or closure of state-owned companies. People were enthusiastic about those ideas at that moment. The liberalization of the market was a great hope. Everybody thought: let the market be liberal, self-regulated, and flexible and let private investors buy everything. Give them everything and something good will come out of it. If we would be now talking thirty years before, we would probably think: yes we have to do it like that! I remember even the newspapers a couple of years ago saying that we had to give more freedom to the private sector and to private companies, and that we had to lower the regulations, and so on. But then the financial crisis arrived and all this talk was over. And now the politicians are trying to regulate the financial sector once again more. But it remains to be seen if this attitude is not going to change again very soon…

S: …something cyclical.
BU: Yeah, that may be. At the moment we are having this financial crisis, but we had other crises before, as there will be always new crises in the future. But a lot of great things are also born out of crises, because every crisis challenges the way how you see things. The European Union was for example created because of crisis.

S: An interesting definition you gave to our job is urban editors. We can contextualize it in some dualism: the first, the new vs. the renewal. Why renewal is not sexy?
BU: Personally I would say that is because the act of creation is limited. That is for me the most unattractive part when it comes to renewal projects. Because as architects and urban designers we want to be involved first of all in the process of creation, that’s why most of us entered this field of profession in the first place: because we want to create! And when you are involved in something that has already been done, the act of creation is obviously limited and that makes the whole thing less attractive. But this unattractiveness is also partly the fault of the architecture schools: you could be trained in a different way. I have for example the impression that Italian architecture students are trained more in those fields – they learn from the beginning how to deal with old buildings and how to design within an existing context. They are probably best prepared for the future. But they don’t seem to be too happy about that fact. I realized that a lot of young Italian architects come for example to the Netherlands, because they want to get rid of this ballast.

S: El Croquis would never make a publication about an architect who has been practicing renewal for the last twenty years…
BU: Felix Madrazo said that in our 14th issue of MONU magazine on “Editing Urbanism”. Yes, renewal is also quite unattractive, because the media does not present it attractive enough. Magazines could support renewal projects more and feature them in more appealing ways. There must be a lot of interesting renewal or restoration projects around the world. To a certain extend it is also true what Rem Koolhaas said along with OMA’s Cronocaos study: that the modernist architects are also to blame, because they were obsessed with the tabula rasa and they wanted to make everybody believe that the history is uninteresting. They wanted to replace everything old – not merely changing things, but removing the past. They have spoiled an entire generation and we are still affected by it. Today renewal is still considered widely as something uninteresting.

S: The un-promoting of the renewal creates the opposite effect of an inflation of the new: while the demand for design is decreasing, the offer is exponentially growing. Is this a matter of crisis of the new?
BU: I believe there has always been a huge amount of new ideas that were not realized. If you think for example of Le Corbusier and about how many ideas he had and how little he realized in comparison. This has nothing to do with the fact whether renewal gets promoted or not. That is something that the architectural profession brings with it. So I think this is not a special phenomenon of the time now. But I also don’t see the relation of the production of the new, or better the production of something different, to the decrease of demand. The fact that less things are being built, at least in Europe, doesn’t mean that nothing new is being developed – most of the times it is the contrary. While nothing is being built, people have finally a lot of time to think and to create. The opposite effect you can find for example in China, where vast amounts of buildings are under construction. What is new there apart from some buildings of superstar architects? There are not a lot of new things happening in terms of architectural innovation, because people are too busy producing. Imagine there would be a crisis now and things would slow down. More interesting things would probably occur.

S: Finally you intend crisis as a turning point!
BU: Yes, as I said before: a lot of great things can be born out of a crisis. In general, a crisis is always a chance, a turning point into a new direction. During a crisis our society is challenged in all kind of fields and we are forced to give answers. But if we are reacting to a crisis in a sportive way and accepting the challenge, we of course can create something interesting and positive out of it. But we should also not forget the many negative consequences. The financial crisis has caused for example for a lot of architecture offices in Rotterdam, and especially the middle-sized ones, significant problems. For offices that are dependent on a certain yearly turnover, the financial crisis was tremendous. In that sense it is of course very cynical to talk about new chances that crises bring, because many companies had to close and a lot of people became unemployed.

DS: I used it in a cynical way just to stress on the idea of change. But coming back to the inflation of the new: do you think that urban sprawl has any kind of relation with the sprawl of ideas?

BU: I don’t think that there is any relation. Urban sprawl is a very physical urban phenomenon, that is almost the opposite of ideas, because ideas are first of all not physical, they are in the heads of the people. I would relate what you relate “the sprawl of ideas” rather to the internet, where the increased connectivity between people can stimulate constantly new ideas.

S: Another dualism: preservation vs. destruction. Is destruction a natural part of preservation?
BU: You probably refer once again to our most recent MONU issue #14, where we featured a contribution by Jarrik Ouburg, who advised to look at the Japanese shrine at Ise, when it comes to preservation. To destroy and rebuild a building in order to preserve it is of course a fantastic idea. Because of this, it always remains new. But this is only possible because shrines are rather small. You could not apply this strategy to big scale projects. And in that sense destruction can hardly always be a natural part of preservation. We always have to define in every different project what has to be preserved and what has to be destroyed. In that way both things are related. But the decisions should always depend on the particular project. Another difficult thing is also that values and judgments change with the time. The Palast der Republik in Berlin for example has been destroyed in order to remove something that represented the old political regime. By that time that was what the majority of people cared about. Today decisions would have been made probably differently. Maybe the Palast would be preserved instead. But you should also not preserve everything. OMA’s Cronocaos exhibition showed that by preserving too much you are eventually limited in your actions and you can’t do anything anymore. Important is, that things keep being open for negotiations.

S: So if you have to preserve a building in Rotterdam, which one?

BU: Which one? Well, I would probably preserve Maaskant’s David Lloyd building – if it isn’t already preserved – which is located just behind my old office in the centre of Rotterdam and close to the central station. Maaskant has made a lot of important buildings for the city of Rotterdam after WWII.

S: Despite of the difficulty to accept death and decay in the western world, does it exist a sort of ruin’s aesthetic, inyour opinion?
BU: I believe there is and always was. Just think about the romantic paintings in the middle of the 18th century, where you see the nature growing over the ruins, symbolizing the nature ruling the humans, and the humans being in nature. There you find already a kind of ruin’s aesthetic. But a certain aesthetic of destruction can of course also be found during the period of Deconstructivism. In an interview that we did recently with Adolfo Natalini, he said that people are having an insane passion for disaster and that the tower of Pisa is visited so often, because the people don’t want to miss the moment when it collapses. Everyone with a camera hopes to be there exactly when it falls down to witness the moment of destruction.

S: In this way, what we have to do with the ghost towns that grew up in Spain, US or China? Cities coming up from nothing and now already abandoned…
BU: That also depends on the particular situation. Each case is different and was caused by different reasons. General statements don’t help here further. I can just speak for the cases I am familiar with. One of such a case is for example the city of Hoyerswerda, a middle sized east-German city close to the Polish border, where I interviewed the Managing Director of the largest housing authority a couple of years ago. The outcome of this interview was published in one of our first issues, MONU #3. (Image 4) By the time of the interview almost 50% of the city’s buildings were empty, because a lot of people moved away after the fall of the wall. People were mainly moving to west-Germany in order to find jobs. Especially those city parts that were built by the Soviets, with the typical slabs, were deserted. There the solution was to tear down those parts, because they had no future. I believe that this was the best they could do, especially as the city grew also only in a couple of years to the size it had before 1989, because the former GDR decided to develop Hoyerswerda into an important industrial location. In that sense its growth was very artificially created, but now it has the chance to find its natural size.

S: It’s the passage of time we told about. I think there is a relation between the crisis era and the fact we are nowtalking about preservation, isn’t it?
BU: The fact that OMA pushed the topic of preservation with their Cronocaos exhibition should not be underestimated. Obviously an office like OMA was necessary to gain a wider audience for this topic and to make it more interesting – also for example for students. Now it is interesting! But for me, the main reasons that we are currently talking about topics such as preservation, renovation, restoration, etc. are based on the fact that today – at least in the Western world – the need for new buildings or entire city quarters is decreasing due to the demographic changes and financially difficult times. Because you can say that to a certain extend Europe is built and its existing building mass is sufficient in a way. Not a lot of new buildings are necessary anymore, but the old ones need to be maintained. The end of the population growth, together with the financial crisis, is really turning the focus to the existing urban material in the city. And once you’re focusing on that, issues of preservation come into play, because some buildings are protected and you can’t just change them.

S: And it’s the right moment to be Italian…
BU: Completely. Italian students and architects are probably best prepared, because they have learned already how it is to work in a context that can almost not be changed. They can now spread their knowledge all over the world.

S: Maybe it’s a compensation: we are less prepared to the new…Maybe that’s the new!

S: In conclusion: due to the extreme liberalism and consumerism, this crisis era seems to imply a research of aninnovative economic and social policy:up reconsidering the urban and architectural practices? Which should this newperspective be? And for which challenges?
BU: As I said, a lot of responsibility lies in the hands of the politicians and the municipalities of the cities. But what we can do also as architects and urbanists, during financially difficult times, is to make ourselves and our services more valuable. Last year, for example, when we interviewed a Rotterdam-based real estate developer – the results were also published in MONU #12 – she told us that they actually prefer not to work with architects and rather collaborate directly with construction companies as they share in their opinion a greater understanding of their profession. For them architects seem to complicate things, are too expensive and seem not to understand anything about their profession and about what they want. Especially in times of a financial crisis they consider architects as too expensive, because they want to construct buildings that cost only 600€ per square meter.

S: Wow, that’s very cheap!

BU: When I heard that number I was quite shocked too, because within such a budget there is really no a lot of space for architects. But the lesson to learn here is that architects have to improve their knowledge in terms of business and to increase their own value in the eyes of developers and become smarter in economical issues. That doesn’t mean they have to start only thinking like developers, but they have to abandon, to a certain extend, the idea that the architect is just an artist. This is old fashioned and it doesn’t work anymore. By only wearing LC’s glasses, walking around in black and merely focusing on being and artist, you are not getting anywhere those days. I see for example here in Rotterdam some architects that are really doing a great job and make great architecture without spending too much money by using less expensive materials and by making working processes more efficient. Business knowledge, but also knowledge about political and legal issues is in our time very important. There lie the great challenges for architects at the moment.

S: Because the city grows without architects.
BU: Definitely. First of all it grows without architects, because a lot of developers work directly with construction companies. Those companies of course also employ architects, but usually architects with less architectural ambition.

S: We have to enter in the system?

BU: We have to know more about how economical processes function. It’s just not contemporary anymore that we focus as architects only on art. We have to know more about law, about business…

S: The hot topic: today if you want to be innovative you have to be sustainable. If on one hand this can be useful interms of advertising and marketing, on the other does it keep away from the real, useful and necessary issue?
BU: The misuse of the term sustainability has gone completely out of hand. Those developments are completely unacceptable. What we need would be a kind of sustainability enlightenment. Somebody should spread the uncompromised knowledge about how you truly distinguish a sustainable building from a non-sustainable one in all newspapers and magazines all over the world. The hypocrisy, fakery and the misuse has to stop. But also in relation to sustainable cities, because people just don’t know anymore what is right and wrong. What is important is that a clear certification system is being established, as Gerd Hauser, one of the leading researchers on the implementation of the EU Directive on Energy Performance of Buildings, explained me once in an interview that we made for MONU #11 on the topic of “Clean Urbanism”. With the help of such a certification system buildings can finally objectively be compared with each other in terms of sustainability. Then we will not have every second day another most sustainable building in Europe anymore.

S: I remind STAR’s project: O’ Mighty Green.
BU: Oh yes, that’s of course a nicely provocative project that puts current tendencies to the extreme. It is a great critical piece, a satyr, about Green –Washing and especially about the demagogical use of Green in every aspect of our lives: food, design, architecture, products, urbanism, etc.

S: So Bernd, the next will be Monu #15.You had a privileged point of view to this first decade of the new millennium.
BU: Yes, the first idea to create a magazine popped up already in 2003 – around eight years ago. Now, it is fascinating to look back and see how the magazine developed and how important it became within the architectural and urban discourse. This could never be forecasted. It is still a kind of a miracle for me. MONU gave me the possibility to pose a lot of questions. That was and still is probably one of the most exciting things about it: to develop questions and topics and to see how people answer and react to it, and to draw conclusions out of those reactions and contributions. That is what MONU is all about.

S: Imagine you have to look back to those years and have to talk about some topics.

BU: I think that the first decade of the new millennium can not be understood without the 90’s. By the mid and end of the 90’s the financial situation was for example much brighter, at least in Western Europe, than it is today and there was this great hope in very formal architecture – just think about the Deleuzean fold and the Derridaen deconstructivism. All that looked so promising and different from everything that you have seen before. And this enthusiasm was of course also fueled by a more promising looking financial future. Nevertheless this period has not necessarily ended with the financial crisis, but it somehow dried out years before, because it eventually did not fulfill its promises. In that way after the 90’s, and especially during the first years of the new millennium, the situation became a bit depressing and people did not know what to do, what to think and what to design. And this was the time when we founded MONU magazine, a publication that focuses first of all on cities in a broader sense, including their politics, economies, geographies, their social aspects, but also their physical structures, the point where architecture comes into play. In that sense architecture is only one field of many in the magazine – fields which are all brought together under the umbrella term urbanism, which we considered as far more appropriate in a globalized world. In that sense architecture could be relieved from its responsibility to give answers to all questions. To be able to move on we proposed a kind of zooming-out-process.

S: That’s a crisis too.
BU: Yes, this was also a kind of crisis before the financial crisis of 2008 appeared, which, in a way, stepped on a movement that was already partly on the ground by then. This financial crisis confirmed the impossibility of continuing with this kind of formality that did cost so much money. I believe that the failure of the late 90’s formal architectural avant-garde created a kind of vacuum of content and meaning and after that everybody just started making whatever. In that sense I think that the first decade of the new millennium was quite uncritical when it comes to architectural production. A lot of things were just re-produced and commercialized ideas from the past. And once the financial crisis of 2008 occurred, people became even more uncritical, because nobody wanted to jeopardize their last chances of success and cutting off possibilities by being too critical to things and to potential business partners. Everybody became very careful in making statements. During those years we started the magazine, because we saw the necessity to bring a certain criticality back into the urban and architectural discourse with a content-based publication – presented only in black and white. And when I now look backwards, I think that we have contributed successfully to a new criticality and inspired also a lot of others to do so.

S: This was an aesthetic crisis, related to neo-liberalism. That’s why the financial crisis implies a turning point. That’s why it could be a choice.

BU: It could be a chance.

S: The chance of a choice. In a way, to choose another way.

BU: We have to. We are all challenged here and are forced to act, make the right choices and turn things into new and better directions.

Title: Artist No More
Project: Interview with Bernd Upmeyer
Date: December 2011
Type: Commissioned interview
Topic: Crisis
Organizer: STUDIO
Status: Published
Publications: STUDIO Magazine, P. 14-21
Interviewer: Demetrio Scopelliti