14-03-16 // AFTER ALL IT WAS YOU AND ME – INTERVIEW WITH BERND UPMEYER
Mick Jagger performing “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968 at the show
“The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”
After all It Was You and Me – Interview with Bernd Upmeyer
Parasite 2.0: Part of the research we are doing on the Aformal Academy platform is focused on the architect who approaches today’s complexity, looking in particular at the numerous factors that are involved in it. MONU talks about urbanism in a broader sense. How was your magazine born?
Bernd Upmeyer: I got motivated to create a magazine around 2003, which led to the release of the first issue in 2004. My motivation was based on the urge to continue working on and thinking about urban topics with some of my former student colleagues from the University of Kassel in Germany. Because after having studied and worked together intensively, for several years on several group projects during the late 1990s and the start of the new millennium, our ways parted in 2002 when we graduated and when I started working as an architect in Amsterdam. In Kassel, at least at the time when I was there, you study architecture at a department called “Architecture, Urban Planning and Landscape Planning” that offers you the possibility to pursue interdisciplinary group-work and self-initiated projects with urban designers and landscape designers from the very first semester and as part of normal study. Although originally I started studying architecture to become an architect in the traditional sense, I saw and grabbed this great opportunity to acquire a more complex view on architecture and to enlarge my field of work while starting to think on the scale of cities, but also engaging in different disciplines. Ever since, I have been fascinated by everything that is related to urban topics. I realized a bit later, in 1997, how relevant this opening up of architecture and seeing architecture in a bigger context was when for the first time I heard Rem Koolhaas talk at the documenta X in Kassel about his Pearl River Delta project. To me, it was no coincidence that an architect who was trained as a journalist, as Koolhaas is, would be able to illustrate and describe how the role of the architect was changing in an increasingly complex and globalized world.
P2.0: Our statement says that “it is necessary to be aware of the failure of an idea of progress and of an anthropization strategy that is no longer sustainable. Today, we can strongly perceive the change of the practice. On the one hand architectural firms continue with work that is strictly connected to the neoliberal global market. On the other hand, hybrid practices – in the form of collectives – develop their work breaking down the disciplinary borders to get in touch with other cultural fields.” With MONU you have had the possibility to work with, and be confronted by, many professionals. Could you please comment in this excerpt on this experience?
BU: I agree that it is important to be aware of failures in architecture and urbanism, because if we stop seeing mistakes and problems, we will never be able to improve our cities and our living conditions. And at the end of the day, this should be all that matters for us architects and urbanists. But generally speaking I think it is a good thing to be always ready for failures, because most of the things we are doing are usually going wrong, but to keep on going and to succeed in something, we need to accept a certain level of failure all the time. In relation to sustainability, meaning environmental sustainability, when it comes to buildings and cities, at least in the Western World, I would no longer be so pessimistic. Currently, I witness a lot of new projects, for example in France, but also in the Netherlands, that take sustainability very seriously, applying technologies that sounded very visionary just a few years ago. I am currently involved in one such project myself in Paris, for example, and was positively surprised about the possibilities. But we should also be aware that all of us have a lot of power to change things, because as users and consumers we create a demand that would not be there if we were not there. If all of us were to start buying electric cars instead of gasoline-fuelled ones, the entire industry would be forced to adapt to that. Or, if all of us were to cancel our Facebook accounts, there would be no Facebook. A similar logic could be imaginable for people’s choices in relation to where and how they want to live. I believe that we have that kind of power, and people, who produce and invest in things, are dependent on what people choose. In that sense I believe that people can do much more with regard to environmental sustainability than politicians who discuss over and over again the rules and goals that almost no country will ever be able to follow or reach. Of course, there are financial restraints, as not everybody can afford, for example, an electric car. But we should not give away our responsibility entirely. In that sense I believe Mick Jagger when he sang “I shouted out, Who killed the Kennedys? When after all, It was you and me…” in “Sympathy for the Devil”. And since there is never a clear-cut dichotomy between good and bad, I would also be careful dividing all architecture firms into two categories: commercial and non-commercial. Today, we live instead in a time of great diversity where you find all kinds of firms in between both poles, or even switching between commercial and non-commercial, when necessary. Within this rich spectrum of different firms you will also find some that might be called “hybrid practices” or “collectives”, which typically have been set up by young architects. The sad reality is that most of those collectives usually fall apart after a few years, because of the typical problems that involve issues of money, time, power, ambition, ideology etc., which is a pity, because I believe – and my experience with MONU shows me this – that today’s increasingly complex world with a growing number of complex problems demands that people, and especially people from different disciplines, work together creating a collective intelligence with regard to architecture and urbanism.
P2.0: In your statement you write: “MONU magazine is a biannual magazine on urbanism that focuses on the city in a broader sense, including its politics, economy, geography, ecology, its social aspects, as well as its physical structure and architecture.”
In our view, considering all these aspects represents a deep and concrete way to approach the discipline. At the same time, though, most of the contemporary urban development does not concern these topics, but just the economic perspective. What do you think about this issue? Is there the possibility to re-envision an urban planning ethos that is not solely concerned with maximising profits?
BU: It is certainly impossible – and in a way also inappropriate – to compare the ambition, the content, and the richness of topics in a magazine such as MONU with the ambition, the content, and the richness of topics within contemporary urban developments. Too many practical and financial constraints are involved in urban developments that make this comparison an unfair game. And the bigger a project is, the more limited it usually becomes, and the bigger the consequences are of each step in the process. We at MONU are luckily free from most of these constraints and are thus very free in what we do. In that way we can truly approach the topic of urbanism in a very broad and enriching way. Basically, our main purpose is to criticize and to stimulate new ways of doing and seeing things. If we did not do that, who else would? That is the great advantage of theory over practice. The magazine allows us to create something and put topics on the agenda in a very short time, something that is not possible with urban developments, which take an incredibly long time and typically involve a huge number of people and a lot of money, which makes everything even more complicated and limited. But it is also understandable that investors and clients of urban developers want to – and need to – win back their investment plus the usual revenue. Things get only tricky when greed and the misuse of power get involved. So, do I see possibilities to re-envision an urban planning ethos that is not solely concerned with maximising profits? Yes and no. On the one hand, there will always be some projects that are driven by greed and motivated first of all by money. I am afraid that is unavoidable. But also, there will always be some coherent projects of high quality that will be made possible, because ambitious politicians and city municipalities are actively involved and influence developments towards positive results. But to create great projects you also need ambitious clients and investors that have an interest in quality, as well as architects and urban designers that are actually capable of providing the right plans. Here again, it all depends on the people involved, who need to have talent, ambition, and an interest in good projects. Then everything is possible.
P2.0: We believe it is fundamental to retake an ethical and political position from the architect’s (or designer’s) perspective.
BU: What counts at the end of the day is the quality of the outcome of the architectural and urban design projects to improve the way we live in cities. But I would not agree to giving all power to the architects or designers – which, luckily, would not be possible anyway – because I think it is wrong to believe that architects constitute some kind of homogeneous well-meaning entity that can and wants to do the right thing at all times, always. The global architecture scene is as diverse as our contemporary society: some architects are very talented, ambitious, and without a focus on profit; other architects make very poor plans, without any ambition and with a clear focus on making money. So it is not that simple. To consider the point of view of architects more important in projects may easily lead to discussions that are less relevant to society, for example discussions on style and little details. Architects love to talk about these things, I know that from myself. I believe that in the globalized of today, there are bigger fish to fry and it is necessary to move beyond discussions about style. In that sense, I do not believe that an ethical and political position from the architect’s perspective has to be retaken, but rather from the perspective of the users of the spaces, the inhabitants of cities. And if the typical triangle of power of a project – created by the investor, the municipality and the architect – then takes their perspective into account, great things can happen.
P2.0: Over the past few years the debate about suburbs and their requalification has returned to the public arena. More specifically, in recent weeks a big debate developed around the Parisian Banlieu and the supposed concentration of terrorist cells there. Paradoxically, the condition of these places is determined by a mix of two factors: urban development and economic choices.
BU: I would wish architecture or urban development could be so powerful as to change the mindset of people. But I am afraid they are not. Nevertheless, a lot has indeed been done wrong in terms of planning in the Parisian suburbs especially during the 1950s and 1960s, when mass housing projects were created that were too uniform, lacked diversity, social cohesion, quality of life and should have been planned in a socially more sustainable way, so that people would have cared more for the buildings and the spaces around the buildings, and liked to live in them for a very long time. In that sense the design of the post-war urban developments around Paris, to which you are referring, might indeed not have contributed to a better mood or greater happiness of their inhabitants, but neither are they capable of producing terrorists. What I find really paradoxical and very surprising in relation to the urban planning and mass housing history of Paris, namely in post-war France, is that most of these projects were created with the best of intentions and many experts at the time, such as sociologists, were actively involved in the planning processes. (1) The aim was to accurately determine housing needs, through technical normalization and standardization of mass housing, during a time when Paris had severe housing shortages and needed concepts for new housing projects that could be built quickly and economically, and were easy to maintain and use. In that way this focus on the economic aspects was supposed to be for the good of the people as economically built projects could provide affordable housing for many people. This had nothing to do with making money. Crucial in this process was, for example, the sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, who developed what he called ‘applied’ sociological studies geared towards urban intervention.(2) Thus, these urban developments were concerned with a lot of different topics, such as social aspects, and not created from an economic perspective alone.
P2.0: It is interesting to note that for each new issue you pick an adjective to add to the word “urbanism”. Participatory (the latest), transnational, interior, geographic, greater, communal, next, border, beautiful, brutal, paid (the first) and many more… Which one, in your opinion, comes closest to our contemporary situation? Maybe an old one that you feel is accurate for the situation of today?
BU: I am glad that you find it interesting that there is always a term added to the word urbanism, because I am sometimes afraid that this might get too repetitive, boring, and predictable. I am constantly contemplating whether I should get rid of the word urbanism in the title one day. However, as each issue deals with a very particular and rather small aspect of the gigantic topic of urbanism, it would be very difficult to pick one that could truly represent our current situation. In a way, with each issue we take a slice of the huge chunk that is urbanism in order to get a grip on things without getting lost in the many and diverse meanings that the term urbanism includes. But if you were to put all these slices and little chapters, that come with each issue, back together, you would probably get something that is closest to the current situation and closest to what urbanism might mean today. However, if you force me to choose one issue that represents the contemporary situation of urbanism, I would pick issue #15 on the topic “Post-Ideology”, in which we showed that today, when it comes to cities, it is all about diversity and a multiplicity of choices and urban outcomes without a single consistent urban ideology. Thus, we live in a time, when what appears to be post-ideological is in fact the coexistence, silent combat, and mutual neglect of innumerable ideologies, neo-ideologies, and pseudo-ideologies, and in this pluralistic environment, no single ideology or group of ideologies is perceived to be relevant enough to become a point of reference or a single desirable truth. But, with regard to your critical standpoint towards neoliberalism and a revenue-focused and profit-driven urban planning culture, which is somehow the leitmotiv in all your questions, I might also mention issue #12 entitled “Real Urbanism”, that focused on the consequences of “Real Estate” Urbanism. In that issue, we made clear that cities can easily end up only fulfilling the wishes and dreams of a powerful minority, while neglecting the needs of most other people, eventually leading to low quality urban spaces, and scary, ethically unacceptable and distorted urban forms.
P2.0: You added all these adjectives to “urbanism.” In what sense have these adjectives and the word “urbanism” itself changed over recent years?
BU: I think that over the years, for example, we increasingly integrated architectural and spatial aspects into the magazine as part of our debate on urbanism, as we realized that the magazine might otherwise become too abstract. During the Archizines Exhibition in London in November 2011, MONU was even described as an ‘architecture magazine’. Integrating more architecture shows that we did not want to miss any aspect of the broad spectrum that the field of urbanism offers. However, the essence of the word urbanism, I would say, did not change much for us. It still has the same meaning to me as it had in the beginning, namely everything that is connected to urbanization, cities, and city culture. Recent topics such as “Interior Urbanism” or terms like “interior” or “domestic”, show that quite well. I think that a focus on the domestic aspects of cities could not have been imaginable in one of our first issues. The topic of the first issue had to be as general and as broad as possible, because when we started the magazine, we wanted to find a topic that would provide us with a common ground for all discussions between people of different disciplines, which was urbanism. Thus, we would not have dared to narrow the first issue down to, for example, domestic aspects of cities, but instead selected something more general and political. But as we focused over the years on so many very general topics, gradually it became possible to become more specific. On the other hand, in the future we might again choose another very broad topic. Having said that, issue #22 on transnational issues and #20 on the geographical aspects of cities were also very generally focused. But the evolution of the topics and thus of the adjectives was always related to my own personal experience, the trips I took, stories I heard, newspapers I read, or projects I was involved with at the time, while writing a new ‘call for submissions’ text and while defining a new topic. In that way, the chosen topics and adjectives to the word “urbanism” are always very personal and driven by my own curiosity.
P2.0: Urbanism is, in theory, the branch of architecture that determines the development of the human habitat on a big scale. Do you think that today it still has the potential to follow the velocity of changes we are facing? I am thinking, for instance, of the big cities and megalopolises which grow at an incredible rate. Today, big scale urbanism is at a critical point. Is it obsolete?
BU: I don’t understand urbanism as a branch of architecture, but architecture as a part of urbanism, which I would define as an interdisciplinary research field that is dedicated to the exploration and description of cities, including all facets that concern cities, such as social, geographical, historical, environmental, political, economic, cultural, urbanistic, spatial, architectural, etc. aspects. However, urbanism certainly influences or determines the human habitat. Since urbanism is a research field or study field concerning cities, one of its main purposes is to follow and explore the changes that take place in cities. But apart from some very fast growing cities in Asia, Africa, and parts of South America, things are actually developing in a rather slow pace in the rest of the world. Thus, it always depends where you are looking to. In Europe, for example, urban developments may easily take more than a decade to be realized, if there are any such developments going on in the first place. So, in general, urban changes usually occur quite slowly and can thus easily be followed. In the cities of the Western world – due to demographic changes and partially still due to financially difficult situations – the need for new buildings or entire city quarters is decreasing. Consequently, big scale urbanism is indeed kind of obsolete in Europe. This fact motivated us a few years ago to dedicate an entire issue to a topic that we called “Editing Urbanism”, in which we argued for more focus on the existing urban material – as Urban Editors – instead of waiting for and dreaming of new large urban developments that might no longer come into being. But the fact that countries’ shrinking populations, may also start growing again could be seen, for example, in Germany, where around 1 million migrants arrived from Syria last year. In addition, we recently experienced during our own research on major European metropolitan areas that there are regions in Europe that are growing and again in need of serious numbers of new affordable housing units. These unexpected developments in a few, particular parts of Europe motivated us to initiate a new issue of MONU entitled “Domestic Urbanism”, which will be released in April this year and will re-evaluate and re-think the way we want to house ourselves.
1. Cupersa, Kenny (2010). The expertise of participation: mass housing and urban planning in postwar France. Department of Architecture, The State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA. Page 32. Online link: http://sitemaker.umich.edu/parg/files/cupers__the_expertise_of_participation__2011.pdf
2. See Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, Un anthropologue dans le siècle: Entretiens avec Thierry Paquot
(Paris: Descartes & Cie, 1996); Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe and Marc Augé, Les hommes, leurs
espaces, et leurs aspirations: Hommage à Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe (Paris: Harmattan, 1994).
Title: After all It Was You and Me
Author: Bernd Upmeyer
Date: March 2016
Type: Commissioned interview
Publications: Aformal Academy – RE:Learning
Publisher: Parasite 2.0
Location: Milan, Italy