On design and politics

Excerpts of the Wouter Vanstiphout interview to Rory Hyde (MVRDV) for the Australian design review in 2011. Full article available here

If you really want to change the city, or want a real struggle, a real fight, then it would require re-engaging with things like public planning for example, or re-engaging with government, or re-engaging with large-scale institutionalised developers. I think that’s where the real struggles lie, that we re-engage with these structures and these institutions, this horribly complex ‘dark matter’. That’s where it becomes really interesting (…) I do believe that architecture and design as a combination of pure speculation, rhetorical poetics and technical capacity, could play a role in politics. It could re-shape certain discussions and therefore create its own inevitability (…) I don’t think architects have to shed their visionary status, their ‘good’ arrogance, or their speculative powers, if only they would realise that things are contextual! Acknowledge the fact that the deepest meaning in what they do is directly related to the context in which they do it.

Wouter Vanstiphout is member of Crimson Historians & Urbanists and professor of Design as Politics at TU Delft

Cedrik Price: the architecture of the individual and its social relatedness, The McAppy Project

In 1973, following the strikes that beset the British construction industry during the early 1970s, Alistair McAlpine commissioned a design program for his construction company, Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons, that aimed to increase production efficiency and improve labour relations. Cedric Price’s proposal took the format of a two-volume report and a Portable Enclosures Programme (PEP) which, while presenting a critical view of building sites, also demonstrated his ambition to go beyond the immediate brief, employing architectural knowledge and thoughtful design to respond to pressing societal issues and human necessities.

Excerpt from the 2017 CCA Exhibition Catalog entitled: What About Happiness on the Building Site?
Image available here

The project emphasizes “the social role and responsibility of the architect by rethinking traditional field practices and pursuing strategies to initiate social progress through critical research, new tools and experimental attitudes” (Domus, 2017). The designer becomes the moderator of social activity (Herdt, 2016).

To qualify labour on building sites, Price acknowledged the need to reframe the relations between the multiple actors involved, from government to service suppliers, from technical staff to workers’ unions. He often stressed the importance of communicating to everyone, from the workers to the administrative personnel, the purposes and goals of the report, introducing “a participatory form of Company planning” and resisting the tendency for decision making to be “too top heavy.”

Full text available here
Image available here

The value of detailed maps at the neighborhood level

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The author claims the need of a systematic approach “that brings together the design of built environments with the best scientific knowledge of processes of change in complex natural and social systems.” Urban planning must work within these systems that require local info (through participatory practices) and the creation of technical solutions. He thinks the challenge is mapping informality as cities grow in unpredictable ways. He also claims that cities are about connections: “the socioeconomic and physical links that allow each one of us to make a living, obtain services that make our lives easier, and learn and invest our time and resources.”

The effects of connections can be traced as the concentration of social networks in space and time where the value of a group is not proportional to the group’s numbers, but to its interactions. GPS tracking, and smart phone technologies can help track the networks.

New methods from urban science allow the accelerated evolution of these neighborhoods to follow natural urban processes. They are based in part on the mathematical analysis of detailed maps, including the development of algorithms to optimize building access, delivery of services, formalization of land, and taxation, with minimal disturbance and cost.

Planning through the development of detailed maps at the neighborhood level is also an effective way to capture local, person-centric knowledge, providing a clear vehicle for better local politics via the coordination of priorities and action from communities, local governments, and other stakeholders. The convergence of a networked science of cities, quantitative methods of spatial analysis, and information technology tools is key to allow users to participate.

Full text available here

Luís M. A. Bettencourt (2019) Designing for Complexity: The Challenge to Spatial Design from Sustainable Human Development in Cities Technology|Architecture + Design, 3:1, 24-32, DOI: 10.1080/24751448.2019.1571793

Closing the Loop Documentary

Closing The Loop is the world’s first feature length documentary on the zero-waste / circular economy, supporting UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 on Responsible Production and Consumption. The film is presented by global sustainability expert Prof. Dr. Wayne Visser, in collaboration with Emmy and two time Telly Award winning director Graham Ehlers Sheldon. The film ranges across three continents and includes commentary from global experts and centres of excellence like the World Economic Forum and the University of Cambridge. A number of innovative circular economy cases are also featured in detail. The Circular Economy Club (CEC) is a communication and promotion partner of Closing the Loop. A film by Kaleidoscope Futures Lab. and Stand Up 8 Productions.

The ‘Parques Biblioteca’: the Colombian way to achieving social development and cohesion

Spain Library Park: Giancarlo Massanti Architect, Medellin, Colombia, 2005
Image available here

They are urban complexes formed by buildings of modern architecture, with large surrounding spaces for public use, green, pedestrian and decorative. These public spaces give the urban complex the name of Park. The central building or axis of the complex is equipped with a library with high-tech computing equipment in broadband, justifying the name of the Library, and hence the compound expression “Library Park”. According to the municipal administration of the city of Medellín, “The Library Parks are Cultural Centers for social development that encourage citizen meetings, educational and recreational activities, the construction of groups, the approach to new challenges in digital culture. And they are also spaces for the provision of cultural services that allow the cultural creation and strengthening of existing neighborhood organizations. ” (wiki)

Spain Library Park: Giancarlo Massanti Architect, Medellin, Colombia, 2005
Image available here

Sergio Fajardo, governor of Antioquia, Colombia, and the mastermind behind the impressive edifices (…) Today (2014), he continues to push for educational opportunities across Antioquia (…) he discussed his current project to build 80 library parks in his home department (…) Building dignity and providing quality education for those in some of the department’s poorest communities has been a driving force behind Fajardo’s decision to build the library parks in underdeveloped neighborhoods like Santo Domingo and La Ladera and in towns like Anorí, which was overrun by guerillas for 50 years (…) Improving education in Medellín and Antioquia has also mobilized people living in these once-disadvantaged neighborhoods to study and dream of new opportunities.

Excerpts from Sarah McClure ‘s article: COLOMBIA: Building on Education, full article available here
The trees of inequality, violence, and illegality share a single root.
Image courtesy of Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, available here

Participatory Budgeting

Image available here

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a form of direct democracy at the local level, where all citizens state annually prioritized sectors to be financed before allocating investment resources in projects of their choice in those sectors. It has four key moments: diagnosis, deliberation, decision-making and follow-up (…) The epitome of PB is Porto Alegre (…) Five criteria required to qualify a PB: all citizens participate to the choice of the allocation of resources, this occurs at an administrative level of power (for example a town, but not a quarter), this process has to be repeated over years, a deliberation must take place in a specific institution, and finally citizens should be informed ex post of the status of the budget and the projects (…) The city government’s “Presentation of Accounts” from the previous year marks the beginning of the PB process in March-April. From April until May, regional and thematic assemblies take place with the objectives of establishing thematic priorities by voting, electing councilors for each region, defining the number of delegates, and repeating the budget review for the preceding year at the local level (…) These meetings are open to all citizens and constitute the central and most inclusive component of the process (…) The five thematic areas discussed in the PB at city-level assemblies are: transport and traffic; education, leisure, and culture; health and social welfare; economic development and taxation; and organization of the city, urban and environmental development. (…) One of the main reasons why Brazilian reforms have moved so quickly after the dictatorship has been the passing of a new Constitution in 1988. This Constitution strengthened municipal autonomy, validated the participation of community groups in municipal decision-making, and attributed important social and economic policy functions to municipal authorities (…) there are four keys for a PB to be successful: a strong mayoral support, an active civil society, self-ruling given to citizens for the mechanisms of the PB, and consequent financial resources to fund the projects selected by citizens (…) The main findings are: a better allocation of resources (more equitably and appropriately distributed among sectors and communities), an increase in the financing of basic needs, and a more inclusive, less corrupted democracy.

Adrien Frank, An Overview of Participatory Budgeting, 2015

Porto Alegre, the coordinative model of a smart city

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(Olivio) Dutra (Workers’ Party) was elected mayor of Porto Alegre with 34% of the votes (…) Dutra’s term as mayor of Porto Alegre, starting in 1989 and ending in 1992, was the first of four consecutive terms of the Workers’ Party in the city, totaling 16 years of administration (…) Porto Alegre became a sort of display cabinet for the party in the rest of Brazil: A place where it experimented successful and innovative initiatives such as participatory budgeting (…) participatory budgeting has led to direct improvements in facilities in Porto Alegre (…) According to Fedozzi and Costa, this system has been recognized as a successful experience of interaction between people and the official administrative spheres in public administration and, as such, has gained a broad impact on the political scene nationally and internationally, being interpreted as a strategy for the establishment of an active citizenship in Brazil.

Wiki & Wiki

The process began in loose neighbor assemblies (…) access was open (…) the data were organized so that they could be debated (…) Conflicts between neighborhoods were dealt with by elected reps (…) The system flourished for 20 years but was later squashed down by top down power (…) it began to loose coherence (…) vast waves of migrants were not integrated (…) with the advent of big data, smartphone etc, it is now possible again to coordinate participation at a megacity scale (…) a system including organized, debatable data, online chatrooms that assemble views and feedback is now running in over 250 Brazilian cities (…) use of technology helps people choose (…) people have to get engaged in the data, interpreting it (hermeneutic) and acting on it (…) the coordinative city is democratic whereas the prescriptive is authoritarian

Richard Sennett’s, Building and Dwelling, Penguin Books, 2019, pp. 164-165
Porto Alegre – RS, 11.05.2011 Temática de Habitação, Organização da Cidade, Desenvolvimento Urbano e Ambiental. Local: Teatro Dante Barone – Assembléia Legislativa Foto: Ivo Gonçalves/PMPA, Image available here

Songdo, the prescriptive model of a smart city

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Built on a polder of 600 hectares reclaimed from the Yellow Sea  (…) The idea was to create a genuine ‘business centre in North-East Asia’, attracting investment from all over the world and offering an unrivalled quality of living which would serve as a model to be exported (…) Songdo is also a town under constant surveillance: 500 cameras ensure total grid coverage to regulate the traffic or detect ‘suspicious’ behaviour. Even the opening of a sewer cover is immediately notified to the IFEZ management centre in one of the towers in Songdo (…) As to the environmental aspect, the town, whose name means ‘Pine Island’, is built on a coastal strip which used to be known for the wealth of its ornithology, and includes 32% of green space as compared with 21% in Seoul (…) Sterile and soul-less, the city looks different from Korean cities. There are no poor people, no street vendors, no old people

Le Monde, full article available here

(Songdo) originally conceived as a weapon fighting trade wars (…) to entice multinationals to set up Asian operations with lower taxes and less regulation (…) big tech was added to make the city more attractive (…) technologically mediated/regulated environment (…) control center (cock pit) has an array of giant screens showing what is happening to the city’s air quality; electricity usage; traffic flows; etc (…) the control center makes the interpretation of what any of this information means (…) the whole city operates at the behest of the big data assemblages (…) (Songdo) it embodies a prescriptive model of smart city, a city in the sense of a luxury good (…) it is not smart at all: it operates in a stupefying way

Excerpt from Richard Sennett’s, Building and Dwelling, Penguin Books, 2019, pp. 159-163
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Social Cartography

Leonardo da Vinci, Town plan of Imola (first ever use of planar view instead of perspective), image available here

Social Maps Definition/History: maps whose purpose is to represent specific aspects of society at a given time and place, (usually statistical data put on a map)/ they emphasize the power of space in shaping society over time/ in its earliest incarnation, the social map was concerned with epidemic disease, particularly cholera/ later in the nineteenth century the perceived problem of mass migration to the growing cities led to the application of segregation as a political device to separate disparate populations/ the use of mapping as a tool of social investigation reached its peak with the emergence of a science of social investigation in the 1880s/ maps shifted from having a symbolic power to having a descriptive (arguably scientific) power/ they used dots and circles or cloropleth maps of different shades/ these helped hypothesize on the actual causes of diseases or crime and poverty/ London was forefront to cartographic innovation due to mass urbanization and the need to manage a diverse, densely crowded population

Maps are social constructions, whose integrity as scientific objects is limited to how precise they are when taking account of their scale and similar measurable parameters. As soon as decisions start to be made on selection of data and the way in which those data are to be presented on maps, the social and political context in which they were created will start to influence how they are read. Once this fact is recognized, one can get beyond the traditional criticism of maps and start to consider what they are in reality: objects laden with meaning, which reflect the context of their creation. Yet maps continue to be incredibly useful for capturing data as well as for providing a starting point for analyzing those data statistically.

Inherent weaknesses: stat errors/ positioning can affect how the world is viewed/ they are influenced by the social and political context they are created in/ their study in rapidly changing populations impose a false appearance of stability/ as records it is essential to take into account the historical time they were created in/ iconographic: color can carry powerful moral connotations, it can also be used for propaganda/ by drawing boundaries around people other from themselves, European powers defined the separation of the center from the periphery/ the complex use of space belies the normal approach to interpreting segregated social space, which tends to focus on the residential location of a minority group, overlooking their opportunities for movement across the city, throughout the day and the week/ not all spatial arrangements are a direct reflection of the societies: more complex societies are normally comprised of a structured non-correspondence

Notes and excerpt from Laura Vaughan’s: “Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography,” UCL Press, 2018

Ville vs Cite

French language_ville: the overall city/ cite: it designated a particular place (the character of life in the neighborhood), cite can refer a kind of consciousness. The distinction is old, however, it helps clarify the difference between the built environment (English phrase for ville) and how people dwell in it.

Cite: Engels 1840, The Condition of the working-class in England in 1844, based on his testimony of scenes of daily life in Manchester. He noticed aspects of the life in the streets that did not fit the new language of class like Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert whose characters are crashed in the city. Urban life is unsettled (all that is solid melts into air), modernity consists of the transient, as in Bauman’s term “liquid modernity.” There is also however, a need to balance between change and stability, ” distill the eternal from the transitory.” Only a precise analysis of details will make the cite comprehensible to the the urban dweller; the mental space of complexity consists of analyzing small bits of reality.

Ville-First generation urbanists: Haussmann, Cerda, Olmsted

Network-Paris | The accessible city: hygienic issues (plague), new drainage systems, boulevards to avert rebels and barricades (police state) that however served transportation and more positive social purposes and had a spectacle quality, new housing that serves as a vertical theatrical scenery, glazed facades of department stores. Design of the ville was more than utilitarian; indeed display displaced the ethical reckoning of life on the street. The Haussmannian city privileged space over place: the networked ville had diminished the cite.

Camille Pissarro: Boulevard Montmartre, image available here

Fabric-Barcelona | The equal city: once again hygienic issues, Cerda also wanted to address ethnicities and religions into a kind of cooperative socialism and produce conditions of equality between the residents. He used the additive grid, a system of equal-sized blocks with mixed housing (Dutch model) and green spaces distributed throughout the city. To accommodate turning vehicles Cerda cut off the edges of his blocks diagonally. That created an hospitable site where people could gather, space became place. His idea also embodied a danger: if one block begins to degrade, there is no reason other blocks, exactly similar in form, to succumb (monoculture).


Artifice-New York (Central Park) | The sociable city: social value of nature in the city, Olmsted thought of parks as places where the races could mix; inclusion was more possible in an impersonal space of strangers than in the more intimate space of neighborhoods (from labor to leisure). Rural life was destroyed in favor of an integrated urban life, the park was far from central NY at the time. Modest gates were used to show that all were welcome, the landscape was totally artificial. As the city expanded, the park’s perimeter was filled with mansions for the wealthy: people inside it became less mixed. In CP nature suspends reality, artificial pleasure to promote social integration

Central Park 1870, image available here

References: all notes are excerpts from Richard Sennett’s book “Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City,” Penguin Books 2019

La MéMé experience of participatory design

Image available here

Students protest the classical pastiche designs made for the Medical School (1968) at the University of Louvain/ University agrees to the formation of a student committee/ Students produce a counterproposal by Lucien Kroll who had no ties to the University/ Kroll organises collaborators and students into teams and turns design into an assemblage of disparate political fractions/ Work is done in his studio at a distance from the institution to ensure freedom/ Collaboration becomes “a kind of architectural method acting” accepting every outcome even if it defies prevailing arch conventions (de Graaf)/ Kroll, when denied the participation of le Roy, his preferred gardener, also engages the adjacent community into participating in the landscape component/ For two years this is an harmonious collaboration/ However, University representatives who visit the site oppose the outcome and the budget increase and fire Kroll/ Kroll exposes the contractor for high pricing but is then accused of vandalising the building site during his open call to the neighbouring community/ The building is highly criticised as a “failed experiment” and “less than a sum of its parts” (de Graaf)/ Petitions for the building’s demolition are opposed by massive support (Excerpts from Reinier de Graaf’s book: Four Walls and a Roof)

In a DOMUS article dated back in 2010, Kroll is presented as “icon of democratic architecture”:

Communication through architecture is an eminently political act, Kroll maintains: the architect is the catalyst of a creative process and social dynamic, in respect to which they make their knowledge available for the translation of interpersonal relationships into a suitable space (…) architects must step out of themselves and put themselves in the shoes of future residents.

Full article available here
Image available here

Recycling Spaces, Addis-Ababa

Image taken from here

Text taken from the site:

African cities have growth rates of up to 5%; this makes them the fastest growing cities in the world today. Extrapolations show that the urban population in Africa currently doubles every 10 to 15 years. Also Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is in transformation. Currently the home of approximately four million inhabitants, the city might triple its size within the next 30 years due to the increasing rural to urban migration, as well as natural growth. Already today, Addis Ababa suffers from a housing shortage of estimated 700.000 units. And, according to UN-Habitat, 80% of the existing dwellings are in ‘sub-standard, slum like’ conditions. Thus, in 2004, the government launched a large-scale mass housing program with the ambitious plan to erect 200.000 condominium units within 5 years. To date, 100.000 units were built during the last 7 years, out of which nearly 70,000 are handed over to end users so far. In 2011, the Addis Ababa City Administration announced to redevelop all ‘informal’ and ‘unplanned’ parts of the city until 2020.

Throughout the years, Addis Ababa, informally, developed a sophisticated recycling system in all parts of the city. “Kuré-Yalews” are roaming the streets in small neighborhoods, collecting anything that might still be useable from households. Sharing resources, they rent taxis collectively to transport their goods to Merkato’s “Minalesh Terra”, where different “workshops” immediately start to reuse and transform them. In the course of a few days, these items are returned into the cycle, being sold to the owners of small neighborhood shops as “new” products.

This recycling process is not only the source of income for many families in the city, it also keeps Addis Ababa clean to a certain extend. Most importantly, this cycle also appropriated space for recycling in the city throughout the years, which is now endangered by the current transformation of Ethiopia’s capitol.

The movie “Recycling Spaces” is a cinematic documentary on the use of space allocated to this recycling cycle in Ethiopia’s capital. Based on the daily routine and experiences of one selected Kuré-Yalew, this movie tries to tell a generic experience of thousands of inhabitants in Addis Ababa. Interviews with the Kuré-Yalwes and experts give further insight into the topic.

Link to vimeo site
Video available here