You Can’t Have One Without the Others
The future of designing for the urban environment
Interview with Filipe Estrela and Sara Neves, Ilirjana Haxhiaj and Jeta Bejtullahu, Holly Lewis and Oliver Goodhall, by Fiona Shipwright
Before we are architects we are citizens and it’s our conscience as citizens that shapes our professional practice.
— Filipe Estrela & Sara Neves
Keller Easterling has described urbanism today as “a mobile, monetised technology”, suggesting that “some of the most radical changes to the globalising world are being written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in the spatial information of infrastructure, architecture and urbanism”. She sees architecture as becoming an infrastructural element of a wider system, that of the “free trade zone”.1
This interview with three sets of architects: Filipe Estrela and Sara Neves of estrela neves (Portugal), Ilirjana Haxhiaj and Jeta Bejtullahu (Albania) and Holly Lewis and Oliver Goodhall, founding partners of We Made That (UK), who all submitted projects to the Future Architecture platform, illustrates the extremely broad range of focus amongst contemporary architects in the design of urban living and working spaces. Three urban projects, three approaches, all seeking to design living and work spaces within contemporary, interconnected, social, political and economic issues of Western city life. All three examples show clearly that you can’t plan for one aspect without planning for the others. More than ever, architecture today is about far more than building buildings and urbanists and architects need to be equipped to address the complexity involved with looking in all directions at once.
The emergence of the sharing economy brought with it promises of decentralisation and democratisation under an umbrella of techno-positivism. These aspects have since been co-opted by late capitalism (think: Uber, zero hours contracts, Airbnb as gentrifier, etc.). How can new ideas avoid the same fate?
Filipe Estrela and Sara Neves (FE & SN) First of all, we don’t believe we live in a globalised world but in a globalised Western world. If globalisation means sharing and integration, the rest of the world isn’t part of globalisation, it just suffers from its collateral effects. We have also been working in underdeveloped countries and our thoughts and projects on those places are based on totally different suppositions. So our answers here relate to the “Western world”.
In the 1980s, personal computers were supposed to democratise access and bring improvements in working conditions and life quality. But they did not. Instead they caused longer working hours and the age of high productivity. Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution has brought with it an employment crisis. Some say machines will extinguish some jobs forever and the solution for technological unemployment is to reduce working hours and share out the remaining work amongst more people. We believe that the same will happen with sharing economy models. That begins by accepting these new models as part of our contemporary society so that they become part of civic law.
Furthermore, we will only change the system from the inside out, using its own tools to reinvent it, subvert it and use it against itself. It’s also necessary to recognise that any economic movement that intends to resist late capitalism must grow slowly and remain small. Size is the major problem of late capitalism: the fact that the richest one percent own more than 99 percent of the world’s population, and that the 99 percent are so dependent on the one percent. The perfect scenario would be to equally distribute the profit between everyone in the chain, but realistically the only way to come close to changing it is to keep the one percent away. That is, to extinguish the “model owners” by avoiding attracting their interest with models that don’t have economic scale. We need many, small economic sharing circles.
Holly Lewis and Oliver Goodhall (HL & OG) Our proposals for Supermix in the City don’t imply decentralisation per se. We’re interested in more sophisticated spatial planning that uses technological understanding and design to move beyond crude “zoning” approaches that separate places where stuff is made from places where people sit behind desks and places where people live. Some of the best bits of cities are diverse and multiplicitous, but our experience is that this isn’t how we’re building now. The process of delivering “mix” has the potential to end up either highly controlled, or completely uncontrolled; we think that some level of control is required if it’s to be successful.
With such a plethora of smaller, individual initiatives working at a local scale, is there a danger of losing the sense of our place in the real-life (non-digital) social network? How do you maintain an awareness of scale? How can we engender more collective ways of living and thinking within decentralised schemes?
FE & SN We believe that decentralisation is a way to recover an awareness of scale, sense of place and cooperation. The sharing economy originally grew out of peer-to‑peer exchange and presupposes mutual benefit. It recovers the idea of exchange from a dependence perspective. In peer-to-peer exchange there’s another factor in play: the peer will, the decision-making power. We are dependent not only on money but on a personal connection as well. It could be a system of individuals, but individuals that depend on each other. And if you depend, you care.
This is exactly the key assumption of Airpnd. The decision-making power should be in the hands of those who permanently live in the house, who directly and physically share its space, and not in the hands of absent landlords. Airpnd is a typology to foster this dynamic of dependence on the dweller’s decision, so the “sharable spaces” are placed inside larger family houses.
Ilirjana Haxhiaj and Jeta Bejtullahu (IH & JB) Our project concerns the problems of an segregated suburban neighbourhood in the Kosovan city of Gjakova, sustaining a very isolated community within. It is not only unpleasant for the residents, but also a big burden on the municipality and society in general. Our approach stems from the concept of productive cities, where the focus is leaning back towards individual initiatives that work on a local scale or within a local context. We have been thinking how to develop infrastructure that will serve the people that are part of this community and at the same time preserve their particular culture and increase their income. Our idea was primarily concerned with creating a centre to reduce, re-use and recycle, which will not only have an impact on the local environment and reduce the trash on the site but will also economically benefit the people of this community. The aim is to engage residents in small individual works, where they will help and improve themselves, their families and the community in general. Additionally, the project intends to break the pretext of isolated minorities being a burden on society.
The concept of neighbourhood seems to be a core feature in all three of your ideas.But with living and working patterns constantly changing, what do you understand neighbourhood to mean? How adaptable is your idea to this kind of changing situation?
FE & SN Neighbourhoods used to be considered a physical concept, a place geographically located and inhabited by a group of people with considerable interaction. And a group of people that inhabited one specific place used to be a community, due to their interactions, their common interests, values or routines. These two concepts used to be part of the same thing and one without the other wouldn’t make sense. In the past, people needed a physical place to interact, but today they don’t, so the two concepts happen separately. Nowadays we are freer to search for and choose which communities to belong to. Our neighbourhood doesn’t limit our choices as before and that makes it more likely to find people of different nationalities, with difference religions and diverse interests living in the same neighbourhood. A neighbourhood’s identity ends up being the result of different people’s choices rather than a place where residents’ interests and values are shaped by their neighbours. With Airpnd, our main goal was to create a place where permanent and temporary dwellers coexist, in a more integrated manner, but not as part of the same community, only of the same neighbourhood.
IH & JB As much as our society is constantly changing and with it, the living environment too, we are heading towards a scenario that will soon suffer from a lack of cohesion, with people not being integrated into their surroundings and so on. The challenge is with the particular neighbourhood itself, where a large group of people living together have similar beliefs and norms. Even though that the situation is changing every day, they still live together and are not that open to change because they fear mixing, merging and losing their customs. From this standpoint, our idea was to make them feel more secure by increasing the level of awareness to people outside the neighbourhood by showing some of their culture.
Should we be thinking of a communal economy (social) as opposed to sharing economy (individual)? Is profit a dirty word?
FE & SN Yes, we think that, within the ethical standards of our current society, profit is a dirty word, but we don’t agree with that assessment. In our opinion that view represents an elitist moralism. Late capitalism feeds on the society’s basic need for money and on the fact that to live without profit means to live outside the society. Society is such a major achievement that most people don’t want to renounce – or can’t even conceive of renouncing – it. Alternatively, if we are part of the 99 percent of people who own less and we decide to disown profit within the society, then that will worsen the balance and increase the possessions of the richest one percent. So, speaking for the 99 percent, we believe that profit abstinence is worse than embracing it moderately. The problem, once again, is the distribution of profit and not profit itself. If communal means that sharing economy models are not owned by one single person or organisation but rather equally distributed by all those who use it, then yes, we should be thinking of a social/communal economy. But what really interests us is how to implement those models. That’s exactly why we named our project “air profit and dwell”. We consider it crucial to think about and create new models and typologies where profit is a central issue, presenting new solutions to distribute it in a more equal way. And for us, those solutions start with bringing back the issue of scale: small scale.
Does an abundance of hybrid spaces end up doing the same thing Airbnb et al have been criticised for: changing the makeup and character of a city at an alarming pace, while potentially driving out long term residents?
HL & OG Cities change, that’s what they do. Our concern is that diversity is one of the most positive and invigorating urban characteristics. This means diversity in population, diversity in uses, diversity in affordability. Where profit is prioritised in the building of cities, certain populations are favoured by the system – this can lead to exclusion. Change is not the enemy, homogenisation is.
FE & SN Isn’t harmoniously blending temporary and long-term residents one of the main challenges facing western urban areas today? Couldn’t we consider that this should be precisely the main feature of a contemporary hybrid space? Airpnd starts from that assumption in that it is more than a building; it is a housing typology matrix. Nowadays a city has to embrace temporary dwellers and suitable spaces need to exist for them, but at the same time, the dissemination of these spaces must not take priority over the spaces for long-term residents. For this reason, we propose a “mixed residents” building with specific features to respect each type’s necessities. Each long-term citizen’s residence has a hybrid space that can be used as they want – it could be rented to a tourist, student or someone on a business trip but it could also be an office, an art gallery or a yoga room. The hybrid space can even be used as a permanent expansion of long-term resident’s home, but the opposite can never happen. The most important thing for us is giving the decision-making power to long-term residents, while preserving the common sphere.
What is the role of the architect and architecture here? Are they solution-designers or merely filling in the gaps left by negligent governments?
IH & JB Given that all indicators point to a difficult social and economic situation, where the dominance of multi-member households also indicates low levels of economic development and in most cases, only one family member is employed while women are left entirely outside the labour market, then it is necessary to initiate proposals and solutions that engender social and economic development for this minority community. The architect’s task is to bring small changes to the community by helping engage them in work and activities that will improve their welfare. Although there are a lot of continuous donations and support from the government (central and local), we still see a great need for concrete action to be taken to combat this isolation.
HL & OG Architects can show a vision for a different way of making our cities. This skill of communication is the key trick!
FE & SN Before we are architects we are citizens and it’s our conscience as citizens that shapes our professional practice. Some prefer to separate their duty as professionals from their duty as citizens when they seek an active participation in society’s issues. We believe that through our profession we can more actively and in a more structured manner contribute to society’s development. Furthermore, architecture is a powerful instrument to change and fix some of society’s rules because it gives them a form. Architecture can translate laws in daily routines and is capable of slowly changing society’s conduct. In this way, architects and architecture should always embrace the mission of having a complementary role to government.
How do you believe new hybrid spaces will change cities in a wider context?
HL & OG Supermix in the City envisions vibrant, dynamic places. In many places these already exist, but accepted wisdom, particularly in the contemporary West, is that separating uses in our cities is better than mixing them. We don’t buy this.
FE & SN Cities are part of a bigger ecosystem – one that includes villages, agriculture, forests, oceans, etc. – and cannot be seen in isolation. For years, cities were at the centre of everything – all thoughts, plans or investment – and the other parts of the ecosystem were simply viewed as resources or facilities for cities. In our opinion this is slowly changing. We have also been working on housing models for the countryside in the belief that today, with access to information, easy communication and travel, new urban and rural housing solutions have to complement each other. Only a common strategy makes sense and it is this joint vision that will truly change cities in a wider context. The rise of hybrid spaces will just be a consequence of the increasing number of people in transit due a more direct communication and exchange between the two types of agglomerations. ■