To start with, could you summarize how the Rivercity Project came to be ? How did you get involved and assemble the team ? What were the questions asked ?
GRAU: We saw the call for submissions and were of course attracted by the offer. Having read Lars’s paper «Toxic Ecology» on the struggle between nature and culture we immediately thought of him as a perfect partner in crime so we decided to contact him, a little out of the blue. We were convinced that we needed a strong but somewhat different team to have a chance at being selected. So we set up a group together with Lars, Sebastien Duprat who is co-director of ELIOTH, a french office focusing on sustainability, and Arnold Verbeek, an economist from Idea Consult.
You begin your approach by a more global analysis, placing Gothenburg within a comparative matrix of « Wet Network Cities ». Besides exploring the different possible attitudes in the relationship between water and city, how was this comparison necessary ? How did it serve the method and influence the final proposal ?
Lars Lerup: To highlight Gothenburg’s national role as the major export city, and to make a clear distinction between “central cities” and “network cities” we established an internal network of export cities gathered around an abstracted “central” ocean. At the same time we established by implication Gothenburg’s role as “a gate to the world.” In turn this made clear that the harbor, despite the decline of many of its traditional industries, is still a central focus in the city…and potentially a central concern of any plan for the future of the city. In addition, this outward attention establishes G’s international character. In the end, much of the proposal is focused on the central inlet from the Atlantic, known as Gota Alv.
GRAU: In addition to it’s position as a gateway, it was also a way of saying that Gothenburg is not alone dealing with issue of water rise, it is major concern for most seaside cities. Of course, it served as a comparison but it was not a case study per se, but rather way of showing the multiplicity of approaches and an openness towards the question knowing that we could in no way solve it in a one week workshop, nor alone. The idea was really to put it out there, on the map, expressing it loud and clear to the city. The blue circle, representing the common ocean, became a powerful expression to remind us of this.
The operative part of your project starts with the acceptance of Gothenburg as a fragmented city, rejecting any utopian unification of ‘the’ Gothenburg. In today’s global context and concomitant shift on city marketing, this might seem a counter-intuitive approach. Did this decision come easily ? Did the shattering of the ideal of a unified city provoke any particular reaction from policy makers ?
GRAU: As you mention it, this is first and foremost a fact : Gothenburg IS a fragmented city. The abundant infrastructure, the topography, the very wide Göta river crossed by few bridges, all of this leads up to a fragmented conditions that is then being reinforced by demographic and social fragmentation.
For us, neglecting this fact only seemed counterproductive, and we almost immediately, and intuitively, felt that the way of looking at the city through fragments could actually help to solve this issue.
Lars Lerup: Physical contiguity is obviously important but best resolved by infrastructure. The character and specificity of each of the four central areas, once enhanced, are seen as an opportunity to highlight the unique qualities of this harbor city. Each of the distinct parts is seen as a “terroir” that when understood and enhanced will help direct future development. This way both past and future are tied together. The social striations dividing the city in workers on the left bank and managers on the right bank cannot be solved by physical connectedness but through cooperation and mutual respect. Here education and citizen participation are the keys—not architecture. Our use of
the toolbox rather than a master plan was an attempt to create a forum for educational and participatory processes.
GRAU: Similar to the idea that as a human being, if you are comfortable in your own skin you tend to be more open, we tried to strengthen the inherent quality of each fragment, imagining that connections would then start developing between them but in a more rich and multiple way than simply by infrastructure.
There is of course also an economic aspect to this point of view. Connecting is expensive and a more bottom-down approach, or from the inside (of the fragment) to the outside (other fragments), becomes a way to accomplish transformation with less money.
How did you then identify the four fragments the make out the Rivercity Project, and determine they could be the core of your intervention ? What was your approach in making them complementary to one another ?
Lars Lerup: The notion of a terroir, is to look and listen carefully and closely to the existing. Once we did this, the four-clover stood out, obviously enhanced by the discreteness and centrality of each part—a fact that all parties realized early on. The character of each made it clear that the old core will retain its importance while the three others need great enhancement. The Frihamn just across from the core takes on some new civic qualities, not fully evolved in the old core, to create a new civic centrality on the left bank—largely a gesture to balance the civic capabilities by using both sides of the river. The other two parts were built around smart industry and downtown housing respectively. This way the four-clover represents all essential aspects of a city center. We further enhanced and emphasized the internal dependency of the four by making each part an essential link in an interdependent energy cycle.
In your practice and research you both very interested in exploring post-urban conditions beyond the consolidated European cities. How did the post-urban experience of Los Angeles, Houston, Gary (US) or Ishinomaki (JP) affect your conception of planning and design ?
GRAU: First of all, we see what you call the «post-urban» experience as an urban experience of its own, just not the common model. What we find interesting in these urban examples is the possibility to explore new values and new forms of balance. Common urban values are absent from these territories but this doesn’t mean that there are none : there are necessarily new values to find, which means that in a certain way the future is already present here. For us, the possibility of transformation in cities like Ishinomaki or Gary, is at its maximum, which makes them very interesting places not only to explore in planning but also to observe in time.
Lars Lerup: Architecture, when interesting, is always about the future. Combine this with the basic aversion by middlebrow architects to the sprawl of the post-urban condition and you have a storm of my liking. Since I see my role in this conversation as fundamentally contrarian, it is for me the perfect storm. This goes hand-in-hand with my aversion to Master Plans, top-down planning and the kneejerk rejection of self-organization—all central issues in the post urban city. I think this is all reflected in the very effective cooperation that I have with GRAU—and for me, it is very comforting that a much younger generation is pursuing the contrarian project—now with new tools and interests.
Your work also seems to focus on spaces that fall out of what GRAU, during the previous Brussels Master Class, called the “friendly city” made of housing, parks and urban living. How did this interest in devices, machines, engines, miasma,… arise ?
Lars Lerup: Indeed, the realization that we live on a spaceship that is hurdling into an unknowable future, surrounded by miasmas both actual and mental, demands us to look and explore the dark side. Our colleagues’ obsession with the “friendly city” is pathetic. You should look at the cheerful perspectives of our competitors in River City—a city that suffers from seemingly endless wind, rain and associated grayness. It is the city-of-the-real that is our concern replete with “devices, machines, engines,” miasmas, crime, loneliness, despair, joy and love…
GRAU: Lars just said it very well, we try to focus on the city-of-the-real. This is not the friendly city, nor is it the mean one but a city where we have to accommodate both aspects.
We’ve had the city of the machine, the city of architecture, the city of objects, and the city of networks. Now we look for the sustainable city but it’s quite clear that this city is not the green one that serves as a poster child for all new urban developments popping up here and there.
In that sense, the initiative of the re:work masterclass is very relevant, recognizing the need to bring back industry and logistics into the city center, activities that are commonly seen as «mean» and therefore pushed out of the city. This is the sustainable city we should look for.
Your strategies seem to deny or go beyond the ideological struggles that mark and polarize contemporary urban debates, sometimes implicitly. The approach is hard to categorize, it does not respond to the opposition between an acceptance of reality that would characterize Margareth Crawford’s « Everyday Urbanism » on the one hand, or a return to ideology of what we could call « Critical Urbanism » on the other. The same goes for a hypothetical opposition between « neo-liberal » and « neo-Marxist » approaches. Was it a conscious choice to avoid the possibility of being categorized, simplified, in a way politicized ?
GRAU: As architects and urban planner we can never just accept the reality, pretend that everything is good the way it is, and we always have to move forward, inventing new spaces and designs.
At the same time moving forward doesn’t mean that we are necessary critical of the current situation. On the contrary we force ourselves not to be, because for us this critical position can actually serve as barrier for further evolution. Instead we try to be in a very proactive position, something that the current economic market is of course also forcing us to.
Having said that, what we find very interesting in our field is the openness that it brings. Of course we have our own ideals, everyone does, but the diversity of situations that we are confronted with everyday professionally, moving from the friendly city to the «post-urban» condition, from socially depleted urban neighborhoods to wealthy suburbia etc, forces us to put those ideals to the side.
In that sense we would not say that we consciously avoid being categorized, it is the job that guides us.
LL: In my case I have always held a deep suspicion of ideology—maybe a fundamental affliction of architects, which has allowed us to serve anyone red or blue without a flinch. I don’t think we ever had a discussion of this in Gothenburg, maybe because both Suzanne and I are Swedish and feel reasonably comfortable in the culture, although we both are highly suspicion of the top-down planning that dominates Swedish city planning. As an instinctual counter–reaction we submitted a down-up model with a vast toolbox that would allow citizens to participate in the planning of the city’s future. That this was a fundamental mistake we now realize since the City Father’s had no way of dealing with this model being used to be told by planners what to do. The top-down model is the central model for all planners despite ideological affiliations, thus the model is not fundamental different for Albert Speer
or Byggnadsstyrelsen (Sweden’s Central Building Department) in Sweden (if it still exists in the form I knew it from the 1960’s.) At the same time modern planning is a very narrow broadband (as my colleague Gunnar Hartman has suggested) while varying forms of self-organization dominate the majority of “planning decisions” in rapidly developing cities. GRAU’s working methods suggests this when they put forth diagrammatic, although precise proposals, allowing for flexibility and adjustment. Precision and fixity dominate architecture while approximation and flexibility should—Big Data will show this. This will be reinforced by the rapidly receding Welfare State that will in turn put a new burden of responsibility for the city on citizens. As the saying goes: We Live in Interesting Times…
Interview conducted on the occasion of the conference to the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels, 29.10.2013 with Lars Lerup, Susanne Eliasson and Anthony Jammes
Co-ordinator BOZAR ARCHITECTURE / A+ ARCHITECTURE IN BELGIUM
Interview realized by LOUISE (Ph. De Clerck, G. Grulois) and COSMOPOLIS (M.Ryckewaert)
Drawing “Research by design” by Anthony Jammes and Lars Lerup