What is the value of challenges in architecture?

*This interview was recorded in UCL Bartlett School of Architecture in London on May 13, 2019. Some parts of the conversation have been transcribed and edited and slightly condensed for clarity.

Nurgul Yardim: What projects you are currently working on that you are especially excited about?

Gilles Retsin: I’m pushing quite hard to, to enter this kind of question about domesticity. How do we live today? Who constructs this housing? And so part of those projects are speculative. They really need kind of setting out to field of like how we could, you know, how I think about housing? So that’s, I’m really excited to kind of work on these questions.

NY: As technology keeps progressing, what will be the role of architects in the future?

GR: Our role is very important because we are facing incredible challenges. We are facing challenges on one hand come from climate change, but also like changing populations, densities. How our cities are going to work, a lot of challenges in terms of housing. I don’t know the numbers by heart, but like there’s like an incredible 2 billion people or something will need new housing in like the next so many years. So there’s basically demand for creativity and understanding of this built environment right now. The reality is that in a way architects have kind of put themselves  in a very difficult position to answer those challenges because we haven’t really been answered other challenges. And especially I think with the, and it’s obviously the thing I keep repeating in terms of like the digital technologies that architects have completely missed the boat, right? It’s like you could actually, like the project that architects have built with the digital is really about. You know, doing something we come to by hand. It’s just, sorry. That is not to challenge that the world for the world right now is asking us like;

  • What do we do?
  • How do we make our cities more resilient?
  • Who is constructing housing?
  • How can we construct it quicker?
  • How can we maintain quality?
  • How can we own a house in a different way?
  • How can we protect our citizens from climate change?

And, like the sounds or like functional requirements, maybe you could say like, that’s not necessarily for designers, but I think they were a good set of constraints for us to like start to basically question how we can operate within those within these fields. And especially digital type technologies have a lot of answers there. But the premise that hasn’t really been asked, so no one is really kind of taking that very seriously on board.

I can recommend  Reinier de Graaf’s book “Four Walls and a Roof” which explains basically how the hero architect of modernism, who was a public figure that was engaged in political debates, that was in a way a star, but not a star as a kind of starchitect, but someone who’s actually engaged in debates about housing. And they will tell people how to live, they will talk about how we should live as a society. That figure has completely disappeared and partially that’s of course like Reinier describes this in his book that it’s partially because of the economic system. The shifts to kind of neoliberal and postmodern economic system where then an architect is just a business who tries to market itself. It is certainly like language and then not necessarily answering any of these kinds of societal questions anymore. But also things have changed now because we have such a clear, such a key challenge that that’s kind of postmodern complicacy is over.

Like as an architect, if you try to follow that model today, it’s like economically very difficult, plus also there is like not that desire there. So, I think what we’re going to start to see is that a lot of really big, for the moment, mainly American tech companies are starting to fill in the questions that we have not asked or itself, or that we have not managed to kind of push forwards as architects herself. They’re obviously hiring architects to help them formulate those questions. They’re employing them, which is great, but at the same time, they are starting to become owners of those debates. So “WeWork” is an incredible example. They’re now the biggest office owner in London in three years time. So that’s really  something. And they will obviously go into “we live” and like start to provide housing and this starts to question like what the housing is like? It’s important that this is like a dual conversation because on the one hand it’s easy to say that those tech companies are evil but on the other hand we all love Airbnb and Uber and you know.

I was just in Brussels using this electric scooter. Fantastic, right? Obviously these are ideas that come from Silicon Valley, and I think they’ll also need to praise this kind of utopian and interesting way how they offer fantastic surfaces, right? So in a way, it’s really becoming a challenge to start to see how we can, take ownership of some of those ideas and start to kind of develop also visions that; on the one hand inspire, the tech side, but also inspire governments to maybe equalize the situation more. So that it’s not just these companies kind of innovate monetizing that stuff.

I think there’s a lot of space for architects, but we really need to make a radical change in how we situate ourselves. And that, again, that doesn’t mean that we need to give up like creativity, etc. For example, a lot of schools that we consider good schools still really built on this idea of like that every little student there has to be some kind of blossoming star, which that needs to express the kind of deep. And also like on the one hand, that’s fine, right? Because it’s maybe also kind of certain romantic attitudes to the profession and I think it’s important. But on the other hand, it maybe also sends a little bit of a wrong image to works or roles in society. So like what do we actually do in society? I think that’s a little bit difficult, but because we don’t want to end up, obviously in, in kind of pure engineering schools, they are not allowed to express your kind of creativity and we desperately need kind of genuine creativity and individual thinking. But on the other hand, you also don’t want to make little starchitects and kind of jump them in the world. And then one out of like three thousands makes it, and the other ones are frustrated.

So, I think it’s interesting to architects to also understand what our positions there are and maybe situates or how can you be an architect today in other ways? And I think in that sense it’s getting very interesting what we can actually do. We can make companies, you can do podcasts, you can start to do so many things with our education. For example, at my colleague Manu, who has a 3D printing company, another colleague is doing like, software consultancy. We’re starting a company now called AUAR automated architecture, which is also doing consultancy for big companies to understand what automation means for them. So there’s so many ways we can use  knowledge, I would like to be optimistic as well. Like it’s very important to keep studying architecture and we will have other challenges to face.

NY: Regarding the future, what are you optimistic about?

GR: It’s such a difficult question today. We are faced with climate change, we’re faced with a professional that is increasingly in trouble. As I said before, I would like to kind of be optimistic in a way about believing that we have agency and power to change that trend and that in a way we are facing, like sometimes it’s good to face a very clear battles but sometimes I bet that’s better than being in a, in a time of like complicacy. It’s like there is something we need action, so many things we need to respond.So I think, although there are these big challenges, I think in one way it’s kind of maybe a very interesting time to be alive and to kind of face those challenges. So let’s be optimistic about those and let’s think that we kind of, as architects can really better knowledge is needed and that we can really contribute to the world. And we’ll do that in more and more different forms. 

 

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