Extracts from a conversation between Michiel van lersel, Mark Minkjan and Rene Boer (Failed Architecture) and Bashar Ibn Talib
Editor’s note: The building mentioned below is the Trouw building in Amsterdam, the former editorial office and printing house of a major newspaper which was later abandoned and turned into a club/cultural venue. It is now now being converted yet again.
Michiel I don’t think we had a goal. I think we had an incentive.
Bashar That’s nice. Which is?
Michiel To deal with our direct surroundings. So, Amsterdam is a typical historical city in Western Europe where everything is monumental and nothing can be touched, but there are some exceptions. The modernist buildings that people encountered as they moved from the inner city towards the outskirts, for example. That was, a relatively new phenomenon for a lot of people. So, all of a sudden, there was this whole new typology of buildings in front of us that we could work with. But then, at the same time, they were slated for demolition. This paradox, at least for me, triggered something.
Bashar And you appreciated what they could offer. You felt the general public, the people in authority didn’t share these feelings?
Mark Part of the general public did. But it was also just economic returns: the building or the site was very valuable in financial terms—a lot more money could be made from it. But, at the same time, the way the building was being used was very important to the city, offering space for alternative uses and programs compared to what was on offer at the time.
Rene To add on, I think also, from this incentive of the building, something grew out of that. We never really formulated exact goals, but over the last few years, there emerged a set of ideas, approaches and perspectives shared among the three of us. And, I think that we have been putting those in practice over the last few years. It’s a way of looking at things that we try to share with as many people as possible. And that has been very rewarding.
Mark Maybe we should try to explain or just highlight a few of those.
Bashar Yeah, why not?
Mark Well, one way is shedding an alternative light, on the unloved or stigmatized buildings or areas, and reassess them. But also to reassess the things that are celebrated and to try to focus on their darker sides. And from there it grew into, or it already was, a form of alternative architecture criticism.
Bashar So, you’ve found something that has been condemned, something that fiscally doesn’t make sense. You, on the other hand, emphasize that urban and architectural failure can beget productiveness and promise. For example your workshop in Sharjah that resulted in creating an unexpected affinity to Bank Street. Your workshop and the people you invited to present made it clear to the participants that there’s something to cherish there. Do you have any other examples that we could discuss?
Mark Well I think it’s not our aim to tell you that you should try to preserve these buildings. We try to be very nuanced. But, that came out of the workshop because we basically bring a fresh set of eyes and a fresh set of perspectives. People start looking at their surroundings again, digging into their histories and stories, they start to love them.
Rene But it goes beyond that. I personally am not so interested in the aesthetic aspect, so I don’t go pointing out buildings that I think are important architecturally.
Bashar No, I’m sure that Bank Street is very important socially because there are entire lives that revolve around the existence of these buildings. The very notion of gentrification, for example, is good for some people but bad for a larger group of people because they may not be able to stay where they used to live.
Mark Gentrification eradicates the physical fabric in almost any case. Also, it eradicates the social and economic fabric.
Rene I think, in general, when a building or a piece of the urban fabric is not a total success, when there’s anything that’s somehow failing or has some kind of problematic aspect, it always triggers people’s imagination of how you can improve things or how you can change things. The more a specific place is problematic or, at its most extreme point, a total ruin, this emptiness or this specific place triggers people’s minds as to what you could change there or improve there or realize there.
Bashar And I believe that your blog and your workshops are very successful at this mission. I know you don’t want to define what you do, but I’ve seen the effects of it. And, definitely it has a positive effect.
Michiel Definitely. Like, for example, showing the complexity that surrounds these structures, that it’s not singular, it’s not only the owner or only the looks of it, it’s always this interplay between all these elements–even if one sometimes gets lost in all the interconnections and particularities. But just to be honest about it, that it’s always a complex situation.
Rene And often things are presented as if things are very simple, right? As if such and such place just has a very bad reputation, or as if the economic aspect is the only consideration.
Michiel It’s such a perversity. Because perhaps out of all art forms architecture is the most dominant, most costly, most…
Mark The one that affects people’s lives the most.
Michiel Yeah. So there’s a perversity or there’s something attached to that that needs to be dealt with, which is in most cases overlooked. When people look at Amsterdam, for example, hardly anyone understands how the city operates as a financial system, how its development has nothing to do with architecture as such. Architecture is the physical manifestation of a global financial system that is looking for safe havens to invest in.
Rene Amman’s development as a city over the last 50 years is the result of regional geopolitics. That’s key in understanding how the city has developed.
Bashar I just came from a two week vacation in Dubai, which is basically that: a piece of speculation. It’s all an investment. They have a very ambitious project, for instance, to build a canal linking the Persian Gulf to Burj Al-Khalifa and you can imagine how many neighborhoods will be destroyed, how many streets, the ways of life that will be changed. But of course you can tell exactly why they are doing it: because they can invest billions on the shores of the canal.
Michiel Yeah, but in a way Dubai is more honest in its attempt to connect financial gains to built form. I was in Oslo, for example, which is also a financial hub because of all the money that is generated through oil drilling etc–but they presented it as an egalitarian society. The way in which real estate is developed there is very close to what Dubai is doing, with a more dishonest presentation as a social democrat utopian place. So you don’t have to go to Dubai to understand what’s happening, and Dubai is not uniquely guilty of it either. This sort of development is affecting all kinds of other cities…
Bashar Sure, but in Amman, Dubai’s the issue. Amman has a case of Dubai-ification, the most obvious example being the new downtown. It’s a basically a new type of village catering for a certain class of people and neglecting everybody else. It’s not…
Rene Yeah, but Abdali is still pretty compact, and has created some sort of urban space that is actually walkable. It can be much more aggressive and extreme than Abdali obviously.
Mark But, on the other hand, Dubai-ification is a global trend and product. It’s very generic.
Bashar Ok, so changing the subject slightly, you wrote that you envision that eventually the profession of architecture will disappear, with the continuous advancement of very sophisticated automated parametric design for example. Personally, I think the architect or the human will always be necessary, because if we depend on automatization of design what we end up with is very sophisticated parametric blobs. And we see many examples of these around the world.
Rene To start with, I think it is very important to understand that 97% of all architecture is designed without architects. So, does the architect actually exist? Or, what is the dominance of the architect nowadays?
Mark I think architects need to reclaim social or public relevance. The project of modernization has given way to a basic modernity, which is basically money-driven, insta-driven progress, with architects still hired to create the physical forms of buildings. But now they have to make sure that there’s a social, public relevance to their work.
Rene The architect is functionally only a catalyst in the actual physical realization of the building and not much beyond that. I think that’s very important to realize also.
Mark Just giving real estate developments some nice clothes, basically.
Rene Exactly, yeah. And I understand it’s very hard for architects to step out of this: this is where the work is, where the money is, how the profession functions now. But I think it’s crucial for architects to see whether there are viable alternatives to this in their professional day-to-day operation.
Michiel I’m tempted to give a more controversial answer. It’s not up to the architect to decide on whether or not he will have a future. I think that’s a misunderstanding. If you look at other domains like medicine, for example, doctors are being outsourced to computers. Super-complicated surgeries are being done by computers as we speak. The only role that the doctor plays is in programming the machine and keeping oversight of what’s happening. But, eventually, because these mechanisms are self-learning, they will push away the doctor. Same with pilots. I think, twenty years from now, there will be unmanned…
Michiel Yeah drones, but for passenger flights as well. So, if you look at those developments and how things are going within architecture, I think it’s just a matter of time before algorithms will take over to a certain extent. But, then, you’re not building for an abstraction or just for capital, you’re building for people. And, if the people will give you their vote, if the people think you are needed–well, my point is it’s in their hands to give you that position. I don’t think that architects necessarily will play that role in the future.
Bashar I want to ask you specifically about your workshops. Your strategy is mainly based on urban mapping exercises. What do these strategies achieve, and what is the best use of the information collected?
Mark Our workshops are about chronologically mapping the state and development of a particular building, neighborhood, or street and showing the complexities and interconnections involved.
Michiel The workshops try to help you to understand the world we live in. We walk down streets everyday without being aware of their history, etc. I think that’s an important experience and also productive in the sense that things will not improve as long as people remain unaware of what the situation is. It enhances your direct experience of the space but it also empowers you to take control of your own situation and of your direct surroundings.
Rene It’s also, in a very modest way, an alternative to architecture education, that is normally focused on the physical appreciation of buildings and not so much on understanding the larger environment. That’s something that we try to have there.
Bashar On that topic, how would you rectify or change the way designers and architects are trained? Because, I feel that by creating this special caste of architects, we architects lose touch, or purposefully want to lose touch, with other professions. Do you have any ideas or other comments about this?
Michiel What I think underpins it is a basic human need to excel and to show off. It’s the most self-obsessed profession that Another know–with fairs, biennales, etc. It’s really insane. There’s this whole culture around architecture which is, again, perverse. But it’s also self-fulfilling, so it’s really hard to to undermine it, or to steer it into another direction.
Bashar You’re highly critical of the current state of architecture media. In your opinion, what are the negative effects of the prevalence of sites such as Archdaily?
Mark Well, it comes back to what Michiel was saying: it’s very self-referential. They are architects producing content and most of the consumers are also architects. So, it creates an image of how architecture should be. And, at the same time, most of the things are often unrealistic, both in the photography or renderings. They’re never going to live up to what is being presented.
Rene Yeah, and it’s relying heavily on social media as well. So it’s really about the amount of traffic a specific image can generate.
Mark Highly visual but ultimately very shallow in content.
Bashar It’s very shallow, superficial. I do frequent Archdaily and I know it serves a purpose, but I see exactly what you’re saying. It just shows the pretty and the beautiful–not the gritty, the problems, the mistakes or the aging process.
Rene But that’s also the point. Architecture’s really about the initiation of the building. It never focuses on what might be after that, or how it could develop, or what kind of problems might be involved. It’s just about that glorious first moment. It would be very interesting if architects also tried to take into account the afterlives of what they do.
Bashar I found a passage from your writing that is amazing. It says: “The city’s scars are stimuli for the mind. They raise questions, about memories and imaginations of a foregone past, and of potential futures. They visualize the passage of time and the inevitability of collapse, reminding us of our own transience.” When I read that, I thought of the scars Amman is full of, the Al-Khayyam Cinema in Jabal Alweibdeh for example. It was designed by an Egyptian architect, El-Said Kuriam, and it harkens to a far gone time of a different kind of culture and social milieu in this city. It’s a very important part of the city and it’s now lost, abandoned. Did you, during your brief stint in Amman, see other examples of this?
Mark Yes, definitely a lot. But, Another also want to say, of course, that this sort of thing is also just nostalgia–often a false nostalgia. But, for example, another cinema, the Hussein cinema…
Bashar Oh, it’s by the same architect!
Mark Is it? It’s a beautiful building. But then this notion of scars, voids, or liminal space is very different in Amsterdam compared to Amman. Because here it’s very much a part of the city. There are little voids everywhere. People have a more pragmatic approach to the city here, it seems. Whereas in Amsterdam, it’s a very nostalgic approach where everything is preserved and maintained.
Bashar Rene, I know you did your thesis on post-Mubarak urban transformation of Cairo. Can you share with us some of your impressions of these changes? And have you seen any analogous transformations in Amman?
Rene I think the post-Mubarak transformations in Cairo were really related to the political vacuum. This meant that in many different areas of the city people felt free to do whatever they want. For example, in the first year after the revolution, people living in the downtown area started to add one, two, three floors to their buildings. Shopkeepers were extending their terraces. And people from the informal areas descended on the city center and started to build all kinds of informal structures in the middle of the streets to sell things. Some of these processes have now been reversed, but not all the way. Anyway, it was all specifically related to the political vacuum, which I don’t think has been the case in Amman.
Rene But I think there is something that has changed throughout the Arab world. The political horizon widened around the Arab world despite all the problems and wars going on. I think there is this imagination of how things could work, how popular power could work. There is more sense of a larger ownership of your direct surroundings.
Bashar But, also because many of these revolutions failed or stalled, the people are not sure whether they should go on with it or just accept the status quo. Thank you, gentlemen. It was amazing.