Practice of Practices

HULYA ERTAS JOACHIM DECLERCK

How can we generate solutions in real life to our most prominent urban issues like sustainability, mobility, equality, etc.? Joachim Declerck, the founding partner of Architecture Workroom Brussels and the co-curator of the IABR 2018+2020, focuses on this issue of scaling. Hulya Ertas and Joachim Declerck have discussed “The Missing Link”, potentials of cities and networks, new ways of redistribution and power politics.

Hulya Ertas: Back around 2008, it was declared that more than half the world’s population was living in cities. During the following years, I recall that this was mentioned almost as if it was a catastrophe. What do you think about the urbanization of the planet? In terms of society and environment, would you consider densification of populations in urban areas advantageous or disadvantageous?
Joachim Declerck: I find it neither advantageous, nor disadvantageous. It is a logical move. When you look at history, you see that advancements have always been concentrated in interconnected situations where economies meet. In fact, it is very simple that the people who are doing something specific gather together, and start forming an economic network. So it is not new. From the 12th century on, this urbanization already existed in Europe and since then it has always occurred in waves. Of course now with more global phenomena, the intensity of urbanization is mind-blowing. What I see as an opportunity in this—and in that sense maybe it is more advantageous than disadvantageous—is that everything becomes interconnected in the city. Urbanization can have a very negative effect on the ecology of a territory—as is the case today, mostly. But at the same time, since everybody in the city is interdependent on one another, you can’t try to disperse problems into sections. On the contrary, in the city, everything —climate, food production, drinking water, air quality, mobility or energy—is interconnected. In urban matters, you can only tackle problems within their interdependency. In fact, the city reveals this interdependency; and makes it workable at the same time. You can approach it; you can find the tools and dials to run it; if you pull one string, you change everything else too. It is a phenomenon that can either be very disastrous, or very constructive, which places a responsibility on politicians, designers and citizens. But not only problems and challenges are connected between cities; there is also an urban culture of learning from one another. Interdependency enables an incredible instrument of lateral learning; because one city does something, and the others learn from it. If you look at the climate initiatives by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, or what is happening in the USA in the form of protests against the country’s official position based on climate change denial, you will see that these networks and their ties are very strong. Cities are so interconnected that you can’t simply say—like Trump does—that climate change doesn’t exist. Denying climate change does not solve your mobility problem, or your air quality issues, and so on. In cities, you don’t have the luxury of nation-state logic, where you can subdivide problems into clear boxes that are easy to handle because they are simple enough. Cities help to reveal the complexity that exists.

The Bridge is an urban, temporary or semi-permanent installation where a physical connection is made between the two sides of the canal zone in Brussels / Festival Kanal Play Ground
The Bridge is an urban, temporary or semi-permanent installation where a physical connection is made between the two sides of the canal zone in Brussels / Festival Kanal Play Ground
Festival Kanal Play Ground

HE: And cities are also much more productive in challenging existing situations.
JD: Yes, cities allow for much more effective solutions. They accelerate responses given to problems. You can’t say, however, that population densification in cities has resulted in a decrease in our ecological footprint. But urbanization is key in dealing with this ecological footprint in a more feasible way.

HE: Within this framework of interdependency, there is a strong belief in cities learning from each other. I actually do not get this, as I am not sure if cities are even learning from their own past mistakes. But I also do not think that each city is an absolutely unique case—of course there are similarities between them. What does the term “network city” really mean? Can cities really learn from each other?
JD: Network city is a term that can be used for so many things. A “learning” network of cities is one thing, but a network city is also the city where the physical, non-physical and virtual networks, are brought together. Personally, I am not a fan of this term. In reality, yes; mobile communication, data and information connect societies. But I very much believe in the fact that our notion of cities is not transforming from “space of places” to “space of flows”—as Castells puts it—but rather, that there is an emerging connection between places and flows. We need to keep “place” in the game because that is where we live, the public space that we share. And the shared space is still very physical. So the whole idea of the network city as a place where everything becomes virtual, is only a point of concentration in the amount of data that is consumed—which was a bit the 90s idea of the future. No, the neighborhood and what the neighborhood looks like are still extremely important today.

But I agree with you on the concept of the learning network. Forming these kinds of network is the major capacity of cities. If you look at Flanders, Belgium or the Netherlands, you realize that their learning network is underdeveloped. For example, in terms of renewable energy, everybody knows that cities have to transform drastically from fossil to renewable energy. They will need lots of space for this new type of energy production; so they will need to be more intelligent and effective in their use of energy and heat, avoiding the excessive losses of today. All together, there is an incredible amount of work that needs to be done to get ready for the goals set for 2050. National governments carry out very ambitious studies, and come up with innovative strategies to reach these goals. But, at least in the Low Countries, every single city is working on it separately. They are all testing the same thing. It is crazy. The goals that we want to reach are clear. The experiments are there; but –separately- they are far too small to link with the ambitious objectives. If we can’t accelerate and connect the learning experiences to each other, we will never reach our targets. In fact, that is where we see our role as an office.

This missing link between goals and implementation is also the project we set for the coming International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam (IABR). On the one hand, there is a wealth of fantastic experiments in terms of energy and renewability, in terms of green and water structures through city, and so on. Transition experts state that we are now in “system one”; where business as usual is dominant. As we will conduct more experiments, it is said that we will move onto “system two”—where climate change is “solved”. That is a bit of a mechanical view: we move closer to the future with more experimentation. This is, in fact, not true. Because on the other hand we have fixed goals on climate change, according to the Paris Agreement, but also goals concerning circular economy, sustainable developments, et cetera. They formulate the horizon extremely well, but are often from the hand of governments that don’t know how to come to the bottom of them, how to translate them into projects. With the IABR we could, in fact, set up an academy to bring those two extreme sides together, and connect governments and organizations on a European, national and local scale.

HE: Is your focus more on sustainability?
JD: The next biennale project focuses on a dominant tendency: When we look at the future, we always define it in terms of less than what we have today. Future is a negative project. We will need to use less fossil fuels—in fact, we will need to use less of everything. We will have less welfare, less solidarity; so the future is quite often seen in negative terms. Don’t you have that feeling?

HE: No, I think there is enough wealth accumulated on the planet that if we distribute it equally, we’ll enjoy it globally. That’s my future plan.
JD: You have an excellent plan. But in general –and there are a lot of studies about this– the policies that are made for the future, often use the word “stop”. “Stop fossil fuels” or “stop using open space”. The narrative is based on less of what we know today. International research shows that people nowadays believe that they will earn much less than their parents and that they will struggle to make ends meet. The future does not really give us a positive feeling. So with the biennale, we aim to focus on the appeal of the transitions, not in terms of how we will have less than today, but in terms of what the qualities should be in order to make us want to obtain that future. We work on energy transition for example together with local municipalities, research institutions, designers and energy experts. We see that as a goal in itself. However, the energy transition should be an instrument to reach a new quality as well. This is also a task for designers. Architecture has the capacity to produce an image through which we could proceed accordingly.

A second question is how we can actually accelerate the process of transformation. If we know there is a goal to reach in the future, how can we draw that path from here to there? The how question is increasing in importance, additional to the what question. And clearly the only way—at least in Western Europe—is through collaboration between citizens, associations and so on. There is no context within which you can say that the governments, or the politicians, are strong enough to decide autonomously which direction to go. They always look to the electorate. It means that we have to shift our thinking. We have to discuss these how questions in an inclusive way. So it is by definition a kind of a social-spatial project. This implies a new practice.

Urban meetings for Atelier Kortrijk 2025 - Innovative urban development strategy
Urban meetings for Atelier Kortrijk 2025 - Innovative urban development strategy
IABR 2016 urban meeting
IABR 2016 / Atelier Brussel

HE: With the introduction of daily life into the architectural discourse, the difference between macro scale planning and micro scale street life has become more important. There are theories focusing on the macro scale, like Sassen, or Sennett. And there are some people who deal with small case studies on very micro levels. There is a tension between complex and abstract systems of the metropolis and the concrete, real-life. How do you deal with this trans-scalar condition?
JD: I think we need to move towards the "practice of practices". Especially in the field of architecture, we really landed in a nonsense discussion of what is good and what is bad. Many architects are really concerned with form. They have nearly no respect for or interest in the urban initiatives that are more fragile. We are in an interesting situation where we should shift these debates. We need to focus on finding the diversity of practices that would lead us towards the future, and on connecting all these types of practices to move forward.

HE: But these practices are not necessarily architectural practices, these are daily practices, right?
JD: Indeed. And I think that that is the range we need to develop; and even expand. I was at a debate in AA last year set up between authorship architects and urban initiatives—which are not, in the first place, spatial; but which use design methods to support local communities. And then there are also purely citizen initiatives which are definitely daily practices, sometimes not even connected to architecture or spatial disciplines. What is challenging in this spectrum—which ranges from the big A to the collaborations between citizens—is to not classify all of these under the existing conjuncture. For the moment, the architecture critique is still functioning in itself, and that way it gets more and more alienated, and detached from all the rest that is happening. It is actually quite sad that the more complex the world becomes, the more architecture retreats into its own world. The whole argument why projects are good is being based less and less on their relation to the outside world, but more and more on their relation to the history of architecture. That is incredible.

HE: Even sometimes to the history of the architect himself/ herself.
JD: Also, yes. That is at most a crazy thing. It is inward looking. Yes, we need extremely good architecture, but we need to reposition it within a strong narrative for the future, for which we also need complementary types of practices that act on a level in between spatial and social. I see it as a challenge that there is a global interest here and no language to address it. There is an interest in capturing other dynamics, the energy of people’s daily life. This interest needs to be reconnected to design practice. It is the only way. That connection is what I mean by a practice of practices.

HE: In relation to a trans-scalar approach in a bid to grasp the whole, it seems really necessary to find ways to zoom in and out. Otherwise, just looking at a particular project, or just looking at the general view, doesn’t make it possible to generate the criticism.
JD: I think it is very important to zoom out. That is also why the biennale launches a call to initiatives—we call them initiators or commissioners. Sometimes commissioners are governments, sometimes initiatives or citizens. The whole idea is that we capture the existing energy, and then look at what that means in relation to the future we want to get to. Some initiatives are much more inspiring and exemplary, while others may not be so positive. Looking at the field of all these initiatives and mapping them—bringing them into a common measurement framework—will connect all these initiatives; and maybe even invite them into a sort of think-tank. In addition to finding new ways to move forward together, this effort will also identify which types of initiatives act against real transitions.

For example, there is the debate on mobility, where uses of public transport have been argued for so long as the only alternative for our mobility system dominated by private cars. This logic is correct if you believe that there can be only one solution. Now we start to realize that, with the emergence of self-driving cares, integrating shared cars to the system will be key to solve the current traffic congestion. Shared, self-driving cars can become the bridge between individual and public transport, as part of a multimodal system. For me, it is much more important to connect the shared transport to the public transport than it is to defend public transport against all the other modes of transportation. This also means that suddenly, it is no longer logical to propose to build trams everywhere to solve the traffic problem. We should consider critical mass, infrastructural challenges that come with different modes, and so on. Suddenly, the solution becomes something different, more nuanced and thus more complex.

Building for Brussels exhibition
A Good City Has Industry exhibition
Meetings at A Good City Has Industry exhibition
Reweaving the Urban Carpet / a Publication of The IABR 2014 BrabantStad Project Atelier

HE: I consider that kind of a logical positioning as an act of nostalgia.
JD: I understand what you are saying, but I think it is more about certainty. We are always looking for redemption. The city is complex, and evolving, and that makes it extremely unstable. So you see that politicians and citizens are doing two things at the same time: first, they are trying to understand it, and simultaneously they are also looking for certainty and for stability. I don’t see that as nostalgia. To turn this idea into a positive attitude, we should ask the question, “How can we help provide a stable logic that is open and flexible enough to cope with complex and evolving conditions?” We don’t have that narrative yet. Can we make a framework in which evolutions, in terms of technology for example, do not lead to a situation where, after technology has evolved, there is a need to start over? Now, nobody wants to invest in new energy structures because nobody knows whether that investment will be stable or not. They call it “not credit worthy”. So we need to design and redraw, in fact, sustainable paths of investment for private investors, public companies et cetera., as well as of citizen engagement.

HE: Now that the welfare state is over, I think one of the main questions is: “Who is defending the common good?” There are investors; there are people; and in between, there are the governments that are, most of the time, regulating the relationship between the investors and the people. What will be the next step for us, as citizens, now that we are lowering our expectations from the state and depending more and more on investors?
JD: There are two sides to that. There is energy present in our society that is extremely positive; often in conflict with the way the state has institutionalized everything. We can’t go back to the state that foresees and organizes everything—we have criticized this as well, as being too structural, and not flexible enough. The other extreme is that the state gives up and citizens solve their own problems. This allows private deregulation, but always combined with governmental regulation, supported by a defense mechanism to keep things in state—a kind of left wing statement, not from social democrats, but more extreme, left wing workers unions and so on. But I believe that in between those two we have something that starts from another narrative: the common good. And I think this is what we need to develop, not as an argument, but as a practice. I don’t believe we are in a system where you have a new party for that; we need a working method for it. I think that narrative will grow through practice. And I think the first step is to identify citizens’ practices and practices of practices that are, in many places, made in similar ways and through similar perspectives. And by that, you create a group of participants in a common practice.

HE: Do you see your work as mediating?
JD: Yes. How do you translate the big changes that are coming at the cities into concrete projects? Or how do you translate the means it employs for the environment, and how do you visualize this? This is where we come in. More and more, however, we are coming to see our work as the interconnection between what the government can do, what the existing energy of a society is, and what the real question is. We imagine what kind of working methods could be developed to activate and connect these energies that exist within a society, and how governments can help to facilitate these, not in neutral terms, but with a clearly positioned goal. An interesting example is the model of Room for the River, an adaptation project for a whole region of the rivers area in the Netherlands which they defined in a typical Dutch manner: first, they sketched the problem and its solution in a mathematical way, but then they opened up the project to every local municipality to redevelop it, and to propose an alternative from their own perspective. Thereafter, an overarching system judged these proposals in terms of technical requirements and quality; and compared them the first solution. I like this idea because it activates people and institutions around a common goal; it may still be too directing, and top-down—because I believe things can start from the bottom up—but it is a valuable interaction. When compared to infrastructure problems, the social problems are softer, and hence more difficult to grasp. But if we can define our horizon, and we can develop and draw ways to get there, we can use that as a provocation to involve local actors and coalitions to propose alternatives, and then judge these with regards to their relevance compared to that horizon.

HE: For a while now, I have been thinking that we are coming into a new phase of globalization. Because the first phase was globalization of the companies, now, I think people are also getting really globalized.
JD: Yes, and no. The election maps of Turkey, France, Netherlands and the USA show that you have participants in this globalization, and you have the non-participants, even though, of course, they are participating too. They participate in consumption but they don’t feel the returns of the investment out of this consumption. I think the real issue has no immediate answer: the future as a positive, but also an inclusive project. So I really do believe that we have a struggle today which starts with the corporations that have become the dominant forces, and governments which think they “only follow and have nothing to say about it.” As if it is something that comes out of our own selves.

HE: And that is irreversible.
JD: Yes, and also, as if it exists beyond ourselves. As if there are no buttons to change it. As if it runs by itself, which is nonsense. But that idea has grown into the system since the post war period, so we moved towards this system of globalization for 50 years. Local citizens however become more and more verbally expressive and often do not see the advantages of this system. That comes from very different sides, from the left wing and inclusive logics, but also from ecological perspectives and regional differences. If you are not in the interconnected space, it is very hard to see the advantages, because we have made the global economy the norm, which has become problematic for the local production. That is where I think globalization should enter a new phase. How the future can be an inclusive project is one of our major questions, and thus it is also about a form of globalization that we need to invent. When does the balance between territorial inclusiveness and this global project become a crucial element? That has to do with many things, all at once. But we need to stop thinking that there is only one irreversible force that is beyond us; because, we are, in fact, those who subsidize that force.

We should first acknowledge that everybody is equal. This includes that if you move production away from here, you pollute less locally, but increase pollution somewhere else—that is an objective fact. We need to find a new balance for ecological reasons, but also for reasons of inclusiveness and solidarity. Are we able to let inclusivity predominate over cheaper production costs and subsidize sustainable local production rather than huge logistics? Why not? I think that rebalancing would transform a subdivided world into an interconnected one.

Otherwise, the economical engine of this devil will not slow down. The crash in 2008 was one sign, but it was based on growth. The future can no longer be based on growth. That is also an objective fact. The system cannot find a way to deal with qualitative developments and quantitative growth at the same time. But we also need to rebalance local networks of production and economic ties, which are one by one important for the international solidarity we have in mind. I truly believe that if we do this, we will get to the next equilibrium.

HE: It is good to see that there is at least something you are optimistic about.
JD: I say this not because I am optimistic, but because there is a true reinvention of the meaning of “collective” in the air, driven by a reinvention of the political and the public sight. There is even a true reinvention of economy as there are plenty of initiatives in the form of new companies in cities with alternative models. So am I optimistic? Yes. Because this energy starts to accumulate and take shape. Am I pessimistic? Yes. Because there are incredibly strong forces that you’ve called nostalgic but that maintain the strength of what has been, against what should become.

HE: For a long time we have discussed power relations in architecture and urbanism in a one-directional impact: spaces being shaped by power. Yet the 21st century way of protest has manifested itself mainly through spatial practices like invasion and occupation, and the likes. Is space becoming more important for the discussions around power, politics and democracy?
JD: That is where I would be, at the negative side. Some would say we are now in the neoliberal condition where everything is a product, even space. You invest in buildings as you invest in products. Recently, there was a discussion in Brussels on the European Parliament building. They argued that after 25 years, it might be better to demolish it and build a new one, rather than exploring ways to reuse it. This is just an example of how space is seen as a commodity you can consume. You invest in it as something disposable. You have vacuum cleaners, and according to the same principle you have buildings and space. So, since economic growth is considered endless, you can consume endlessly. Unfortunately, space is not endless, and we know it. But we have not found a way to connect this dominant idea of “commodities” to space. In general, firstly, the idea of space as a political force is actively pushed aside, because it means we have to change many things, all at once. So you postpone it, negate it as long as you can. Even though we know that we need to change, we don’t, because nobody can find an attractive, qualitative way to do it. On the other hand you have the more localized protests and initiatives that are revalorizing proximity and sharing space.

HE: And the political self is also being reinvented.
JD: But that is not the dominant force yet. On the one hand, there is a mega-form saying we can’t do this neoliberal thing, and that is always seen as a left opinion. On the other hand, everyone is actually connected to his own environment. And sometimes people actually start to realize the connection between those micro and mega forms. Am I interested in the future of my neighborhood? Yes. Can I discuss energy problems on that scale? Yes, absolutely. We have seen it in Kortrijk during a series of workshops. Although we had never done it with 300 citizens before, which was crazy, we saw again that citizens are much more visionary in their conversations than in political debates. Translating the challenges to the neighborhood and using spatial design already in an early phase really acts as a lever in this process. If you go beyond the assumption that you need a politician to decide for you, you will realize that there is a connection between your private self and your immediate environment. It is really interesting to understand your immediate environment’s proximity to somebody else’s, and recognize the world as a continuous system of people. There is a strong force which is not connected to ideals left or right, and that is the force that we need to build from.

HE: And this is very much spatial?
JD: That is socio-spatial; in the sense of a political space, both non-physical and physical —which overlaps. If we realign these left arguments of going against the system and define the group doing it, we would probably see the existing diversity. If we look beyond these left and right divisions we can organize debates between these differing systems, and involve everyone by connecting them through a collective force.

HE: Maybe, it would be far more possible if you do it through bottom-up practices, rather than trying to change the system from up above.
JD: In a controversial debate, yes. But in our own practice we sense that the representative democracy can be used as a leverage to steer top-down decisions with bottom-up ideas; politicians, after being elected, are continuously inspired by public debates, because of their work in a field of concrete engagements to people. Not all politicians are engaged in the same way,, that is clear. But still, it is important that public engagement gives legitimacy to political decisions. You feel that politicians will not decide for big changes if they don’t have that field to rely and to build on. And that is a fantastic optimism, which we can work with.

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