Trojans pt.2

Our thoughts concerning the guidelines for architectural quality, Arkitektur Stockholm, put forward by the City of Stockholm, has been summed up and sent to the city planning office as a part of the public consultation process. A discussion was held, as well (last tuesday) with representatives from the planning office and the groups participating in the exhibition at Kulturhuset. Hopefully, the transcripts of the discussion will be available soon and we’ll make sure to post them on this site as we look forward to follow the ongoing efforts to shape the document. In the meantime, these are our thoughts, as sent to the City Planning Office on the 20th of September:

(More information about the guidelines for architectural quality can be accessed here (swedish))

“Angående: Arkitektur Stockholm: en strategi för stadens gestaltning
Diarenummer: 2010-11401-51

20 September 2011

Svensk standard was invited to participate in the ”Blinda Fläckan” section of the Våra drömmars Stockholm exhibition on the 13th and 14th of August. The invitation came to us through Sara Vall, a long-standing friend of ours, some time in June of this year. Thus began our involvement and interest in Arkitektur Stockholm: en strategi för stadens gestaltning. Upon the basis of our multiple and collective readings of the draft policy text (developed over 3 afternoon workshops), our position within and towards architecture in Stockholm, and the experience of working with Blinda Fläckan, we would like to offer our views on the draft document and our aspirations for what it might become…

First, we might explain the position from which we speak. Svensk standard is a group of friends who spend weekends, evenings, and holidays discussing, producing, arguing, and thinking about architecture. We all either live in, or have lived in, Stockholm, although at the moment some of us live abroad. We’re about 13 people, although less may work on a specific project, and this submission represents the work of Helen Runting, Rutger Sjögrim, Markus Wagner, Karin Matz, Caroline Ektander, Martin Losos, Ola Keijer, Daniel Johansson, Fredrik Andersson and Mattias Beckman. The group primarily constitutes architects, with the exceptions of an urban designer/planner and a chemical engineer. Three of us work at the School of Architecture at KTH as teachers. Four have recently started practices. A few of us work for larger commercial architecture firms. We have very different views about architecture, but share certain aspirations. The submission is English because it was prepared by a non-Swedish resident of Stockholm, and we’d be happy to provide a translation if required.

1. Trojan horses

We read Arkitektur Stockholm in three sittings. It was in the summer, and Stockholm was warm. The windows to the loungerooms in which we met were open. Despite this, we closed the blinds and read Arkitektur Stockholm together by projecting the text on a wall, and together we noted down the recurrent terms – Stockholms unika värden, hög arkitektoniskt kvalitet, välfungerande stadsliv – that run like threads through the text, knitting it together and forming the core of its message.

Slippery terms those, the meaning of which we debated at length. The meaning of which you probably debated at length. Terms which, in coming months, will be debated over and over again. Why? Because they are more or less “empty”, open to multiple meanings and reinterpretations. Their emptiness makes them interesting as a vehicle to push new agendas for architecture in Stockholm. It also makes them, as acknowledged by Per Wirtèn in the critique he performed at Färgfabriken, terrifying.

They are terrifying because they defer the critical attention of the public who might assume that they are inherently “good” (who can argue against a “välfungerande stadsliv”?); or that they are too “technical” to define (who dares claim the authority, in a normal situation, to define or even use the term “hög arkitektoniskt kvalitet”?); or that they are obvious truths (who doesn’t feel the timeless ring of a phrase like “Stockholms unika värden”?). In planning critique, these phrases are often referred to as “motherhood” statements (after all – how can you argue against motherhood?). But you already know this. All good planners do. Because planners need these words, to smuggle in concepts and terms, to simplify complex or challenging content, to affect and persuade audiences (the public and the politicians).

We’re happy for you to use these terms, but express the hope that you might use them to smuggle in a new agenda for architecture: to support the architectural profession in exploring new ways of doing; to permit uses and reuses of architecture which produce new types of space, or permit new ways of living; and we would like you to dare to tackle the big questions of architecture, like social justice, rather than simply aesthetics. Because whilst Stockholm is a great city to live and to practice in (most of the time), we believe (like you) that it could be better. Maintaining the status quo is relatively easy, and whilst it takes a lot of bureaucracy to do it, it doesn’t take a lot of bravery. We would therefore like you to use terms like “unika värden”, “hög arkitektoniskt kvalitet”, “välfungerande stadsliv” as Trojan horses, to smuggle in the bureaucratic tools required to produce new (more open) types of spaces, new (more open) ideas about how to live, and a new, more hopeful, context for architects to work in.

2. New spaces to explore

We therefore offer the following directions that we’d like to see explored in a development of the policy. Whilst we acknowledge Karolina Keyzer’s call (made in her speech to the audience at Färgfabriken) for architects to contribute solutions to the consultation process, as perhaps you can understand, developed and workable solutions take more than 4 weekends to produce, even when you are a group of 10. We therefore set out a series of questions, which we may continue to work with independently of Arkitektur Stockholm, but which we hope you may look into to too.

(i) Producing spaces through making.

We disagree with your definition of architecture (page 7), although (as evidenced in the never-ending battle between “Architecture” and “architecture”) disagreement should not be seen as unhealthy. Where you portray architecture as a product – a building, a park, a street (both object and environment), we see architecture as a process – a way of thinking (a field of research, a knowledge tradition), a way of doing (a practice, a profession), and a way of debating (in built, material, terms) who we are and how we want to live.

If architecture is to be enacted as a process, and if it is going to venture into new territory, it needs spaces to materially “think” and “make” with/in, where risks can be taken and failure is allowed.

We therefore wonder, can Arkitektur Stockholm aspire to open up new material and economic (rather than just discursive) spaces for a more open negotiation, experimentation, and “thinking by doing” in architecture, by architects?

We suggest that such spaces might constitute infrastructure for architects such as studios, education and competitions; but most importantly might constitute sites, commissions and real opportunities to build.

(ii) Producing spaces through use and reuse.

The city can be seen as a negotiation between conflicting interests, as well as a series of qualities/situations/conditions which “emerge”. It is the contingency of architecture – the unpredictability inherent in the way that a building is “lived”, in the way that it can be altered, and is therefore never entirely fixed – that makes architecture interesting. And often it is planning that works with that contingency, allowing and prohibiting the use and alterations of buildings, parks and streets, long after the architect’s job is “finished”. Stockholm is a city where permission can be difficult, where unforseen uses (a small café ore restaurant on a street corner? a non-traditional household trying to find a larger flat? retention of old, perhaps even ugly, buildings for studios?) may not find a place.

We therefore wonder, could Arkitektur Stockholm open up material and economic (rather than just discursive) spaces for ‘unforseen’ and essentially ‘unplanned’ use and re-use of architecture and the city, by architects, developers and – most importantly – citizens?

(iii) Spaces for production.

There is a lot of discussion of consumption within Arkitektur Stockholm – of slinking into a shop or café on your way from A to B, of the form of shopping malls, of the city as a “market place” and of the consumption of events and activities in public space. We think production is simply more interesting. Whether that production is large-scale (where are the factories in Arkitektur Stockholm?) or small (where are the kolonilotter?), the opportunity for citizens to produce, through architectural decisions about space, could provide a vital addition to the present discussion.

We therefore challenge Arkitektur Stockholm to use policy mechanisms to open up material and economic spaces for production (for instance, for urban agriculture, studio spaces, and small-scale shops, restaurants etc.,) instead of large-scale spaces for consumption.

Further, as a group composed (predominantly) of architects, it is rather natural that we think about the production of buildings. As eloquently described by Catharina Fored at Färgfabriken, and reinforced by our experience, the field of development is hopelessly dominated by the big four building companies in Stockholm, who are in turn supported by the big architecture companies. We question what is won (and who wins) through this arrangement.

We also question the current trends of applying different colour treatments to permimeter block buildings simply to aesthetically “fake” different owners, and urge you to instead direct your attention to the questions of power and economics that underlie comprehensive development.

More opportunities for more architects and for smaller actors in development could be a strong step forward, we pose, in supporting architecture (as product and process) and building in diversity into the built environment.

We therefore wonder whether Arkitektur Stockholm could open up an economic space for actors (other than the top 4 building companies) to develop property in Stockholm?

(iv) Wicked problems

The socio-economic (and dare we say cultural?) segregation in Stockholm exists at an unacceptable level today, well beyond what could be imagined of a city like Stockholm in a country like Sweden. The housing market, the rental rules, the development industry, the architectural discourse all need to be focused on consideration of workable solutions. What can we, as young architects, do in our daily practice to improve this situation? While we might be dazed by the scale of the problem, we should be able to look to our city for implementable solutions, which we feel ownership over.

We therefore ask, could Arkitektur Stockholm propose real measures for architects and developers to deploy in tackling segregation?

Poverty, housing, health, ageing, loneliness, unemployment, ecological damage: design is a tool in tackling the truly wicked problems faced by society. In the face of larger social problems, the retention of aesthetic character fades in importance. Stockholm has many young (and older) architects willing to work for change, and as per our comments regarding segregation, workable strategies are something the city could provide, and something which could make a document like Arkitektur Stockholm more than just aesthetic guidance.

Upon the basis of the above input, we wish you the best in the coming redrafting of the policy. Please keep us informed of progress and get in contact should you require clarification of our position.

Yours Sincerely

Svensk Standard
Stockholm, 20 September 2011.