Initiative & Institution Symposium

Friday, 07.03.08, 14.00

trigger talks and discussion:
juan linares (arzt&linares)
marko sancanin (platforma 9.81)
nil uzun
susanne tusch (erect architecture)
chair: marianne mueller

Saturday, 08.03.08, 11.00

build publics
trigger talks:
marianne mueller (mueller kneer),
jonathan mosley, sophie warren & robin wilson
kathrin böhm (public works)

Mueller Kneer Associates is an architectural practice that builds, teaches and reflects. Olaf Kneer lectured at the UCL Barlett and Marianne Mueller was a visiting professor at the Technical University Berlin. Together they now run a design studio at the Architectural Association in London.


Building Public

Olaf Kneer: In terms of design, the Youth Spaces project raised questions around the process of production and was exploring alternative avenues. What is the importance of good design in community buildings and public architecture?

Marianne Mueller: Good design can inspire and have a positive impact beyond the boundaries of the single building. On another note, ‘design’ can also create barriers, physically or mentally. In fact, design is sometimes used deliberately to create barriers, to keep certain people out, to exclude them. So what is important to explore issues of design and inclusivity in this discussion.

O: I assume you are referring to the state of public spaces. You are right, in public space design issues of exclusion are sadly apparent: benches are designed so no one can sleep on them, precious stone kerbs are protected against the use by skateboarders, spikes refrain you from sitting down on a ledge after shopping – there are many examples of this where certain types of use are deliberately excluded through design.

M: This works also on an aesthetic level: there are many buildings one cannot relate to as a user or passer by, and which do not add to the narrative of the streetscape. Public buildings needs to be accessible and inclusive on an athetic level, too.

O: What does aesthetic mean in that context?

M: An aesthetic that can be shared by a community, an iconography maybe, or a narrative. Peckham library in South London is a great example for this. It is a building that is easy to access, both visually and in terms of its use (it even has the word LIBRARY written on it – remember, this is a neighbourhood with a high level of illiteracy)! But also in terms of its materiality and the colours it uses. There is nothing precious or exclusive about the building. And this lack of exclusivity – or better this new accessibility – is what allowed it to become such a valuable community resource far beyond being as place to borrow books from.

O: I remember when the competition was written out, the brief stated specifically, that they were looking for a “thoroughly modern building” but one that “should not alienate”. An idea that was formulated at the very early stages of the project and then seen through.

M: A building which “should not alienate” is an interesting brief to set for an architect. Looking at what we have been discussing so far, the idea of an ‘open building’ comes to mind. One that is inclusive both in terms of aesthetics and use. But how to design an ‘open building’?

O: There should be a sense of generosity, perhaps also of ambiguity. There might be spaces that people can appropriate, space without clear and defined uses, but there to be taken over. Spaces that allow people to inhabit them. A design that supports this act. An aesthetic that allows interpretation. A great example for this is the Royal Festival Hall in London. People come to the building to simply sit down by the window and look out over the river Thames.

M: Some of the circulation spaces are overdimensioned purposefully and of such a quality that they become places to meet, to hang out, to spend time without pressures to consume. The Youth Shelters, too, are spaces without a clearly defined use, other than simply spaces to be, to sit, to smoke, to linger. In purely economic terms these are useless activities – and this is why we as architects need to protect them so hard. Good design should support these vulnerable spaces as they offer a very rare quality in the city.

O: As architects we are used to value spaces in monetary terms but you are introducing another system of values now – a kind of ‘luxury’, one could say. This is were it get’s tricky, when you have to outsmart the constraints of a brief or of a budget, maybe sometimes even the client – to build this kind of ‘luxury’ into a project.

M: ‘Luxury’ is actually an interesting term to use. George Bataille talks about an ‘economy of wastefulness’.

O: What do you mean by that?

M: Delivering everything the brief requires plus creating a surplus value – an expansion of the brief by the means of abundance. Spaces that are generous, of an unexpected quality. Spaces that give something back to the community. This why the Youth Spaces project is so important. Where do you go as a young person without having to consume, without being moved on? The Youth Shelters are such places. They are gifts.

O: So far we have discussed design in relation to the brief and to use, the ‘open building’ – a type of luxury. But what about design in terms of the hardware of the building? Its walls, surfaces, the tangible parts? Do you think a ‘good building’ can help to set new standards for a community? Or is this simply asking too much?M: It is crucial to invest in good quality formally and materially because that too demonstrates a kind of generosity that may not pay off immediately but over a much longer period.O: Do you think a Public Building also needs to build a public?

M: That is actually where the Youth Shelter project is successful. Buildings do not only serve but hopefully also inspire and focus. They have the power to create communities as they become places where new communities can be rooted. This is why I think it is not only essential to employ ‘good design’ but it is also vital for design to keep on pushing the boundaries, to experiment with use and inhabitation, as well as more formal or material aspects. It is important to develop design beyond the limits of what the community already knows or expects, to open minds and not to leave people behind.


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