City Dwellers as Designers, and the Lost Generation of Architects

An interview with Winy Maas on the future challanges in urban planning by Linda Hoegberg Andersson

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An interview with Winy Maas

An interview by Linda Hoegberg Andersson

Winy Maas, together with Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie De Vries, is the founding director of the architecture and urban planning firm MVRDV, which has been operating for 20 years in Rotterdam.

Since 2008, Winy Maas has been the director of The Why Factory, which he founded at TU Delft. The Why Factory, together with its students, research future cities, and has addressed topics such as mobility, density, liberty, food production and software planning. In a research project called ‘Anarcity’, The Why Factory explores the social and architectural extents of unrestrained liberty.

The question of individualism and collectiveness is further elaborated in a planning concept called ‘Freeland’ developed by The Why Factory and MVRDV. ‘Freeland’ challenges the over-regulated urban planning in favour of personal liberty. At the same time, they recognise that responsibility comes with freedom, and in most cases, collaboration between neighbours is needed.

The concept of ‘Freeland’ is step by step turning from theory to practice. The project that has gone furthest in terms of implementation is ‘Almere Oosterwold’ in The Netherlands, which is currently in process in Almere, a municipality east of Amsterdam. This urban development is monitored via advanced software, which allows a flexible planning process.

MVRDV and The Why Factory have recognised the potential of technology in urban planning and architecture. They have developed a number of software packages which are intended to facilitate individual choice, boost diversity, and to empower users. This practice raises important questions such as how far we can go with bottom up planning and how much diversity we will achieve in reality by allowing more freedom for the city dwellers. And how do these emerging possibilities change the future role of architects?
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In an interview with ‘Designboom’ in 2010, you said that you hope that the new generation of architects will “kill” the previous one. That sounds quite cruel! Do you see anybody having the potential to challenge the dominating star-​architects?

Most of the superstar architects are coming from a generation born in the sixties. They occupy a lot of the skills and control many of the larger projects, and somehow they are not really willing to give space to a younger generation. One of the challenges is how the young generation can grasp a grander scale when our generation is sinking.

But I think there is constant opportunity, and I see potential in thinking becoming a market for the younger generation. Thinking has allowed us to make the buildings that we design. There is still a lot of knowledge in thinking, and I do hope that that pushes the younger generation.

Many of the young European architects are facing a crisis that makes their future vulnerable. A reason why they don’t have a lot of power is that the market is going toward countries like China, and they are just too late, because China already has Chinese architects that can do the job. So it could be a lost generation.

At the same times as operations in China take place with its own specific kind of urbanism, other laboratories can be found in the European context. I think that is exactly the époque of these days, but in ten years this will be different. At the moment, I see a combination of laboratories in a shrinking society that is occurring parallel to the growing heaviness of Asian environments. That has potential to be a very fruitful combination, and one can imagine a new kind of world coming out of it.

The housemaker / Forgemind Archimedia / flickr.com

The housemaker /​Forgemind Archimedia /​flickr​.com

Russia can also become a growing market. What do you think are the main challenges in Russian urbanism?

The question is if plans like Zaryadye Park really are going to be executed. I am not sure it will happen. That also counts for The National Center for Contemporary Art. It is very important in urban planning that things are taken seriously, are followed up on, and are not drawn back. I think that is one of the most important elements that we need to establish everywhere, and especially in this age, in places like Moscow.

There are emerging economies like China, Indonesia, or India that face similar situations. Every country has their own cultural components, and issues of insecurity, corruption and lack of safety appear in these environments. That enormously threatens the potential of a free urbanism that people love and can participate in.

Media should orchestrate and monitor the endless desire to make things, to design things; it should be curious about what new plans could be made, and make them happen.

The media has a very important role in this. The starting point is to establish networks that follow and discuss these issues. What can come out of the media is the endless desire to make things, to design things, to be curious about what new plans could be made and to make them happen. Media should orchestrate and monitor that; they should control the situation of making things real. I think that is the most important part I can see establishing in Russia and other places.

The software you developed for Almere Oostwerwold aims to facilitate an organic development of the area, where regular people have the chance to influence, and interact in the process. Do you see a growing tendency of more participation-​oriented design?

It is definitely one of the themes. Due to that I hope that everybody can become a city maker, and that everybody directly can influence what he or she wants to possess, build or change. That is definitely a dream that I want to encompass.

I hope that everybody can become a city maker, and directly influence what he or she wants to possess, build, or change. That is definitely a dream I want to encompass.

Almere Oosterwold is one of the most advanced pieces of that kind of urbanism. It is a strategy, and there are many tasks for architects and urbanists in that. One task is to suggest how you can build, by creating a catalogue of directions, and to make links between possible designers and possible builders. Another task is writing the software, which is highly architectural and urbanistic, because it is based on implementation and negotiation of laws and regulations. The world of software scripting or post-​scripting helps convince communities like Almere, which is a provincial town, that this kind of software should be made. So the linkage between research and reality is there.

The why factory / Nicolette Mastrangelo / flickr.com

The why factory /​Nicolette Mastrangelo /​flickr​.com

What results do you anticipate in Almere Oosterwold?

The possible results of Almere Oosterwold range from failure to beauty. I have no clue how much conformism there will be in the end, and how much liberty it really evokes.

The possible results in Almere Oosterwold range from failure to beauty. I have no clue how much conformism there will be in the end, and how much liberty it really evokes. That is a risk, but on the other hand there is no risk at all, because whatever comes up people are participating in the process. That is a funny awareness.

Nowadays, in theory, technology could allow everybody to influence urban planning through a constant online connection via personal devices. Do new technologies like these allow a shift of paradigm, where the users can dictate the design and planning processes?

The current age is transitioning into the computer age, and thus the participation age. These days, the public space that surrounds social media has become popular as a kind of open nation idea. At the same time, the personal iPhone and other devices have created the highest individualism ever. I completely agree with that, and I follow the same logic, but on the level of urbanism.

So, optimistically the answer is yes, but it’s not that far yet, it is still not happening. So far it can only be used for some communication, but such things as bidding or influencing are not yet organised through those technical means yet. Crowd-​funding is there, but that doesn’t mean that you can be online and directly connected with possible investments, interactions or negotiations. It is getting there, but it’s still a dream rather than a reality.

Do you see other architects adopting the idea of bottom-​up planning after the project of Almere Oosterwold?

Oh, of course, man, it’s copied like hell. At this moment, many cities all over the Netherlands want people to build and design their own homes. I can sense that there is going to a desire for that in France and in Moscow too. It fulfills the expectations of a middle class market, it allows politicians and aldermen to give more freedom in planning, and it fulfills the expectations of a new generation that has the knowledge, skills, and the intelligence to do that. This doesn’t mean that it is completely legit or applicable for all social classes, but it would be great if social housing or our museums could also be done like in this way.

In China, it would be applied in different circumstances, and we have to be aware that there it has a very different political connotation than with the middle class in the Netherlands. And how can ‘Freiland’, the German version of ‘Freeland’, be applied in an American context? That would be an ironic twist.

Freeland presented in Venice Biennale 2012 / Alessandro Zerbi / flickr.com

Freeland presented in Venice Biennale 2012 /​Alessandro Zerbi /​flickr​.com

How do you see the balance between the collective and the individual in these projects?

We do two things in The Why Factory that contribute to the world of ‘Freeland’. One is the world of writing software, mentioned before, and the other one is research on the anarchistic, called the ‘Anarcity’. The agenda of ‘Anarcity’ is to evoke how far we can go with personal liberty. When does it become a world where guns are taking over the situation; until what moment can I avoid guns?

Anarcity’ deals with individuality and collectives, and asks the question ‘When do I need my neighbour?’. One of the most beautiful stories that one student investigated was “Can I maintain my current diet, but do everything by myself?” She calculated how many hours would be needed per day to raise crops, cattle, and so on. She found out that it would take 4.3 days per day. That is interesting, because you cannot do that, but it shows the minimum support act that you need. It shows that you not only need to strive for low consumption in your daily life, but also a certain kind of technical solution and specialisation to make it possible. That is already known in a way, but to be aware of that and to know the percentage of it, is the beauty of that project.

It puts that question of collective forward, and I feel quite happy with that. The calculation suggests that we need our neighbours, and it gives me a lot of trust and comfort that the collective space will always be there.

How would you compare the utopian projects by The Why Factory, compared with the utopian projects by Archizoom and Superstudio?

The architects that you are referring to now like Superstudio and Archizoom are my heroes. They had beautiful radical thoughts on issues like liberty and social equality. The beauty lies in the notion of helping and suggesting of how architecture could perform social ideas and practical ideas. These days, middle class welfare states have actually realised these ideas; they are closer to liberalism than ever and therefore closer to freedom; there is more criticism than ever, and in many cases there is more money also. There is an intelligence that is more available now, and somehow that is a good translation of the conditions of Superstudio. It doesn’t look like naked cities on a plain field, everyone doesn’t have long beards and long hair, but it is connected with the concept of the project of Superstudio. They could have celebrated their concept even more, and made it more radical. The reality of today has made that even more possible, and we should adjust our laws to facilitate it.

Almere oosterwold / MVRDV / flickr.com

Almere oosterwold /​MVRDV /​flickr​.com

MVRDV has been working with specific topics like density, mixage and liberty. What do you think are the most urgent themes for urbanism in the future?

I do hope and think that we can make improvements by all means in our cities, by updating them and giving them more qualities, more density and turning them into more liveable pieces of the planet. How to do that is by a series of observations; firstly to write an agenda, secondly to organise and lead a financial system from taxes towards compensation tax and, thirdly to work on a wide range of operations that make those innovations possible. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that the solutions are already known, so the fourth thing that I would like to add to the operations is that we should establish a serious think tank and a laboratory together with technicians and thinkers on innovative ideas and innovative techniques. Then you have a package that would make cities better.