Der Himmel über Berlin / Wim Wenders

Into eternity

An interview with urbanist and curator Michiel van Iersel about the future of heritage and architecture by Alexander Zinoviev

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An interview with Michiel van Iersel

An interview by Alexander Zinoviev

In the nearest future the notion of world heritage might undergo radical changes: content will prevail over architecture. The borders between historical value and human necessity is blurring. Regular buildings of the socialist era might be more important for the community than futuristic transforming constructions. In his interview, Michiel van Iersel talks about who and how creates buildings that have a soul.

Michiel van Iersel is an urbanist and a curator who started his career working for several visual arts organizations (Museum of Modern Art, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and Art Rotterdam) and the cultural consulting collective LAgroup, before co-founding Non-fiction in 2008. Michiel co-founded De Verdieping, a temporary project space for experimental culture in an abandoned printing plant, and the international research project Failed Architecture, focusing on failed buildings and areas around the world. Currently he is a guest lecturer at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Academy of Architecture, both in Amsterdam. He is an active member of several advisory boards, amongst which are the Stad-Forum and the Advisory Board of the Nieuwe Kerk Foundation in Amsterdam.
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You said that the amount of UNESCO monuments could reach a total number of 2500 in the year 2050. Despite this huge number, it seems like the golden age of heritage ‘production’ is gone. The majority of monuments belong to a period before 20th century…

You mean that we are no longer capable of making buildings that are worth becoming monuments?

I mean the proportion is changing, we produce them less than before.

I doubt it, I don’t think so. It’s just the tragedy of being human, to not be able to appreciate your own time. Even the horrible buildings that are currently being erected in Moscow, a hundred years from now some people will start appreciating and rehabilitating them. If you look back in history, that is how it always happened. I do think we produce a lot of monumental buildings. I want to show you what my view from our office is, to give you an idea of what I mean. This is Museum Square in Amsterdam with the Stedelijk museum by Benthem Crouwel, which is a hideous building in my view. Next to that you have the Van Gogh Museum, which is housed in a Rietveld building with an extension by Kurokawa, the Japanese metabolist architect. Most people find it horrible, they can’t stand it, but I appreciate it for its boldness. Finally, right across from us sits the Rijksmuseum by Pierre Cuypers from the late 19th century and people love it and I hate it. It’s such a ridiculously kitsch pastiche of much older architecture, mimicking Renaissance churches, but people just love it. Given the delay in the public appreciation of architecture, the other museum buildings will need another hundred years before the majority of the people will start appreciating them

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Ise Shrine. The way of construction remains the same after 1200 years /​Robert Izumi /​Flickr​.com

Apart from the buildings and monuments that we already have, will any kind of new heritage emerge in the future?

Yes, for sure. I can give an example of it. This year I went to Sharjah, which is one of the Emirates next to Dubai. Where Dubai is really going for the biggest, tallest and glossiest buildings, Sharjah has a totally different strategy. Instead of building even higher towers they are knocking down buildings from the 70’s and replacing them with brand new fake historical neighbourhoods. They actually think of it as a proper heritage project, they even nominated this whole area to become world heritage. So this is not something authentic that you have to preserve but it’s something they actively create in our time. If you look at Mecca, or at the city of Skopje, or at other Eastern European cities like Bucharest, how they deal with their past, they just pick out the best pieces, put them together and reconsider them in such a way that it looks like something authentic and historically rooted. But it’s not. That is the heritage of the future. It’s not something that is being passed on to you by previous generations, but it’s something you and your contemporaries developed yourselves in the here and now in an attempt to recreate history.

Heritage is about not preserving tangible aspects, but about preserving the community, the traditions, the rituals

Another example that will become more relevant is the Ise Shrine in Japan. In Shintoism there is this idea of rebirth, reincarnation and creative destruction, demolishing something in order to allow something else to flourish. One of the holiest places is the Ise Grand Shrine, a temple which is in a way 1200 years old, but it’s not the building which was erected 1200 years ago, it’s the 62nd re­construction of it. Every 20 years that building is being dismantled and copied on an adjacent empty lot. On the same scale, using the same materials. There is even a whole forest where they have planted sacred trees, which they keep using. The Shrine is one of the oldest buildings in Japan, and at the same time it’s one of the youngest structures. That heritage is not about preserving actual tangible aspects, but about preserving the community, preserving the traditions, the rituals, the craft of constructing something as a community. I think that will become more relevant in the future. In Europe we are stuck in these open-​­air museums and we don’t even have the craftsmen to preserve them, we don’t have people living anymore who can fix authentic elements of buildings, and in Japan there is a whole generation of people who still know how to cut the wood, how to paint it, et cetera. They have a productive culture, a creative one.

I would like to share with you an example from Strelka’s trip to the Volga river. There is an old kremlin, a fortified central complex, in the city of Kazan. In 1996 they started to build a new mosque there and in 2001 the whole site was announced as the UNESCO world heritage. The situation is quite controversial because such a mosque never existed on that site, it’s a completely new project. What is your attitude towards such a situation? How can it develop in the future?

You mean adding something new which also becomes world heritage? If you look at Zollverein, the former mining area in Germany which was redeveloped following a masterplan by OMA, there is this new school building by Sanaa. It was built within the premises of world heritage site so, de facto and de jure, it became world heritage itself. But now there is a geopolitical shift, away from Europe and the US towards the rest of the world, that could also have an impact on UNESCO and how they look at the world, how their criteria are described or formulated.
I doubt if UNESCO will survive much longer. But let’s assume, they will still be around 50 years from now, I think they will look completely differently at the world. Especially if they want their list to grow. They have run out of more obvious heritage sites in Europe and the US and now they are venturing into more difficult territory. If they want to incorporate the types of heritage I just described in places like the Middle East and Japan, they really have to stretch their criteria. I wouldn’t be surprised if newly built things really become world heritage, why not? For instance, China has a totally different attitude towards heritage compared to the European tradition.

I don’t think that there is anything fundamentally wrong in giving up on buildings and just letting them go

You have a lot of experience working with and for UNESCO and are quite critical of it. Obviously UNESCO has a huge impact on our heritage and the way we perceive it. What is a possible future for UNESCO?

I think UNESCO should open up, if they refuse to do it they will be overtaken by new initiatives. They should start involving people right from the beginning of the nomination process. They should hand out the power to the people who are actually dealing with the historical context on a day-​­to-​­day basis and they should be the ones who can initiate a nomination. Competition could come from websites where people are ranking buildings and heritage sites, like Tripadvisor and social media. Governments and investors are keeping an eye on those websites, because that’s where critical mass is created and where you can generate some support for the development of buildings. They will no longer need UNESCO to validate and label buildings as worth preserving. I’ve been working with (and against) UNESCO, and have been pushing them, but I have never received any real feedback. Apparently they are not really interested in change.

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Sharjah. Building new heritage today. /​Yara Ramadan

How to make a choice between historical value and human needs?

The buildings or the people you mean? Take for example a run down historic neighbourhood in a certain city. People who live there might not even be aware of the fact that those buildings have historical or aesthetic value and they just largely ignore them. There are plenty of examples of ancient neighbourhoods, in cities like Cairo or Paramaribo, where people are simply too poor to protect their monument or have other priorities. Should we allow them to neglect monuments because it’s their city or should we intervene and protect it, because heritage belongs to all of us? That’s a relevant question and there is no single answer to it. I think that we sometimes should use things until they can’t last anymore. It’s the same with shoes, why not just keep wearing them until they fall apart and then throw them away? Why not treat buildings in the same way? You cannot always fix them. I don’t think that there is anything fundamentally wrong in giving up on buildings and just letting them go. Sometimes it’s liberating.

What do you think about the construction in the second half of 20th century, causing urban sprawl in the United States and microrayons in Russia? Do they deserve to be saved?

Not in general, maybe in some specific cases. It depends on a lot of things. On how you define monumental value, on the looks and architectural quality of those buildings, on the importance of the events that have happened there. A friend of mine is from Novi Zagreb, the part of the city of Zagreb which was build during the Socialist era, she grew up there. For me it feels like an average neighborhood from that time and part of Europe, nothing special about it and quite boring in a way. But the way she describes makes you believe that it accommodated the local art scene and exciting things happened there. All the intellectuals moved there after the war. There was this massive community of bright­minded people living there. So the architecture might look generic, but at one point it was a stage of important experiments, which makes the neighbourhood worth preserving for the original residents. The idea that buildings should look nice, or that the architecture should be truly innovative, or should have been designed by this well known architect, I think that’s outdated.

It reminds me of the metabolist concepts about urban structures that can refresh themselves by replacing parts of their bodies over time.

The thing is that Metabolism and Structuralism and all these revolutionary movements from the 60’s and the 70’s were all presenting a future architecture which would be flexible and constantly changing. But if you look at those buildings, it just didn’t happen. Think of the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, designed by Kisho Kurokawa in the late 60’s. The intention of the architect was that more capsules would be added, but it never happened. It’s frozen in time and there are plans to demolish it entirely. Or look at the Structuralist movement, which made a promise that finally we would be liberated from static architectural structures by the introduction of open systems, which you can endlessly alter and recycle. And again, it just didn’t happen. And you know why? Because we’re talking about buildings, it’s not your hair that you can grow and cut. It’s a building. It takes a lot of effort to construct, it’s complex, it’s costly, it’s a struggle with the elements, with gravity etc. To draw it on a piece of paper is one thing, but to change concrete structures is complicated. Ironically, buildings that were never engineered with the aim to be able to cope with change have been re-​used continuously, such as the old warehouses in Amsterdam and London that became offices and lofts, while Metabolist and Structuralist buildings are being demolished after only a few decades in spite of their promise.

But who is responsible for those millions of square meters of housing? What is an architect’s role vis-​à-​vis those kinds of ‘monuments’? For example, it’s quite obvious that Corbusier influenced people who built microrayons…

But did he do that? Or did we do it ourselves? He was just one source of inspiration, and it’s up to you to interpret and to change it, to improve or to avoid it. I think it’s an overestimation of the importance of architects. You were talking about urban sprawl: do you think that all those engineers and real estate developers who helped produce those millions of buildings, all knew who Le Corbusier was? I simply refuse the idea that any architect dictated the creation of entire cities, with Niemeyer’s Brasília being an exception to the rule and I think you should refuse this idea as well. Because if you buy into it, you might as well say that Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid should be held responsible for the (mis)fortune of Beijing or London. I don’t think this is fair, neither towards those architects nor to the millions of people who collectively shape those cities. And even if it was true, I think we should resist it, cities can never be a single person’s utopia.

I simply refuse the idea that any architect dictated the creation of entire cities

Talking about visionaries, a few weeks ago I had a chance to meet Saskia Sassen. She just wrote a book, ‘Expulsions’, which is very pessimistic about how things are going and she is warning us that if we continue exploiting the planet there simply won’t be any future for all of us. Despite the pessimism I find her analysis much more relevant than even the most fantastic renderings of urban farming and solar powered buildings made by architects. They’re creating new stuff, while right now it’s a lot more useful to have a thorough understanding of the problems we’re confronted with than to bypass that and immediately come up with new solutions and new fantastic ideas for the future. So i’m a bigger fan of those types of visionaries that are supercritical and maybe even depressing to us. When these dark visions become a serious attempt to predict or to shape the future, I think it’s potentially dangerous; if it’s a way to better understand our own time, than it’s very relevant.

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Modernism: temporary condition or future heritage? /​Photo: old​mos​.ru

Is there anything else you would like to say?

There is one thing I was thinking before we started this interview. We’ve been doing a project called ‘In between spaces’, where we mapped underutilized leftover-​spaces in Amsterdam’s canal area. Recently I was asked by the Dutch radio to take them to one of these spaces. Since I’ve visited them so many times, I decided to take them to another type of an in­between space which is more recent. It’s a pedestrian tunnel which connects two buildings on both sides of one of the main canals in Amsterdam and which runs ten meters below street level. It’s something of an urban myth. Everybody talked about it, but nobody had ever been there and even more people don’t know about it. I managed to get access to it and found out it does exist. But the moment I entered it I felt sad that it was actually there and that it wasn’t a myth anymore, it became a reality… Sometimes it’s nice not to see everything that is out there. The invisibility of things make them more powerful. Because when it’s hidden from view, you have to work hard to imagine and create the city instead of consuming it.