Self-Organization

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By Caroline Bos (UNStudio)

The principals of self-organization and professionalization seem to be at odds – especially in the world of architecture. While self-organization has been lauded for its ability to create buildings where no capital investor would dare, professionalization is seen as rigid and inflexible. Can the two find a compromise? Caroline Bos, co-founder of UNStudio, sees professionalization not as inherently antagonistic, but potentially a useful counter-balance to self-organization.

Some years ago, as part of a study group organized by Luuk Boelens, I visited Villa 31, one of the oldest and best-known informal neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. This is where we met Alicia, an immigrant from the north who had lived in the Villa since 1974 and had moved incrementally through various layers of self-organization. (1) As a new inhabitant she had initially participated in the construction of her own self-built house and services, such as water, sewage, and electricity, fulfilling her most basic individual needs. As time went on, Alicia became involved in community projects; a flourishing subsidized canteen had later made way for sponsored computer programs. Thus her self-interest became mixed with community interests and she had learnt to liaise with various donors. Finally, Alicia had to some extent participated in the management or the governance of the Villa. At this level, her original self-interest had expanded and developed to encompass a more comprehensive approach and understanding of shared benefits.

As the example of Alicia shows, self-organization can never be wholly separated from self-interest. There must be clearly discernible benefits to be gained for inhabitants such as Alicia if they are to engage in any form of self-organization. At the same time, it is extremely rare for an individual to possess such pressing needs so that they engage in self-building and self-organization, for such a long stretch of time, allowing them to develop new skills and insights along the way, and moreover, nourishing a willingness and ability to build up a symbiotic relationship between their individual needs and collective needs.

Amelia and some of her initiatives in Villa 31, Buenos Aires

Currently, a great interest in self-organization can be found. Parallel groups of students and researchers from all over the world could be encountered at other slums and favelas, all eager to learn from amazing individuals such as Alicia. The tendency toward privatization pertains to all areas. Public authorities retreat; the market takes over. Where does this leave the architect and urbanist? Small-scale initiatives, particularly in the field of housing and temporary usage of post-industrial locations for the creative industry, explore collective private patronage as an option to shift the balance of power and initiative from the public authorities toward the individual. But is this a realistic long-term structural alternative that can be applied to situations and processes outside the field of housing? To me the shift of power and the initiative from the public to the private or individual stakeholder is a complex issue, which I see as closely related to the phenomenon of professionalization. While Alicia, after many years of personal deprivation, managed to unite within her person a unique and, to her, deeply satisfying and empowering balance of private and collective interests, those of us engaged in Western practices do projects. As professionals, we are engaged on a short-term skilled basis; our commitment is confined to the boundaries of our expertise. Even our undoubted self-interest is linked to professional preference and expertise; we hardly depend for our survival on a particular project in the same vital way as a favela inhabitant depends on her self-built shack. Within this context, the professional involvement in renovation incentive projects or neighborhood-oriented building can be seen simply as a form of specialization.

Professionalization

The professionalization of architecture, like that of other professions, has developed according to patterns identifiable, though not completely identical, in many different countries. An important characteristic of professionalization is that it entails standardized training; another vital trait is that the authorization to practice is regulated through the membership of professional institutions. (2) Today’s experts no longer see professionalization as static and normative; the process is never completed. (3) In the fields of architecture and urbanism we can distinguish opposing pulling and pushing forces when it comes to the establishment of professional directives. Some tendencies are towards greater control and uniformity (certification, European regulations), while others point to the cultivation of competitive marketable distinctions. Both tendencies result in an understanding of professional identity as increasingly specialized and restricted. In sum, the still ongoing process of the professionalization of architecture entails the internalization of more and more distancing strategies and constraints. To me, therefore, if the public domain between private enclaves lies unclaimed and neglected, this is not entirely due to a lack of self-organizing capacities or ideological analphabetism on the part of any particular stakeholder, but is really at least partially caused by the successful framing of competencies.

Since proposing to become less professional does not present a credible solution, the way forward is to develop alternative tactics to heed the gaps. Such strategies are dedicated to the uncovering and utilization of overlapping interests, rather than the maximization of singular interests. As Paul Hirst has shown, “space is configured by power and (…) becomes a resource for power”. (4) I would like to suggest that architects often do not sufficiently realize that they possess an exclusive agency on the potent substance of space with their professional skills. Hirst pays particular attention to Foucault who gave shape to his conceptualization of power by means of particular spaces and buildings: the prison, the fortress, the madhouse. (5) Seen in this way, the intimate and detailed knowledge of space that architects possess gives them an opportunity to at least participate in the proportioning, design, and to some extent distribution of power. How does one handle that power? The architect needs to understand the essential contested nature of space, and then offer solutions that take into account the many and partly conflicting interests associated with spatial occupation. The best way to do this is by connecting to a network. The network offers a greater security from the risk of societal damage – caused by the tipping over of one particular self-interest at the expense of others – than individual good will. I therefore would propose that a techno-spatial innovative approach, developed and realized within a network of specialists, contains the most likely and promising strategy within our professionalized society. With UNStudio we have long sought to make this our professional specialization; there is no club or association for it yet, but I would argue that our relational approach can be seen as the professional counterweight to self-organization.

Expansive Strategies

Visionary schemes and scenarios have their use as beacons, shining a light on dark and hidden spots. A lot of the time, however, architects work with clients, detailed briefs, and deadlines. Yet, even within that reality there are numerous ways to explore the areas where common concerns occur; where the brief and even the budget may offer space for a double reading. I will describe two different situations, each with their own specific strategy aimed at expanding the self-organizing powers of the architect. The first situation involves stakeholder relations; the second focuses on the public within private space.

Stakeholders versus Ownership

When UNStudio first became involved in Arnhem Central, the masterplan for the station area of Arnhem, the location had already been the subject of many studies and plans. We took the opportunity to start over and investigate what was actually happening at the location. A surprising finding was that the railway station area, the grounds of which were co-owned by the municipality and the NS, the Dutch national railways, could more justly be defined as a mixed-use transfer area. Of all the visitors passing the location on an average day, fewer than forty percent were going to and from the railway station. The remainder would be changing from one bus to another, or switching between bus, bicycle, foot, or car. The question we therefore posed to the municipality was: who gets to decide what happens at this location?

There were two majority owners. One of these, the NS, was used to exercising certain institutional power. From the mid-nineteenth century onward the railway station has taken a central place within the urban constellation as an easily recognizable, busy, and iconic manifestation of mass mobility. But should this tradition be continued? Was an iconic NS station really necessary? If so, the city would have to wait for it until the NS were good and ready, which, as the NS made clear, was going to take some time. The current station, built after the previous one had been destroyed in the Second World War, was generally deemed inadequate. The city was ready to take over the initiative from the NS. Strengthened by our analysis, which showed that occupation-wise the NS did not represent the majority interest at the location, the desirability of an NS icon became questionable. Should the railway station take the same prime, almost monumental position in the city as it did in the nineteenth century when, really, today there is nothing more to be found inside than some automated ticket machines and convenience shopping?

Model of Arnhem’s new public transport hub. Design UN Studio 1996 – 2014

Of course, as the subsequent history of Arnhem Central shows, this decision led to a process that was far from plain sailing. We have been working uninterruptedly on this project from 1996 onwards and there have been quite a few setbacks. But meanwhile, an integrated transfer zone has been realized incrementally, which includes an expansion that generates 80,000 square meters of office space, 11,000 square meters of shops, 150 housing units, a new station hall and bus terminal, a fourth railway platform, a railway underpass, a car tunnel, storage for 5,000 bicycles, and a garage for 1,000 cars.

The bus terminal and train station create an integrated public transportation area that has replaced the local iconicity of the railway station with a contemporary, more diffuse and diverse identity. This identity finds expression in a landscaped solution, in which pedestrian accessibility is the common denominator and determining factor. The intersection of different traffic systems is reduced to a minimum to optimize pedestrian access to all facilities. Light falls through from above onto the lower entrances to the station, garage, and offices, and creates long and clear sightlines, aiding pedestrian orientation and wayfinding. Pedestrian movements, transport systems, light, built form, and the distribution of the program are thus fused in one continuous landscape.

The final project may be evaluated in different ways, but there is no doubt that at its root was a stakeholder analysis that was not an immediately obvious preliminary step to a masterplan study, yet was feasible within the competence of the architect.

Public within Private Space

The debate about the privatization of public space has largely been confined to American critics, variously taking the form of an accusation, a lament, or a caution. (6) This compelling critique of the modern city to a new critic might issue an invitation to formulate a counter critique. To the networked professional it presents a different challenge. What are we to make of this situation? Do we simply go along with it, or can there be more to it?

In 2004 UNStudio was commissioned to design a new façade and interior for an existing department store in Seoul. Subsequently we designed two other department stores in Asia. (7) In each case we made a point of reversing, or expanding on, the critical premise of the privatization of public space and reclaimed the public space within the privatized one. The public space of the department store in our view consists of two elements: the public circulation system and the elevations. The public circulation system is the framework holding the shop-in-shops. These individually branded shops represent the commercial value of the store and are designed by the brands themselves. The public space surrounding them has no intrinsic economic worth. It is essentially interstitial space, and can be filled-in architecturally in any way. This is of particular significance in South East Asia, where department stores are used by people as places to meet, eat, drink, and both shop and window shop. As the department store is such a popular social and leisure destination, the architect really needs to confront the social and cultural experience of the visitor. While it is undeniably true that the underlying goal is to attract visitors to the store, meaning that an overarching commercial interest drives the client, it is also significant that these buildings are freely accessible and are used extensively in South East Asia as urban leisure space. The point here is that the architect needs to actively search for opportunities to expand on the public potential by looking beyond the brief. A bottom-up approach or a participatory design process is out of the question, but this does not mean that the architect, again within the network of specialists, is surrendered to a single stakeholder. An awareness of relational space ensures that there is a constant professional obligation to the public interest. At first glance, these projects appear very limited, but a focus on the issue of the distribution of space loosens the commercial constraints at least to an extent. An expanded interpretation of utility beyond efficiency and profitability is thus at the heart of the design of the public space within these privatized spaces.

Interior of the Galleria Centercity, Cheonan, South-Korea. Design UNStudio 2008 – 2010

The façades of each of the three department stores also were primarily treated as urban objects. Advertising space was minimized, even though from Times Square to People’s Square commercial surfaces tend to be fully plastered with neon signs. Also similar in all three façade treatments is the choice to break up the scale of the buildings. From the outside, legible floor heights are absent. Instead, patterns, different ones in each case, have been chosen that present the building as an urban artifact as a whole. These patterns are made up of mixed media: a combination of slats, lamellas, screens, fins, or disks with lighting and animations on top, resulting in different effects by day and by night.

Again, the designs UNStudio has come up with may be judged positively or negatively, but the point is that the opportunity to appropriate space to the public domain was discerned and an expansive design strategy ensued.

The examples from UNStudio’s practice show that we are continuously aware that space, being so strongly correlated to power, is a highly contested resource. Practically every square meter on the planet is coveted, fought over, and claimed. (8) The architect needs to be considerate of conflicting interests. Any identification with just one stakeholder contains a risk. Sometimes, as in Arnhem Central, visualizations of the stakeholder positions can generate groundbreaking insights. Even then, the architect needs to remain careful in choosing alliances. A relational approach, entailing a focus on overlapping interests, offers the potential to distribute space more equitably.

Finally, returning to the question of self-organization; is there any way an architect or urban planner can realistically aspire to the wisdom of an Alicia? After all, it took thirty or more extremely difficult years for her self-interest and collective interest to evolve into one and the same thing. In the Netherlands, experiments with self-building and collective private patronage, while interesting and worthwhile, involve intermediate parties such as social workers or professional project managers to assist these individuals and groups with the lengthy and complex building process. The professionalization of the design and building industry has made a more direct form of self-organization impossible. In fact, as Arend has argued, professionalization characterizes the conduct of all participants in many processes relating to spatial planning. If you want to have a say, you should expect to play by the rules and know the game of give and take. (9) Thus, each stakeholder, from the project developer proposing a new shopping center to the member of the local environmental group, has become a sort of professional in a densely woven network. My conclusion would be that this is a good thing and that our alternative to self-organization is taking part in that network of professionals, which jointly takes care of the balance of stakeholder interests.

1. Caroline Bos, et al. ‘Moderne Diaspora en Krachtwijken, Referenties uit Sao Paulo en Buenos Aires’ in: Research Journey 3 of The Urban Connection Programme (Utrecht: University of Utrecht 2008).
2. Rolf Torstendahl, ‘Introduction: promotion and strategies of knowledge-based groups’, in: R. Torstendahl and M. Burrage (eds), The Formation of Professions (London: Sage Publications 1990).
3. Sonja Henriëtta van der Arend, Pleitbezorgers procesmanagers en participanten: Interactief beleid en de rolverdeling tussen overhead en burgers in de Nederlandse democratie (Delft: Eburon 2007).
4. Paul Hirst, Space and Power Politics, War and Architecture (Cambridge CA: Polity Press Cambridge 2005).
5. Ibidem.
6. D. Mitchell ‘People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 85, No. 1 1995. see also: (M. Davis City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles , (Verso 1990, 2000), C. Boyer, The City of Collective Memory (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994).
7. Galleria Department Store, Seoul, 2005. Star Plaza, Kiaohsiung, 2008. Cheonan Galleria, Cheonan, 2010.
8. Stephen Graham and Patsy Healey, ‘Relational Concepts of Space and Place: Issues for Planning Theory and Practice’, in European Planning Studies, Vol. 7, No 5, (1999).
9. Sonja Henriëtta van der Arend [see note 3 above].

This article was published as part of Volume #30: Privatize!.