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Published in The Financial Times, 25/26 Feb 2003 p9.
YEA is a newly formed network of architects, keen to take advantage of the Expansion of the European economic zone. Lucy Bullivant looks at how they are breaking the conventional boundaries in order to survive. Published in Blueprint, April 2005.
A democratic vision of architecture, with the architect playing an important role in public housing and urban planning, is the tradition both in the former Eastern European countries as well as in Western Europe. Although the political and economic systems that enabled these social resources are under pressure, the expectation is that architecture is more than an ad hoc solution for one particular client is still very present. How is that tradition of the broad social and cultural responsibility of architects taking shape in the new political and economic landscape?
Experiments, debates and recently formed networks like Young European Architects (YEA!) - staged for the second time in Rotterdam last October with 50 invited young practices from across the continent - are spurring new processes devised by young architects increasingly fashioning themselves as 'omni-practices', able to tackle challenges at every scale.
The YEA network exists for the exchange of information about new ways of Working, and consists of a searchable online database and in the form of live seminars and events. Primarily, YEA seeks to reinvent the idea of conventional architectural practice. As its website notes: 'Young architects display great commitment to their profession, but the economic and cultural context within which they operate hampers the actual implementation of their responsibilities'. This represents a form of survival strategy as noted by Frederick Migayrou, curator of architecture at the Pompidou Centre: "Young architects today want to be effective - they try to invent new processes to connect with clients, with consumers, with the media. It's absolutely not the spirit of the 60s".
But what is a young architect's role in a Europe of cultural and political diversity, asked YEA!, and how does he or she work locally yet act as a European too? These questions have become more urgent now that a whole group of member states have joined the European Union, and the unification of Europe and new technologies have had their effects. Young architects are already to a greater or lesser extent involved with the processes of modernisation, and in spite of all the legal and economic differences within the architectural field in the different countries and regions of Europe, collaboration with local architects remains crucial.
There also seems to be a market emerging for a more generalist role allied with a social conscience. "I think this is perhaps an area where the younger generation of architects have a head start compared to their older competitors. It is a contemporary discussion, and that means it cannot be based on experience alone", says Hakkon Rasmussen, one of five partners in 3RW, an emerging Norwegian practice based in Bergen.
That puts another pressure on how architects work in a deregulated European market, but on the other hand it puts them at a strategic advantage. Particularly in Eastern European countries, young architects believe that government support will not increase; just the opposite, so being proactive is necessary. On the other hand, awareness of politicians' failure to act dynamically in relation to city centres and regions is now far greater, and there is a strong wish to continue with certain governmental structures and try and transform them.
3RW architects' country of Norway remains outside the EU but is part of the passport-free Schengen area. A young office established in 1999, it considers itself to be network-orientated, applying 'architecture a tool for investigating social relationships in society'. Recently the Norwegian Defence Estates Agency - the largest real estate operator in the country - took notice of their approach and commissioned them for the massive restructuring of its military properties. They have also injected modern tourist facilities into typically dramatic fjord landscapes. Defying categorisation like so many young European practices, their professional involvement in issues of gentrification, and maximisation of natural resources and conservation makes them a versatile and widely socialised outfit with skills that could tackle challenges across Europe. The 21st century began well for them: first they converted Bergen Art Museum's restaurant to include expanded multimedia gallery-cum- dining space and club. Then, in 2004 they won a competition with S333, the Amsterdam-based practice, to develop their home city of Bergen. The Defence Project has allowed them "to step outside the traditional professional arena, working in teams as negotiators, developing prototypes", says Rasmussen. 3RW is also a music company, close to the local art and music scene pioneering the early transformation of the Bergen's industrial waterfront.
Kavakava was established in 2002 in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, one of the Baltic States, by four women architects: Katrin Koov, Kaire Nömm, Veronika Valk and Siiri Vallner. Koov is head of the Landscape Design department of the Estonian Art Academy. "It was considered groundbreaking at the time", says Valk, "in the still extremely masculine Estonian architectural scene". Kavakava straddles architecture, landscape design as well as art and events. "In Estonia, new market opportunities began to form immediately after the collapse of the Soviet regime at the beginning of the 1990s, and now the market niche for landscaping and urban art projects has grown". Their tactics are proactive - and provocative. In 2004 Valk initiated NODI, the Youth Section of The Union of Estonian Architects, which allows "them to take the course of spatial thinking into their own hands". Her manifesto about possibilities for city illumination to combat Estonia's varied daylight conditions led her to negotiate with various municipal departments, resulting in five street lighting projects. For an urban installation in Tallinn's Old Town Festival, they made a giant steel flower covered in 24,000 illegal CDs donated by the police. "There was a strong social response from the public", says Valk, "asking why we were advertising Estonia's black market problem to all of Europe!".
Rok Oman and Spela Videcnik of Ofis Arhitekti, based in Ljubljana in Slovenia, "find the fact that we still belong to a former exotic socialist republic as an advantage". Ofis became rapidly famous alongside when in 2001 they won BD magazine's Young Architect of the Year (they studied at the AA). At the time Videcnik was 29 and Oman, 30, and had three local housing blocks and extension to the City Museum (which won an ar+d Award in 2004) on the go. After becoming an independent state in 1991, Slovenia generated a lot of public competitions, say Ofis, and the economy is growing. However "investors are suspicious about new ideas. Nobody wants to hear the words idea, concept or design. These topics must be hidden with the words economic, cheap and simple", says Videcnik. Ofis won the prestigious biannual, Europan housing competition for young practices (one of the few pan-European initiatives aimed at this generation), in 2001 for a scheme in Austria, but local support could not be found by the organisers, not that they have any shortage of work at home.
Another practice transcending national borders who won Europan - and is placing faith in their scheme being built - is Gravier Martin Cámara, established in Paris in 2003 by Frenchman Laurent Gravier and Sara Martin Cámara who is Spanish. They worked for Claus en Kaan in Amsterdam in in the early part of the decade, giving them insider knowledge of how the Dutch scene works, and later with leading French practice Jakob+MacFarlane, best known for Georges restaurant at the top of the Pompidou. They are now involving Claus en Kaan in a housing scheme of theirs in Rennes, reinforcing urban identity with a mixed live-work programme "challenging the mono-cultural communities of the 1950s and 60s".
With a second Dutch practice, Köther and Salman they are working on housing and urban schemes in Béthune in France. Martin studied in Copenhagen and his partner keeps her Spanish connections by organising public workshops on architecture in Malaga in Spain for the local architectural association. These experiences make them aware that "architecture can lose its sense of nationality", but that has its advantages. "Architecture in France can be quite formalistic", says Martin, "our work is a critique of the sculpted object". Young architects are aware that across Europe, a lot of the continent's building heritage was built "pretty fast and pretty poorly" as Martin puts it. "The lack of knowledge of good examples is still terrifyingly high".
Young European Architects' network:
Europan 8 UK (now organised by CABE):
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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