Direct Urbanism, Transparadiso: Barbara Holub and Paul Rajakovics (2013)
Authors: Jane Rendell, Paul O'Neil, Mick Wilson
Verlag fur Moderne Kunst, (216 pp.), colour illustrations
Language: English, German, Softcover
Jes Fernie, independent curator
Over the past fifteen years there has been a noticeable, if small, increase in the number of newly established practices that are exploring alternative approaches to urban issues, drawing on the work of theorists and artist groups such as the Situationists. But these practices often follow one of two distinct paths: those that drop the experimental work when 'real' buildings start to enter the frame, and those who immerse themselves in academia where they are more able to assume a critical, theoretical approach. It's clear that this type of fracturing is dangerous as it leaves both worlds devoid of a crucial component which ultimately impacts on the quality of our lived experience in the public realm.
Those practices that have stuck to their original convictions, developing a body of work that explicitly addresses messy social, political and environmental issues, as well as embracing a dialogue with other disciplines such as art, are few and far between. In the UK, there's muf, a practice developed by Liza Fior and Katherine Clark in the mid 90s which has managed, against significant odds, to gain a reputation for drawing out a more nuanced range of possibilities for public life, including space for play, conversation, and engagement of the human spirit, all within the unforgiving framework of the UK planning system.
Another practice that has managed to sustain this type of work is Transparadiso, an art / architecture group based in Vienna established by Barbara Holub and Paul Rajakovics. It was established in 1999 as a response to the a-critical stance that architectural practices seemed to be taking in relation to the market-based economy of excess that came out of the 1980s, flourished in the 90s and has firmly taken root in 21st century. Holub and Rajakovics became convinced that a radical change was needed, and that the active involvement of the user was crucial to the success of any architectural or urban planning project. This was best achieved, they insisted, through the pursuit of a utopia beyond the rigid framework of existing professions. Different disciplines such as art, architecture, sociology and urban planning should come together to create a more viable, rich experience of public and private space.
During the period that Transparadiso has existed, the rhetoric around 'participation' and the co-opting of artists and cultural practitioners to re-design neglected urban spaces has expanded ten fold. Holub and Rajakovics are unsurprisingly skeptical about this move by capital and neoliberal strategists, but what sets them apart is their willingness to engage with developers and clients who have vested interests in this system. Rather than employing an antagonistic approach to complex situations, they will, for example, conceive of a game which generates discussion about a set of issues experienced by a particular group of local people. The aim is to plant the seed for long-term engagement in issues associated with urban planning and its direct effects on people's lives, thereby creating more politically astute and demanding citizens.
Like other practices of its ilk, Transparadiso questions the dominant model of sole author as creator of an original idea, a model upheld by many star architects across the globe. When Holub was starting her career working for other architects she became aware of the construct of the 'master' architect in a male-dominated field, who was compliant with politicians' interests and fitted nicely into the clients' view of what an architect should be. Transparadiso's rostrum of projects is a clear rejection of this model. While Holub and Rajakovics don't shy away from making uncomfortable decisions and sticking their neck out where they needn't, there is always a sense in their projects of a conversation in which users, client and architect are building a project together, rather than a hierarchical one in which an impressionistic sketch by the star at the top is realised by the minions below.
Over the past fifteen years Transparadiso has carried out a beguiling array of projects that sets them apart from almost all of their peers. A snapshot of their practice includes a haptically sensual living room for residents of a hospice; the staging of a dinner party for local people in a gallery which questioned the dramatic rise in the corporatisation of the art world; a performative deconstruction of Kennedy's 'Ich bin win Berliner' declaration with an African American twist; and a large-scale urban realm project involving apartment blocks, retail units and public domain spaces. Direct Urbanism brings all of Transparadiso's projects together and positions them within the broader framework of the practice's conceptual oeuvre, but more importantly, the book constitutes a provocation to other architects, artists, planners and members of the public to play a part in overhauling a rotten and malfunctioning system.
Practices of this type are notoriously hard to relay in photographic form. The 'thing' that we are being asked to focus on is very rarely the end product but a process of dialogue, including dead-ends and other moments that aren't easily captured within the pages of a book. The first impression of Direct Urbanism, as it is flicked through, is in direct contrast to the experience of reading it. Dry architectural drawings, models and plans are accompanied by small photographs of participatory workshops and social situations (the curse of many publications that attempt to document socially engaged practice). The designer has done a good with the available material (particularly since it is dual language text - German and English), but the seduction for me lies in the text rather than the images.
The book is divided into three sections: Urban practices, interventions and tools; Architecture & urbanism; and Urbanism and art, all of which sound pretty amorphous until you get to the pieces of text within these sections which take on a distinct language of their own. An interview between the members of Transparadiso and a curator (Paul O'Neill) and artist / teacher (Mick Wilson) which takes a selection of their projects to draw out the philosophy of the practice, is followed by a piece of experimental text by architectural theorist Jane Rendell, which plays with the prepositions in Transparadiso's name ('trans' and 'para') through a trivalent essay. The final text is a manifesto of sorts by Holub and Rajakovics in which they set out their stall.
It's a rather fantastic combination of texts from a diverse range of voices which clearly reflects Transparadiso's interest in creating lines of thought that lead from one world to the next. And, against all the odds, it works. At moments it is genuinely exciting, and the possibilities for assuming such an approach become very real. What if we lived in a world where words like 'ambivalence', 'disruption' and 'desire' were used in the urban planning system? Wouldn't it be great if more architects worked at the interface of politics, culture, life and architecture? And how much better would civic life be if citizens were engaged in conversations about where and how we live?
The title of the book is a direct reference to Guy Debord's concept of 'unitary urbanism', a theory of 'combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behaviour'. It also nods to the dichotomy of tactics (direct) and strategy (urbanism as city planning) found in the writings of Michel de Certeau. As Holub and Rajakovics point out in their manifesto at the end of the book: 'By uniting 'tactics and 'strategy'… we have attempted to overcome this dichotomy'.
The commitment by Transparadiso to a broader social good, as well as a rigorous intellectual programme, is undeniable. However, if this book is primarily about encouraging non-specialists to take part in a dialogue about urban spaces and planning, where is this voice and what is its legacy? Who is to say any of these projects have been a 'success' in the eyes of the participants? In projects such as Commons come to Liezen, for example, Transparadiso installed a pavilion in a public garden which included a large scale Tangram game (a dissection puzzle) that engaged residents in a discussion about art as a space for reflection and action in their neighbourhood. How was this project received and did it manage to wind its way into public consciousness? It would be good too, to read about what the residents of Stadwerk Lehen (an ambitious housing scheme on the outskirts of Salzburg) think about their experience of living in an environment that was designed to position the user at its heart. A raft of thoughtful acts were carried out by Transparadiso to help tackle issues relating to social isolation and access to a public voice: a sociologist was invited onto the steering committee to help guide the project; specific designs were implemented for single parents, homes with children and communal areas; a subsidy was brokered for the public ground floor buildings which are inhabited by not for profit organisations (including a contemporary art gallery); and connections were made to link the area to adjacent parts of Salzburg in order to combat community isolation. Did all of this 'work'? What didn't?
Many architects, planners and urban thinkers will view this type of practice as desirable but economically unviable. Reading through the précis's of each project, the reader gets a clear sense of the considerable amount of personal and emotional commitment, as well as on-the-ground physical presence, that projects of this type require. Many practices that start out with socially-engaged manifestos are unable to sustain the model beyond their initial, youthful years, when they have the energy and time to commit to such schemes. If this type of model were to be rolled out on a grander scale, the processes of procurement, realisation and community liaison would have to be radically restructured, particularly in relation to remuneration for design team members.
And then there is the loaded question regarding the 'duty' of the architect - the moralistic overtones of which are implicitly rejected by many architectural and urban design practices. Is it the duty of architects to consider social and political issues as well as formal, logistical and economic ones? Holub and Rajakovics are explicit about this and state in the book that they are a 'transdiciplinary practice that considers architecture, urban planning and art a responsibility towards society'. This subject has recently had a public airing with Richard Roger's statement on the eve of the opening of his exhibition at The Royal Academy last year that 'architecture's civic responsibility has been eroded in "an age of greed"'. Clearly, the conversation needs to continue.
What's exciting about this book is that it takes a series of disparate subjects (Situationism, socially engaged practice, architecture and urban planning policy) and links them together in a way that is both beguiling and practical.
It is wonderful to consider what might be possible if only this type of practice wasn't the exception but the rule. The book highlights the woeful limitations of much architecture, urban design and the planning system, as well as broader issues such as structural inequality and encroaching neo-liberalism. At a time when societal responsibility and the welfare state are being slowly dismantled, Transparadiso's approach is not just desirable but critical.
'This is what we do: a muf manual', Ellipsis, 2001
See Site-Writing, The Architecture of Art Criticism, Jane Rendell, I B Tauris, 2010Situationistische Internationale 1957 - 72, Museum moderner Kunst 1988
Michel de Ceteau, The Practice of Every Day Life, 1980
Dezeen Book of Interviews, May 2014, publisher: Dezeen Ltd