The second New Generations Festival in Florence, saw a medley of workshops, presentations, discussions and sharing of experience between young architects fighting for survival in the present economic crisis. Rob Wilson saw positive signs of a profession that, in the long term, might just be enriched rather then weakened by the current climate.
If, like that “difficult second album”, the second iteration of the New Generations conference Futurology: the future of the profession had any undue pressure on it after last year’s extremely successful first round in Milan, it wasn’t evident. The curators, Itinerant Office’s Gianpiero Venturini and Carlo Venegoni, seemed relaxed but effective hosts, multi-tasking between the three spaces of talks, introducing speakers, dealing with technical issues and keeping an eye on time, coordinating the informal and buzzy yet well-structured series of presentations and discussions, which focused on how the emerging generation of architects is continuing to negotiate and try to mitigate the on-going economic crisis.
Indeed, while architecture conferences can sometimes be professionally onanistic experiences, debating – to borrow a phrase – “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”, the 50 or so young architects from around ten countries – including this year Greece, Romania, and Poland – who shared and debated experiences here, exhibited a refreshing upsurge of new thinking and innovative ways to deal with the relative lack of what conventionally would be seen as architectural “work”: the building of buildings. Many indeed seemed positively inspired rather than browbeaten by the problems they face: as one said “making the crisis constructive” – getting out from behind bricks and mortar, to be self-motivated, entrepreneurial and socially engaged with the city at large. The architects presenting here were curating public festivals (Atelier Starzak Strebicki, Poznan); reusing old houseboats and disused lock-keepers cottages as hotel rooms (Space&Matter - see our blog post); cleverly developing rooftops and awkward leftover lots in the city (low architecten, Antwerp); designing digital platforms for citizens to personalise their cities (Estudio SIC, Madrid), and reimagining cities’ potential by creating events and parties in abandoned buildings (Wolfhouse Productions, Bucharest).
Venturini stated the aim of the conference was to create a place of confrontation, knowledge exchange and a common ground for experimentation. This hope seemed at first sight to be denied by the extraordinary venue: La Palazzina Reale, an extension to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella main station. Designed as a pavilion for the then King of Italy to step down into, direct from his train – a kind of ante-room to the city – here the celebrated rationalist modernism of the station, designed by Gruppo Toscana and Giovanni Michelucci, tips over into a fascist rationalist aesthetic in its details: all overblown marble finishes and dodgy sub-Classical friezes. However the reuse of this relic of redundant hierarchy to house the conference nicely underlined, rather than constrained, the new culture of DIY in the profession. As a building it surprisingly suited requirements: its glazed enfilade of rooms providing well-connected but contrasting spaces for the three differently formatted forums of discussion, as well as two student workshops.
In the main, most formal space, devoted to “communication”, were a series of short lectures and pecha kucha sessions, focused more on specific projects and show and tell presentations. These ranged from innovative tailored typologies for social housing designed by fala atelier (Porto) to Matteo Ferroni's ingenious, readily reproducible Foroba Yelen standing lamp, which though its small pools of light, has come to extend the uses of public space late into the night in several villages in Mali.
In the second space, a more organic forum was created using timber seating elements produced in one of the student workshops. More in-the-round discussions on “public space governance” took place here, which were given wider traction into questions of policy by the participation of public officials from Florence, Lisbon and Madrid: discussing as well as listening to and learning from architects’ experiences.
Meanwhile the “Survive Style” discussions, chaired by A10’s Indira van’t Klooster and (uncube’s own correspondent - among other things) Jason Hilgefort, looked particularly at funding models and sources of work for architects today: from competitions, to self-initiated projects to crowd-funding. This, in the most intimate of the spaces, resulted in the most intense and sustained discussions, possibly because they were fixed most keenly on the subject of professional survival: on the making of a personal path of practice in architecture – and the nitty gritty of running a practice.
In today′s world, as 307kilo (Warsaw) observed: “You have to have a passion but you also need to have crutches to hold you up”. In their practice they have set up a separate company to work on commercial projects distinct from their more experimental arm. Other models for balancing the books were provided by Van Noten Architects (Brussels): sharing fees and collaborating with one or more additional practices on larger jobs; and the bartering of skills and equipment – human, hardware and software – proposed by Openfabric (Rotterdam).
An interesting non-European perspective was brought through the observations of Colombian practice, Taller 301 (Bogotá), who had won the open call to participate. They described what they called the perpetual state of crisis and lack of support network or protection of title in the profession of architecture in Colombia. But set against this, on the flipside, is the opportunity to build – and build big early, or even to act as your own developer.
This opened up interesting cultural, societal comparisons with the situation in Europe, with Sophie Van Noten pointing out that it would be illegal in Belgium for an architect to act as their own developer on a project. More parochially, was the stereotypic, but still cogent comparison of housing in the Netherlands and Belgium: how in Dutch society everyone moves on average every seven years, yet that housing is often mass system-built, whilst in Belgium, people just stay put in their family house, gradually extending it. The opportunities and limitations this presents for young practices in each situation then too came up for discussion. The Dutch, very internationalised, situation with its diaspora of young architects, was also compared with the more isolated scene of what was described as “Planet Poland” – the latter conversely, on the evidence of the work of Atelier Starzak Strebicki, 307kilo, and Centrala (Warsaw), seeming to have some of the most interesting energy and potential for experimentation around at the moment.
By the end of the New Generations Festival, which is fast developing into a cross-EU (and beyond) platform for young architects, what came through strongly, after all the sharing of knowledge, telling of stories, emphasis on process not outcome and finding of different ways to practice, was that building buildings does still remain the goal for most young architects – which is perhaps as it should be. But what seems clear is that with the production of this necessarily resourceful generation of architects, inurred to the need to innovate and engage with society and issues at large, the buildings of the future will more than benefit.
– Rob Wilson