Yona Friedman

Architecture for the Living

Yona Friedman, drawing, 1959

A historical figure of prospective architecture, Yona Friedman describes the importance of the model of communication embodied by the living organism, a source of inspiration for an architecture for living beings rather than a living entity in itself. He looks back at technological developments in the field of communications, that allow us to do away with the classical urban imperative of proximity, and also looks back at the liberation of the individual with respect to networks, that still represented an obstacle when he was imagining the concept  of “mobile architecture” in the fifties. Urban proximity has evolved to the point where it has transformed Europe into an urban continent, with different metropolises becoming one single and unique city, materialized by the TGV, the batteries and the cellphone of utopias of the nineteen sixties. Friedman continues to defend a “mobile architecture”, that anyone can adapt, while not denying the advisory role of the architect. He also struggles against urban density, advocating that a dilution of the city would allow nature to find its place – returning alimentary independence to urban spaces, according to spatialities that remain to be invented by the population itself, in a continuation of his pioneering work on self planning.

Text resulting from an interview with Philippe Chiambaretta and Gilles Coudert, in Yona Friedman's apartment-workshop on September 21st, 2017, with the assitance of the Jérôme Poggi Gallery. 

Exploiting the revolutionary potential of technology?

Architecture isn’t living per se; that is a misnomer. What I am interested in is architecture for the living, which isn’t the same thing. My own body is a society of one hundred million cells that has been working very well for the past ninety-four years! It would be a mistake to assume that the brain rules over it because the human body forms a non-centralized welfare state. Various specialized organs—the skin, the liver, the stomach—are in contact with the brain without being run by it. The cells that make up the organs are highly autonomous and the key to the smooth operation of the body lies in the communication between them. I am looking for a general model, which the living body fully embodies, but it isn’t architecture itself that is alive. Just as with cells, I am interested in individuals and in the way they communicate with the reality around them. Cancer occurs as a result of deficient communication.

Our society is changing—not necessarily people themselves, but their links to the outside world. Communication is increasingly direct for instance. It is theoretically possible to contact anyone in the world. But that raises important issues as total communication is impossible, whatever the technology. True communication is about the involvement of individuals. Whatever the means, what matters is that my cells communicate with one another. Nobody could imagine interacting with seven billion human beings. Meaningful dialogue is in fact restricted to a dozen or so people; anything more would be a dialogue of the deaf. It is no coincidence that executive groups seldom have more than a dozen members, such as Venice’s Council of Ten.

Yona Friedman, Cités virtuelles - It is not only the city-scape that changes, 2016

It is a fact: technology has changed communication. It doesn’t allow us to literally speak with everyone but at least it frees us from the proximity imperative. The location of the “critical discussion group”—the ten to fifteen people I speak with—has changed. We can talk without being constrained by geography, whether we are in China or the United States. The second major shift has to with the liberation of individuals from networks. When I came up with the concept of “mobile architecture” in the 1950s, I thought humans were limited by networks, be they phone networks or electric grids. But today we aren’t dependent on them anymore! Our mobile phones have batteries that were inconceivable only fifty years ago. This is certainly the most dramatic change in modern life and when they will eventually be fully powered by solar energy, we will have truly become independent of the grid.

But modern technology is not always properly harnessed. Digital organization changes urban behavior. As people now work on computers, there is no need to be piled up in fifty-six-story skyscrapers. This only results in congestion and an overburdened traffic system, thromboses so to speak. Such work could very well be carried out at home, should our homes be made more suitable. Industrial activities are also automated and a production foreman or an engineer could be running a plant from home.

We have to stop and consider what we do not get from technology however—personalized service, which is human-centric by definition. We have yet to truly discover one-person businesses—electricians, plumbers, nurses are models of trades that are strongly person-centric and human-centric. When one employment sector dwindles, another opens up. That will significantly change urban proximity. When I was a student, we were taught about the importance of the marketplace because this was where people would meet. That is a thing of the past. I never see encounters in supermarkets, all the more so given that people are increasingly shopping online. People don’t meet in the large main square, the marketplace, but on the phone, which is the medium used to set appointments. Proximity isn’t necessary anymore as modern technology now allows for the dilution of cities. This situation is entirely new and we haven’t found how to apply it yet, but it is clearly something that can be done.

People are constantly talking about the “Grand Paris” project, which is one of the biggest mistakes of the post-war period. It certainly takes longer to go from Paris to Pantin during the rush hour than to Brussels. Europe must be viewed as a city that uses high-speed rail as a mass transit system. Politically, the only thing missing now is a European commuter pass. Urban proximity has changed and we are witnessing the emergence of the urban continent. In Japan, high-frequency high-speed train service has existed for a long time. Should I decide that proximity is a three-hour journey, then London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Milan, Marseille, Lyon, and Bordeaux form one single city. This is a scenario I had contemplated fifty or sixty years ago and that is now becoming a reality thanks to high-speed rail, batteries, and mobile phones.

An architecture of improvisation

Humans are the only animal species that has changed its environment; all other species adapt to it. Many problems can be solved thanks to our adaptability. Architecture could be improvised for instance: my structures cannot be drawn but they can be improvised. When I suggested the concept of the “spatial city,” a long time ago now, the people I spoke to were taken aback by the lack of facades. They were still to be built and were set to change constantly. When the large-scale model of the spatial city that the Centre Pompidou had acquired got damaged over the years, I offered to repair it but the museum refused because “it wouldn’t have been the same.” But that is precisely what “mobile architecture” is about—destroying the scale model every month to rebuild it in some other way. We are not accustomed to the idea. There is a mindset problem. Improvisation is a key adaptive strategy however. All animals use it, and we do too, though we don’t realize it, through mimicry and hand movements for instance—all unplanned gestures.

Yona Friedman, Cités virtuelles - It is not only the city-scape that changes, 2016

“Mobile architecture” is based on the idea that any random person can do architecture, just as we all do interior design when we arrange our furniture. Architecture is a vernacular, or even folk, activity. Villages were built without architects by masons whose styles can often be recognized. These past twenty years or so, I have been trying to put forward a solution for architecture that I call “meuble plus” (literally “furniture plus”), which takes into account the surface area of the piece of furniture as well as the surface needed to use it. It is a living unit, a box, a small moveable room, a new suburban style so to speak. I started this thinking with migrants as cities have always been built by migration. Rome was a haven for migrants at the time of Romulus and Remus, and all American cities started the same way. People would come and improvise something. Slums are simply recycled city waste. I have worked in Latin American and India a lot but the “slums of affluent civilizations” should also be considered. All European cities throw away potential living spaces, waste material that could be a real resource for architecture. As a matter of fact, architecture historically derives from agricultural waste products; vegetation with no nutritional value was used as thatching and inconvenient stones from the fields to erect walls. Today’s waste is simply different.

The question then becomes: “What role is there for architects if everyone can do architecture?” It must be understood that the existence of a vernacular art practice doesn’t prevent that of experts. Everyone takes photos with their phones but photographers and artists continue to offer shots of a completely different quality. Artistic advice will always remain as valuable as it is today. Two possibilities must co-exist: having a professional work on your interior decoration or doing it yourself.

The demonsterization of space organization: How to break our mental block?

It is also absurd to think of cities as being deserts of concrete. Spaces must once again present a diversified fabric. Urban condensation is a systemic disease, a syndrome of obesity. Dispersion is necessary because if the city loosens up, nature will slip back in. There is no reason for agriculture to be pushed outside of cities. It can become a form of urban occupation, which would enable cities to gain greater autonomy. The cells of my body also provide nutrition for others. During the UN-Habitat conferences, I suggested that “habitat” be defined as “food and shelter,” because these cannot be separated; this was accepted. The analogy with a biological organism is therefore more a matter of habitat than architecture.

France has the carrying capacity to feed three billion human beings but the actual acreage required to do so is much higher. We make poor use of the land because we aren’t driven by survival but an abstract thing called “profit.” The idea isn’t simply to criticize capitalism but to overhaul our entire conception of the economy. Should our cells act like we do, cancer would be inevitable. Cells, on the other hand, know their limits.

Yona Friedman, Cités virtuelles - It is not only the city-scape that changes, 2016

My work was heavily influenced by the specific context of my youth, during World War II. I have seen and experienced survival. In a city where there was neither water nor electricity, neither windows nor food, people resourcefully fended for themselves, improvised, wrapped themselves in newspapers to keep warm, or melt snow for drinking water. I was twenty years old and since then I know that this is possible. I also saw people smash up the asphalt in order to cultivate land in cities with no food supply such as Saint Petersburg. We have a mental block. It is sheer folly to believe that everything must be both planned and profitable. This amounts to building the world by basing ourselves on mistakes. Obviously, it works, but very poorly. When I was a child, coffee was thrown into the sea in Brazil to keep prices high. What nonsense.

Our wonderful technology frees us from certain networks, from electricity, from proximity, but water supplies and the cultivation of food crops remain vital. Let us not forget Rome fell because the Barbarians had cut its access to water. To this day, water supply is centralized and is therefore a source of vulnerability. Genuine self-reliance comes from having a well and a plot of land, however small. I am not pretending to be a sociologist or a prophet and I am hard pressed to predict the manner in which our spatiality will change, though I nevertheless remain convinced that it has to be invented by the community.

In the United States, the distrust of the quality of food products is driving people to cultivate tiny gardens. Food production can be easily integrated in urban systems and individual housing can provide dedicated spaces in their design. Revolutions sometimes start among the affluent. Mindsets are in fact constructed, slowly and with great difficulty. No presidential decree will solve the problem. The idea is to open up the field and to let people innovate. It’s not a matter of metabolism or biological organism but rather a matter of regulation, of how cells run themselves.

There is no survival without life, or life without survival. These aren’t separate fields but a whole. Everything should be an ecology, nothing can be viewed in isolation, everything is connected. I knew René Dumont, but political ecology is a misappropriation of the idea of ecology. We abused cybernetics in the same way. Cybernetics as they were initiated by Norbert Wiener after World War II are a far cry from its contemporary discourse and are closely related to ecology. You cannot separate things. There is no isolated command, except by creating a monster. We live in an age when we are engaging in the mass production of monsters. I am in favor of demonsterization.

Yona Friedman, Cités virtuelles - It is not only the city-scape that changes, 2016

This article was initially published in Stream 04 - The Paradoxes of the living in November 2017.

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