Interview, 23.11.2016

On Urban Planning and the Role of the Contemporary Architect.
In discussion with Something Fantastic

Architecture is linked to everything and vice versa. An architect should be someone who gathers and synthesizes knowledge from a broad array of fields and is ambitious enough to challenge parochial views and foment a shift in perspective. Following a straight-forward dictum—smart, touching, simple architecture—the Berlin-based architecture collective Something Fantastic aspires to foster changes within the industry and initiate discussions about architecture in a wide spectrum. Contemporary politics, materials, energy and the environment are all topics that coalesce into the core of architecture and what it means today; topics that SF seeks to address through their practice and the site-specific courses they teach at ETH Zurich. The trio’s hopeful view on the future is not solely based on unyielding idealism but also realistic expectations and pragmatic plans. Simply put, they aspire to make the world better.

Here, we engage in a discussion with Julian Schubert, Elena Schütz and Leo Streich about the role of the contemporary architect, the inflexibility of city planning and the need for fewer rules.

photo: Kirsten Bucher

photo: Kirsten Bucher

The architectural practice has inadvertently formed a status quo within the industry that’s quite obsolete. How do you approach this state of things?

We do what we do because we think that somehow we’ll contribute to a situation which allows for better architecture and the amelioration of the field. Our specific role is not to be politicians; our role right now is to design and to give shape.

You’ve stated that we need fewer rules. How do you mean that?

In the field of construction, rules are mostly put into effect to cope with the complexity of what is technically and programmatically possible and what is good and safe for the society as a whole. But rules are often too rigid and they can keep you from developing in a more diverse way. For example, there are more and more regulations emerging in order to prevent gentrification and rising rents. Of course, it’s a good idea, I’m glad i don’t have to leave my place, but at the same time you can’t really change anything in those buildings or do anything to improve certain aspects. And that’s where you see the coarseness of rules as they leave no room to distinguish between someone whose motives are to raise the building’s standards and someone who’s out to to make a financial profit at the expense of others. Architecture is suffocated by more and more rules because the essence of the practice is all about vitality, progress and movement.

Your approach is multi-disciplinary. Do you think architecture is more about how we interact with spaces in general, and not just buildings per se?

To better answer this, it might be helpful to differentiate between architecture and architects. Architecture is from the very small scale of furniture and the process of furnishing a room all the way up to cities and structures, landscapes, and how the urban interacts with the rural. On the other hand, being an architect doesn’t necessarily mean that we only focus on architecture. Personally, I don’t have such a wide understanding of architecture, but I do have a wide understanding of what an architect should be doing.

Which is?

It’s more about the idea of the architect being this individual who culls all kinds of information and synthesizes it into forms and into something that maybe manifests architecturally, that can be touched or whatever. That’s our understanding of practicing as an architect nowadays. This was also the starting point and the outcome of our manifesto. We ask ourselves, how can we engage with the world using the tools, skills and knowledge that we possess. In the end, it’s not necessary to produce architecture per se—architecture meaning all that is built—in order to be considered an architect.

How do you see the role of the architect then?

Ideally, architects will get involved in multiple fields, become more interested in processes and accept that the manifestation of their thoughts can happen indirectly and maybe later down the line—instant gratification isn’t the goal. That also involves that students should veer away from this idea of the form-creator and the necessity for tangibility. We should become more independent from form. It’s about the space, not about the form; there is no form. It’s about people, interaction, performance with the space; that’s what we want to discuss. Well, we believe that limiting yourself to a narrow understanding of design as a discipline that invents nice facades using nice materials is counterproductive. Also, if you stay within the traditional spectrum of architecture as the practice that designs buildings, it is important to take into account the mechanisms that have an impact on the building you’re creating on various scales and levels. How does it interact with the city? How could it be used when the original user has moved out? How is the building operated? How does it complement the adjacent buildings? How does it influence the lives of people who live in and around it? Where do the production materials come from?

But it should not stop there. We are interested in the planning of the city; the real estate market; the social and economic developments within neighbourhoods; the meaning of the building sector in global economics; and the flow of goods and resources in relation to architecture.

photo left: fashion show at Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin / photo right: Felix Torkar / photo bottom: Zara Pfeifer

photo left: fashion show at Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin / photo right: Felix Torkar / photo bottom: Zara Pfeifer


Tell me more about the kind of discussions you’re trying to initiate as architects.

We get the chance to explore this aspect through the courses we teach every year at the ETH Zurich. The one we did in Brazil focused on favelas which are totally stigmatised; they’re seen as something that city planning should eradicate. And, sure, favelas have a lot of problems but they also have potential. For example, they are extremely pedestrian-friendly, they exude a strong sense of community, and you actually see that in the way space is structured. Favelas are intriguing and inspiring—it’s a matter of perspective. Informally built neighbourhoods have a lot to teach. Our goal there was to describe them as habitats and explore how denizens found solutions for urban development.

Speaking of inhabitants’ needs within the city, right now in Berlin, people want a better cycling infrastructure, and in that discussion arises the issue of seasonality. In the summer, the majority of the population opts for cycling, but come winter no one really wants to use a bicycle. So it seems pointless to retain year-round cycling paths considering that the demand for them drops massively in winter. Of course, this is just an example that pops to our head, but it goes to show that seasonal design can be effective in various fields. Cities need to be more flexible and adaptable to needs and seasons. We’d like to discuss this idea of seasonality but our modernist mindset doesn’t think about seasons; to be modern is to not be reliant on nature’s elements. Being dependent on seasons seems anachronistic or even primitive. However, it would be very smart to consider this logical parameter.

Why are cities reluctant to changes?

Cities are complex, wicked problems. Planning is even a super wicked problem—to use a scientific term here. Complex interdependencies render problems almost impossible to solve. But, if a politician thinks that implementing this or that would make his life easier, then the plan in question is put into effect. But in the end, we don’t just sit here making ourselves increasingly frustrated due to our belief of what is good and what is bad in this convoluted state of affairs. Admittedly, things are somehow moving in the right direction… Which means they are becoming more pressing and more obvious. It’s the sort of development that makes what’s important and viable more acute, present and talked about.

Finally, can you give us a selection of three staple books that have significantly influenced your practice and approach to architecture?

In the field of informal housing, Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments by John Turner, and Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zones by Edwin Maxwell Fry. Generally and conceptually, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander. And, last but not least, Wie funktioniert das? Technische Vorgänge, in Wort und Bild erklärt (in English: How does this work?) published by Allgemeiner Verlag.

Interview by Effie Efthymiadi

photo left: Jan Bitter / photo right: Helen Levitt, 1988

photo left: Jan Bitter / photo right: Helen Levitt, 1988