Architects almost automatically gravitate to the newest technological phenomenon, just as they did when they welcomed the networked society. In contrast to the discipline’s largely celebratory response, MVRDV cofounder Winy Maas has spent much of the past few years considering what implications the postgeographical condition has on
Jeffrey Inaba: Architects have overwhelmingly embraced the concept of networked societies, and with that, the idea that physical geography is one among several registers of the contemporary city. As someone who has not only chronicled but also engaged technologies that process urban metadata, would you say that we have reached a point where a 'post-geographical' city can exist? How do increasingly powerful computing technologies affect the tools and methods available to architects for planning cities?
Winy Maas: No. The post-geographical city is one with no real physical place: an endless, virtual sea of encounters. But we are still bound to geographical places – to meet, to connect, to exchange – even if they are more and more temporal. Maybe it is a new geography. It begs us to discuss an implementation of urban space beyond classical planning tools of 2D zoning. One approach is to test the idea that in city planning it is possible to surrender to a bottom-up system in which collective agendas will emerge. Datascapes, for instance, pushed a logic to an extreme, envisioning the collective as a massive aggregate of individual inputs. Another tool is the development of product capabilities, an extension of sophisticated customization, what I call the iMovement – everything from iPods to Ikea. In these ways, the individualization happening in technology can further a development of the collective. If you transfer this logic to what we call iPlanning, then an opportunity for increased sophistication in planning emerges. It can be applied to a house, or to the demands for a neighborhood and even the demands for public access.
JI: Rather than pitting the individualism of the iMovement against the collaboration of urban planning, you propose an urban strategy that combines the diversity generated by participation with the customization and consumerism of iPlanning.
WM: Cities are expanding all over the planet. We desire more, we trade more, and because of this, we occupy more. One lives in more places and moves around more, so that real estate, in a way, becomes a disposal technology: a Nokia phenomenon. We consume houses like computers and phones; we love them but use them more temporarily. And as a result, the landscape is now so fluid that there is no longer a composition of empty versus full. Thus real estate becomes almost ‘surreal estate’. In Spacefighter: the Evolutionary City Game, we advocated an engagement with this mobile collective as a counterpart to the culture of individualism.
JI: What are the tools or protocols for engaging in participatory planning?
WM: You can see already very banal elements that are changing our conceptions of planning. For example, as simple an invention as the zoom tool in Google Earth has urban applications in situ. In one glance, itcontextualizes data at small and grand scales and suggests an inventory of likely responsibilities. It is an invention more important than one would think! We could translate it into Zoomed Planning, to take one fantastic step forward.
In terms of architectural practice, our main tool is research. We imagine a future for new cities, and in that way, speculate – how to study what you see and how to make it more profound. That’s what all our books are about; they construct pieces of that hypothetical city that we dream about. In KM3: Excursions on Capacities, we wanted to play out the absolute maximization of diversity, expanding on the way it is already happening at an individual scale with phenomena like multitasking. Using available technologies, we attempted to maximize the diversity of culture, climate, scale, etc. This was a way of showing that without diversity it could lead to a world filled with the evenness of a Coca Cola society. Our response to that prospect of homogeneity was to engage society and explore ways of making diversity possible through technical means. It is precisely urban because densification is one strategy for diversity and escape from that Coca Cola feeling. SpaceFighter attempted to optimize architectural and urban approaches in an equally fluid manner – to accelerate our urbanism in a changeable society and city.
Elizabeth Krasner: By extension, can we re-think the idea of 'green' as a productive or organizing concept for collective planning? How would protocols such as LEED adapt to the Evolutionary City?
WM: It is funny to observe that in this time of individualization, 'green' has become one of the forces influencing urbanism. In developing Green Dream, our latest book, we discovered a lot of reductionism in the green movement. Urbanism is not reducible to one element or type. Its performance can’t just be addressed at the scale of the house or urban block. It has to also consider the scale of streets, pipe works, the energy network, and so on. It has to be considered in its entirety. It is like a motor with many little components that make it work. I have a strong annoyance with LEED. The criteria are focused on the building scale, which is fine. But I hate that at a certain moment in time it was decided that technologies would only be applied. I find it more important to consider the whole city. Without that, even the most stupidly situated and ugly buildings receive LEED Platinum awards. That annoys me intensely. The Evolutionary City counteracts the current notion of green development; it is a holistic response that takes into account this larger scale and includes considerations of mobility and diversity of building character and performance. Then a Mies Van der Rohe type of building can be next door to a low energy one with practically no windows. That’s what the city wants to be – diverse.
JI: In some ways, your interests appear aligned with the experiments of 60s counterculture. Several of the areas where they developed new models for understanding resemble the areas of your own explorations (namely ecology, technology and community). Does your work respond to their research of these concerns?
WM: The opposition that the counterculture provided might not exist these days, but it is acted as a remarkable motor devoted to seeking something new – the exotic or the unexpected. The 60s gave us a mixture of pop culture and counterculture, but also incredible urban byproducts like large-scale neighborhood plans, some of which turned out to be real monsters. The individualism borne out of that time and the freedom advocated in its name, in combination with the desire for large-scale planning, led to anarchy instead of cohesion, in a way. After the 60s we had to reconcile this, and now perhaps it is finally the moment to respond with an attempt to facilitate the individual society through technology. With the advantage of hindsight and the incredible power of technological tools like the internet, we can properly reconcile the individuality they advocated with the scale of the collective.
JI: You describe your approach as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. How can you propose new protocols for the profession by looking only toward the future? How do you acknowledge or resist the movements of the past and, in particular, the counterculture of the 60s?
WM: It is important to occasionally look at the monuments of the past and, indeed, to the generation raised in the 60s, which was very courageous. But as I discuss in Spacefighter, I hate the retro-ness of looking back. Maybe I am jealous, although I am happy that I wasn't part of the 60s.I hate the prefix 're-': reinterpretation, renewal, renegotiation ... 'Re-' is killing everything. I think the word evolutionary is the better goal. It suggests an evaluation of the trajectory that lies ahead of us without discounting that which came just before. At The Why Factory, we test beliefs using what I call apocalyptic techniques; we imagine our society becoming even more splintered in order than it is to see how our ship is sailing and where it leaks. I am aware that inspiration lies in the idea of revolution but I make an exercise out of not using the prefix 're-'. I try to concentrate, almost like a monk, on terms that suggest progress.
EK: Can you talk a bit about your intentions for The Why Factory, the think tank run by MVRDV in partnership with the Delft University of Technology? What are your ambitions for an organization that is explicitly both theoretical and programmatic?
WM: The Why Factoryattempts to concentrate on argumentation as a useful and communicative science. Again, it's the opposite of re-; it’s only about e-. It’s highly urgent. It dwells in the peripheries, the curiosities, the unknown. The why-ness is an answer to that 60s in a way; it is needed to reconcile the effects of a generation who fought not about argumentation, but about aesthetics – the Zahas, etc. Our generation is adept at argumentation, as we deal with the conceptual much more. At the Why Factory, we apply limitations or parameters to respond to the skepticism that accompanies imagining the future. In this way, it is highly explicative; we look only to existing cities to test change. We use software as a tool to reveal the hidden knowledge of the city.
JI: Maybe more than any other architect, you’ve made a commitment in your practice to realize experimental urban plans through the use of emerging technologies. At the same time, as a teacher and as the director of The Why Factory, you have exerted an extreme amount of energy producing studies that effectively allow others to design on an urban scale. As both a practicing architect and academic thinker, how do you relate the roles of speculation and experimentation?
WM: After SpaceFighter, I really struggled to prove that the kind of software that we proposed was feasible, in order to demonstrate that it was a real, plausible instrument. That product requires more time, as it’s not purely driven by the demands of the market. Maybe it’s the fate of an architect to never want to be completely theoretical. Of course, my theoretical desires in urban planning are projected onto a faster timeline than what can be materialized in reality. So in my studio courses at The Why Factory, we test theories immediately – on the spot – by using a practical situation as a springboard for innovation. These moments of testing are highly needed. I would love to live longer [laughs]in order to make more of these tests. And I would like to test more broadly, to increase input in the process of planning. The Evolutionary City initiates an invitation for many people to participate, to cry for innovation or even to lead design. By testing applications, I think a collective language and planning device will emerge.
JI: Much of your speculation is based on argumentation as the modus operandi for an advancement that takes place through understanding and applying advanced technologies. What’s the relationship between technology and aesthetics? What role do aesthetics play in disciplinary advancement?
WM: The unexpected outcome of the negotiation process is aesthetic, and is beautiful, as it celebrates surprise. The sheer seductiveness of beauty can be an accelerant for change. Aesthetics has a very strong role in that way. I think there is an attempt in architecture to synthesize that aesthetic, but not in a way that is technologically advanced enough – it is not yet innovative. Zaha Hadid's architecture is so beautiful – and its double-curved seamless plates are technically very advanced – but I don’t have any sense of how it is furthering innovation, or how it is situated within a theoretical sequence. I suggest we develop a notion of advancement in order to position architecture within an evolutionary intention. This could be a possible agenda to introduce deeper criticism in architecture.
EK: How do you propose to inject criticism into the speculative strategies you have defined? What is the trajectory from experimentation to argumentation?
WM: In response to the 68 generation, we created a ‘What If’ generation, which The Why Factory embodies. The counterculture made experimentation a successful strategy – it is interesting that it is precisely that generation of architects who now all have Pritzker Prizes. I propose a next step in the theoretical evolution from speculation that re-acknowledges aesthetics and technological advancement – a 'Yes, But' generation. That, in some way, is what the Evolutionary City is about.