Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jacques vs. Winy (+ Ricky)

Jacques Herzog, Winy Maas, and Richard Burdett’s dialogue at the Swissbau fair in Basel last Saturday was both thought-provoking and entertaining. The event, titled “Small Cities, Big Buildings,” started with each of them giving a presentation, and then it got funnier and funnier in the roundtable discussion. Jacques and Winy really did what they were supposed to do – fight. Ricky tried to mediate but he eventually realized that there was not much he could do, and he was right.

Big thinking

If there were one common message from the three individual talks, it would be: good cities, big or small, and good buildings, big or small, all require big thinking. Ricky Burdett kicked off his presentation by saying “I don’t know much about small cities, so I am going to talk about London.” He used London Olympic Park as an example of how building a piece of the city through design could help rebalancing the city and stitching back neglected and fragmented neighborhoods.

The siting of London Olympic Park is to rebalance the east-west sides of the city.
KCAP’s London Olympic Legacy Master Plan Framework

Winy Maas showed several ways of tackling the problem of big vs. small: cutting (Berlin Cumberland Palace), splitting (Oslo DnB NOR), porosity, making small building bigger with big effects (Spijkenisse Library), making big city smaller through intensification (Grand Paris), etc. Didden Village, for example, is a small roof expansion. But its success made the city of Rotterdam rethink and change their urban regulations.
MVRDV, Cumberland Palace, Berlin
MVRDV, Didden Village, Rotterdam

Jacques Herzog was really playing the local card in his presentation. He began by the claim that “Basel is a small Swiss city, but it’s on its way towards a tri-national metropolitan.” HdM is currently involved in several big buildings in Basel – a scale that many Swiss are still not comfortable with. In these projects, there are always concerns about the city and ways of engagement in the smaller scale. The Novartis building, for instance, doubles the height limit to provide an iconic corner presence of the campus on the Rhine riverside. At the same time, it reactivates the waterfront promenade with a public restaurant and cafe. The addition to the Messe is another big one. I have to say, I was quite surprised to see the end of Clarastrasse completely blocked by the massive new construction. But the hole, which takes the shape of the round inner courtyard of Hall 2, really creates a new public locale within the vast plaza. I can totally see people talking on their phone, “I am right under the hole. Let’s meet here.”
HdM, Novartis building, Basel
HdM, Messe Basel, Basel

“European Paradigm”

Winy Maas claimed that “small city” is fundamentally a European paradigm. It’s all about small scale and “cuteness.” And the one country that has the most acute “small cities syndrome” is Switzerland, where there are many cute little villages. In his study of the “spatial future” of Switzerland, he proposed to densify around Lake Zurich to create a so-called “Super-Zurich” with a huge gridded array of towers. It looks like a big lipstick mark on the map. Winy said, “This is my biggest kiss to Switzerland.”

MVRDV, “Spatial Future of Switzerland” study
MVRDV, “Super-Zurich”

I thought this was really just a grandstand flubdub for a good laugh, even it could still be a compelling hypothetical statement. As Jacques said during the discussion, “This is the most stupid thing I saw today.” To my surprise, Winy tried to defend it as a real serious project. Jacques flipped, “It destroys everything that makes Switzerland Swiss!” “The conservative parties in Switzerland are still extremely anti-urban. We need to educate them by illustrating how things could work in cities. But it’s still not right to touch some ‘holy sites,’ like the lakes and the mountains.” He continued, “I believe in specificity. Places are different and it’s good like that and we should maintain it. Talking about difference is talking about the future.” Now Ricky jumped in, “Yes, I think how to calibrate the difference is key.”

Winy also presented “New Basel” in his talk – a master plan he won in Basel to turn a post-industrial site in the Klybeck area into an island with funny-looking towers. Local newspaper said it would be the Manhattan in Basel. Winy admitted that it’s nothing like Manhattan. “The cuteness of it just makes things look like a scale mistake.” In Jacques’s presentation, he showed an urban study of Basel that HdM did with Rémy Zaugg in the early 1990s. One image indicated towers on the exact same industrial site. He didn’t say it out loud, but it was clear that it meant “Hey dude, I had this idea 20 years ago!”

MVRDV, “New Basel,” Basel
MVRDV, “New Basel,” Basel
Image from “Eine Stadt im Werden?” urban study by HdM + Rémy Zaugg

Rigorous, careful, and modest

Jacques said, “We should be careful and modest to cities, although by nature I am not a modest person.” “The more I work on the urban scale, the more I feel it’s important to be rigorous. It’s not rigid in the Lampugnani way. But the city is not a battlefield for everybody to do their own freaky things.” Tate Modern is about enhancing the existing conditions and continuing the potentials. The Basel urban study and the Dreispitz area study are also about discovering possibilities of the city based on extensive research and design considerations.

Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Novartis Campus Master Plan 
HdM + Rémy Zaugg, “Eine Stadt im Werden?” urban study, Basel
HdM, Dreispitz area urban study: three distinct fields based on existing potentials.

City planning and democracy

Another interesting point brought up by Jacques was that most good cities, like Paris, London, Berlin, and even Amsterdam, were not made in a democratic regime. He called Paris the most beautiful city in the world. And its beauty lies both in the royal monuments and the “monotonous” Haussmannian urban fabric. Winy didn’t agree on the monotony part, but Ricky picked up the point, “London Olympics could only happen when planning power is taken from democracy.” It was not to say they ignore the general public. But city planning is by nature a “top-down” process. In the Swiss hyper-democratic system, nothing is easy in the cities. Jacques said, “In Switzerland, urbanism needs to seek an alternative form of ‘bottom-up’ monumentality.”

I guess ultimately, the judge of a good city form is still the general public. As Jacques said, “A city has to work. People have to love it.” No matter how ugly it is, Westfield Stratford City is still quite a successful project in the sense that it’s the first catalyst to attract people and revitalize the area.



Gregers said...

Hi Human, do you know if this debate is available as a movie anywhere?

Human said...

You can find more details and the video here: