Veronika Valk: What, in your opinion, is happening to the European architecture scene?-both in the broader sense of architecture as a profession and for the end-user expecting certain qualities from the living environment. How does this compare with the situation in the US, Asia or Latin America?
Bart Lootsma: During the past few decades, Europe went through processes of privatization and deregulation. This applies to both eastern and western Europe. Architecture lost its privileged and protected position close to everyday politics, particularly where housing and urban planning are concerned in the European Union today, architects are considered entrepreneurs like in any other business, who have to compete on a market both in terms of quality and in terms of bid. This completely changes their cultural status, which is now completely in the service of presenting themselves in the right market, niche, lifestyle or whatever. Books on living architects are largely paid for and produced by the architects themselves to position themselves in that field.
For the end-user, privatization and deregulation mean that rents and housing prices went up, public housing is less and less an architectural issue in contrast to up-market housing, and urban planning has lost control in many ways.
Europe has become much more like the United States, although as long as there are almost as many architects in Germany as in the United States, architects and architecture will have a stronger position. More and more, architecture is becoming something fancy for a rich elite instead of something that would have a meaning for a broad public. In Asia, there is the need to build enormous quantities. They are largely realized according to commercial interests, but the long communitarian tradition in Asian countries-a tradition much older than socialism-still enables them to plan. The cultural meaning of architecture is a completely different one from that in Europe, and I am not sure if one can really compare. Lifestyle and market niches are becoming increasingly important as well. Particularly in Brazil and Colombia, politicians seems to be rediscovering the benefits of architecture and urbanism as professions that can organize a city, play a role in the social engineering that politics necessitates if it wants to change things in society, and can make people proud of their collective effort by means of aesthetic and cultural statements.
VV: What is the way ahead for architectural education? Do we need so many architects? Should the schools shrink? Or should we train for other continents, for foreign countries? Is this a ticking bomb, in the sense that a deeper understanding of context may begin to disappear?
BL: At the moment, I think it is safe to say that there are too many architects in most parts of Europe. I think there are too many architects trained in the classical profile of the man or woman who can do everything, from detailing to urban planning. I think there is more demand for specialization. Architects today are not only designing buildings and cities but also websites and software, they work in banks and real estate agencies, for cites and for governments. In trying to defend the traditional model of the architect the European professional organizations made architecture lose a lot of its power over the past few decades without opening any new perspectives. In principle, under Bologna, it is possible to initiate various kinds of Masters programs; only in architecture this is almost impossible because the specific European accreditation rules reduce mobility and make specialization very difficult. Specialization might enable programs for specific regional contexts too, focusing on building in the mountains or in very cold climates or whatever. However, I think internationalization cannot be stopped and we will have to find ways to deal with it. Already the EU market-driven approach expects that all architects can compete all over Europe. Even if one focused on a specific region, one would have to compete with practices from abroad. In order to survive, one has to widen one’s own horizon as well.
Training to other continents in European schools does not make much sense, as there are universities offering good architectural training almost everywhere. I discovered that in many cases we can learn more from what is going on there than the other way round; from slum clearance to sustainable urbanism. Maybe we have to change our idea of what a context is. It is certainly no longer something that can defined as a territory, but includes all kinds of mediated values. The question is how we can turn those into lasting social and cultural qualities.
Let us not forget, however, that there are two competing theories of the effects of globalization: one claiming that everything is becoming the same and the other that globalization provokes the (constructed or enhanced) proliferation of specificities. I think both tendencies take place at the same time.
VV: Since you have been involved with the Europan architecture competition-e.g. your book on the winners- do you consider the Europan format successful, and in what ways? What is the general lesson to be learned from this experience? Would it be beneficial to have more architecture competitions like Europan?
BL: Europan is still an organization largely based on national branches. I was always invited by non-Dutch Europan, members like those of Croatia, by the late Jorgos Simeoforides, and by Europan France and Austria. So, I have never been involved structurally. I think it is a great format though, an interesting combination of design, discourse, politics and building. Europan is of course also suffering from the broader loss of position that architecture is suffering in Europe generally. Therefore, I think it would be important to keep this expertise and power concentrated with Europan for now and not weaken it with other initiatives. The hundreds of prizes and awards that exist in Europe have weakened the status of the few more important ones.
VV: Why did you decide to leave the Netherlands, and how is your output different in Austria? How does the cultural context influence your creativity? The Dutch architecture/design scene has enjoyed a huge wave of success in recent decades, having been so widely published around the globe …
BL: I left the Netherlands for various reasons, both personal and professional. Professionally, I had already been making more than two thirds of my income outside the Netherlands for five years without any real support from within the Netherlands. I had a professorship at the Angewandte in Vienna when, with the coming of Alejandro Zaera as dean, my involvement with the Berlage ended. Also, I had been so strongly associated with Dutch architecture that people thought that was the only thing I was doing. For us it was already clear around 2000 that the situation in the Netherlands would dramatically change for the worse in the years to come. I hoped being based in another place would enable me to develop a position that would be more independent and I think it did. After the Angewandte I had positions in Vienna, Nürnberg, at the ETH Zürich, again in Vienna, in Luxembourg and in Innsbruck. What I miss is the opportunity to be politically involved as I was in the Netherlands; in different committees and eventually in the Culture Council. I can vote here in Austria for the city government, but when I really want to involve myself the natives always come first.
VV: What would be your recommendation in terms of developing one’s architecture practice in Estonia? And your recommendation for a critic, curator, publisher or producer in the field of architecture and urbanism in Estonia-i.e. as a border / buffer zone somewhere between Europe and Russia, on the periphery?
BL: Those are questions that are very difficult to answer, as I know very little of Estonia. That is one of the reasons I am so happy you invited me. These are things that one cannot generalize. In general, as your questions suggest, it is nowadays indeed about finding a balance between being locally rooted, being involved in grassroots politics, and having an international orientation. Where the balance should lie is as much a personal and moral question as a pragmatic one.
This interview was originally published in an abbreviated Estonian translation as “Ülev kinnisvara” in Kes-Kus in April, 2013.