Europe

“Architects don’t just make buildings, they create social spaces too”, interview with Bianca Gioada

EurStrat: Bianca, welcome and thanks for taking part in the first of our interview series! To introduce you to our readers, you are a young architect based in Paris who took part in several intriguing architectural projects. You also have a Master’s degree from Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism in Bucharest and spent a year at Architecture Department of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Yours is a compelling personal story, so I wonder if you can tell us more about what motivated you to become an architect? And what first led you to Belgium and then to France?

Bianca: I always enjoyed drawing, ‘inventing’ and crafting objects when I was a child. In school I was keen on exact sciences. But my interest in literature, arts and crafting influenced me not to go for pure scientific studies. This led me to choose architecture. That was pretty much it. I did not have much knowledge about architecture before and had never met many architects. Once studying it, I found it fascinating and really enjoyed it. Architecture is a broad profession that covers a wide range of niches for every skill and every talent.

I studied for one year in Leuven, Belgium, at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Master of Human Settlements. This experience was defining for what followed next: professionally, it opened my mind to new concepts, and socially, because of the many international colleagues I encountered. The following year, I participated in the international competition ArtUrbain, organized by Séminaire Robert Auzellein Paris. Together with two colleagues, we received the first prize. Basically this led me to come to Paris, in the beginning for an internship and later on for a permanent position as an architect in an international architectural practice with the main office in Paris.

EurStrat: That’s quite some experience. Now let me ask you about your work. In your projects, you put a lot of emphasis on the use of traditional materials and, more broadly, on architecture that is in harmony with local surroundings. Is this your personal focus or is it a general trend in contemporary architecture? And would you say the role of architecture in towns and rural landscapes has developed a lot since modernism, the aesthetics of which many people found too “raw and cold”?

Bianca: Architecture is much more than form and aesthetics. Architects do construct things out of metal, concrete, wood, and glass, but what they really build is spaces, events, and places for living.

There is a tendency in 21st century architecture for iconic forms and their designers to get all the attention. Therefore, in the urge to innovate in a competitive field, architects often disregard focusing on people, spaces and buildings that are desirable to inhabit.

However, ideas and concepts about the purpose and place of architecture are changing a lot. The architect’s work cannot be reduced to the single role of designing buildings. On a broader scale architects can employ their skills in design by drawing on multiple fields of knowledge and expand beyond classical notions of creating architecture.

We notice this preoccupation in the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, titled Reporting From the Front, curated by Alejandro Aravena at La Biennale di Venezia. The exhibition links architecture to broader concerns of society such as migration, segregation, traffic, waste and pollution, inequalities, peripheries, natural disasters, housing shortage. These represent “urgent issues facing the whole of humanity”, as Alejandro Aravena puts it, “not just problems that only interest architects”, but a broader audience. The focus pivots from the architecture in society to the humanitarian role of the architect as a social figure.

I wonder what if instead of designing impressive expensive buildings, our real preoccupation would focus more on innovating living conditions. This seems to me it could be the real challenge for contemporary architecture and society.

The basis of architecture practice is not only about building with less money, low cost solutions, using common materials, but about an ethic of working and an ethic of how to understand society. This is the change in the future of architecture I believe in.

EurStrat: You imply that architecture should be about more than the architect and hers or his self-expression. In a way, you believe your profession can play a more “universal role” and is part of a society. I imagine that this isn’t a generally acknowledged position among architects and you may well be in a minority? There are arguments, for instance, that public’s sense of aesthetics should not at all guide architecture or that architects should concentrate on “building good buildings” and not meddle in ethics or politics. What would you reply to that?

Bianca: Architecture might be seen often as an autonomous discipline, but it is an arena where investment, communications, marketing and other fields come together. Moreover, built objects are only one of the various outcomes of architectural production.

We could argue to which extend architecture is political. Architecture is related to power and can serve  financial or political interests. But without financial cover, architects appear insignificant actors in this highly complex process of design of the built environment. And despite its image of avant-garde creativity, the making of architecture remains a game in which architects cultivate those with financial power in return for commissions. But the challenge for architects is to find means in which they can use their awareness not to simply produce new buildings on demand, but rather to participate to a better, in a social sense, above all, environment. An ethical architect and citizen should not lose the focus on the social responsibility beyond practice and his role as a mediator between the investors, planners, the public and users.

EurStrat: How do you contrast this present role of the architect to the one in the past? To those who aren’t experts, it may seem that “back then”, people simply used to build houses in the same manner as their neighbours. Were architects back then commissioned only by the rich or, for example, by the feudal or government authorities to undertake larger constructions?

It is true that in the past, but nowadays too, monuments and iconic, representative buildings have been created as a symbol of power. These are also the kinds of projects that attract largest budgets. But I do not believe that these are necessarily the true values of architecture, at least not in our present times where maybe 90% of the people do not even afford architects. Like I previously stated, the first role of architecture is to fulfil the needs of society by creating places to work and live. I wonder what if instead of designing impressive expensive buildings, our real preoccupation would focus more on innovating living conditions. This seems to me it could be the real challenge for contemporary architecture and society.

Cities are now run more than ever on a business approach and gentrification practices have driven cities to be successful in the global market. In Romania, for example, the restoration of the old town centres during the last years has been received very positively. But it was very soon after that urban strategies followed the model of the other European cities and their focus on capital interest in the detriment of the interests of citizens. These approaches have given way to mass consumerism, reducing the city centre to a global advertising board, turning citizens into consumers and pushing them to the periphery of the city’s civic life.

EurStrat: Our conversation also relates to the nature of contemporary European cities. Do you think that cities, towns and their centres have changed a lot in the last decades? Some people speak of their commercialisation, while others mention what at first looks aș opposite trends of pauperisation and gentrification. How can we understand this?

Bianca: Robert E. Park in his book On Social Control and Collective Behaviour asserts that man’s most successful attempt is to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.

Accordingly to Park’s statement, what if in order to interpret the changes you mention we assist to in cities, we look firstly to understand what kind of people we are, our present behaviour, needs, desires, social relations, aesthetic values or technological demands and how these elements model the city. Indeed, the incredible transformations on people’s lifestyle that the last decades have brought a major impact on the quality of urban life and therefore the city itself. Consumerism and tourism have become major aspects of the urban political economy. Along the same lines, the city centre has become a catalyst for consumption, tourism and leisure, concentrating restaurants, shops, fashion and cultural-based industries.

I feel that it is only very recent that we feel the repercussions of such behaviour. Cities are now run more than ever on a business approach and gentrification practices have driven cities to be successful in the global market. In Romania, for example, the restoration of the old town centres during the last years has been received very positively. But it was very soon after that urban strategies followed the model of the other European cities and their focus on capital interest in the detriment of the interests of citizens. These approaches have given way to mass consumerism, reducing the city centre to a global advertising board, turning citizens into consumers and pushing them to the periphery of the city’s civic life.

EurStrat: On the other hand, people in towns and citizens are becoming increasingly more active. I don’t mean only political activism, charities or voluntary work, but for instance both performing and performance art. How do you see such developments and do they add something to our urban landscapes and public space?

Bianca: In the contemporary context defined by the privatization of life we mentioned earlier, or by new forms of public spaces that are emerging, like the internet, we could question to what extent we still use public space.

I have recently frequented a series of live music concerts organized by independent musicians in Paris and I questioned exactly the same thing you bring up. People are very active and willing to express, share, participate and gather. And all this is very enriching. At the same time, there is a need for physical spaces where artists and basically all citizens can meet. Art is reclaiming public space and is reshaping cultural landscapes in cities today.

Public space today is often used for public gatherings which engage various kinds of performances and artistic expressions. And this is such a great quality that cannot be ‘designed’, but through design the use of such spaces can be encouraged.

It is not only about creative activities, but about the everyday liveliness which is absolutely essential for the social vitality of cities and societies.

Bianca Gioada (30)

- Graduated with Master's Degree in Architectural Design of Ion Mincu University, Romania, and studied Master of Human Settlement at Katolieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.
- Works as an architect in Manal Rachdi Oxo Architectes, Paris, and previously at Moussafir Architectes and Dietmar Feichtinger Architectes, France.
- In her projects, she focuses on urban regeneration and puts emphasis on creating "spaces, events, and places for living" rather than "just" buildings.

*Interview conducted by Stanislav Máselník

Delicate politics of Spain: Rajoy’s minority government has to brace for storm

On Sunday 30th October, Mariano Rajoy was officially reinstated as Prime Minister of Spain. This happened after more than three-hundred days of political deadlock during which no party was able to form a coalition government. The threat of a third general election loomed ever larger on the horizon.

This state of play ended with a massive internal crisis within the leading opposition party, the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party). Its chief bureaucrat, Secretary-General Pedro Sánchez, was removed from his post. The party leadership subsequently voted  to unblock the opposition Partido Popular’s (PP) efforts to reinstate Rajoy as Prime Minister and form a new government. The road to reach this point has been long and complicated. While there is no longer a threat of the political deadlock of the past months continuing, future is still uncertain for all the major parties and, perhaps, for Spain as a whole.

PSOE: Divided, we fall

The crisis arose after the deadlock following the second general election, Pedro Sánchez made clear that he would not support Mariano Rajoy’s bid to be reinstated as Prime Minister and make this the official party line. And yet, despite his insistence, pressure mounted and continued mount as time wore on. But Sánchez faced increasing pressure as the party was unable to come to an agreement with either Unidos Podemos (United We Can) or Ciudadanos (Citizens). These are the two most important ‘new’ parties on the Spanish political scene. Hence, a growing number of members of the party leadership, including ex-president Felipe González, advocated a tacit support to a minority government led by PP.

Breakdown of the Spain's 2016 general elections results show the deep fragmentation of the country's political scene. © BBC
Breakdown of the Spain’s 2016 general elections results show the deep fragmentation of the country’s political scene. © BBC

Sánchez remained resolute in his opposition and said he would never support a PP government headed by Rajoy. But as internal divisions in the PSOE became more and more visible, on 29th September seventeen members of the party’s executive committee resigned their from posts in protest against Sánchez. On 2nd October, just three days later, Sánchez’s resignation followed with the space open for the party’s withdrawing of its blocking of a Rajoy government.  The PSOE’s Catalan branch, PSC (Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, or Catalan Socialist Party) broke ranks and voted ‘No’ to the PP government in open defiance of the party leadership. PSOE thus stands internally fractured and its militant supporters are saying they feel betrayed by the party’s decision to allow the PP to govern.

A fractured Spanish Congress

Amid the dissension and fracturing of the PSOE, the Spain’s legislative branch, the Congress of Deputies, is facing a unique scenario not yet encountered in the country’s democratic history (post-1976): a minority government with three major opposition parties rallied against it.

At this moment, the Congress is split between the ruling PP, PSOE, Unidos Podemos and Ciudadanos. For policies and proposals to go through Congress, a majority of deputies (176 out of 350) must vote in favour. For the previous Rajoy government this was not a problem. His landslide victory of 2011 gave him an absolute majority in Congress. But now the PP no longer enjoys this advantage. Both Ciudadanos and PSOE that they will not make the enactment of new policies and proposals easy. So while Rajoy was again able to become Prime Minister, keeping this post may be a task that may prove difficult.

Rajoy and his party will have to find a way of negotiating and working with the various parties opposing them. While the divisions within the Spanish left are notable, they still have a common enemy in the PP. And challenges are significant: maintaining the economic recovery, answering growing calls for Catalan independence, and general political uncertainty in the EU after Brexit and Trump’s unexpected ascendency to the White House. No wonder that Mariano Rajoy’s tone is measured and conciliatory and he focuses on gaining trust and supporting cooperation with the Congress. He could well have little other choice.

Business as usual, or an already doomed enterprise?

Spain’s economic recovery would, at the first glance, seem to be the simplest obstacle to overcome. As the PP frequently points out, the country’s unemployment levels have been steadily shrinking and the economic growth has been relatively steady over the last two years. Compared to the country’s situation in 2011, when the full impact of the Housing Crisis was still being felt, there has been a noticeable improvement. But as other commentators have pointed out, the stability is fragile. Spain’s economy remains relatively weak, with many young workers and professionals still choosing to look for better paid work in other European countries such as Germany. While unemployment decreased, the new jobs are not secure contracts. There is an increase in part-time contracts, a situation that makes many unhappy. All in all, it therefore remains to be seen if the  improvements are a sign of continued growth, or if this is just a case of temporary good fortune.

Meanwhile, the question of Catalan independence is looming ever-larger on the political landscape. The reinvigorated pro-independence administration in Barcelona is calling for a referendum in September 2017 and calls on Rajoy to negotiate on its terms. It is unclear what course the PP and Prime Minister will choose to take. The Spanish government was severely criticized by pro-independence factions and the opposition parties for its inflexibility and a refusal to discuss Catalan matters. Rajoy has made clear that he wishes to reach an agreement with the Catalan Parliament, but what form that agreement will take (if any) is anyone’s guess.

Finally, it is Rajoy and his successors will have to deal with the impact of a post-Brexit EU on Spain. With a few notable exceptions, the result of Britain’s EU referendum was taken negatively by Spanish citizens and politicians alike. It is being said it will bring more negative consequences than positive ones, and there is a particular worry for the possible financial and economic repercussions. That being said, some have expressed a hope or even a desire that the void left by Britain could lead to a greater importance for Spain on the European stage. But this is a wish that not been answered by any active effort from the Spanish Government apart from efforts to attract potential investors and companies from the UK.

Donald Trump's ascendancy to the White House adds an additional measure of uncertainty to already uncertain European politics. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House adds an additional measure of uncertainty to already uncertain European politics. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Rajoy’s remaining in power for another four years itself remains without a firm guarantee. There is a high possibility that the difficulties in trying to run a minority government may well result in early elections once again throwing Spain into muddied waters of political uncertainty.

Last but not least, there is the result of the US presidential election. To say that Donald Trump was not the preferred candidate in Spain would be to make an understatement. On previous occasions, Trump expressed support for Brexit, but he might also shift the US foreign policy towards a more isolationist, protectionist course. Furthermore, the US President-elect made controversial statements about immigration from Central and South America, regions where Spain is a major business and financial player. These developments considered, the post-Brexit Europe may not be the only big change in politics facing Rajoy.

Indeed, the future in Spain is uncertain. For now, all that can be done is to wait and see the outcome.

Europe and Asia together against non-traditional security challenges

The results of the Tenth ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting

Ágnes Szunomár

The relationship between Europe and Asia – alThe logo of Asia-Europe Meetingthough more and more common interests and challenges connect them – for a long time has consisted of bilateral relations without a formal supporting structure or framework such as for transatlantic relations in the case of Europe and North America, or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in the case of North and South American states and Asia. In 1996, recognizing the need for strengthening this relationship, France and Singapore initiated regular meetings between Asia and Europe. In this way, thus the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was born.

ASEM is an open forum for dialogue and discussion consisting of 46 countries – the twenty-seven members of the European Union (EU), the thirteen members of the ASEAN, the Plus Three regional grouping with India, Mongolia, Pakistan, Australia, Russia and New Zealand – and two international organizations, the European Commission and the ASEAN Secretariat. Since it is a consultative forum, specific decisions are not taken during the meetings. But a so-called “presidential statement”, a final communication, is adopted detailing the results of the dialogue. In the ASEM framework, members engage in discussions as equal partners ignoring differences in economic development, country size and population. Dialogue is based on mutual benefits and mutual respect. The ASEM process is loosely organized. There are three dimensions or pillars of the cooperation, including dialogues on politics, economics, and also other areas such as social politics, education and culture. Heads of governments meet every two years (alternately in Europe and Asia) to set the ASEM agenda, while ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meetings are organised in the interim between Summits. The Foreign Ministers Meeting is responsible for pursuing the ASEM dialogue under the first and third pillars (political dialogue and co-operation in other areas). Apart from the Summit meetings, the ASEM process is carried forward through a series of ministerial and working-level meetings.

The 10th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Gödöllő, Hungary had an over-arching theme: “Working Together on Non-Traditional Security Challenges”. This title – due to the Chairs’ Statement – provided an opportunity to address relevant issues of common interest having substantial implications for the prosperity, security and stability of both Europe and Asia. Non-traditional or new types of security challenges include almost every security problem that is not a traditional military conflict. These challenges can be natural disasters, terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, illegal arms trafficking, organised crime, and also migration or food shortages. János Martonyi, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, highlighted that several of these challenges are present in Asia simultaneously. Indeed, Japan has recently been hit by both a nuclear and a natural disaster at the same time, which made the meeting and its theme more topical than ever.

All 48 members of ASEM represented themselves at the meeting. 36 of the 46 countries even had ministers attending the meetings, reflecting very high level participation. The Meeting was opened by Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. In his opening remarks, the Prime Minister emphasized that the effectiveness of cooperation between Asia and the European Union will be crucial in the future. Due to global financial and economic competition a new world has emerged where “lone fighters can no longer be successful”. He added that the years ahead will be characterized by searching for effective forms of cooperation and alliance. Europe should look for the most effective forms of economic and political cooperation with Asia, because that cooperation will certainly form a starting point for renewing the post-economic crisis world.

A wide range of non-traditional security challenges facing Europe and Asia can seriously impact the stability, security and prosperity of both regions, posing challenges at both the regional and global levels. On behalf of the Hungarian Presidency, János Martonyi stressed the importance of establishing nuclear energy safety where the best way to resolve such problems, both in the field of nuclear safety and environmental protection, is to seek common solutions. Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto also emphasized that combating terrorism, disaster management, nuclear safety, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation, are all challenges demanding cooperation. This is in the joint interest of the countries of both Asia and Europe.  The Chairs’ Statement highlights that environmental degradation, climate change, the loss of biological diversity, the over-exploitation of natural resources and other human pressures on the natural environment are underlying causes for many emerging security threats. Ministers have reaffirmed their commitment to pursue sustainable development in tandem with economic growth and social progress.

The issue of food shortages was highlighted by several countries during the plenary discussion. According to some countries of Southeast Asia, a holistic approach is needed in this field and the members of ASEM should improve their technological and scientific cooperation. Others emphasised the necessity of promoting cooperation, not only on recovery from natural disasters, but also on their forecasting and early warning.

On the second day of the Meeting, the participants dealt with the recovery from economic crisis and the fight against poverty. The Chairs’ Statement, unanimously adopted at the meeting, points out that the ASEM partners acknowledge that the world is recovering from the economic crisis, but in an uneven and unbalanced way across and within countries. They expressed deep concern that the recovery has not yet translated into sufficient employment and adequate growth rates for all economies. In some advanced economies unemployment is still high, and fiscal and financial vulnerabilities remain such as slow progress in fiscal consolidation, sovereign debt crises and slow progress on financial sector consolidation and reform. Some emerging economies face the risk of overheating and excessive short-term capital flows, and many confront the threat of food and fuel price volatility, with high levels last seen in 2008. ASEM therefore supports the goals set by the G20 to address and provide collective solutions for ongoing global economic challenges taking into account the interest of all nations. The Hungarian Foreign Minister added that the crisis is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity, as the markets expect jointly-developed solutions from the countries of the world. János Martonyi offered the European Union’s growth strategy for Asian countries as an example. This strategy covers several areas ranging from education to employment, as well as boosting innovation. He believes that the Europe 2020 Strategy has formulated objectives that can define an appropriate course of growth for the countries of Asia as well.

Overall, we can be assured that the results of the meeting won’t shake the world because no historic, compromising or tough decisions were made. But the consultations within the framework of ASEM do have a raison d’être in the future. Informal political meetings are becoming increasingly important in the world as both regional and global problems can be discussed more openly. In the future these meetings may become even more important, since Asia is rapidly becoming a dominant region in the world economy, global security and politics and has started to consciously influence the international order. As the Statement points out, Asia and Europe are becoming more and more unified, but there are still plenty of thing to do till then. Deeper and wider inter-regional relations would offer many opportunities for working together. The ASEM initiative involves partners that constitute over half of the global population, comprise more than 60% of world trade and account greater than half of global GDP. These facts alone make ASEM a significant forum that has successfully provided an important opportunity for interregional co-operation on an equal and reciprocal basis for over one and a half decades.

Ágnes Szunomár is a China-expert and Junior Research Fellow at the Insitute of World Economics, Budapest