“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

Interview with the EU’s most famous politician: Nigel Farage

Today we bring you an exclusive interview with Nigel Farage that was made by two of our authors – Jakub Janda and Ondřej Šlechta – during Mr Farage’s working visit to Prague on 16 June. As a magazine that supports a sovereign and federal Europe, our editorial team does not agree with a ‘Europe of sovereign nations,’ the idea that Mr Farage very elequently and vigorously defends, although we are in full agreement with him when it comes to criticising Europe as a technocratic and dull project that has fundamental flaws when it comes to democratic oversight. Nothwithstanding our individual views, it cannot be denied that Mr Farage is the only EU politician, who is famous all around Europe. He rightly criticised Hermann van Rompuy’s dubious mandate and equally well points out that the stream of summits is beneficial to no one, but to ‘too big to fail’ European banks, which are beneficiaries of the constant flow of taxpayers’ money. For that, his speeches on YouTube are rewarded with such high viewing rates that many other European politician could dream of. We therefore think that we should give him voice on our ‘federal pages’ and grant you the opportunity to consider his ideas.

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Igor Lukes: ‘US attitude towards Europe is above party lines’

We present to you an interview with Igor Lukes, Czech-born professor of History and International Relations at Boston University. Our correspondent Jakub Janda questioned him about Republican Primaries, role of foreign policy in American political campaigns, and the puzzlement of the Europeans over distinguishing the Republicans from Democrats.

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Last interview with Vaclav Havel: To bomb Belgrade was a tough decision

An image of late Czech President Vaclav Havel sitting in an arm chairWe publish the last interview given by the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, which was given to our contributor Jakub Janda in December 2011 on the issues of civic heroism, human indifference and what turned out to be one very frustrating translation. It is exclusively available in English only at our magazine.*


Jakub Janda (JJ): When you received Prize of Jaromir Savrda last year you mentioned that „something like a dissident resistance is needed even today with different appearance and in different form“. Could you please specify what kind of appearances and forms do you have in mind?

Vaclav  Havel (VH): If I spoke of a different kind of the dissident movement, it was not obviously related to the observance of civil rights and liberties ensured by constitution. In this sense the dissident movement is a thing of the past, or at least I hope so. I rather had on mind civic engagement as resistance against human indifference, civic apathy or bureaucratic bullying.

JJ: Do you think that engagement with civil society is a challenge for today’s youth? What is the source of the contempt of some Czech politicians for civil society and civic initiatives?

VH: Civic engagement comes naturally to young people. For the coming generation it is an inherent part of their social attitude, which sets them apart from the generation of their parents and grandparents, who were growing up under a totalitarian regime. Civil society is met with contempt especially at those politicians, who perhaps speak of freedom, but actually fear manifestations of citizens’ will and see them as a threat to their power and influence.

JJ: Where do you see a line beyond which it is necessary to face evil with force? Your reservations about some activities of the third resistance [the editor’s note: an overarching term used for the Czechoslovak anti-communist resistance movement between 1948 and 89] are well known, yet you also received criticism for your support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

VH: That needs to be considered from a case to case; there is no ready-made solution available and it is necessary to use all means to prevent such a strike from happening. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out in advance as we would thus show that we are not willing to fight off evil. The international community decided on the strike in former Yugoslavia only after ten years of intensive, but unsuccessful negotiations that especially the Milosevic’s regime had used in perpetrating new atrocities and ethnic cleansing. Notwithstanding the humanitarian catastrophe and war suffering it was a tough decision. I naturally have not ever pronounced that statement on humanitarian bombing which is attributed to me. That nonsense appeared in the follow-up of multiple translations. I said that the reasons for the strike had been humanitarian, because there had been on-going massacres and expulsions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and million refugees had been on move in Kosovo.

JJ: What means to you the cooperation of the Czech and Polish dissent?

VH: Czechoslovak-Polish solidarity, trans-border cooperation and meetings on the frontier had a crucial significance as an entirely new experience. And not just for our dissent, but also for communist rulers. Moscow counted that there will be revolts in satellite countries from time to time – as in Hungary of 1956, Czechoslovakia of 1968 or Poland of 1980. But for national opposition movements to cooperate that was a new element and a cause of great fears for the communist power.

Thank you for the interview,
Jakub Janda


* Translated from Czech by Stanislav Maselnik.

Interview with Tomas Valasek: “EU has too few soldiers!”

Tomas Valasek
Tomas Valasek

Interview conducted by Czech political analyst Jakub Janda with respected security expert Tomas Valasek on the question of European defense, Libya, and the future of NATO in the light of the decline of American support.

In your recent study, Surviving Austerity – The Case for a New Approach to EU Military Collaboration, you argue that European countries should be looking to mitigate the effects of financial pressures by pooling military resources with like-minded nations, creating “islands of co-operation”. Could you give us a brief analysis what would it mean in the real world environment?

European countries have too few soldiers with the right skills and equipment. While there are many reasons for this – for example, the Europeans spend less per soldier than the Americans do – chiefly, the Europeans underperform because with 27 different governments managing, equipping and commanding 27 militaries they never enjoy economies of scale when buying and maintaining equipment or training soldiers. My study proposes that European armed forces start doing so together, and that they pool their bases, schools, maintenance facilities etc.  They should not do so at the basis of all 27 EU countries, but among small groups of governments that know and trust each other. In fact, some, such as the Belgians and the Dutch, are already doing so.

You also mentioned, that, there is still a lot of hardware in our (European) arsenals that frankly we have inherited and we don’t really know what to do with. Nowadays many critics say that current European arsenal cannot be effectively compatible with the US Military technology in joint operations, such as NATO interaction in Libya. Is it really that crucial?

NATO’s biggest challenge is not whether the Europeans and the Americans have compatible forces and technology. The greatest problem is that the Europeans have fewer and fewer forces to send to common operations. The Americans have steadily increased their defense budget over the past decade; the Europeans have, on average, decreased it each year. Overtime, a gulf has grown that the Americans find, for good reasons, politically unacceptable. The Europeans are unlikely to start spending more money on their militaries anytime soon – not when the economic crisis here is even more severe than in the US. But what the Europeans can and must do if they want to keep the Americans engaged in NATO is to spend their money more wisely. That means getting rid of some unneeded Cold War equipment, and collaborating on procurement, maintenance, training etc.

In his speech to the NATO ministers of defense, retiring US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out that the USA covers free fourths of the NATO budget and is nor able nor willing to continue in such trend. Does such statement support your argument that Europe should start taking care of its security? Could you expand your arguments what should European countries do?

For the time being, the United States remains the indispensable ally, committed to defend Europe if necessary.  But their attitudes are changing: the Americans no longer want to lead ‘wars of choice’ on Europe’s periphery; those fought in the name of human rights (such as the one in Libya). This is partly because US interests have moved elsewhere, to Asia and the Middle East, but also because American politicians and defence officials have come to feel that European countries are not taking the security of their own continent seriously enough. The allies have big economies and capable militaries, and in the future the Pentagon will expect them to be able to assure security of Europe’s periphery with little US help.

Since we talked about some aspects of European security, could you comment on current situation in Ukraine? Does it pose a threat to European security any aspect, especially in energetic strategies of the EU?

Russia and Ukraine are tussling over control of Ukraine’s gas pipelines so yes, another gas war is possible and would be bad for the EU. But this is a problem partly of our own making: some of the governments in Europe’s east have failed to invest in alternatives sources of energy to Russian gas. I am frustrated with Ukraine for a different reason: this should be a prosperous place and an important trading partner to the Central Europeans. Ukraine is a large country with a well-educated workforce and mineral and agricultural wealth. If it were better managed, it would be a lot richer – and all of Central Europe would benefit. Eastern parts of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – some of the poorest parts of Central Europe – should in principle be booming and growing from trade with Ukraine. But they are not, mostly because Ukraine has been governed by crooks for most of its independence.

Thank you for your time,
Jakub Janda

Tomas Valasek is Director of Foreign policy & Defence at the London-based think tank Centre for European Reform. He has written extensively on transatlantic relations, common European foreign and security policy and on defence industry issues. He is also a senior advisor to the Brussels office of the World Security Institute.

Previously, he served as Policy Director and head of the Security and Defence Policy Division at the Slovak Ministry of Defence.