“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

Does hunger still rule?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set up by the United Nations in the year 1990 to blueprint the steps needed to eradicate poverty worldwide. The 8 goals, including universal primary education and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, form a set of unprecedented efforts galvanising international action to help the world’s poorest. With the deadline approaching and the world in recession, some have started to question whether any of the aims will have be achieved by 2015. This article will concentrate on the first goal: “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the number of people whose income is less that $1 per day. Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people. Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger”.

According to the UN, (www.un.org,) the global economic slowdown has made progress “suffer” but “the world is still on track to reach this target”. Yet according to World Bank figures an estimated 1.4 billion people still live on $1 per day or less and 2.5 billion exist on under $2 per day. Three quarters of the population of sub Saharan Africa are still included in the latter category. The meaning of living on $1 per day does not correspond with literal earnings but in Purchasing Power Parity; what $1 could buy per day in the United States.

Whilst these figures show that 20% of the population still live under the poverty line it is debatable whether their quality of life has improved in some areas. Whilst characteristics of such poverty still include the following: 50 to 80% of daily income is spent on food; poor health is common; there is high unemployment and employed adults have multiple occupations in unstable jobs, quality of life may have improved in several areas.

Through the work of development agencies and charities, good medical facilities have become more widespread and emphasis has been put on training local staff, thus building up a skill base in the population. However, many of these hospitals survive on charitable donation or outside funding so if funding should drop away, as is possible in times of world financial instability, the hospitals would fall to ruin. In government-run facilities, funding is often insufficient and money to buy medicines and basics such as anaesthetics often run out mid-way through the month leaving the staff powerless. In rural areas power supplies are also frequently faulty so hospitals are unable to use facilities such as operating theatres without a generator and funds for fuel.

A classic indicator of poverty is limited access to water, electricity, infrastructure and sanitation. Access to these utilities now seems to be a geographic variable. In some countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, access to electricity is almost universal however this is far from true regarding sanitation. On the other hand, in Tanzania almost every household has or has access to toilet facilities, but electricity and running water are rare in homes. This discrepancy may reflect the foci of campaigns, (for example water and sanitation charities tend to target Africa,) and also the priority of governments. As they are governing young, expanding economies based on modern technology such as computing or mobile phones, it makes sense that many Asian governments put such an emphasis on electricity access.

Following from this, despite little possession of productive assets such as farm tools, tractors or sewing machines, the number of people owning small electrical goods has risen dramatically in the last twenty years. According to studies by Abjhit Banjeree and Esther Duflo using data from 13 countries with widespread poverty, 70% of people living on under $1 per day in Peru and Nicaragua own radios. In Hyderabad, India, 57% of people on a comparable wage owned televisions, whilst mobile phone ownership in Africa has soared with small businesses running charging points from rare electrical connections.

Some argue, on the basis of evidence shown above, that whilst the number of people living on under $1 per day is still huge, these improvements in quality of life must be taken into account when we measure success; if the overall aim is to lift people from poverty thus improving their quality of life, substantial progress has been made, even if it is patchy.

As for decreasing unemployment and improving work opportunities, the financial crisis has somewhat impinged on progress. With the deterioration of the labour market, unemployment is rife worldwide and levels of extreme poverty have increased. The middle classes of a country are generally those with steady employment, which is now becoming a rare entity. The middle class is also educated and often the driving force behind stable democracy. Poverty has been very well connected to instability, violence and extremism throughout history, so not only would an increase in poverty be a humanitarian disaster but it may also hold consequences for regional and global security.

In 2008 the UN proudly announced that poverty had reduced in virtually all regions, however in parallel with the financial crisis, world hunger spiked in 2009. Since then, processes to slow hunger have slowed in all regions and, famines and unrest have seen the need for food aid rise. 42 million people have been uprooted by conflict in the last four years. 1 in 4 children in developing countries are still underweight and children from rural areas are twice as likely to be underweight as those from urban homes.

The map of Global Hunger Index (GHI)
A map of Global Hunger Index (GHI)

The map above displays, in terms of severity, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 122 countries. As an average figure, the GHI has decreased since 2000 with substantial reductions in huger in Asia. In Thailand the number of underweight children has been halved from 50 to 25% using nutrition intervention and a widespread programme of community volunteers to change people’s dietary behaviour and provide nutrition education.

Despite the MDGs being a worldwide aim, Europe currently provides over half the development aid making it a powerful force for progress. Europe summarises its three doctrines as follows: strengthen programmes in health, education and social sectors; put a great deal of effort into good governance and ensure policy coherence in trade, agriculture and environment (etc) as well as aid.

Yet despite worthy aims and a vast influx of funding, more action needs to be taken in order to reach the MDGs by 2015 and continue the process to eliminate poverty in the future. Sustainable development is the buzz word for 2011 and the concept certainly carries a great deal of weight. Reduction of cash crop production, sustainable environmental policies, education and evening out of barriers in trade are all steps that need to be taken in order to ensure a poverty-free world. Our monetary system means that there will always be winners and losers but, with some simple changes, the poverty gap could be narrowed and quality of life improved worldwide. The MDGs may not succeed by 2015 in the current economic climate, but they should not be viewed as a failure; their aim is just and should be continually strived for in the future.

Emily Judson

Emily Judson is a guest contributor of the European Strategist.