Winka Dubbeldam believes there is power in the people.
As a public intellectual, she has invested her efforts in researching the concept of "bottom-up" and "systems" design at academic institutions like Columbia, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania - where she now serves as chair of the department of architecture. As principal of the New York-based firm, Archi-Tectonics, she demonstrates how these concepts work in both theory and practice.
In between the consistent cadence of client meetings and academic functions, Winka has been vocal about the future of cities, traveling overseas and giving TED Talks. Her most recent project revolves around a bilingual website, Mi Ciudad Ideal (My Ideal City), which has led her to Bogotá, Colombia where she is leading efforts to crowdsource and document the opinions of hundreds of thousands of urban residents in hopes to better understand what makes the "Ideal City." ArchDaily recently caught up with Winka to discuss the project's foundation and how it works.
How did “My Ideal City” start?
My client, Rodrigo Niño, from the Prodigy Network was working with a developer from Spain. They developed a crowdfunded tower in downtown Bogotá, raising over $250 million with thousands of small investors, the new middle class of Colombia. Since that was a huge success - in fact, the largest crowd funded project world wide - they realized that the rest of Bogotá’s downtown also needed further development. And this development could be initiated from the bottom-up. In other words, “with the people.”
Rodrigo and I first discussed the possibility of working together in Bogotá. After I gave a lecture there, we quickly realized we were in similar mindsets. Soon after this, I was lead-architect of the My Ideal City initiative.
It's really a dream challenge. I proposed a team of experts to Rodrigo, gathered them for weekly meetings and began by developing a website. Rodrigo had the idea of involving a Spanish-speaking radio station which ran programs in the morning, a perfect time when people are commuting. The radio was a great way to activate a conversation, to start sharing the idea of crowd-funded urban initiatives.
So, for instance, together with PSFJ (crowd sourcing and trend research experts), we asked "questions of the week," encouraging the public to visit our website and post their thoughts on what the ideal city for them would look like.
The response was amazing. At one point, a team member noted, "Wow! We have over 80,000 people with responses." It was at 130,000 responses a week later when I checked. With my team we then derived trends from the overwhelming number of responses. This is great because we can see what people really think about urban issues, allowing us to understand public opinion on a large scale.
What is the architect’s role in a crowd-funded project? Is design left up to the public?
People, ultimately, fund in experts. They don't want you, the architect, to sit there and do what they say because, of course, you can't listen to hundreds of thousands of opinions. So, what we do is really study these trends but also respond with proposals. It's really about a two-way feedback. It's not about people telling us what to do; that has never worked. It would be as if you visited a doctor and began to tell him what to do to cure your illness.
That's not what the public wants. They want projects that are successful, well-designed and thought out by the designers, taking into account the needs of the client. This a typical relationship between architects/landscape architects and their clients, it's just in this case our client is the public - a crowd funded endeavor.
It's actually not that different, just way more interesting.
Plus, it's on a whole other scale. We normally work on a single building with a client, now we are working on a whole downtown. So, we need more input. The people have a better reading of what's going on within their neighborhoods and cities than the government. Thus, our approach is not from the "top-down" but from the "bottom-up."
Will the “My Ideal City” model extend to cities abroad?
Recently, we presented My Ideal Cities in Berlin, Germany at Aedes, one of the biggest galleries in Europe for architecture and urban research, and they were saying how this would be an amazing concept to start implementing there. Being from northern Europe, I had not expected this type of response.
With this said, it's for sure going to happen in the U.S. The federal government just passed a regulation in which crowdfunding is something you can start to initiate here as well. When you crowd-fund, there is a regulation aspect which dictates how you go about doing this - like banks, actually. But this just passed, so it'll be interesting how this develops in the near future.
As a current New Yorker, I hope we may start talking about what we, the public, want to see in our city and actively participate in this growth.
What advice do you give your architecture students interested in addressing urban issues?
Students tend to think that they need to transform themselves towards an issue, towards trends. You need to find what interests you; be aware of it, study it intensely and be rigorous. By doing this, we can become great consultants and innovative team members.
What architects are good at is, not simply generating data, but actually, giving it form. This is important. The moment you start to, for instance, map traffic - you're in deep trouble. There is a critical boundary you should understand; as an expert you have different responsibilities than what people would like to put on you. You get a project, then you should ask yourself what the real question is, rather than just randomly answering the accepted ones. That kind of critical thinking, that kind of self-editing is as crucial as the fact that you want to become an expert in architectural design.