At 92 years of age, for his entire career Yona Friedman has occupied an unusual spot within the architecture world; his signature concept, the Ville Spatiale which he first proposed in 1956, combines the top-down megastructural thinking visible in later projects such as Archigram's Plug-In City with a total freedom for occupants to design and build their own homes within the structure. In this installment of his “City of Ideas” column, Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Friedman at his home in Paris to talk about the Ville Spatiale and his theories of mobile and improvised architecture.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Yesterday, I went to the Pompidou Centre here in Paris with its magnificent colors – blue for air, yellow for electricity, green for water, and red for circulation – and I saw your drawing and model for Ville Spatiale displayed in the permanent collection of the museum. Could you talk about your own 1970 competition entry for the Center?
Yona Friedman: You are right. In my competition entry, I had to propose a facade, but I did not have one, but twenty or more. These facades were widely published later. The Ville Spatiale is not supposed to have one specific facade. Its volume disposition and facades change continuously.
The model acquired by the Pompidou Centre dates from 1959. It is a large study model of the Ville Spatiale, made of glass and ceramic mosaic. This model was damaged in transport. So I wanted to reconstruct it, rather than simply restore it. But the curator refused, as it would not be the exact copy of the original, of which I had no drawing. I told him that the principle of the Ville Spatiale is that it changes its shape all the time. I said that the reconstruction would be, in fact, authentic, as I am the project’s author, but the curator refused my proposal... [Laughs.]
YF: These projects are very different. The project of Piano and Rogers is not about flexibility; it is mainstream architecture. It is what I call a “shoebox.” You see, if you take any tower, every floor is the same, but the arrangement of furniture is different because people are all different and they want to plan by themselves. I am looking for techniques that will enable people a trial-and-error planning process where nothing is completely fixed or fixed very minimally. Only then can architecture be called truly mobile. I insist that I introduced a new idea in architecture; it is called improvisation. That is completely contrary to architectural education. The idea of architecture is to build for eternity... No, you have to improvise and my Ville Spatiale is a continuous improvisation. My Pompidou Centre was to be a continuous improvisation.
My Ville Spatiale projects were not realized because I was told that people are not capable of planning on their own. This may be true, but that is why this process should be guided by trial and error. Mobile architecture is adaptive. For example, nomads follow the climate; all animals do. You follow the climate instead of forcing it. In summer time, you may live in the arctic, in winter you move elsewhere. It is cheaper that way. [Laughs.] There would be no need to use enormous amount of energy to violate the environment.
VB: In your view, why doesn't the Pompidou Centre as it was built have flexibility? Didn’t the authors champion exactly that – flexibility, universality, interconnectivity?
YF: No. The Piano-Rogers proposal is over-defined. It proposes empty "premises" on each floor; it is a large "shoebox" with defined contour and levels. The Ville Spatiale proposes empty "space," with no overall enclosure, no definite floors, no ceilings. A space-frame structure, a minimal one, is envisioned as an antigravity device simply for hanging volumes freely imagined by the user. A structure having no floors, no walls, no roofs, nor any preconceived containers or shapes; that is the Ville Spatiale. The user-self planner can install anything, even a tower into that grid. Imagine, having improvised volumes "floating" in space, like balloons.
VB: You often use such words as mobile elements, self-planning, ideal architecture without plan, randomness in order, unpredictable, erratic, quasi furniture, spatial infrastructure, not artistic, not predetermined, freedom to the inhabitant, etc. What was it that first pushed you into this direction of radical experimentation?
YF: You know, I am the product of the Second World War. I was only 21 when the world changed drastically. Everything I was taught at school did not work. I was in the resistance in Budapest at the end of the war and was taken as a prisoner by the Gestapo. But I survived. The winter was brutal. There was no water, no electricity, no heating. Windows had no glass. There were one million inhabitants and people survived. I realized then that our habits and customs are very fragile. So I thought about finding a certain autonomy, and autonomy comes with improvisation. It is only natural to try to adapt. That’s what a dog would do – move, change, do whatever is necessary to survive. In architecture, the whole idea should be to find ways to adapt to reality. This idea came from my own reaction to the catastrophe.
VB: Where did the idea of “mobile” architecture and floating cities come from?
YF: It is a very practical idea. First, I thought about this when we faced the rebuilding after the war. There was so much destruction. But Ville Spatiale has minimum impact on the ground. A few years ago I was contacted by people in Caracas who asked me if a small Ville Spatiale could be built there. I said, yes. You erect structure like lampposts and attach containers to form houses. No preplanning. You plant these posts wherever you have a possibility.
Also our contemporary cities are very dense, but now density is no longer necessary. Communication is global. Before my cities anticipated many levels, but it is no longer necessary.
VB: You once said that the most important contribution in your life’s work is your visualization of the spatial city or Ville Spatiale. What is the key advantage of space frame infrastructure that carries individual homes and public spaces above typical buildings that sit on the ground? Is it in the ability of individual units to expand and contract according to inhabitants’ needs and imagination?
YF: What is important is that I am not trying to propose particular formal solutions. I have my aesthetic preferences but I can accept completely different solutions. I am concerned with the way of thinking. I am not interested in the mainstream architecture. I have nothing against the personalities, but the architecture of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid only looks free. They are creating architecture as sculpture. But a mediocre sculpture is not necessarily good architecture. I am against any preplanning. It is the trial and error process that pushes forward in any technology. Look at how NASA is building rockets. A plan conceived on paper may be a good idea, but that’s all it is. Everything needs to be tested and improved all the time.
VB: Is it this freedom that you imply in your structures that you call architecture without plan?
YF: Yes. People should build with their hands, and in poorer places that’s what they do. No one else would do it for them. I was in contact with people living in favelas. That’s real self planning. It is not good architecture but it is the right process. I am interested more in the process. Museums and universities all over the world contacted me to propose affordable open structures for them. For many institutions it would not work, as they prefer to use white marble. But many people in France, Belgium, Italy, China, India are happy with my solutions. They work for them. And the very low budgets of these projects are very tempting.
VB: I like one of your poetic quotes, “An architect does not create a city, only an accumulation of objects. It is the inhabitant who ‘invents’ the city; an uninhabited city, even if new, is only a ‘ruin.’” Could you talk more about your ideas of randomness, freedom, and enabling the inhabitants building their dream houses?
YF: I go by one basic principle: you can’t produce something that is not in equilibrium. The equilibrium finds itself automatically. Equilibrium is not something that is desirable, it is simply inevitable whether we want it or not. Look at all the migration problems we face around the world. People are searching for equilibrium.
VB: In your manifesto “Mobile Architecture” you said, “The process is important and a final result which can be determined with absolute certainty does not exist.” Do you think in architecture, there is too much emphasis on final predetermined result?
YF: I think so. There is no such thing as a final result. There is no final equilibrium. It is the transformation of one equilibrium into another. No city is ever frozen. It is transforming; it is all about constant transformation all around us. People should take their initiative. The trial and error process starts in your mind. All these ideas are based on my own experience, working to survive with my own back and hands. I am not proposing an architectural project. I am proposing a style.
VB: What’s the name of your style?
YF: It is not important. The Gothic people had no name for their style. [Laughs.] This style is not about aesthetics. It is purely practical and pragmatic. Architects like Le Corbusier who are concerned with aesthetics invent their absurd rules. I prefer Bernard Rudofsky’s “Architecture Without Architects” book in which he examined the age-old vernacular principles of architecture. I am proud that he included my Ville Spatiale project there. Anything that’s predetermined is questionable. I prefer to work with the people. People are interested in ideas if you provide them with the right choices. They try different options, discuss possibilities... My colleagues told me that it is impossible to let people participate in the design process. Perhaps it is impossible, but I did it.
VB: You formed GEAM [Groupe d'études de architecture mobile, 1958-62] with Frei Otto, Gunther Gunschel and others. Why didn’t it last?
YF: In Haifa, where I studied, they did not accept my thesis on mobile architecture. So I went to Dubrovnik, to the last CIAM Congress of Modern Architecture in 1956 to present it there. Soon I published copies of my work and that attracted interest. We formed GEAM in 1958 in Rotterdam, but it did not last because I was not looking for people who could copy my work. I was looking for people who would go beyond my ideas.
VB: That was the era of huge enthusiasm and mega projects. Architects collaborated in groups. There were many radical architects trying to reimagine not just an architectural form, but a whole idea of a traditional city – you, Archigram, Japanese metabolists, Hans Hollein, Superstudio... But it did not last. Why do you think architecture became so much more about individual visions?
YF: Precisely because so many people became too much preoccupied with the architectural form. But the formal aspect has a limited lifetime. You need to have an idea. A building without a theoretical base is a poor building.
VB: Le Corbusier liked your ideas; he said, “It’s not my line. I would never do this. But you have to do it.” He also cautioned you that most of your colleagues would be against you. Was he right?
YF: Look, I am now in my 93rd year, but I feel younger than most other architects because I am very open. I am trying to open up. There is a difference in attitude and in formulating a way of life. To me, it is very amusing when architects try to invent things... It is all about continuity.
VB: What are you up to now?
YF: I no longer teach. I don’t give lectures. But I still draw and write. People from all over the world contact me and I am happy to share my ideas with them. I always shared my ideas... You know, I was contacted by Peter Cook, Nicholas Negroponte, Moshe Safdie when they were all still students.
I keep telling young people – you can’t design something new, you have to continue...
VB: But it is so tempting...
YF: I know... I am beyond the age of temptation. [Laughs.]
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions will be a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title to premier at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will then travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.