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Arts

Architecture meets reality

Jana Revedin is demanding a paradigm shift in architecture. The architect and professor asks her colleagues to construct answers to the big questions in architecture of our time.

DW: Ms Revedin, you encourage your students not to build, if they want to make changes in society. Really? What should they do instead then, seeing as they are architects?

Jana Revedin: Perhaps they first need to learn how to look and listen. We don't develop our master class projects through unreflective competition, we go into a community, whether it be a city neighborhood, a village or a slum. There we work together with the people to work out what their real needs are. We often realize that much of what is needed for a better quality of life is already there. What they need is to focus on self-development. Our planet is full of new or otherwise available buildings and infrastructure that, if we are smart, can be recycled.

You are calling for change within architecture - in the thought behind it and the self-image of the architect. What do you think needs to be changed? What has been going wrong over the last decades?

The wonderful, early modern architecture of the 1920s had an air of social reformation, that was then rediscovered during the world energy crisis in the 1970s. The supposed "endless growth" of the 1980s lowered architects to commercial media stars. Architecture was suddenly seen as a luxury product, rather than as its true purpose - to create better living conditions for everyone. We are now returning, after decades of self-servicing colonization through an "international style," to human, and not self-orientated, cities. We are discovering the unique qualities of a place again: its geography, geology, economy, its climate, its culture, its resources and its people.

What are the challenges that architects are now facing?

Our craft is not suited to the dubious challenges that come with unhealthy globalization. Everyone is free to choose for himself. "Sapere aude", as Kant said. In my experience, only the thoughts, words, theories and innovations of our teaching is free. Building takes place at the site and the architect belongs to that site. I advise anyone with my talent to apply their knowledge to that place, that region, that country, that community and to make himself useful there - or even essential, or irreplaceable.

Are architects increasingly becoming city planners? Are they also being asked to assume the role of a social worker to meet the needs of the people?

Architects have always been at the center of much more than just the building - a melting pot of different lines of research, an unthinkable laboratory, unimaginable thinking, craft work and construction models. The "responsible science", so-called by Goethe, because it united everyone. Vitruv, builder of antiquity, defined the fundamental character of an architect: curiosity. "Let him be curious" and listed then the many scientific subjects, in which an architect should build on over the course of his life.

Why have so many architects ignored themes such as migration, poverty and sustainability? Is it really all about satisfying their own egos by building monumental constructions to secure them fame?

Possibly. You should ask my colleagues these questions.

Is the concept of a star architect outdated?

During my two-year master class, my students have to carry out work experience and apply for architectural firms of their choice. Do you know how long it’s been since I saw a "star" on their "wish lists"? Almost 10 years. The coming generation of architects - and they are wonderfully promising - want to go to offices where they can do the best and fairest architecture and not follow the "star" recipes for success.

Architects like Zaha Hadid have sometimes also constructed artworks - buildings that are like monumental sculptures. That's the way some of them looked, anyway. Would it not be sad if there were no longer icons made among all the problem solving?

Chinese architect Wang Shu, owner of the Amateur Architecture Studio, poses on the roof of an architecture he designed at the Xiangshan campus of China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (Copyright: dpa)

Wang Shu, the icon

Why no icons? We need icons! Today there is a reformation doctrine, like in the Rural Studio in Alabama, in the Chilean Talca or at Al Borde in Ecuador. Today, we have my Chinese friend and rebel colleague Wang Shu, the icon, who turns the discarded culture of his country into memorials of a collective experience. Today, Salma Samar Damluji is an icon, who saves thousand-year-old buildings from extremist fanatics. Today, there is Francis Kéré, an icon, who came from the depths of Africa to Germany to learn the techniques that he needed to build schools in his home village in Burkina Faso.

What fascinates you about these projects?

That there is a real battle on the front against poverty, inequality, oppression, mass migration, terror and also blind bureaucracy and the stubborn grasp on power - naturally also with a demand for the highest quality. Alejandro Aravena used this avant-garde fight as the motto for this year’s Biennale: "Reporting from the Front". We are reporting from the front. We are at the front. That’s why I find the photo from the Biennale placard of Bruce Chatwin’s girlfriend in the Patagonian highlands so appropriate. To get an overview of this unknown terrain, the anthropologist climbed a ladder in the middle of the desert. Perhaps it is how I felt in 2007 after presenting my first Global Award, like the woman on her ladder…

You have been awarding the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture since 2007. Have you since seen any changes at the heart of the industry?

It’s almost frightening how mainstream we have become. When I brought the Global Award to life in 2006 and settled in Paris, the word "sustainable" had not yet been translated into French. One talked about "durable" or "eco-responsible" or "green". None of those covers the true principle of - botanical - sustainability, as defined by the brilliant Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713, to "not cut down more trees than could grow in the same period". As easy as that! I think this holistic definition of sustainability has since been adopted worldwide.

How would you judge this year's Biennale? Alejandro Aravena, who you honored already in 2008 with a Global Award for his pioneering work in social housing, received a Pritzker Prize this year.

What can I say when half of of the curators of the Biennale are my prize winners? The paradigm shift is evident. I can only be silent in the face of this.

The city of the future, the architecture of the future - what will it look like?

Open. Full of life. Also still. And green.

Jana Revedin was born in Constance, Germany, in 1965. She is an architect and a professor at the Paris Ecole Special d’Architecture. The UNESCO sustainability expert has received many awards - in 2014 she was appointed as Knight of the French Legion of Honor. In 2007 she founded the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture and has awarded it to five architects each year for sustainable projects.

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