Kristin Feireiss: It is important to give the new generation, who is full of new ideas, a chance to put them into action
Curator and co-founder of the independent Architecture Forum Aedes in Berlin, Kristin Feireiss, is one of the most influential people of the European architecture community. The author of books and numerous of exhibitions, Kristin Feireiss, in the past was the Director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), a commissary of the Dutch pavilion at Venice Biennale and an awardee of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Today, she is a member of the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize and a curator of Aedes Gallery in Berlin.
— Aedes is the first independent forum for architects. What are its goals?
— To begin with, this dialogue is not only among professional architects, but also the public. Because we speak about architecture, this is important, we do not build. We want this dialogue to create an awareness in the public that architecture, that is, our urban surroundings, has something to do with us. If you feel good or bad — this is one thing. And you need to be active to change it.
Now, there are questions concerning the dialogue in the world of architects and urban experts. All around the world, there is an increasing dialogue because many of the problems or challenges we are facing are global issues, and it was quite different some decades ago. So, if we talk about refugees, for example, they need affordable houses all over the world, also in Germany and Berlin where I am coming from.
Exhibition New Moscow — Novaya Moskva at Aedes Gallery © Patricia Parinejad
Not only the question of housing is important but also the rise and improvement of the living conditions for everybody, for all generations, by developing and creating public spaces. It is important for all of us: where we can go, where we can have fun, where we can relax — this is for kids, grown-ups, and elderly people. So, it is an important dialogue and this dialogue started in Russia not so long ago. I actually was a jury member and a co-founder of the first international competition in Russia. This was the project for reconstruction of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint-Petersburg. Since then, there was a really big gap in the dialogue. From my perspective — I am traveling a lot around the world — the readiness to discuss these questions started with the Chief Architect of Moscow, Sergey Kuznetsov. I realized that in three years he launched more international competitions than there had been in the last ten or fifteen years. So, this is the beginning of the dialogue where you can share experience and opinions during competitions and preparation for the competitions.
You should be as open as you can and it must come from both sides because the problems we have to solve, as I mentioned at the beginning, cannot be solved for any country or nation separately.
So, I am personally happy to follow the development of the urbanistic situation here in Moscow. The world highly appreciates this openness, especially through international competitions, and it does not matter who is winning, it is about the dialogue.
With Jürgen Commerell, co-founder of the Architecture Forum Aedes in Berlin
— Speaking about global problems. I would like to ask you about the project in the Colombian city of Medellin. Why are you interested in it as a curator?
The second major Columbian city Medellín became known for the radical transformation of the urban environment in the past twenty years on the basis of a responsible social policy. In the early 90s, the city was mostly famous as the center of a drug cartel in control of Pablo Escobar. Homicide levels here were the highest in the world (over 10 thousand homicides in a 3-million population)! In 1993, the core of the drug cartel was eliminated and the city authorities started their struggle against poverty, including by key infrastructure projects. Several new museums were built in Medellin, as well as Botero Park dedicated to the famous Columbian artist. An outstanding architecture project helped to build a library that became the center of social life for simple citizens where they can read books, surf the Internet and attend lectures for free. A botanic garden was created and the first Columbian subway (23 km long) was built along with a large 400 m long public escalator connecting the main part of the city with the hills in the favelas district. Today Medellin, where people used to be afraid of leaving their homes, is a cultural capital of Columbia; there are over 30 universities and a music academy.
— Our gallery had a ten-year series focusing on cities all over the world and on how they deal with the urban surroundings. Medellin became one of the most relevant showcases in the series because it demonstrates the problems very vividly.
When we talk about Medellin, everybody immediately will think about drugs, drug dealers, crime and things like that. However, in 2013, this city got an award for improving the living conditions and decreasing crime by, partly, the urban development.
It is clear that urban development cannot solve all the problems, but in the past years, the authorities created a lot of vital public spaces, which used to be abandoned factories where kids hung out and took drugs and everything. Suddenly the ruins became comfortable places for everybody.
The authorities also did something remarkable, in all the suburbs they built little libraries that are open for everybody. The buildings turned out nice and inviting, so many people had another place to go. It is incredible that this concept really worked. They also built a lot of places for sports activities, which made the surroundings more livable, more acceptable... We have been there and we have seen some of these places.
What was done was thanks to mutual cooperation: the effort of the city management, the Chief Architect, and the universities. Crowd-finding helped a lot. There was a lot of discussion and the cooperation with universities made this exhibition possible.
Now we have a catalogue that shows how it was done.
— I’d like to ask about promotion of architecture. In terms of significance, architecture in Russia is facing some important problems. How important is it to promote architecture as an ‘intelligent product’?
— I think it is very important that, first of all, the dialogue on architecture starts from institutions or government, as well as journalists, experts, theoreticians, and people who are, to some extent, connected to architecture and maybe known for what they are doing. We often see public discussions. I joined one of these discussions and I realized that the interest was enormous.
I think that it could be important to somehow involve the public, if there are new projects. You can discuss or explain the values of every project. I believe, in the last 10...15 years or before you opened up to the rest of the world, I could not mention any excellent Russian architect. I am saying that being aware of an incredible history of several generations of Russian architecture and the improvements and the new ideas that came from Russia to Europe in the 30s or 20s thanks to the effort of the fantastic architects we all know. And suddenly it all stopped.
So, if you asked me, I would frankly answer that I couldn’t name any reputed excellent internationally known Russian architects.
— Why do you think that is?
— I think it is because of the isolation that lasted many years. And now, despite the hope for future development, it is still part of reality. You can learn from the rest of the world, but the world can also learn something from you instead of only motivating you to do the ‘normal’ things. Today you can fairly say, “Okay, we are part of it”. Look at Zaryadye Park, for example. It is amazing!
— Maybe it is more important to know the project not the architect?
— The person behind the project is still important in our world. For example, Frank Ghery is a combination of a person who, whether you like it or not, stands for something and that is architecture. As far as I know, in the 80s, in Russia, there were some very good young architects but not all of them had a professional chance. Maybe that is something one should mention.
I know that in the eighties, nineties and still today there are a lot of very young, very insightful, and very talented Russian architects. There has to be a developed culture that would welcome young architects in competitions.
It is a global problem. For example, in Netherlands, where I was running the biggest architecture museum in the world at that time, they really promoted young architects’ talents. It is important to give the new generation, who is full of new ideas, a chance to put them into action.