Team Representative: Leonard Ma (CA) – architect
Contributor: Carmen Lee (CA) – architect
Aleksis Kiven Katu, 14A 2, 00500, Helsinki (FI)
+358 449612422 – firstname.lastname@example.org – publicoffice.co
L. Ma & C. Lee
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1. How did you form the team for the competition?
We have been submitting architecture and urban competition proposals under the moniker Public Office for several years now, and it has been the only way for us to participate in competitions in a way allowing us to maintain some degree of dignity. To us, the competition process today has become some-what symptomatic of the dire straits of the discipline itself, with many architect desperate to figure out how to ‘win’ a competition as a way of launching their career. The lack of meaningful opportunities, particularly for young architects, has made competitions easy site for the exploitation of an architect’s labour. At the same time, the authority of the competition carries with it an inherent suppression of critique from those who participate, lest they come off as sore losers.
With Public Office, we try to engage in the competition process as something independent of our own roles as architects and teachers, with the ambition to always challenge assumptions in the competition brief and to critically reflect for ourselves on the architect’s role in the building process. We usually do not expect to win.
2. How do you define the main issue of your project, and how did you answer on this session main topic: the place of productive activities within the city?
We were highly critical of this session topic ‘Productive Cities’ right from the very beginning. While there is no denying the importance of productive activities in the city, it is too easy to assume that the problem to ‘solve’ is one where we need to further integrate production in the city through new zoning or building. For us, the question of production is by necessity global, one where manufacturing has left the city because capital continues to open up new pools of surplus labour through increasingly smooth logistics and supply chains. It is also an issue that is highly political, as it can be seen by Trump’s calls to ‘Bring jobs back from China.’
To put it simply, the productive city is a theme that can be too easily accepted naively, and we felt a duty to critically assess it. We can not simply return to ‘making things’ with access to 3D printing, or by making artisanal iPhone cases. For us, the irony of the session topic Productive Cities, is that the most ‘productive’ form for capital to take in the city is precisely real estate capital, and it is also why it is increasingly unaffordable for workers and manufacturers to be in the city.
3. How did this issue and the questions raised by the site mutation meet?
We choose our competition sites very carefully, as they have to be places where we feel the issues we want to address can be manifest and understood in a clear way. The site in Trellebrog, Sjöstaden was particularly relevant for us as it faces an unprecedented transition in its history, transforming the site from a port into a coastal city. Part of this processes involves opening up an immense amount of real estate value on a massive publicly owned site that cannot be developed by the municipality alone. To unlock the value of the site means privatization and making the area attractive to investment, which is not easy to come by on an empty site in a mid-sized city near Malmö and Copenhagen. It is a bit of a catch 22, since without sufficient investment, the site remains barren, yet without a certain critical mass of urban activity, it is difficult to attract that same investment. We were interested in strengthening the hand of the city in the future development process by radically reconsidering the roles of architecture, capital and labour, in the production of the city itself.
4. Have you treated this issue previously? What were the reference projects that inspired yours?
We have been concerned about the relationship between architecture and urbanism with issues of housing affordability, and market driven development processes, for many years now, and have been inspired by architectural and urban projects by offices such as NOW and DOGMA. However our thoughts are very much guided by an array of writers and scholars outside of the architectural field reflecting on capitalism and neo-liberalism today. Recent examples would be Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism, the journal/book series Endnotes, and Michel Feher’s lecture series, The Age of Appreciation.
5. Urban-architectural projects like the ones in Europan can only be implemented together with the actors through a negotiated process and in time. How did you consider this issue in your project?
This was absolutely the main issue on our minds when developing the project, as it is all too easy to be caught up in the ‘correct’ procedures of urban development and the preordained role of the architect in this process. It is a role that is often too simply about creating the image of urban life through pedestrianization or suitably inoffensive design objects, without due consideration for the uncertain and exploitative processes in speculative investment fuelling urban development. With our project we sought to develop a very precise building type and construction technique that would allow for new actors in the development process and give new possibilities for the municipality in future negotiations. This building type would also establish an urban principle that allows the production of the city to be addressed at multiple scales and over varying timescales.
6. Is it the first time you have been awarded a prize at Europan? How could this help you in your professional career?
In the previous edition of Europan, we received a special mention for a project that we did under very similar conditions. While we did not expect anything out of the mention, it was an experience that led us to appreciate the possibility for the Europan process in bringing radical ideas to municipalities and politicians. Our project would probably have had no hope in a standard competition, so we understand that Europan is simply opening a door for us. But it has been very productive for us to have a seat at the table and to engage directly with city planners and officials, which is also testament to how open minded Trelleborg has been in our discussions.
Europan has been helpful for us not because we have a chance to receive a commission, but because there is always a session theme or topic that tries to reflect current preoccupations in architectural and urban discourse. There is always another conceptual layer or scale to the project that lies beyond the demands of the brief. While this, understandably, makes it difficult at times to carry on after the competition - which Europan is often criticized for - to us it would be a great loss if Europan was simply another competition, just with an added age restriction. We are already seeing very professional and polished projects winning that would not be out of place in any standard competition, or even direct commissions. While this is great for municipalities that have no funding for proper competitions or commissions, it is one that undermines the role of Europan in fostering a type of architectural discourse that we really need to see today. To make radical ideas heard when they would otherwise be lost under a veneer of professional performance is what makes Europan extremely important for us in bridging theory and practice.