Thresholds (Myth)

Villach (AT) - Runner-up


Team Representative: Leonard Ma  (CA) – architect; Associate: Carmen Lee (CA) – architect

Aleksis Kiven Katu 14A 3, 00500 Helsinki (FI) 
+358 449 612 422 – –

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L. Ma & C. Lee

VIDEO (by the team)


1. How did you form the team for the competition?

We’ve been submitting architecture and urban competition proposals under the moniker Public Office for several years now, which has been the only way for us to participate in competitions in a way that allows us to maintain some degree of dignity. For us, the competition process today has become somewhat symptomatic of the dire straits of the discipline itself, with many an 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 don't 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?
The session topic ‘Productive Cities’ was one we were highly critical of from the very beginning. While there is no denying the importance of productive activities in the city, the question of production is by necessity global, one that needs to be considered in the context of de-industrialization, industrial over capacity, and slowing economic growth. For us, 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, assumptions that are often naive or cliché. Rather as architects we feel there is a possibility to be more ambitious, more tactical, and more political.


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 Villach (AT) felt particularly relevant for Europan 15, with a tension between a flourishing tourism industry as well as a growing innovation economy. The brief highlighted the site as a ‘threshold’ between the desirable ‘urban’ character of the old town, and the undesirable ‘suburban’ character of the periphery. We felt this assumption contained two myths that have had different fortunes throughout history. Today we value urban space for its liveliness while disparaging the suburban for being over-scaled, and car oriented. However, at the turn of the 20th century the urban was seen as chaotic and cramped, while the suburban promised clean air and open space.
For us the dichotomy between the urban and suburban is a very powerful one, and it shapes how we perceive space in the city. Why do we value liveliness? Why is emptiness bad? Why are boring spaces seen as deficient? With this project we sought to bring together suburban and urban typologies to challenge our preconceptions of both. This ambition is also inherently political, as it poses a challenge towards real estate appreciation as the de-facto goal of the city today.


4. Have you treated this issue previously? What were the reference projects that inspired yours?
We had a winning entry on the theme Productive City in Europan 14 Sweden, which was a project about opening up the development potential for a transforming port area. There we felt that the irony of the session topic was 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 manufacturing to be in the city.
With Europan 15, we tried to delve deeper into this issue, particularly structural transformations to the economy since the 1970’s. Today, the built environment is the greatest store of capital, and real estate is the greatest source of value in the financialized economy. This necessitates a re-orientation of the work of architects. Our thought is very much guided by an array of writers and scholars outside of architecture reflecting on capitalism and neoliberalism today. Recent examples would be Greta Krippner’s “Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance”, Ivan Ascher’s “Portfolio Society: On the Capitalist Mode of Prediction“, and Michel Feher’s “Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age“.


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?
We were once preoccupied with challenging the ‘correct’ procedures of urban development and the preordained role of the architect in this process. However, we now also feel that it is important to produce alternative projects that can shape public discourse on the urban. It may be too much to expect any single project to crystallize a set of ideas, but taken in aggregate they may play some role in highlighting paradoxes and limits to the good intentions of planners and architects.

6. Is it the first time you have been awarded a prize at Europan? How could this help you in your professional career?
We have now received prizes in Europan 13, 14 and 15. Though we have not had a commission from any of these projects, it is somewhat encouraging to keep our winning streak alive. The value of Europan has always been that there is 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 immediate demands of the brief. While this understandably makes it difficult at times to continue on after the competition (which Europan is often criticized for) for 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.



Office: Public Office
Functions: Architects
Average age of the associates: 31 years old

Has your team, together or separately, already conceived or implemented some projects and/or won any competition? If yes, which ones?
As Public Office, we have received prizes in Europan 13, 14 and 15.