Convertation with José María Ezquiaga
This conversation took place on 19th June 2015 at the Hotel de las Letras in Madrid
Good morning, José María. Thank you very much for dedicating your valuable time to us, and for sharing your reflections on this subject we are so interested in. As you know, our research group is undertaking a project under the title of “New Challenges for Spanish Cities: the Legacy of Modern Housing Estates and Options for their Urban Regeneration. Specificities and Similarities with European Models in the Eastern and Western Blocs”1.
Within this context ZARCH has called this issue Modernist Mass Housing Legacy. When we talk about ‘legacy’ we are using it in the broadest sense of the word, covering conceptual approaches of the ‘first modernity’ and the Athens Charter applied from the outset of these housing estates (also considering the specificities of the moment when they were built and the models they followed). We also take into account the very important reality of the built inheritance, where we must keep in mind the processes of obsolescence many of them are undergoing, and the urban opportunities and possibilities of regeneration, renovation or, sometimes, demolition.
Given your experience in these fields and your continued reflections on urban paradigms, in which modern housing is included, we are very interested in knowing about your more global and comprehensive outlook, aimed at studying these estates and understanding how their regeneration can be tackled. Our goal is very clear, although the subject itself is extremely complex. In recent years, different approaches have been taken by geographers, sociologists, architects, organisations focussing on the analysis and preservation of heritage such as DOCOMOMO, experts with views focussing more on construction or sustainability aspects, or relating to urbanistic. However, it seems to us at this stage that it is not easy to have a comprehensive vision. People tend to think that the responsibility of the urbanistic culture is not relevant and that they were well designed with the problems arising at a later stage. In fact, there are reports by the European Commission in which they say that those estates were ‘well designed’, and that have simply undergone processes of obsolescence. We believe however, that it is interesting to focus on three fields of thought at the same time, which are usually tackled individually: emergence, obsolescence and regeneration of mass housing estates. Therefore, we should differentiate between what they got right and wrong in the initial projects and the subsequent processes, trying to define more finely tuned diagnoses with a view to possible intervention.
The matter is, to what extent can we consider that right from the start there was an approach which is still valid today at the start of the 21st century, or which is clearly obsolete. In other words, reflecting once again on the Athens Charter, standardisation as a starting point, manufacture of housing in the same way as washing machines or cars, etc. This reflection is dealt with in detail by Thilo Hilpert, when he studies the subject of Taylorism in Le Corbusier. Or the text covering the subject in a significant monographic issue of Urbanisme: La chartre d’Atene et aprés. When Rem Koolhaas talks about Bijlmeermer he says it is preCIAM urbanism, or CIAM urbanism, applied in the sixties
/ seventies. He says it very well in one of his publications, “(...) transforming quantity in quality, through abstraction and repetition (...) a magic that did not work.”2
Yes, I have read it, I am familiar with that text. The alchemy of repetition of quantity and quality...
We, in fact, are focussing on the sixties and seventies, since that was when there was an acceleration in the production processes in the context of major urban growth in European cities. Until the end of the fifties, estates were designed more carefully, paying more attention to detail, in smaller dimensions the question of scale is important -, before this speeding up process. Some authors, such as Wassenberg and other Dutch authors, say that there has never been a time in Europe when residential landscape was so similar, making specific reference to those years. Basically, very standard urban landscapes were produced very quickly. And now, once again the panorama is more diverse, with there being no linear trend...
I agree, you know that I have really always shared your concern and also the approach to the work you have just published, which I have read carefully. Just to add another reflection rather different from yours and others, I had thought about discussing the parameters that we control through urbanism, as mentioned by Paco Jarauta. This is a subject I give a lot of importance to, among other reasons because I have had to design some big estates, such as Valdebernardo, for example. In the text about densities, which has just been published in the book paying homage to Carlos Sambricio, I talk about this matter3. We cannot control all the parameters, but many of them we can, such as density, scale, proportion of public space..., i.e. there are parameters related to urban design which, for want of better words, if they don’t work, it is our fault. I am sure that good design entails a factor of responsibility.
But I would like to take the reflection a little further, just in case that could help you. Also because sometimes one has to take advantage of first hand experience. The first thing I reflected on, now that I have travelled such a lot around Latin America, is that this culture of mass housing, this housing industry or ‘industrialisation of accommodation’, to be more exact, prevented the road to favelas being followed in Europe in peripheral areas of cities, which we have later seen to take place in Latin America. This is a very important subject. In other words, Europe responded to the question of mass housing with industrialisation, whereas in Latin America and now in Asia alsothis criteria is not being applied, mainly because it is an option that requires a strong State, strong public powers since those estates cannot be made in a context where there is only a civil society.
Sorry, could you just clarify that a little? You are talking about Latin America and Asia too... but, in turn, in China or Korea…
Yes, you’re right there. When I say Asia, I mean South-East Asia, India, etc. We’ll deal with China later.
China is another extremely interesting lesson. I’ll just give you an idea about what I mean. China is different because what they are doing in China is creating new areas in cities, but they are also replacing existing areas with new ones to a large extent. It’s funny how we feel as a loss the existing areas of cities in China, even if they are being replaced by new estate cities. Nevertheless, if we think about the case of Europe, history is bitter-sweet, because it is a history of success, the success of preventing the favela slums in European growth, but at the same time it is a failure, because we have almost forgotten that in the sixties there was a bidonville belt, as it was called in Paris, and chabolas [shacks] in the case of Spain.
Barcelona, Madrid… The process that was carried out was to construction tens of thousands houses... In Spain, this type of estates were to a certain extent the result of efforts by the State, which understood housing as a responsibility (I would like to see if the political powers today understand housing on that scale as a responsibility). In Madrid we have to accept that they were overwhelmed by the demand, and that in spite of the enormous public estates, those of San Blas, and the private estates, such as Moratalaz and other similars, etc., there still ended up being a wide belt of shacks covering thousands of hectares which was resolved be remodelling districts, as you know in the seventies, at the end of the seventies. It is a strategy that was closely linked to the Transition period, I mean, one that we can assign a specific date to. It started with Garrigues Walker, replacing that shanty town belt for estates, employing the idea of mass accommodation which, rather surprisingly, had been demanded by the inhabitants, the ‘settlers’, to use the term most used at that time. They demanded high-rise housing because they associated lowrise construction and higher density with the construction and environmental problems they were suffering at the time. And it is interesting to note that these settlers did not manage to understand the link of that model with public spaces, which, in spite of their conditions, were of fairly good quality, but only saw the negative experience of poor construction: damp, noise, poor insulation, small housing, etc., etc. That is something I find particularly interesting: that contrast. That is to say that Europe did tackle the problem of mass housing, both before and after the war, in the Reconstruction. And that is what helped to avoid what we have seen in other regions of the world, the proliferation of megalopolises. Lagos, Nairobi, Sao Paulo or Mexico DF are some examples of these megalopolises. Did you know that figures show that by 2050 between the belt of China, Shanghai downwards, in Lagos and other Latin American cities, 35% of the World’s urban population will be housed?
OK, that’s a good point, because in the end we can see those two models existing at the same time, if we compare what is happening in Latin America to what is happening in China and Korea. In the case of the latter two countries, that model of towers and blocks is repeated, I mean, you get the feeling that in Shanghai, as Edward Soja commented, an urban geographer with a great global and comparative perspective, the same thing is being done as was done in Europe before, and the same mistakes are being made. In terms of quantity, a response is being given to the demand, but what is actually happening is the city of cars is being repeated, producing urban vacuums from which public spaces disappear.
Yes, that’s right, there we are seeing the first identifying feature, since, between the spontaneous response (the word most successfully used today is ‘favelisation’, which is the term used when we talk about substandard infra-housing, Favela is now the concept that includes all of this and we no longer talk about shacks) and industrialisation (mass production of housing, which in the case of China reaches astronomic densities) leading to a landscape that is much more uniform in which the residential standard at individual level, house to house, is not that bad. If we are realistic, it is not that bad at all.
That’s right, but as a city, it represents a substantial worsening…
It is disastrous as a city, on the ‘macro’ and on the ‘micro’ scale. Disastrous because it creates a city that works on the basis of cars, or with occasional demands for enormous mass transport. Now that I have gone back to discuss Shanghai you must have seen it when you were there, Javier I noticed they have gone back to making grids with belts, with overhead motorways, i.e. the city has a network of express motorways above the normal network. But we know that this is already over-congested. They are not really naive in that. The current plan is to grid out the city, they call it the ‘20 Minutes Plan’, connecting all points of the city in 20 minutes, but on the subway.
That’s right, public transport, the subway, to a large extent underground, but also overhead. They are getting to grips with the problem. But, to all intents and purposes, it is the type of city that demands an enormous infrastructure, one that is superimposed on the currently existing one, but this does not resolve the environmental conditions, beyond structural functioning. What I mean is that we move away from the ‘macro’ failure, stemming from resolving problems with more investment in infrastructures We have built motorways, now we will build the subway; we have built the subway, now we will build DRTs...-, to ‘micro’ failure. And China is an interesting place to see that ‘micro’ failure, because in many places they are replacing traditional neighbourhoods for these new estates.
What you say is very interesting, because your reflection on what is happening in China, and Korea too, can help us to understand what has happened here in Europe. Some French research teams have studies these subjects, Laurent Coudroy de Lille, for example. It is rather significant that the book published by Frédéric Dufaux and Annie Fourcaut, Le monde des grands ensambles, with an international outlook and contributions by researchers from all over the world, mainly focussing on France, has an example from South Korea on the cover. It is as if they were saying that now we understand what happened here by looking at other later experiences in other contexts. It is clear that by trusting industrialisation, standardisation, mass production, we are supposed to be improving gradually, is an opinion that is currently shared in China. It is an interesting matter to see that however many examples we have in Europe and top level experimental work, such as Park Hill in Sheffield, just to mention one of the icons of modernity in residential estates, it is hard to identify exactly what went wrong and what actually worked, and where the responsibility of urban culture really falls.
Yes, that is something I think you identify well. As for the question of emergence, which would be my suggestions for this initial stage of your work, we could say that these experiences prevented Europe, the poor post-war Europe, from following the path that other regions of the world have followed at a later stage: that of substandard housing that is very difficult to repair and which, in the case of Latin America, for example, would be very costly. In other words, there are romantic ETH type visions in Zürich, where favelas have been seen as a type of social ecosystem, with a Eurocentric view I’d like to see them living in a Favela in those conditions -, when the truth of the matter is that the improvement processes in the Favelas would entail enormously high costs.
In that sense, we would agree that the success of the European experience is relative, bearing in mind all the different versions from North to South, and particularly in the East, where those estates proliferated and where there is currently an enormous stock of housing. Depending on where you go in Russia or in the former Yugoslavia, over 30% of the population currently live on this kind of estate. Naturally, on the one hand that represents an opportunity for action, whereas on the other it is an extremely heavy burden.
That’s right, but I believe that those estates have much better possibilities of evolution than the favelas. Favelas can only evolve as historic centres, i.e. through internal evolution, through transformation, whereas these estates to a large extent can be modified through renovation. In fact, that is exactly what is happening. And in the case of China, the city being put forward, is a city with an expiry date. I think that the new cities in China are by no means designed to last. They are industrial products, and therefore have a shelf life, like a car or washing machine, limited in time. Obviously the life of a city is much longer, but the concept is the same. Those cities are seen like this: a time will come when they will fall, and they will be renewed when the criteria change, or when the products themselves are ruined, from a construction quality point of view.
But another subject that is food for thought for me, and which you have also put forward, is what is it that makes those estates you are studying interesting, vital environments in some cases and not in others. That is Jane Jacobs’s question, isn’t it? Why are some parks pleasant and others are mortal traps? Something like what she describes at the start of her book, those basic questions: Why are those estates all of them built with good intentions, in the interests of innovation, designed to improve the quality of life of their inhabitants -iin some case mortal traps? And I think the concept there, although it is very generic, is very complex. And at this stage in the proceedings, the case of China has caused me to reflect deeply. What is the difference between these new estates built in the Chinese cities and those neighbourhoods they are replacing? Basically, the complexity. It is a mechanism designed to reduce complexity, to quickly advance in the process of industrialisation. Complexity cannot be replicated, it is not easily replicable. And that leads us, or at least leads me I’m going to do a somersault summary -, to believe that in spite of everything, since the complexity cannot really be replicated, we would have to create supports; supports that will later allow generation of complexity by the users themselves: transformation, enrichment, that that now so romantically seduces us about Favelas. People play a part in this, they transform it, make it grow. Estates, however, from the point of view of individual housing, cannot evolve. When I have had to work with social housing in Colombia, I have sometimes thought to what extent are our projects a misfortune for those people. We are talking about 35-40 m2 flats, like the ones in Spain in the fifties, which is what a couple need now, what they can afford... But how can that evolve? It can’t. Nevertheless, that does not happen in a Favela, i.e. the spontaneous model starts off with a micro-module, which at some point will be extended backwards, until it fills the size of the plot, it will be adapted to the possibilities of those who live in it...
There are quite a few people experimenting with these things, like Alejandro Aravena in Chile, for example, which, however, are more based on tradition, although this is not something new.
That’s right. Progressive housing is an example that is perfectly appropriate for this case, because it is based on growth and transformation. For estates, however, it is very difficult to reach that level of complexity -in the case of a city surrounded by estates , what really changes and is constantly being rebuilt and recreated, is the historic centre-, and it is therefore very difficult to implement progressive processes. Aravena sets it out more in terms of adapting growth of housing to the availability of income and the requirements of the family. In other words, families tend to have peak expenses at the start, when they buy their home, but after around 5 or 10 years they could have excess income and decide to continue with the flat. And if designs take this factor into account, the families complete the model spontaneously. Some can, other can’t,
some want to, others don’t... it is the Egg of Columbus, we just need to design a support, it’s a question of design: the size of the plot must allow for growth, the structure must allow growth to be harmonious.
But in this sense, that too means resorting to a certain degree of tradition. That has already been done. Habraken, for example, the design of supports, entails long tradition.
Quite right, that is what I was going to say. There is a tradition dating back to the sixties too, which has been forgotten and when I joined the School, it was fashionable. Fernando Ramón here in Madrid, for example.
That is the question. Aravena is now fashionable, he is appearing all over the place. And nevertheless there are people who do not link this with John Turner, for example. That is to say, with a very important, alternative tradition in architectural and urbanistic culture. In this scope of reflections, there are people who focus more on the former, generally historians, on emergence, on how they arise, in what context. Some of them are involved in a more applied field, in construction itself, urbanism, or in others. But there is still a little mixed reflection. Nevertheless, it is important not only to relate what happened before with what is happening now, but also similar experiences in other places. And it is important to establish connections, because that will help us to better understand what possibilities there are here and now. For example, Park Hill estate has moved into the hands of a wonderful realtor, and renovations has consisted of leaving the structure in place, and redoing the rest. So, when one tries to see what went wrong here and what can be improved, we find ourselves before a very complex problem. To start with, the subject of location in the city is relevant, which is true in the case of Park Hill. Depending on the location, the future of estates in to a certain extent predetermined. If we consider Bellvitge and Ciudad Meridiana Barcelona, we are faced with two paradigmatic cases. Bellvitge is much better, whereas Ciudad Meridiana has entered a spiral of deterioration that has turned it into a very problematic slum area. In other words, situations end up being very different depending on the location. And not only that, they are also changing.
That’s right, they are changing, quite right. And that depends on the social dimension, which would be the third question. If you have just mentioned how determining the location in the city is, and before we were speaking about the idea of complexity, about how structures can be generated that cater for complexity and therefore that are capable of evolving something which is not that simple the third factor is the social side. You mention it in your reflections. I am a great fan of Team X, which really put forward a human review of the principles of the Modern Movement. But obviously, surely there were some mistakes in your approach...
That is obvious when you go to Toulouse Le Mirail, or move around those streets in the air... Also when you visit the huge estates like Bijmermeer, where the intention was to overcome the street, and now they are almost a paradigm of urbanist disaster.
Quite right, they talk about patios or streets, but they are not really patios or streets at all. In fact yesterday I visited the new Banco de Bilbao building by Herzog and De Meuron. And it is really a horizontal office. It is very visible because it is a kind of rising sun, I don’t know if you are familiar with it.
Of course, we visited it not long ago with some students from Zaragoza.
It is very relevant, particularly on the inside, because it is a huge horizontal platform with streets, similar to calle Sierpes, with trees, water courses so that you can hear the trickle of water, full of cafes all over the place. Each module has a small cafe, a small shop, nothing like a mega cafe, a far cry from the Soviet industrial canteens, where thousands of employees eat. Quite the opposite, it is full of small structures, and works as an aggregate of small districts. The scale of the streets is that of a pedestrian street, i.e. a kind of citadel has been created. If it were not for the geometry of the place, it would be a kind of kasbah. From the macro urban point of view, it is an island, a campus. What happens is that instead of following the traditional campus system, where an environment is delimited within which volumes are distributed, they have created a kind of micro city, with a number of employees in accordance with the number of inhabitants of a city. From an urban point of view, the solution is almost the same as that employed by Telefónica, which is none other than a citadel, a castle (they have even built battlements), with a kind of communal open area inside. But in the case of Herzog and De Meuron, they built micro spaces. The reflection I would like to make is that from the point of view of quality of life of inhabitants, the experience is very different. From the urban point of view, it is the same. In other words, in both cases one arrives in one’s car at an outlying area, but then the environmental experience is completely different in both of them. There was a group of edification architects yesterday who were fairly interested, and they arrived at the conclusion that there was a number of qualities that were difficult to objectify that make a space be perceived and experienced
the word ‘experience’ is everywhere nowadays meaning pleasant, which does not only depend on how much light comes in, the hydrometry, noise, temperature, all those objective conditions. We suddenly perceive some that makes a space comfortable in the comprehensive sense of the word. So surely that dimension of complexity enters the equation once again, which is what Jane Jacobs defended at urban level. What is it that gives a street its vitality, that favours a neighbourhood having minimum conditions of coexistence? Obviously we have to see if a street has a ground floor that can house activities, if there is the right proportion of open space, neither excessive nor lacking, if the buildings themselves have the right scale, and if that scale permits a density suitable for those uses, etc. I think that is where all the variables lie, those we have already discussed, although you have set them out in the notes you gave to me. But what we are looking at is why, when we design that comfort ex novo, that urban quality is so difficult to achieve. And we must say that regulations are a very dangerous enemy.
Whatever, at least in the sense closest to us in Spain at the moment, we are going through a stage when we are not thinking about new action, but basically we have got what we have got and we have to work on that. It is now more about taking advantage of the opportunity of acting there, turning need into a virtue. And in the field of intervention and regeneration the same is true as in ex novo design, where we get the feeling that there are not really any key criteria. There are experiences, some good, others not so good, but good, in each city, in each autonomous community where different criteria are being applied in action. This is particularly the case from a construction and architectural point of view. From the urban point of view, less so. And that should be our final aim, i.e. to interpret the legacy we have inherited in a way that enables us to draw up guidelines, directives, suggestions to see how we can act employing criteria. Although it is difficult, because each case is different. However much we insist that there is homogeneity, we have to tackle things differently in San Cristóbal de Los Ángeles or in Bellvitge, or anywhere else for that matter. But it does seem that there could be some common criteria, for example densification. Depending on where we look, Europe is looking at altering and increasing densities. In some estates this is possible, for example on those where there is enough unused space, where it is surely more than reasonable to reduce the amount of public space for other uses more population... not only from the urbanist or architectural point of view, in the physical sense, but also in the social sense. This type of strategy in the Spanish case is being discussed, but has not materialised in any way, nor has it been compared or related. Some implement experiences in one area, others in other areas, to see how it works out... We would like to know what you think about this.
Well there is a lack of permeability in experiences, which is fairly surprising owing to the possibilities afforded by the networks today.
That is effectively a surprising state of affairs. Each piece of work we consult has an awful amount of information, reports, data, etc., but a more global outlook to help see what is most appropriate in each case, bearing in mind other experiences, does not really exist.
Well, because there is another question to bear in mind, which is the fact that there are approaches at the moment that are not really coexisting, but are rather being developed separately. Basically, the approach from the energy adaptation point of view and improving the habitability of property is being carried out, in general, with little or no consideration for public space.
Absolutely, we agree.
And in other cases, when residents demand an improvement of the public spaces, the reason is usually because of a lack of maintenance of the area or complete abandonment, which does not really connect with the comprehensive plans or the comprehensive idea of housing intervention. It is true that intervention on these estates, at least in the case of Madrid, is mainly centred on adapting habitability and energy consumption. On energy above all. In other words, they try to improve insulation, heading obviously, since they are estates with fairly modest housing, the subject of cooling (air conditioning) is not so relevant-, energy consumption and improving window fittings, etc. And they there is also the matter of lifts. The subject of habitability is mainly approached from the need to fit lifts. There is very little action aimed at improving habitability that includes increasing the size. At the most, the sandwich solution by Lacaton & Vassal, but there are very few proposals following this path.
You are very familiar with La Mina Housing estate. It is very interesting, now that time has gone by, to reflect a little on it.
Do you mean the new La Mina, with winner of the National Prize?
Yes, yes, of course. We visited it not long ago with some students and members of the working team, Sebastià Jornet and Carles Llop, we were there with them. There is some discrepancy about the assessment of the results. At a meeting in Zaragoza with Agustín Hernández Aja, who actually works on the subject of vulnerable districts, he was fairly critical about it. What I mean is that whereas some people see it as a success, others believe it is a project that has not worked as well as it should, among other reasons because there are a number of empty homes, which have been empty for two or three years, and it never seems to get going. We believe it is a very interesting pilot experiment.
But how can there be empty homes in La Mina, if it is social housing? Aren’t they public?
Well, because it has never really got going, they haven’t managed to rehouse a part of the population yet, people living in problematic areas... the project in this sense has stagnated. Rehousing management isn’t that easy. It is surprising because there are some very good public spaces, a wide pedestrian walk, and a tramway connecting the estate with the city, but a lot of the homes have been boarded up for a long time.
La Mina is definitely an example that is food for thought. It is a process that started about twenty or twenty-five years ago. I visited it when I was in my twenties, back in 1984, I think, with the Madrid City Hall, on a CEUMT course from Barcelona with Manuel Herce. And it was already stagnated back then.
That’s right, even back in the eighties people called it the Bronx of Barcelona.
On the course we were doing, it was a management exercise. Manuel Herce taught management at that time, and I was interested in learning about the legal complexity of urbanism. That group from Barcelona drew up charts for the Town Halls, mainly related to the more technical and legal side of things. And they were working in La Mina, I remember it well, I’ve still got some photographs from back then, showing what it was like at that time. A lot of water has run under the bridge from what it was like then, to being awarded a National Prize. And that effort just makes you think how difficult all this is. How many top class teams such as Llops, Jornet and company are there in Barcelona, just as an example, to deal with the 25, 50, 100 districts like that there could be?
You’re right, in fact the case of La Mina is very special. It was tackled, among other reasons, because it was such a strategic site, next to the Forum, meaning that something had to be done with it.
Therefore the challenge of knowing how to establish the means, that would have to be based more on the inhabitants rather than simple technical protocols that the inhabitants could make evolve. And they would not necessarily have to be that brilliant. It’s like everything. We have surgeons who do transplants using cutting-edge technology in experiments, but if you go in with a herniated disc, you expect normal surgery. Carlos Ferran, who is very Anglo Saxon, says that the tone of a society is not gauged by its tip of excellence, but rather by how the normal, everyday services work. And that is something that is true of estates. We haven’t quite got to grips with establishing the protocols of evolution, transformation, permitting the inhabitants themselves to develop them more simply. In this sense, the idea of living in districts is an idea that could appear to be rather romantic, a little like Jane Jacobs’ idea, it is fairly straightforward. Or the people who direct these processes, or better said, if they are carried out from above, it is very unlikely the mega estates will ever reach the scale they did, at least in Europe, as we have already said, it is a story of only partial success, in a certain sense anyway. That is why I would like to put the subject to you. At that time it was all about housing the working class, which as at that time the post-war working class, at a massive level... How many millions of workers were offered housing in Europe? I would say that figure could easily be in the range of thirty or forty million.
That is if we only talk about Western Europe, because in the East the figures are astronomical. That is why the contrast between the experiences in Eastern Bloc countries and western countries is so interesting, because there are things that are very different, whilst others are similar, and others appear to be the same but are applied in a more radical way. And in those cases the consequences are radical too. It is true that the Soviet Union managed to house millions and millions of people. There can be no doubt that from that point of view it was a a success story. We should consider if it could have been done another way, and see what we can do with what we have now. But the answer is ambivalent.
We could reflect in more detail on what it is that makes, at micro scale, an environment, an estate one of those residential areas that are pleasant to live in, or at least with better urban quality or comfort. I’m not really sure how to say it, from the point of view of the people who settle there (that could be a case for the use of these new words ‘experience’, ‘settlers’, to get a better idea...). And cases such as the Siedlungen in Frankfurt, which you have surely visited, are based on a gardened city as the urban standard, have evolved much better. In other words, living in a park, having a small vegetable patch, are still privileges, and in fact although they also entail problems, they are always better. I’m thinking about Siemensstadt, for example. That is my experience. I have seen all sorts, but these are the ones that have undoubtedly evolved the best.
On a smaller, more modest scale, something a bit more Spanish, are the estates known as ciudad jardín, which are small estates with semi-detached or detached homes... In Zaragoza there are some, and compared to the modernist housing estates they have evolved better, they are more attractive today. For many reasons. The homes have grown, the spaces have been improved, there are trees, traffic is controlled... They are more comfortable than other estates that are nearby. Identifying one’s own space is very important.
We are talking here about a big proportion of public space, built space, open private space and open public space. And obviously, the subject of density once again.
Moving on to another subject, in relation to what you have said, and thinking about what went wrong, it is interesting to see how some perfectly well-planned and designed estates have been a complete failure. A couple of weeks ago I was in Delft, not at the university, but in the Mecanoo studio, where some workshops had been organised that we took part in, and one of the things we had prepared to discuss
although later we didn’t have the chance to put to debate because of all the other things -, was the tender that they won in Malaga with Dosmasuno Arquitectos and Patricia García. They said they had found a very banal landscape in the outlying area of the city. Obviously, that sort of landscape is typical of all outlying areas around Spanish cities where there is a very clear functional segregation: an industrial estate, a housing estate, an urbanised area, free space all around, motorways, infrastructures, and obviously, the only thing left for them was a hectare in an isolated enclave on a site that was perfectly designed. And they call it ‘a banal landscape’. In other words, what that boils down to, and the responsibility there is not the lack of planning, is an excess of standards, an excess of public spaces, an excess of segregation and zone delimitation. If we compare it to other types of developments with higher densities, we will effectively see that some could be lower and others higher... but eventually we come back to the subject of density. And of course, that of complexity, as you referred to before.
Yes, that’s right, both are fundamental questions. Surely, in inventions like garden cities, the weak point is the density. Furthermore, the support of the ratio with the land permits higher complexity in other types of intervention.
Which is much lower in a garden city, where communal areas are reduced to a minimum, and are therefore less complex.
Yes, that is where the paradox lies.
And paradoxically, it is also true that a scarcity of communal spaces reduces the possibility of complexity, but at the same time reduces many of the problems those estates are having today which are a direct result of inheriting those spaces, large, unqualified areas that have become internal barriers or no man’s land.
Yes, you include the image of San Blas in your article, an example that depicts that very difficulty. I remember that I once shared a table on those courses, organised in El Escorial, with Oriol Bohigas, a long time ago. And he exemplified what has ended up being the result of that intended success of modernity projects with a metaphor referring to those kinds of areas. He said the big ‘green areas’ in the Modern Movement, have led to ‘brown areas’. This photo reminded me of that, brought the memory of that idea back to me. And then he went on to say that they have finally ended up being ‘grey areas’ for parking. What I mean is there is a sequence the Madrid estates have followed inexorably: they were designed to be green but that never actually happened (and were never made because of the huge maintenance costs involved it is a luxury to have a park, a garden, in an estate with this kind of housing), and became brown after they were abandoned, and then grey when they were asphalted.
I was told about a case yesterday related to Fuencarral estate by RomaniI Romani, as you know is one of the Madrid’s heroic architects, and the estate is in Fernandez Galiano’s book La quimera moderna [The Modern Chimera] a wellkept space. I saw the embankments with granite faced walls, and I thought that today, quality like that is only found in private, high-income areas. But the state of abandonment of the place makes those spaces very inhospitable. And on those lines, I was told yesterday at an act organised by the City Hall, with the Mayoress, to tell the residents about the tender many young architects were going to take part in that is why the Order of Architects was present-, a ‘renewal plan’ tender to improve energy consumption in housing, and they said that when they thought about where to assemble the residents in an open air area, they decided on a square that was a shopping centre, now abandoned, which used to be small shops. The shops weren’t in the housing blocks, because no ground floor for business premises at street level had been designed. Instead, they had concentrated on a plot designed for business use, now completely abandoned. Only the bar was left. That’s right, just the bar. And that was where the meeting was held. And I was told that several truckloads of garbage had to be taken away, because that area had been reduced to little more than an enormous tip. In other words, when the City Hall actually decides to act, when organising the event they realise it is impossible to hold it there, simple because it is abandoned. Basically, the subject of maintaining those spaces is tremendous. It is a subject that concerns me considerably, as a designer, because I have spent all my life with projects. Until I realised that maintenance management is much more important when controlling these conditions of quality and habitability from the point of view of the settlers, the users. And that leads to a feeling of helplessness, because you realise that it is something that you are never going to be able to control. I will not be able to control the quality of the pavements, I will never be able to ensure the vegetation is cared for properly... I have seen this in Valdebernardo, over and over again. I honestly believe that the public space there is well proportioned. But, from the point of view of urban property, and maintenance, it is horrendous. In other words,
tonnes of bollards in pedestrianised streets... So they don’t park there? And nevertheless, the cost of each bollard, if we had spent it on maintaining public spaces, the result would have been completely different. What am I supposed to tell myself, or my students for that matter? That if those public spaces are well proportioned, they can evolve. That unlike San Chinarro, where the avenues are 40 meters wide, here a street has ground floor premises and trees, it has better possibilities of good evolution, over time. But, for example, in the case of Valdebernardo, maintenance of the patios built by the owners is much more relevant than those built by the City Hall with their small squares. I am saying this to show an example of a modern estate I have visited on many occasions, which one of my students is now comparing with the new Chinese estates. It is very interesting, she is analysing the light and shade in Valdebernardo and the Chinese estates. With a critical outlook, don’t get me wrong, even though she is my student. Particularly, to gain credibility from the experts in Shanghai, she has criticised both models. But the bottom line of the approach, is that when there are streets, there are possibilities for urban life. At least there are possibilities.
That’s right, without a doubt. We were in San Cristóbal de los Ángeles yesterday, and there are a couple of streets that have been well resolved, the backbone that runs from the Local Railway and the Metro, and the one perpendicular to it, where the buses go. They are very good solutions.
Quite right, it is interesting concerning this point to look at the estates of that time, Madrid Sur too, by Antonio Vázquez de Castro, where a return to blocks was made which was later rejected in favour of a more modern approach by architects. In the end that is Team X. What happened to those projects? I think perhaps the scale got out of hand, those block patios are so huge that the perceptive qualities, a subject of micropsychology of spacewas completely diluted. The idea they are based on is that of maintaining the concept of the area. But obviously, those types of architecture will never be the blocks of Ensanche, that is ridiculous, they are doubled-up blocks, it makes no difference if they are double or quadruple, or other geometries, they give rise to estates...
Yes, that’s what some call extensions with housing estates.
The question is: How do we create something picturesque from an urban design point of view? It is also a very complex matter. In the Banco de Bilbao project, which aims to be a city, Herzog and De Meuron, achieved something picturesque through recycling. There were some industrial buildings, which have been kept, have reshaped and included in their project. In order to do so, they have had to reshape the flooring structure. Naturally, it has cost much more than if they had demolished them. But they were made to deform the project and, through deformation and transformation, they managed to find areas for complexity. I’m talking now more as a projects ‘teacher’ than an urbanist! Whereas in Valdebernardo, as is true in New York, it turns out that if I work with a grid, a well-proportioned grid, with the same block I can create different environments, i.e. the same size block can be flexible. The block has the same size in Harlem as in the Eighth Avenue, it is the same. What changes is the third dimension, the use, but the block is still the same.
In reference to what you are talking about concerning the flexibility of blocks, you are more than familiar with the estate Sudoeste del Besós, very near La Mina which we were just discussing. We were both there on a visit with the students. And the difference between the two is that whereas La Mina is in an extreme, outlying area, an island, Sudoeste del Besós borders with the Cerdà Extension, just where it ends and opens up on to the river. In fact, the original project features some blocks with an interesting transition solution, but they were never made. But even today, to a certain extent, Besós can even be considered an appendix linked to the Ensanche. This is reflected very well in the recent intervention that has been carried out: the public areas have been improved, a couple of blocks have been knocked down, some new buffer zones have been added and the district has substantially improved, because the starting point was not conditioned as an enclave. To start with, Sudoeste del Besós was not such an autonomous enclave as is the case of most estates, which ends up isolating them. In Gran San Blas this can be seen very well, also with the idea of the neighbourhood unit being very present.
Neighbourhood unit is an extremely interesting subject.
Yes, and one that is very important, and you, as a sociologist, have paid very special attention to this. It is fascinating how the concept of neighbourhood unit travels around the world in different ways, and how, nevertheless, it has sometimes had some fairly negative consequences. In other words, if we think that an estate with thousands of homes can become fairly autonomous, and if everything is done to make it like this, surrounding it with perimeter highways or greed areas so that it really is autonomous, the result is that it becomes so autonomous it is sometimes isolated and is really difficult to integrate in the city. Basically, that subject of neighbourhood unit, under that name or any other, which is present everywhere, is the starting point.
In fact I am obsessed with that subject, and moreover I had Clarence Stein and Henry Wright as manuals, the North American version of the neighbourhood city, Sunnyside Gardens, that type of estate, which would be interesting to compare with ours. I have seen some of them, and in some cases, they have evolved better than the European estates. But in the same way as Forest Hills, and some of the New Deal period estates, they are interesting, are still interesting.
I then moved on, reflecting on these matters, in one of the ways that one researches more anxiously, which is seeking answers as a designer. I got into this subject always searching for decision-making criteria. Because there is an awful lot of uncertainty when wondering about the consequences of what you are doing. And I think the key is surely on that micro scale, that ability by units to generate their own transformation, as happens in cities, and that happens when they have a complex genome. I would say that on the basis of a certain degree of simplification in the design variables, it is very difficult for these units to generate transformations, organicism or not... it’s hard to find the words..., if I were talking to a journalist, I would be much more relaxed, but with you every word obviously entails connotations. Can we say ‘organism’, like Team X? Are they organisms? Because now, it is fashionable to talk say “cities are living organisms”, the politicians say it, Manuela Carmena says “the city is alive”, that is organicism to a certain extent... Let’s now move on to the theory of systems. Let’s think about a system with sufficient level of complexity to be able to generate selftransformations. Whereas the estates we are making in general, including Valdebernardo, do not enough variables, we nevertheless ask ourselves: Does Valdebernardo work better than the PAUs (Action Urban Programs) that were built afterwards? We must say yes. Why? Surely because it has more variables, or better ones, that permit evolution. Is it optimal? No, by no means. And hence the question: Can we put forward something different to the current regulations? No. In Valdebernardo, I stuck to the distances regarding sunlight permitted under regulations for streets in Madrid.
But is 12 m optimum for built-up areas? No, but that is what is established in the General Plan. Should it have been 11.50 m? Well, it could have been... And 13.50 m? No, unless we had designed general regulations for this project.
For example, a case you know well because you took part in it at some stage of the process: Valdespartera in Zaragoza. There are nearly 10,000 homes built practically at the same time. It is working, the quality standards of the buildings are much better than in other areas which were built more or less at the same time, and is no comparison with other later estates, concerning the housing itself. On the other hand though, the estate, regarding public areas, the decision was to adopt a fairly conventional model...
That’s right, we could rescue some of what we proposed in our project, at some point we have published part of it. But you know that what was built is not at all what I proposed. Not at all in fact. Our proposal was more along the lines of Herzog. That is why I am interested in seeing the Bank. Because they organised the offices horizontally, instead of vertically, streets with cafes, trees, water, so that there is shade in summer, they have fit shading, like in calle Sierpes... So the scheme we designed for Valdespartera was still a scheme, it was just that. And it was a very frustrating experience, because they suddenly had to finalise it in a rush, because they had an agreement with the Defence Ministry that was about to expire, and they chose a more prudent solution. Ours was more risky, it led to debate. Basically it consisted of a low density solution, on three storeys, occupying a lot of land and also featuring plazas, but real plazas very much in line with MVRDV, and I must say that by then I had seen a few of their buildings-, some of them high-rise buildings. We were on the same tracks as Gropius, with some high and some low buildings. It was an alternative experiment to Valdebernardo, where I preferred to stick to the Berlage line and told myself, “well, I am going to ensure a South Amsterdam”, because I had visited it on several times previously, and I though “this will stick, and can be done with the regulations in Madrid”, whereas with the other option I am talking about with the Madrid Regulations of the General Plan by Eduardo Leira, it could not be done. What I am saying is that Valdebernardo is an old estate, built under the regulations of the General Plan..., the ‘good one’ of 1985. But instead of carrying out our approach, they ended up building blocks. And, in exchange, the morphology, some of the ideas we saw in macro urban morphology were implemented.
Obviously, the problems stems from the change from macro to micro. The macro system is fine, the system of free spaces is fine, a place to build a small park, are all part of a system, there is a green belt, which one enters at one side and leaves through the other, the infrastructures system is fine, but suddenly there is a 150 m area that nobody dares to cross. And when you scale it down a little, and move inside the houses, it is fine too, the standards are good. It is that intermediate scale, between macro and micro, although there is some confusion with these terms, because it is not the intermediate scale of the plan, but rather the scale between the estate and the public areas that is more difficult to resolve. It is a complex matter, because there is an array of equipment of all kinds that places an estate at the highest level, items for different uses, business areas, but there is no way to find a way to upgrade the street itself. This is not a matter of making a traditional corridor street, but rather of finding an upgrade for the street, a street that concentrates activity, without making it a traditional city, no new extensions, or anything else of that kind. That is something that could be done.
I think we went through a kind of divorce that can take place when suddenly a boss calls in a team from outside and the ones inside who had the task originally, said “well, let’s see what the ones from outside are going to tell us”, and at all times they tried to include us in the framework of their theory. “Well, carry out a study of typologies”... and we made a catalogue of typologies which is very nice in itself, but it hasn’t been published. I am thinking that we will have to use it at some point. I also had a research grant at the Ministry to study dimensional parameters of social housing estates in Spain. That was when Gema and I travelled around a lot of estates, a bit like what you have done, but your approach is much more parametric. It was more about comparing the types of blocks, buildable surface areas, house sizes. Or at least that was the theory. And that was a very useful experience, because at that time we were dealing with the flagship estates of the time, Bermejales, Valdebernardo, Madrid Sur, also Fontiñas, Amara in San Sebastian, one of the best, but because that was more evolutionary and was less determining, it was not an estate to create in one go, it is the one that has had the least literal execution according to the Plan. Nevertheless, as a plan it was very complex.
I would like to go back and visit them. I studied them some time back. But the parameters have not changed. As they have not been able to evolve, those estates are still intact, the houses are the same size, the trees have grown, but it is easily obvious to see how they have changed. We studied about ten in different cities. All of them had been public, social housing, with similar sizes, between 3000 and 4000 dwellings, although Valdebernardo was bigger. They were the estates of the nineties, with urbanism of the nineties. That would happen... It would be fun to write an article like Secchi, talking about the ZEN district generation. Gregotti’s ZEN district was a paradigm of urban quality, and he even dedicated a monograph to Lotus. And ZEN, nevertheless, is a district that later became the paradigm of crime. I was going to say like the Bronx, but it is opposite, the Bronx is now gentrified... Then the ZEN generation was talked about with admiration, with a magnificent scale, small, well-dimensioned streets... it is then that one realises the importance of the third dimension. We were talking about the ‘macro’ scale before, of industrialisation as a response to spontaneous growth and the problem this causes in terms of global city management; also the more ‘micro’ subject of complexity, with barely tangible parameters of habitation quality; and the third subject would be the social aspect, the social variable, I would like us to be able to objectively tie it in with the environmental support, and say “when the environmental support is like this, the possibilities of degradation are like this or like that”. These correlations, which are the joy of scientists, are in no way simple to establish here. ZEN is well-designed, I don’t know why it had to become an outcast area, a place like the Rocinha Favela, that dangerous.
We, as students, were looking at Toulouse Le Mirail with admiration, we thought it was fantastic, but there is a major social question, which is that there were middle class people from Toulouse who went to live there, but who later prospered and went to other places, paving the way to other more marginal social layers. Nevertheless, is that all that happened? But is it so obvious that that was the principal factor? Because when one looks around those corridor streets, those large spaces that you have to run through to get to your front door and inside, you realise that they are somewhat problematic. We can also think about a very different case, on a much smaller scale, a much more compact estate in the city centre, but with a rather similar scheme, which is the Galaxia building, a project by Antonio
Lamela. It is strange how, with such different conditions, a middle / high class housing building, in a very lively part of the city, can partly end up with problems of crime and communal areas used for ‘botellón’ (outdoor drinking parties).
Yes, or Azca, for example.
On a larger scale, Azca is also a similar case.
In other words, the three-dimensionality of the spaces and the radical separation put forward by Team X between pedestrian and vehicular transit, did not work.
Exactly. The fact that degradation has not been as extreme as in other outlying areas also depends on the fact that it is located in a ‘good’ part of the city.
Something else I have seen very recently, but which I have also been lucky enough to experience first hand from the people who have designed them, are the new cities in Korea. We have now finished our work on assessing the sustainable cities programme by Interamerican Bank, which is one of the subjects leading me to travel such a lot. The sustainable cities programme is an attempt by the Bank consisting of financing occasional, individual projects in each city, with quick diagnosis, when requested by the Mayor or when an agreement with the government is reached, permitting identification of the most complex problems in a city and starting off with climate change. This has permitted placing environmental aspects in the foreground, and not only infrastructure aspects. In general the mayors tend to ask for more money to build motorways than money to tackle risks. To sum up, it is them who have put forward this assessment system that has led us to travel around different cities in Latin America to see how the programme has worked, to assess the results, managing around 160 parameters for each city, leading to enormous matrices, but ones which are very interesting, about exploitation... I am going to make the most of this for years to come, because we have suddenly found very interesting parametrisation of cities, particularly in Latin America. But the anecdote taking us to Korea is that right now Korea is donating public investment to Latin America, mainly because the public investment by Korea also paves the way for its companies. They firstly support processes of urban improvement and from there the interlocutor at the Interamerican Bank is an association called Krish, which has made the new cities in Korea, a very interesting experience and one that is very similar to what happened in Britain in the fifties. But surprisingly, they don’t know it. When I say “but what you are doing reminds of Milton Keynes..., which is all we have studied and looked at in England in the fifties”, I realised they were unaware of it. And they themselves, as they are an interesting team, have reflected on it, I mean, they know how to interpret their own work. For example, they organise the creation of new cities by generations. There we are talking about relatively new cities, which could really be considered gigantic estates. They started with Factory Town, Unilever, i.e. western evolution. They moved on to satellite cities to relieve congestion in Seoul and the major megalopolises, but mainly Seoul. They then went on to generate technological poles. What I mean is look how interesting the evolution is that they themselves have detected. They move on from the Factory City, when Korea became a mega industry in the seventies, i.e. when Korea became the world’s biggest shipbuilding power, among other reasons caused by Spain’s reconversion of the shipyards. Do you remember when we used to say here “no, it’s just that now ships are built in Korea...”? Korea was a country with a right wing dictatorship, after the civil war of the fifties. It emerged from that and committed to a more Soviet model for heavy industry. Afterwards, the megalopolis of Seoul was created, where a large part of the population was concentrated after the war had destroyed half of the housing in the country. They then built housing, on a massive scale, and planned centrally. I don’t know what North Korea was like at that time, but South Korea was a socialist country in that sense, and nevertheless it was governed by a dictatorship. And the third case is that they started to design business activity corridors linking the megalopolis they had Busan in the south, Seoul is close to the border with North Korea-, and it was along those corridors where they mainly started to create technological development. And around the technological development areas, housing was also created. I stayed in a new town outside Seoul, but one that belonged to that technological concept. Obviously, green everywhere, enormous heights, with all the problems that this entails... I travelled around it with Carolina Barco, an urbanist who was Minister in Colombia, and the reflection was very interesting. I brought back a lot of material, particularly slides, because the people are very generous and open, very interesting, and I would even say that they would attend an event if the chance arose. They have people who have trained in England, who speak English...
Are they involved in universities as well, or more in administration?
No, they are more involved in administration. In China more or less the same thing that happened in Spain in the Larrodera era is taking place. Those in the university are the bosses who direct urbanism in Shanghai. The Director of the Department of Urbanism has a studio with 400 workers where the most important work planned in Shanghai is done. They work a lot for the armed forces, because you know that in China the big public corporations are companies. In other words, the army develops shopping malls, technological parks, hotels, etc. The public entities largely finance their activity as if they were mega corporations that diversify their activities. For example, the army is developing many places in China, with geo-strategic objectives, in Mongolia, Xing Chiang, mega developments, mainly related to business activity, which are profitable.
And they go hand-in-hand with estate settlements…
That’s right, with housing estates. Other ministries have hotel complexes, but that also entails the risk of corruption. But it is a type of corruption that is not like ours, one that consists of authorising permits, but since it has private business activity, it is easy to divert...
Basically, there is a strong relationship with the university.
Yes, very close. The university is where the power is.
That used to happen in east European countries, and still does. In a Tempus project we were working on as interlocutors, we had the Dean of Kharkov who was the head architect of the city for many years. And now, there is a very close relationship with his successor.
Well, that used to happen here too. We have now got used to specialising more, like the British. If you are academic, you don’t have a working life. I say the British style, not the North American style, because in the United States, they still have circuits. The two models can be seen in Harvard. That of successful professionals, and that of professors whose success (here it would something like our sexennials) the rigorous control of the impact of their publications, whereby if they don’t have indexes of excellence, they can be dismissed... And the two live together.
In Holland too. The other day at Delft university we say these things by Cor van Eesteren, who was later appointed professor at the university, after having been a representative of CIAM in urbanism of Amsterdam in Europe. Anyway, looking at what we can do here, we are now working in our Department with some formulae that we hope will manage to improve relations with administration departments, who should realise that this would be beneficial for them. In other words, a it is a good opportunity for the university to tell them “we are going to sign an agreement, we are going to work with qualified students, good people, with highly-trained people, who have worked in the private and public sectors”This is also a very interesting message. That, for example, could be work that could give us sexennials, or could be fundamental work for the administration, so that they are not working blind, which is what happens all too often.
It’s true, there is no transfer of knowledge, the thing everyone is screaming for nowadays.
Right, but, if they understand the advantages, it is something that will be easy to do, in the administration there is less and less time to do these things, people are just getting on with their everyday work. It used to be done...
Anyway, we’ve discussed a lot of things, thank you very much José María for having shared your views with us and such a pleasant chat. But, if you would like to, it would be interesting to further our reflections, at a seminar we organise, recovering some of the things you have there... We look forward to seeing you, and remember you will always be a welcome guest at our School in Zaragoza.
Thank you too, I am sure there will be an occasion.