It’s the Culture, Stupid

curatorial statement for the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, from executive director George Brugmans

by Orhan Ayyüce


Culture is where we imagine, where we create the narratives that bind us together and that enable us to look forward. In plain English, spinning a good tale can get you somewhere. I learned this long ago, when as a student of History I embraced—among a lot of other, not always very helpful ideas about change and progress—Georges Sorel’s notion of myth as the motor of social change. I wanted to understand how cultures and societies change over time, and not as a result of drift but of action. How is it done, and what is needed?

This was not long after May ’68, when students took to the streets shouting l’imagination au pouvoir!—the power of imagination would lead all of us to a better future. What I took from it was that where consciousness and society interact in a creative and willful way, that is, in the sociocultural space, new narratives are born that help us shed old paradigms and meaningfully ask: What’s next?

Now, 40 years later, I know that spinning a good tale is only half the story. When it comes to telling the tale of future cities, to imagine the making of city, IABR’s persistent theme, a convincing imagination, though imperative, is certainly not enough. For the narrative to endure and have real impact, for it to be not just told and visualized but also tested and amended, to eventually have an impact in the real world, we need another tool as well. That tool is design, and more specifically research by design, a tool with which the act of imagining the future can be transformed into constructively re-imagining it: What could be next?

That is, I hasten to add, only when we are ready to rethink the notion of what design would need to be for our day and age. In A Cautious Prometheus?, a speech he delivered in 2008, French theorist Bruno Latour observed that “design as a concept implies humility that seems rather absent from the word ‘construction’ or ‘building’ . . . and that is completely lacking in the heroic promethean hubristic dream of action.” He welcomes the “remedial” in design as “. . . an antidote to hubris and the search of absolute certainty, absolute beginning, radical departure.” It’s from this position, this remedial perspective if you want, that I think we need to challenge the often still-prevailing notion of design. It should no longer be a quest for beginnings and departures, for grand gestures and blank slates, the architect’s imagination roaming freely. To design would be to want to depart from a given or a problem, to look at the emergent, unplanned, unstoppable process that lies beneath it, and to turn it Into something more vibrant, more viable, more usable or user friendly—and more resilient. To design would not be a process of heroic imagining but of explorative re-imagining. Re-imagining, discovering what could be next for our future cities, is a pertinent exercise. And I think the idea of design may well be facing one of the most compelling paradigm shifts in history.

We are going to have to come up with something really different. We have to leave behind us the big wasteful aggressive systems we can now see for what they are, creation and construction predicated on eternal economic growth. While what tomorrow’s cities urgently need are new feedback loops with deep implications for the relationship between user and designer, and between user and user. We must move from wasteful to sustainable consumption, and from linear to circular production systems that are regenerative by intention and design. We must move from creating systems to mending our ways.

And mend our ways is what I think we have to do, and sooner rather than later. The future is now; it’s the mess we have to make sense of. So what’s next and what could be next? Clearly, culture and design make for a potent mix when it comes to re-imagining our future cities. Which is why it is the crux of the IABR’s very own methodology for making sense, for making city.

So let me clarify why I think that it’s the culture, stupid!

Inside Out

Francine Houben, in 2003 the first IABR’s director and curator, straightaway positioned the event as a research biennale. As curator she did her own research and she cleared space on the IABR’s international stage for research projects from all over the world, emphatically putting the Rotterdam architecture biennale on the map.

Since 2004, when I succeeded her as director, I have been turning this model inside out together with successive curators Adriaan Geuze, the Berlage Institute, Kees Christiaanse, Henk Ovink, Fernando de Mello Franco, Joachim Declerck, and Dirk Sijmons. Rather than being a goal in itself, the Biennale as an international exhibition increasingly was integrated into the research by design process. The exhibition became a means and its subject—the city, where plans and projects materialize after the closing of the biennale—became the object.

I felt it was a waste to not better exploit the remarkable variety of knowledge and expertise that our growing global network biannually brought to the Rotterdam stage. Why not connect all the knowledge we ourselves accumulate to the knowledge of our network; why not apply the collected innovation-oriented expertise to existing challenges? Why not conduct research by design ourselves, in places where we have already established a basis for trust as a cultural organization?

Sabbatical Detour

Over the last ten years, with input from many people, one biennale at a time, IABR has gradually developed a new methodology. Rather than travel the world just looking for the best projects, we more and more often stick around and join in, to reflect and work on local challenges. We have engaged in the project of the city itself. We are no longer satisfied to only show the best plans and projects. We also want to add value, inform existing projects narratively and programmatically, by taking them on a “detour” through the cultural space, together with the city and all stakeholders.

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Sao Paulo Paraisopolis © George Brugmans