# INTERVIEWS /// Yona Friedman on November 14th 2007 in Paris (English version)
INTERVIEW OF YONA FRIEDMAN ON NOVEMBER 14th 2007 (Paris)
(see original version in French)
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois : How can fiction be useful in order to think the city ?
Yona Friedman: I don’t know. As far as I am concerned, it’s mostly in reality that I am interested in. A lot of my colleagues were considering my work as fictional but I did it for real and if it is possible one time, it’s possible several times.
I am going to start to explain the social aspect of my work. I think that people don’t really know what they want and, moreover, they don’t know how to express what they want. From there, what is it that is necessary that the architect can correct? Something that is not definitive. You have the example with furnitures. Everybody finds perfectly normal that I can change the position of the chair in the room. Now I can go further, I can imagine, that’s technically possible, that I could change the walls. I can also change the situation of the window. So I can change everything. My private space. But the city is an ensemble of those private spaces, a kind of aggregation, so it has some consequences for the city.
To go a little bit further, I can compose the city with the urban equipment that would move from one place to another. Imagine that an avenue could move itself one hundred meters further away. All that is possible if the building does not touch the ground in its entireness. The technical answer is therefore very simple. The mobile part is inserted into a fix skeleton. If the wall has to support the floor above, of course, all that is not possible.
If I can change my furniture, it is because my ceiling is supported by something else. The skeleton is therefore useful to guaranty that things that are situated above will not fall on your heads. Thus, the entire envelope can be changeable. There is then no obligation whatsoever as far as the architectural form is concerned. It’s the principle. I’ve heard a lot that the user is not able to change this ensemble. To that I answer that I already did the experiment for real and with some relatively big groups especially in High Schools. Those people were able to design their spaces. On the other hand this occurred by the authoritative order of the French Minister of Education. Of course what those people deigned at this very moment is perhaps not adaptable to the situation ten years later when conditions changed. That is why I have been chosen for this job.
Now there is something else that I am interested in. It is the possibility for this completely personalized architecture’s elements to be at a point of simplification that it does not depend anymore on a technical qualification.
By the way, it’s funny, the first scale one experiment I’ve been doing was in your school [Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris, this interview was done in 2007] with some students. Since then, it has developed and I did a lot of those experiments.
There has been consequences for architects. In fact you cannot draw the output of this architecture. It does not stand paper, it only stands reality. It’s an issue that I’ve been having in 1970 for the Beaubourg competition; back then I could not really present my project. For example, the competition was asking to present a façade. With my principle, there is no façade. In my opinion, a building such as the Pompidou Center should change its shape for each exhibition. With my project, each exhibition’s curator would have been in charge of changing the interior and exterior volumes without touching the structure.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois: This way, the architect only designs a structure of potential.
Yona Friedman: The architect, in this case, becomes an indispensable advisor for all the collective aspects, including aesthetics. All those things are obviously much more complicated. There are mechanical shafts etc.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois: You are therefore an advisor
Yona Friedman : Yes. Nevertheless, urban design is also done by the architect. Imagine that a citizen has decided one form for his house; the architect will then advise him about the position of the neighbor housings with the conditions of minimal distances, lighting etc. That was my principle for the High School I told you about. Back then, I was responsible of the collective aspects as much as budget and security.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois: There is still some work then !
Yona Friedman: Yes ! Modern architecture started with the design of rich people’s houses. This principle is therefore a beginning of democratization. Everybody has the same freedom. That means freedom but also a discipline to respect. This is not severable
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois: That means that originally the person decided to live in this system. It also implies sacrifices.
Yona Friedman: Exactly ! For example, during the design of the High School’s spaces, there has been a lot of negotiations between the various actors. I was not participating. My responsibility was that the chosen plans were actually doable, match with the budget and the security requirements as much as the exterior aspect’s design. They could do changes and they did. It is now a twenty five years buildings and it works !
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois : Why do you build this structure above the existing city ?
Yona Friedman : I thought about this configuration for two reasons. The first one is that things are not getting built in a vacuum and that building something has never oblige to destroy the existing. We can thus renew a city without expulsing its citizens. The second reason is even more important. That is the possibility to change the whole urban network. As you know, nowadays architecture, in almost every city obliges to have a transportation network which is very hard to change. I wanted to create a transportation network that was not rooted. We don’t know its use’s evolution. Look, for example, at Paris’ bicycles’ corridors, it’s a catastrophe. Not that the principle is bad, but because it does not harmonize to the transportation network. A little bit further again, I was thinking that we could install some public services, concert halls etc. where we want them to be. I don’t mean that it needs to be made out of fabric like for the circus but really mobile. All those things can’t be rooted. We talked about the circus. Circus goes with the seasons. I can very well imagine that the city is different between summer and winter or during very strong transformations.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois : When you speak about the global city, one can completely imagine that a whole population was living somewhere, moves, migrates. In that case, we have to adapt infrastructures to the coming population just as much as to the population that leaves. That is the permanent modification’s logic.
Yona Friedman: I do believe so. In any case, now cities modify themselves but in a difficult ways, via destructions etc. I have another principle, even further. There is another way to balance a city’s growth that I dared to write in 1953…
the phone rings……………………………
Yona Friedman: About the “Continent City”. Going to Brussels than to Saint Germain en Laye [from Paris] takes pretty much the same amount of time. I believe that all continents functions like a big city where current cities are subway stations. When I went to Japan in 1992, I had to go in Shikansen from Tokyo to Osaka so I ask information about the train:
– Unfortunately the train is full. But, we can sell you a ticket for the next one
– When does it leave?
– In ten minutes.
Second thing, when I went to Shanghai, I’ve been told about a fast train between Shanghai and Beijing that they would build in three years. It’s something completely different from here. Here, the TGV (French fast train) has needed ten years to exist. It’s true! Between two visits in Shanghai, it’s incredible how much the city changes. One can’t recognize anything apart from the Bund and a part of the French concession! Another thing strike me which is the height of the highway. It’s pretty incredible!
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois : You talk about an egalitarian system. That’s something that we can implement and that can bring some good things; the possibility of controlling our environment for example. But it needs a discipline. To which extent do you think that this discipline is able to “update” itself without bringing once again the situation in which we currently are?
Yona Friedman: You can’t write discipline. It is being negotiated between real people. It is not abstract. As far as the two experiences I realized with real people are concerned, it needed at least six months of negotiation. Between people. Not with me. Rules vary according the social group. I also think that those negotiations do not necessarily bring a strong innovation. It is very slow. We are some kind of animal species that thinks in a relatively slow way. So I am against predictions when we can avoid them, not that I am not getting along with precision but in most cases, it’s simply impossible! Any practicing psychologist would tell you that all concepts, all images of people are “floating”. When somebody tells you a simple word, “square”, I am not sure of what he thinks. It’s terribly various. The only way to extract ourselves from abstraction, it’s to go toward reality. I give you an example. Imagine that we are already in a system in which roads are mobile. How would we publically decide about it? It would be an endless argument between people and it would give a totally unpredictable result. One starts to have an idea of the result when negotiation has been engaged. That’s why I think that this generalized mobility is necessary. That’s the same thing now in other disciplines than architecture. Politics as well for example. To decide of laws, by a parliament in the idea that it is for ever does not work. We should have a system in which each law is being renewed every two years for example. We could then implement local referendums in which we could bring various improvements for our community. The principle remains; variations could be pretty strong.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois : When you speak about negotiation, the issue can be that some actors of this negotiation will be stronger or more « evil » and in a subjective way which does not reflect reality, they will manage to move the road toward them when it would have been more fair that it would be moved toward everybody. How do you manage to deal with this type of issue?
Yona Friedman : I try to explain how you can experiment, I don’t tell you what you should do. I don’t know which kind of dwelling want this person or this other person. I don’t know what will be the result. I allow this game that become real for them. Abstraction is too vague. I need something more concrete.
In 1970, in MIT, we created all those “choice software” and working with real people, we realized that computer was not good for this work. You don’t know the process. I therefore redid my graphs with buttons and thread, which was constituting the same representation mode than the computer one, but this one was becoming real for people. And the High School I told you about, we did it this way. There has been no discussion in the abstract but veritably by doing some very simple attempts. It was not looking like architecture plans but we manage to make it happen.
I don’t believe in my proposition only half way. I believe that I can try them with at least a real case. Otherwise, it means that I am putting too much of my imagination.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois : What is the importance of the micro-event in the design of the city ?
Yona Friedman : I think that it is the main element. People don’t live in the entire city. As far as I’m concerned, when my god was alive, I used my neighborhood within the distance of the dog’s daily walk. And within this distance, people were recognizing me and were saying hi to me. This is not a precise map. For each person, this map moves. That’s the ovelaping of micro-events.
For me, a city is composed by little urban villages. That’s reality. Between those villages, there is the subway. If I come here [15th arrondissement, Paris] and I go to the 18th arrondissement, it’s completely unreal ! I enter into the subway, and come out somewhere elsewhere. Maybe I did one hundred thousand kilometers ! That’s the same thing with the “Continent City”. There are entrances and exits, and each has his entrance and his exit. I called this method, “urban mechanism”. That is a transparent mechanis. I know that at this place, a certain amount of people went in and a certain amount of people went out but who are those people? There is an extremely complex network of real displacements and that becomes even more complex when we know that each person has his own displacement’s motivation. It’s a completely undetermined and undeterminable situation.
We can evaluate that day by day. It’s like the weather forecast. I have been calling that “urban weather forecast application”. The Weather Forecast can give you completely abstract indications: It will be raining here, or fifty kilometers further away. Although, for me, it’s for here that it’s interesting and for the other person, it is for what happens in his place. That’s why I believe that city’s architecture is a continuous process. There is no terminal phase. It’s always changing, exactly like the weather. Abstraction in the Weather Forecast informs you very little:
– During winter it will be warmer than during summer
– Well, thank you very much!
That’s why what really count in daily life are the details. And you cannot always plan details and that for every domain. We plan too much. Reality is always in a state of equilibrium. Which equilibrium? I don’t know it in advance.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois: Do you think that we can create new micro-events thanks to architecture ?
Yona Friedman : Yes ! That’s interesting because, for example, in physics it’s not the same thing. Theoratical physics is only completely statistics. It’s not enough. When I was speaking about urban mechanisms in its first formulation, in 1963 to be precise, that was not urbanist architects who was interested in it but really physicists. When I’ve been invited in American Universities, it was by architects obviously but also by physicists because this model seems to signify something to them. The latter implies a certain amount of things for architecture but, in reality, it is something much more global. Detail is the important thing and there is no definitive status, it is a process. I’ve always been interested in mathematics. That’s why I know that mathematics are not enough in themselves, they cannot describe a process.
Leopold Lambert & Martin Le Bourgeois: Is it therefore a mistake to model this scheme?
Yona Friedman : This isn’t a mistake, but you shouldn’t overestimate this model. It gives you information but that is only one aspect of reality. I like to use a very popular example. You know the famous equation by Einstein: E=mc². It’s absolutely perfect, except the fact that it is wrong! It’s very simple. It should not be an equation. You can transform matter in energy but you cannot transform energy in matter. That’s impossible; it’s a contradiction to the Entropy Law. That’s a great equation, mathematically accurate, but wrong in terms of process. That’s just an example but I could give you a lot of others…