Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
In November 2021, Aarhus experienced an expansion of cardboard election signs dominating the public facades, with politicians’ claims of making our city greener and more liveable, as part of the quadrennial elections in Aarhus municipality. I paused at the term ‘greener’: how can it be green to have that many paper and plastic boards strung onto every possible surface? Can a municipality claim to be green and sustainable when a 10-minute drive from the inner city, heading west, demonstrates an enormous scale of demolition of well-functioning housing buildings which are barely five decades old? This destruction has been orchestrated by a state-crafted “ghetto-list” in Denmark, which categorizes tenants on the basis of their income, employment, education, criminal records, and ethnicity. The list is being updated annually on a regular basis since 2010, and has been criticized by locals as well as by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Over the last two years, local tenants from Mjølnerparken (CPH) have been suing the Ministry of the Interior and Housing, led by Kaare Dybvad, for state’s discriminatory and xenophobic policies that have enforced displacement upon them by demolishing their homes. The primary rationale for such policies remains to decrease the percentage of “other ethnic, non-western immigrants, and their descendants” — that’s Danish for Black and brown people — as part of the government’s 2018–2030 “parallel society solution package” where such tenants have to form a mere 30% in a non-profit social housing (almene boliger). Aydin Soei, a Copenhagen-based sociologist who has 15 years of experience in studying these neighborhoods, calls the ”ghetto-list” the biggest experiment the welfare state has ever done.
A month after the municipal elections, the High Court of eastern Denmark had granted permission to resume the lawsuit against the Ministry of the Interior and Housing. Had the local tenants been allowed to continue their fight against this racial and ethnic prejudice, it could have proven to be a radical disruption which poses a challenge to the dominant currents in Danish society, city planning, and politics. However, on December 23, 2021, the same tenants woke up to a letter announcing that half of the housing in Mjølnerparken had been sold off by the Copenhagen municipal authorities. The letter, co-signed by the Ministry of the Interior and Housing as well as the local housing association, further stated that the lawsuit won’t be able to halt the sale. This decision was also non-compliant with the observations of the UN human rights experts who suggested pausing all sales while the lawsuit is in action, noting the strength of the case in the favor of tenants. The discriminatory action of the “ghetto-list” and associated laws was under heavy criticism by the UN in the 105th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2021.
Aarhus is experiencing a meteoric scale of development. However, equally rapid is the rate of demolition where, for example, as part of the Gellerups Masterplan, five buildings have been taken down since 2013. Seven more are slated to be destroyed by the beginning of 2023. Shouldn’t city planners and architects be bolder and insist on rethinking how to maintain the existing housing complexes in the middle of a climate and housing crisis? Instead of tearing these buildings down, perhaps options to construct around the structure could be explored, which may expand the use and function of the frame, thereby not only ensuring the survival of current tenants, but also inviting more into the renovated premises. To keep some authenticity in the neighborhood and to harvest some courage for the future developments. Amidst the growing neoliberal market-driven competitions for new architecture, do we dare to have an imagination that could be radical and brave? Now, more than ever, architects, politicians, urban developers, city planners, and decision-makers need to evolve their current engagement with how they interact with the city. The 1:1 approach, which is often seen in Aarhus as the municipal inviting locals in for some brainstorming sessions — often the same old lot who always show up for development workshops, who know all the agreements and laws — in order to write down their “dreams and needs” for their area. It often turns quite vague and looks like a dull checklist, excluding so many experiences and expertise. An intersectional approach which addresses even the unseen and unheard aspects of the community’s needs is vital for designing urban spaces, both public and private. The meeting needs to be eye-to-eye, direct and honest, and should allow cultures to ripen through the city’s multiple layers. It should not let biases dominate development and interactions, it should dare to invite the ones with more experience, and it should engage with the existing landscape with a desire to cultivate. It is crucial to respect the earth and listen attentively to the wisdom it carries. The bureaucracy of architecture and city development remains highly exclusive, in continuation with its historical use as an imperial and colonial weapon to dismantle indigenous cultures and ways of living by social engineering, infrastructural expansions, and demolition. We still see this happening today within neighborhoods on the list.
The urban conversation in Aarhus cannot continue to act on presumptions and patronize the needs and aspirations of people based on projections, outdated statistics, and sentimental biases, especially when the conversation is pointed at politicized neighborhoods. The city needs to move forward and embrace some sort of relational selfless architecture which incorporates diverse lived experiences and forms of knowledge. Ego-driven architecture and biased city planning is a tendency we have seen way too often, in way too many cities across the world. Our cities, like our realities, are plural. Beyond the borders of the dominant “inner city”, there exist the outskirts which carry the silence and imprints of a different temporality. Does the pace of our cities have any place for these?
By caring for and understanding this necessity for the lived experience in the city, we can truly appreciate and architect radically. Architecture is seen and experienced everywhere. We sense the fragmented stories, whether they are from the cut-outs of old buildings in inner Aarhus or a demolition plan executed in the 60s to bring more light and space into the backyards, which has historically been housing the working class and poor people under inhumane conditions, in order to “clean them out”. It could also be the main road of a renovated Gellerup post-masterplan, with a focus on police presence along with an array of speed breakers and warning signs to control the speeding cars. We see it. We see it in multiple shapes, stories, materials, functions, and feelings. Architecture can also be simple, inspiring, helpful, and fun. It can be a piece of locally built furniture, a stool or a bench which is mobile and adaptable to the landscape it is being placed in for free public use.
When we dare to use and include our selves and surroundings, we determine and push the limits of borders and norms. We need to look at our surroundings and evaluate what has been done, in order to plan and act accordingly into the idealistic future. However, we must include the present. Aarhus has demolished a lot of areas and housing, for the sake of fast-architecture and prestige building, hoping that it will attract the upper middle class creative young cis-het families. We must not forget that the ground carries imprints of the silenced, only if we care to listen.
What happens when we force erasure on an area? We lose its archives, the grains of documentation. The earth, which has carried us and shaped our beings, becomes open to the possibilities of haunting us. We are stripped of the material that guides our memories, and in turn, we are also stripped of our identity. When an act of demolition is carried out, it is not just a community that is silenced, an entire part of soil is forced into silence as well, a culture is slowly erased. I talked with Vibeke from Gellerup’s local archive. She and her husband have been documenting and archiving all the changes over the last few decades. She told me that their practice is at risk of shutting down as the new space in the masterplan building does not accommodate the requirements of a functioning archive office. This pushes me to question all planning endeavors which neglect and disregard forms of expertise which are different and rare in the society. A local archive is essential for the history of a neighborhood, for Gellerup. For all of us. If we continue to centralize archives and history, we won’t be able to detach from the infiltrating biases and miscommunication. And if you ask me, we are all archives: archives are memories and documentation; if we listen and remember, we can see that all of us are walking archives. To understand why we are multiplicable, we need to accept and appreciate all archives, whether it being the small decentralized offices, or the walking personal ones.
It is difficult to plan a “good sustainable city” as Aarhus and many other cities aim to, while being on a so-called neutral ground, ignoring red flags and biases. The foundation of the built environment and society is heavily permeated with classist, sentimental, racist, and xenphobic politics which routinely interrupts the daily lives of people who are always dismissed as “outsiders.” If we were to insert an ecological angle to this crisis, the situation gets even more complicated. How do we engage the skills and critical questions of a new generation of architects, artists, designers, activists, and planners who refuse to participate in this violent continuum? How do we think together with an ethics of care that concerns itself with the intersections on sites, the lives lived within, around and under?
The current developments I witness in Aarhus are worrisome. Over the past decade, I have experienced and observed my own neighborhood, Gellerup, being erased through demolition of its housing, relocation of bus stops, and people being pushed out of their homes and out of the periphery. I cannot relate to the future image Aarhus is narrating. I see Aarhus as a place with a soothing landscape — although highly designed — with its mellow forest, rough seaside, and quiet harbor. I hear the many voices, aesthetics, and thoughts on various ways of approaching and indulging life. Our material framework, or call it the architecture around us which we live within, should shelter us, comfort us, navigate, guide, and inspire us to absorb our surroundings and reflect over the world we want to manifest.
The city needs to meet in the intersections with a cross-disciplinary approach. There is currently a new generation of young people who live in these silenced neighborhoods bringing hope for a more radical and inspiring future. If we dare to include them. Sumayya Vally once remarked, “We need to ask ourselves if the world around us is being made in our image. If it isn’t, who’s it being made of and how do we start to make our own?” Often, the older generation plans according to the past. We need to push the boundaries of what and who is allowed in creative thinking, in education, in planning, and in acting into the world. We need to listen to the youth. We need to let the present manifest itself with all the thoughts, voices, and experiences it carries. If we can do that as individuals and in collaboration, the future will be softer on us. As the youth today is compelled to live a future planned by the older generation, there is a dissonance, a generational gap with miscommunicated needs and potentials and a diminished sense of fun of designing our lives within the multiplicity of living and its interactive spaces.
We need to meet, listen, and share the tools on how we can do this best. Architecture can be that medium, a visual and material communicator. It has been crucial for our meetings, memories, identity development, and much more. Our conversation about architecture should not just be about roads and facades. It is the in-between, the backdrop, and the provocateur of our daily living and memories. It can be an invisible weapon or a radical tool. And we need to take that responsibility seriously.
We can use what we have around us. We can rethink our position and our surroundings. We can listen to our neighbors, particularly those who have been erased and silenced. There is so much beauty and imagination waiting to happen. And it’s already happening in the in-between. I see it in my hometown Gellerup and various other neighborhoods around Aarhus. I see it in the young generation and the generations after. People are starting to create the realities they want to be part of, together and alone.
Daring to imagine and learn can be a tool to create new realities and functions we wish to see. By allowing imagination, we allow manifesting our thoughts and ideas into the shared world. We have to be curious, imagine it, draw it, talk about it. And we can then reimagine the structures, reflecting and defining who we are, diving into the landscapes of care. We have to care about the multiplicity and nuances of relationships. Each and every one of our identities is extended through a relationship with the other living beings, human and non-human, visible and invisible. Thinking of the fast-paced development in Aarhus and the welfare state unfolding ahead of us, Martiniquan thinker and poet Édouard Glissant’s thesis on the potential and poetic power of relations, is worth revisiting.
“Rhizomatic thought is the principle behind what I call the Poetics of Relation, in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other.”Édouard Glissant