Bijlmer Estate, Amsterdam (Image: Creative Commons/Hilton Teper).
Failed Architecture did a Q&A with Anna Winston for Building Design. It appeared earlier on Bdonline (free subscription).
Who are Failed Architecture?
We’re a small group of young professionals with backgrounds in architecture, urbanism, media, sociology, history and the arts.
How did it come about?
The starting point of our exploratory research was a building in Amsterdam, named TrouwAmsterdam, where other events relating to urbanism, architecture, media and arts were organised. The building, a former newspaper printing press, was hugely popular as a restaurant, club and cultural venue, but still it was slated for demolition to make place for fancy apartments.
We started questioning that: “So, apparently this is a failure? Why? And according to whom?” That’s when we started organising the Failed Architecture talk shows and debates and we set up a first blog where we described other ‘failures’ from all over the world.
That was early 2011 and after that it all evolved. The events and the website grew and now attract a lot of visitors In 2012, we started organising the international research workshops, in which we intensively study an iconic building or neighbourhood for five days that is in one or more ways perceived as a failure.
We carry out the workshops with a group of participants from different backgrounds in collaboration with a local institution. So far, we have investigated cases in Berlin, Nottingham, Sofia, Belgrade, Copenhagen and Porto.
Failed Architecture Mobile research workshop, Berlin.
What are you hoping to achieve with it?
One of our aims is to create awareness of what’s behind the architecture and the urban environments we live in. We see architecture merely as an articulation of broader societal processes.
Observing and living in a time in which the position and meaning of architecture is increasingly being questioned, our main drive is to research the political and cultural processes that tag a building as a success or a failure (past/ present/ future). But also the ways in which architecture is perceived and represented to the public.
What’s been you biggest success thus far?
Our Amsterdam event on failure fascination (i.e. “Ruin Porn”) attracted a lot of visitors, which is an interesting given in itself.
The research workshop on the infamous Lenton flats in Nottingham was a considerable success. Although we could not prevent the blocks from being torn down, we got more than thirty architects-in-training to think about the built environment in a multidimensional way.
At the beginning of the workshop no-one really questioned why these blocks were slated for demolition, but after talking to professional architects, the local housing corporation, inhabitants and other stakeholders, the participants discovered there was much more at stake than plain design faults and construction flaws. Also, some of the students stayed in touch with the residents still living in the flats and kept on working on documenting the history of the place.
A Failed Architecture event held in TrouwAmsterdam.
The fact that our website is catching on this well and gets a lot of positive feedback is one of our personal highlights. Collaborations with intelligent people and organisations from all over the world are also very inspiring. And it’s great to see how people respond to our title. Some feel offended and feel the need to defend themselves, which is really what we want, others immediately get the irony and start asking questions similar to the ones we pose when looking into a ‘failed’ case study.
And your biggest challenge?
Making the project more self-sufficient and constantly trying to find the right organisational model with new activities developing regularly, are ongoing challenges. Currently, it’s a side-project for most of us. Nevertheless, we are expanding our focus to some larger projects, including a publication and an educational programme in collaboration with one or more universities or academies.
Foster’s Harmon Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas, NV (Image: Source: Creative Commons/Vrysxy).
What’s been your favourite ‘failure’ in architecture this year? And last year? And this decade?
The plans for the London Olympics were supposed to have a positive effect on East London, among others in terms of diverse, community-based housing and good urban places. However, even before the Games started last year it was clear that this mega-event has displaced communities, led to exploding rents and introduced new levels of militarisation to central London.
We can already discern similar trends in Rio de Janeiro, where the next Olympics will be organised.
Norman Foster’s Harmon Hotel in Las Vegas is interesting, because it was almost demolished before it was even finished, because of construction flaws. This year it was decided to cut it in half.
Germany seems to go for the world record in mega-failures, with the Berlin Brandenburg International Airport, Stuttgart’s train station and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall all facing huge cost overruns, construction problems and delays.
And what’s been your favourite ‘success’ in architecture?
Almere is by far the biggest success of Dutch planning. Nowhere in modern architectural history you see such a sadly beautiful melting pot of dreams and desperations, failure and success.
On a serious note, we think there’s a generation shift occurring in our assessment of modernist architecture at the moment.
In Amsterdam’s central area, several buildings that are awaiting demolition have been put to other uses over the last ten years, mainly attracting quite a young crowd. These people have not grown up with the idea that these modernist blocks in which they work, go and eat, are plain ugly or haphazard assaults on Amsterdam’s urban fabric. Hopefully this more neutral awareness of our built environment can convince the older generation, which is still in charge, that these modernist buildings have just as well become part of Amsterdam.
A recent success story in this respect might be the decision to save one of the largest still-existing tower blocks in the Bijlmer, a modernist expansion scheme just outside of the city. Starters in Amsterdam’s overwrought housing market are now given the chance to invest in a once derided block of flats and although this can be seen as a mild form of gentrification, it’s better than tearing flats down and increasing Amsterdam’s housing shortages.
What books are you reading?
Being a diverse group, our interests are just as divergent. A few titles we’re currently reading are Horror in Architecture (Joshua Comaroff & Ong ker-Shing), Against Architecture (Franco La Cecla), Architecture and Capitalism. 1845 to the present (Peggy Dreamer), Cities Under Siege (Stephen Graham), Open City (Teju Cole), The Practice of Everyday Life (Michel de Certeau), and two great magazines: Volume#36: ‘Ways to be Critical’ and OASE#90 ‘What is Good Architecture?’ And this might sound as a cliché coming from someone working for a platform called Failed Architecture, but it’s true: one of us is reading J.G. Ballard’s High Rise at the moment.
Where will your next event be?
Our next will be a research workshop during the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, September 20-27 in Rapla and Tallinn. The subject of the workshop is a fascinating piece of faded socialist glory in the small town of Rapla.