Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, May 3, 2013

Interview with Dr Krzysztof Nawratek, author of Holes in the Whole. Introduction to the urban revolutions.

Dr. Krzysztof Nawratek. Photo by Joanna Erbel

I am pleased to interview Dr Krzysztof Nawratek who is lecturer in architecture, Master of Architecture programme leader at the Plymouth University, UK, who would like to describe himself as an urban theorist or meta-urbanist rather than architect.
Today, we will focus on his book Holes in the Whole Introduction to the urban revolutions, a book on a new urban ontology, the alternative vision of future cities development that combines subjects as criticism, analysis, and helps us to reflect about the cities of today.

  1. Are you afraid that culture is not produced any more in cities? In other words, did we become very popular in our “cultural”  tastes?
K. N. Culture definitely is still produced in cities, my concern is that there is nothing else produced in European cities. Most European cities are post-industrial, but they are only 'post', because there is nothing industrial about them anymore. For last 30 years urbanists and policy makers tried to fill the gap after industry collapsed (empty factories and idle working class) with cultural industry and services. I am afraid they failed. The other problem is, that – obviously – culture increasingly could be (and is) produced out of the urban context. Therefore, in my opinion, contemporary city (let's say – European city) lost its reason to exist.

  1. Do you think that the last developments based on New Urbanism theories have also failed?
K.N. Yes, I think so. New Urbanism was an interesting attempt to fix some failures of Modern Movements, but to be honest, I have much more respect to Modernism than to New Urbanism. New Urbanism created towns, not cities. This movement is – in my opinion – just a naive and reactionary attempt to turn back time. Obviously, I agree that humanistic agenda of New Urbanism still has something to offer, something to be discussed, but New Urbanism is not able to give an answer to the crisis of contemporary cities.

  1. In your opinion, which is the best example of localities? Should we say “racial localities”?
K.N. I am very suspicious about localities, especially any kind of ethnic districts or – even more – lifestyle communities. I am a 'prophet' of a city as an universal narrative, city as a polyphonic but coherent story, therefore I am against fragmentation. However, I do respect the value of local identities, local narratives but they must be in a dialog with others. Ghetto – it doesn't matter if we have in mind ghetto of poor or rich people – it is always a tragedy for the city.

  1. I see localities, fragmentations, beginning at High School, as natural processes. Is there any way to avoid fragmentations in cities with immigrants from around the world?
K.N.I think we need to clearly define the difference between fragmentation and differentiation in cities. There is nothing wrong with fragments of the city having different identity, based on different values (ethnic, esthetic etc.). The problem starts when these fragments are clearly separated from other parts of the city. In my book I often talk about hybrid subject. I define it as an autonomous subject, but strongly conditioned by external factors. So we need to see localities as hybrid subjects – they have their own identity, but they are not separated from the rest of the city.

  1. What’s your own definition on Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid city?
K. N. My main concern is a diminishing of cities subjectivity – contemporary cities are mostly pools of labour, they are fields to be exploited by global corporations, they are not political subjects, they are not able to govern their own territory. There is an obvious conflict between fluidity of deterritorialised global capital and locally fixed cities. They can't go anywhere – people can migrate (however in many cases they don't want to) but buildings, roads, infrastructure - can't. It makes cities a potential frontier of anti-capitalist struggle.

Above: Dr Nawratek with students. Photos by Plymouth University.

  1. What’s the role of social networks in the liquid city?
K. N. It is a very interesting issue, because I see social networks (I mean social networks in much wider meaning than just facebook or any online community) in some kind of contrast to social capital. Social capital is based on traditional, strong social bonds, social networks are much more flexible. Being member of any church or trade union really strongly define who you are and with what kind of people you interact. Social capital is often very exclusive. Social networks are in general more inclusive and 'weaker'. But I think they provide a similar to social capital safety net in contemporary liquid city. I think it is too early to say, but maybe our future society will be much more flexible and fluid, based on weaker, more inclusive social connections. If so, we will need probably much stronger institutions to support this society – as we need facebook to support a particular set of social networks.

  1. Sometimes I feel that we, architects do not have enough freedom for our creativity, so restricted we are under the “design guidelines.”  How do you feel about it?
K. N. I do love restrictions! I do believe norms and guidelines could play extremely positive role. It is an illusion that guidelines are architects 'enemies'. Architects are first of all slaves of clients, very often of 'shark-developers'. Design guidelines could help architects to defend a fundamental quality of their design. Design guidelines or norms are also part of our modernism's legacy, they represent the belief in universalism. I am an universalist, so I like them.

  1. There are many cases where planners do not work with architects as a team. Should planners restrict architects’ criteria?
K. N. Yes and no. The tension between different actors during design process could be helpful, it  could make design stronger and better. But as I said, I would rather prefer universal guidelines over strong planners. Planners and architects should work together, as equal members of a team.

  1. Is it a real advantage for planners and architects to work with participative design?
K. N. Participative design is a very difficult and challenging way of work, but if we believe that democracy is better than authoritarian system, then we should work towards fully participative design model.

  1. And what is your solution to help in each other’s understanding in participative design?
K. N. In my book I introduce an idea of 'border/institution'. It is a special type of institution, defined solely by its function which is to – in the same moment – to protect and support a local subjectivity and to negotiate between different subjects, different interests, different needs. This type of institution has power and is absolutely powerless in the same time. I do trust people but I strongly believe that an institutional context must exist to support (sustain) mutual understanding needed in participative design.

  1. Can we isolate ourselves and have our own private space in the public space? I mean, in a psychological context?
K. N. In my book I challenge the idea of public (and also private) space. This idea is too strongly connected with the idea of ownership. Our existence in space is based on different principles – we are using a space, we are attached (also emotionally) to certain spaces. Ownership is not fundamental here. I prefer to talk about space or interaction and intimate space. When you sit in a park on a bench (public park and public bench) the space you occupy at this particular moment is your own intimate space. So where are you? In public or private space? Or if you in your own bedroom browsing an internet and breathing fresh air from the park nearby – are you really in absolute private space? I think this typology of private-public spaces is just useless to really understand contemporary urban condition.

  1. In this context, what’s the function of the body in the city?
K. N. Well... First of all we, as humans, exist in our bodies, therefore any city, as a material entity, must be designed to fulfill our bodies' needs. But there is something more about bodies in a context of knowledge based economy and city – I think that bodies produce and transfer knowledge. Production is obvious, but I think it is interesting to see human body as media  – like newspapers or internet – to transfer information. In a context of 'smart city' idea, I think it would be an interesting direction to investigate.

  1. You remind me of a Bradbury’s story, “ No particular night or morning,”  where the main character wanted too much space, nothing above, nothing on top, that’s why he travels to the outer space; for him, cities were not real if he couldn’t live in them, and when he thinks his body is the only proof of his existence, he decides he won’t exist anymore… So, do we need proof of our existences in the material cities? Or our memories and information are enough?
K. N. As long as we have bodies we need the material cities. In this story the main character is rejecting his body as he is rejecting cities, stars, other people. It is kind of solipsistic fixation, it is interesting and sometimes could be intellectually inspiring, but for urbanists it is rather useless or even dangerous. It doesn't mean of course, that our memories are not important – on the contrary, they are, but they are also, very often, connected with material artifacts, with other bodies... We are not angels, we need roads, buildings, sewage systems...

  1. Would you briefly explain the metaphor of “Holes in the Whole” ?
K.N. Firstly, it refers to the intuitive understanding of space without clearly defined purpose, a left-over space, an in-between space like belt of grass by the roadside, remnants of an unfinished investment, abandoned amusement park, bankrupt mall, etc. It also refers to potentiality of these spaces.
Secondly, it refers to the Emil Cioran's understanding of 'void' as a no-being interrupting the continuity of existence. For Cioran 'void' has rather functional than ontological significance – it is important what void does (it interferes, interrupts and blocks) rather than what it is.
Thirdly, 'hole' refers to the idea of 'void' within the meaning of Alain Badiou, as the Real beyond Representation.
Therefore the 'hole' is an excess, not an absence. Excess/surplus without a language to be described – included into any narrative. 'Hole in the whole' is then (partially) virtual space awaiting for its actualization. This 'hole' is a very real space, no one could call it the hole until the new language is able to include it into the urban narrative. However, we are not dealing with a passive waiting for the event, which we will be able to 'entrust', but rather with the challenge of 'creative freedom' – the language for which must be created. Excess/surplus of the 'hole in the whole' is therefore the task of finding a new narrative and the new application. One can imagine the 'hole' as a limited territory - a special economic (or social or political) zone, or maybe a city - as an experiment.

  1. Which are your best expectations for a “good city” ?
K. N. Good and full life for everybody! It should have elements of security (also economic security – I do believe in right to accommodation/house as a basic human right) and excitement, it must help people to be together but in the same time it must protect their privacy. It should be a territory where different subjects are in constant dialog, territory open for experimentation. Good city is a polyphonic universal narrative and all its inhabitants are part of it.

M. Thank you so much Dr. Nawratek, it’s been a pleasure.

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