05.10.2019, 13 Uhr Gastbeitrag

Beyond ambition: Towards a practical Baukultur

by Xander Vermeulen Windsant

As a follow-up event to the 2018 Davos Declaration of Baukultur, Geneva will host the Getting the measure of Baukultur conference on 4th and 5th of November 2019. Ahead of the conference, Dutch architect Xander Vermeulen Windsant looks at Baukultur from a European perspective. 

In the second half of 2018, the term Baukultur was the focal point on more than one occasion during EU-wide conferences and meetings. As architect of the renovation of  Kleiburg, winner of the European Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 2017, I had the honour of contributing at a number of those meetings. Kleiburg was one of the examples of what the EU wants to promote: high-quality Baukultur.

Baukultur has been integrated as a core objective in European spatial policy. That policy has been under development for some time and part of its foundations lie in the Netherlands. The first concrete agreements were made with the signing of the ‘Pact of Amsterdam’ in 2016. It is no coincidence that this took place in the Netherlands during its chairship. The Netherlands was and, for many, still is the ‘leading country’ when it comes to spatial policy.

The term Baukultur has been used in the German-speaking ‘cultural field’ for a long time now, but it only became embedded in EU policy in early 2018. At the time, European Minsters of Culture, UNESCO and other (professional) organisations signed the ‘Davos Declaration’. This declaration was also signed by the Netherlands Minister of Education, Culture & Science. Yet despite that, Baukultur has not found its way into the debate in the Netherlands. That will, I suspect, be due to the ‘handicap of a head start’ that we have in relation to spatial policy in the Netherlands. Baukultur is nothing new to us, it labels (in a foreign language) something that we have found self-evident for centuries now. The Netherlands’ spatial policy has not arisen by chance: for years, public authorities, citizens and businesses have been working together to keep our wet country habitable. And that joint effort has been a fertile breeding ground, certainly in the 20th century, for shaping numerous other spatial ambitions.

It would however be a shame to miss out on the ideas behind Baukultur for the context of the Netherlands. It is no accident that the handicap of a head start is called such: it points to stagnation or even a standstill. Many believe the spatial policy in the Netherlands has become (too) liberalised and decentralised in the past decades. In that context, Baukultur offers an opportunity to put the value of spatial policy firmly back on the agenda, before it slips through our fingers.

As a concept, Baukultur is ‘neutral’: each project, whether good or bad, is the result of a Baukultur. The EU policy wants to promote and achieve high-quality Baukultur. In high-quality Baukultur, all stakeholders – designers, builders and politicians (citizens are not mentioned?) – work on projects that want to achieve more: in a broad sense, they contribute to the ‘common good’. Buildings and public spaces have a (high) quality that benefits ‘all’. That quality goes (much) further than only aesthetic quality and is therefore not limited to ‘architecture’ alone. Aspects such as affordability, liveability and inclusivity also play a significant role in that general quality.

In short, through the term high-quality Baukultur, interventions in our physical living environment gain a higher purpose: “High-quality Baukultur improves our sense of place. By enabling people to identify with their living spaces, it fosters an inclusive and cohesive society, counteracts discrimination and radicalisation, and promotes integration and civic awareness. […] High-quality Baukultur fosters vibrant and mixed-use neighbour- hoods. […] It provides sustainable living conditions and strengthens social resilience by producing decent, affordable, and accessible housing. “ (from the Davos Declaration)

Where the Pact of Amsterdam focused on ‘pragmatic’ results, such as affordable housing and protecting and using heritage, Baukultur takes on a more conceptual, almost ideological angle. Baukultur is thereby somewhat vaguer, and not aimed directly at concrete action as such. Baukultur is a useful all-encompassing term, much like ‘sustainability’ is. But due to its broad, abstract character it appears perfectly suitable to be used as a general framework for the wide variety of realities within the EU.

The ambitions that a high-quality Baukultur could realise are massive, according to the authors. According to the Davos Declaration, in the long term, they provide value for the market (in the form of rising property values), for public institutions they contribute to  ‘distinctive urban qualities’ and they provide a framework for politicians that could generate broad support for their plans. The model projects that were presented during the conferences, including Kleiburg but also the great work by architects Lacaton & Vassal, demonstrated this is actually possible. They show that a group of inspired commissioning parties, developers, architects and public organisations can indeed achieve interventions and transformations in the city that are of high quality and that ‘serve the common good’. In these projects, the parties undeniably shared a common ‘culture’, the high-quality version of Baukultur.

At the same time, it was also clear that these examples are exceptional projects, the exception to the rule. The EU spatial policy will only be ‘successful’ if the approach used in  these projects can be scaled up to become the working method. For that, everyone working on a city, not only the designers will need to appropriate a high-quality Baukultur. Just like in the model projects, high-quality Baukultur should become an intrinsic driving force for everyone working on the city. It is not for nothing that education is cited as one of the spearheads to achieve this. It is conceivable that Baukultur will become incorporated in design studies, but the question is how can we achieve that in the educational curricula of the many others who work on the city? How do we ingrain that ambition in the future employees of municipal land companies, the commercial project developers, the banks and numerous others who have a major influence on how the city is developed?

Apart from how, what would these city makers of the future need to learn? The Davos Declaration provides direction for that, it states.

Baukultur embraces every human activity that changes the built environment. The whole built environment, including every designed and built asset that is embedded in and relates to the natural environment, is to be understood as a single entity.
“A high-quality Baukultur is therefore expressed in the application of conscious, well-debated design to every building and landscaping activity, prioritising cultural values over short-term economic gain. High-quality Baukultur thus not only fulfils functional, technical and economic requirements, but also satisfies people’s social and psychological needs.”

From the website of the Bundesstiftung Baukultur in Potsdam, we can add to that: “Baukultur is essential for creating a built environment that is considered worth living in. In addition to social, ecological, and economic aspects, Baukultur also has an emotional and aesthetic dimension. Its creation, appropriation, and use are social processes that are based on a broad understanding about qualitative values and objectives.”

For many designers these ideas will be very similar to their own ideals. For instance, these descriptions echo the approach of people-centred urban design by Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs before him. Urban planning that takes the ‘common good’ and the daily experience as its starting point and one that aims to work towards a living environment where inhabitants feel a sense of place and integration. An environment that is in harmony with the values of the community in which people live, work and exist. That demands a people-serving attitude from all city makers that is aimed at the general wellbeing of the inhabitants and the users of the cities, villages and regions.

Although this will be self-evident for many designers, it would be naïve to assume that this is the case for others beyond the cultural sector. In fact, in the context of a polarising, populistic, post-modern, neo-liberal context, it is far from obvious that this idea would also be shared on a wider scale.

Terms such as community and cultural identity sound familiar, but that is not the case for many: if Brexit, the independence movement in Catalonia and the ongoing discussions about Europe show us anything it is that there is a persistent Babylonian confusion of tongues about their exact meaning. Are we talking about the local communities or about a community of global citizens? ‘The people’ from a country, region, city or district? Who is a member of which community? Is there one cultural identity (which one then?!) or is there a (problematic) patchwork of cultural identities? Which, or whose, general interests do we want, or are we able, to serve?

These crucial questions need answering to give a common, high-quality Baukultur a strong foundation. Any attempt to do so demands an open and active attitude from all those involved. Numerous political debates have shown us that many cannot or will not summon up that openness. Instead of trying to find a way through the complexity and diversity many desire clarity and unity. Not open questions but closed answers. And, as was clear at one of the conferences, a populist rhetoric serving that desire generates the opposite to that which Baukultur strives for. This was illustrated during one of the conferences, where a minister from the Austrian government coming from the right-populistic FPÖ party provided the introduction. Instead of an invitation to jointly determine what could help the common good, he came with a simplistic precept: according to him, people simply do not want ‘modern’ architecture. Good architecture (as part of what he considers to be high-quality Baukultur) is therefore not ‘modern’ architecture (and urban development) at all. What should have been an ‘undefined’ open question became, in his words, an (literally superficial) aesthetic requirement. Instead of a productive but difficult discussion about how we, as a whole, design our living environment, a nonsensical but pleasantly simple decree followed about what the city should look like.

Ironically enough, it is precisely that modernistic, post-war architecture and urban planning that provides a perfect example of what high-quality Baukultur can produce. The model projects, such as the Kleiburg and the work by Lacaton Vassal, are (not coincidently?) precisely about thoroughly and carefully ‘working on’ that ‘heritage’, with an approach founded on a positive attitude towards that heritage.

This political interpretation emphatically misunderstands (or ignores) what high-quality Baukultur should be about. Furthermore, there is the question of whether the promise of an open, people-centred Baukultur is ‘achievable’ at all in the current neo-liberal economic context. Global economic, demographic and financial processes create such a high pressure on (local) conditions that, in many cases, there is no time to enter into calm and composed discussions with each other about the underlying questions, let alone for designing and building. Or the opposite is in fact the case: the economic dynamics that could support spatial developments disappear through demographic shrinkage. The ‘slowness’ required for this does not get the space, literally and figuratively, or in the case of shrinkage that slowness is too slow: it is stagnation or even decline. Moreover, market parties and also administrators are often focused on the short term, hungry for quick fixes, brief moments of media fame and a quick return on investment. The supposed long-term values that Baukultur states to strive for so often lack a good foundation.

The Davos Declaration sets out a great ambition, one that deserves all the support. The idealistic ambition the Davos Declaration adds to the spatial policy of the EU is a valuable enrichment. But the question that needs to be asked is how it will find its place in practice within a challenging economic and political context. A context that is rich in complexity, and thereby also unruly and problematic. Within this context, it might be worthwhile to reconsider the earlier, and more pragmatic ambitions from the Pact of Amsterdam. This pragmatism reflects the Dutch centuries-old tradition of how, through design, we link ‘concrete’ activities to ‘the common good’ in a broader sense. It thereby offers a platform for a process, an invitation to work on the general good together ‘by doing’. The numerous tasks that we are facing, such as the transformation to a sustainable, circular living environment, offer perfect starting points for those kinds of processes. Does this not offer a much stronger and shared starting point for the challenges across Europe? And for that, we don’t need to define/discuss cultural identities in advance. Together, we need to get on with it!

This article was originally published in the Dutch publication Archined, it was translated into English.

Xander Vermeulen Windsant is an architect from the Netherlands, https://xvwarchitectuur.nl/en