Towards A Humanistic Architecture – EASA 2017 Interview

The 37th edition of European Architecture Students Assembly, EASA, takes place in Fredericia (DK) and gathers more than 500 prospective architects from all over Europe. Arcspace had a talk with architect and organizer, Pauli Rikaniemi, about the event.

Founded in 1981 by a group of students in Liverpool, EASA is a pan-european association and a transnational platform for architecture students to share thoughts, ideas and methods. This year, EASA presents a broad branch of approximately 40 different workshops revolving around design, construction, crafts and media.

Margarida N. Waco: Thank you for accepting my invitation to discuss the 37th EASA gathering and this year’s theme of Hospitality with us at arcspace. Can you tell us about EASA and the background of the association?

Pauli Rikaniemi: EASA was originally set up in Liverpool by students as an alternative to the established architecture education. The common thing for these students was an emerging dissatisfaction with the school’s curriculum, and they wanted to create a platform that provided the opportunity to deal with issues that interested them – a form for self-education, so to speak. Already from the beginning, EASA had a transnational aspect and today, the association gathers more than 40 different participating countries and more than 200 different schools, not only from all over Europe but even international teams from countries such as India, South America, etc.

On July 21st, more than 500 students and architects from all over Europe arrived to Fredericia. Opening speech by the municipality and by organizer, Slava Ivanov. Photograph by Alexandra Kononchenko.

MW: This is the fourth time EASA takes place in Denmark. First time was in 1984 and yet again in both 1997 and 2003. What is the process behind the selection of the hosting country and how does the theme contribute to this?

PR: Yes, Denmark has been host every decade since the beginning. Every second year, each country presents their bids at a national gathering with representatives from the participating countries. The underlying philosophy behind the selection process is to reach a consensus. This is a rather long-winded process with day-long discussions. And this is where the theme has an important role as it sets the bar and the ambitions for the upcoming event. For EASA 2017, the theme has especially been a driving factor due to its political and societal approach which introduces a new discourse that differs from the more artistic themes of the past decades. In some how this year’s theme represents a new paradigm. The last bid took place two years ago, and if you take the time perspective into account, the year of 2015 was when the current refugee crisis escalated.

Construction workshop in front of the historical Bülows Kaserne. Photograph by Alexandra Kononchenko.

MW: So this year’s theme is Hospitality – Finding the Framework. Can you tell more about this and the background for why this has been the chosen theme?

PR: The main interest for this theme was the emerging political issues, especially from a European point of view. Also, there was a curiosity and growing interest in understanding the different aspects of hospitality and understand how we as architects build frameworks that comply with this.  Not only does the theme address important and urgent European issues in relation to the current crisis of hospitality. It also provides a platform for dialogues and collaborations that is capable of establishing new networks and partnerships for a more hospitable world.

MW: So, the theme is rather political and strongly inspired by the current refugee crisis challenging countries around the world. How can architecture provide a platform for hospitality and serve as a political tool?

PR: In a world of obliged and desired mobility, the way we welcome each other is essential. For that reason our cities need to be open and friendly for social diversity as we are when we welcome guests to our homes. Through architecture we may construct the framework of hospitality. To respond to this, we see the need to implement enforceable concepts that correspond with an ongoing process of formal and informal interactions within and between individual communities and different cultures. On the basis of this,  new humanity will emerge. Creating the framework for meetings and understanding of other people is a hard task and we have seen many examples in Denmark and around the world in for instance social housing projects in Gellerup, London, and many other places, where we have failed in doing so.

Nevertheless, as architects we have the means to provide physical structures that embrace the “small” moments and meetings and have an inclusive counterpart. Additionally, we see a need to change the way we build our cities and buildings so we not only oblige developers but constantly argue from a more social perspective that embraces a more social sustainable development. Often the best results are unintentional and comes from grassroot movements inside a community. But to the question of how we use strategic design as a tool, there are some successful examples around the world.

Participants attending one of many academic lectures during the event. Photograph by Alexandra Kononchenko.

MW: In that sense I do agree that architecture may serve as a strategic tool to provide social integration as is the case with this year’s Mies van der Rohe Award-winning project DeFlat Kleiburg in Amsterdam by NL architects and XVW architectuur or Lacaton & Vassal’s transformation of 530 dwellings in Bordeaux, amongst many other examples.

But in what way can a small, closed community such as EASA create more awareness about these societal issues? And additionally, how do you find, understand and implement new hospitality in the current social framework?

PR: Exactly. Well, a small community such as Fredericia holds many potentials. Conversations and discussions starts in EASA, and the biggest effect can be traced in the participating students. The discussions arising from the workshops we participate in and the experiences we come to encounter during the gathering thus continues outside of the EASA community when the students return to their home countries. But it will also effect and have an impact on the local community. All the activities and physical products we produce will create attention and curiosity. In that sense, there will be a distinct awareness through an interaction between the local municipality and the EASA participants. The theme will force people to reflect on the current political issues.

Participants at one of the many construction workshops building architectural frameworks.  Photograph by Alexandra Kononchenko.

MW: The gathering takes place in Fredericia – a smaller Danish city with approximately 40.000 inhabitants. What does Fredericia as city has to offer in relation to hospitality?

PR: Fredericia is unique due to the fact that hospitality is rooted in the identity and history of the city. Fredericia was the first free town in Denmark and the first city to accept freedom of religion. So the city in itself has a rather unique cultural understanding in relation to welcome new-comers. The theme therefore resonates with the history of the city. Hospitality revolves around people, and finding the architectural framework around the term will require architectural design and theoretical understanding and projects, that can engage both the EASA and the local community in Fredericia. With Fredericia’s history, its distinct physical appearance defined by the inner city’s physical boundary – the historic ramparts – and the industrial heritage of the city, Fredericia is a good example of a place that can provide a base and framework for building hospitality.

MW: How can Denmark, and especially Fredericia contribute to broaden our understanding of hospitality?

PR: Smaller cities are quite interesting and in some way more innovative in that sense that they are forced to rethink and redefine themselves in order be attractive. These cities also face the problems of centralization and the fact that all resources are mainly used in larger cities. Another thing is the demographics of these cities due to the mobilization to bigger cities, especially among the younger population. So it is rather interesting to see what happens when a city as Fredericia gets that amount of attention and when 500 architecture students arrive with both new perspectives on how Fredericia can be perceived as well as new ideas on how to create a new social framework.

Many of these students have never before visited Fredericia – nor Denmark, so they will have a fresh take on the qualities of the city and what will benefit Fredericia as a whole. All this is done by a two-week in-depth research and analysis of the history, societal structure, and the physical environment of the city. Denmark and Fredericia could therefore serve as a platform to construct new physical environments for hospitality and provide solutions for social mistrust and fragmentation.

Students building framework for hospitality.  Photograph by Alexandra Kononchenko.

Work in progress: some of the outcomes of the workshops are architectural interventions in which local municipality can engage with.  Photograph by Alexandra Kononchenko.

What: European Architecture Students Assembly, EASA
When: 21 July – 6 August
Where: Fredericia, Denmark

Read more here.