First of all, a question for you as a teacher of architecture: What in your opinion are the challenges that architecture will have to tackle in the future?
The challenges that architecture will have to face even more intensely in the future than in the past are above all social, economic and ecological. It is not only about designing individual projects, but also about designing social processes – on a local as well as a global level. The transformation of growing cities will be a very important topic in the future. In particular, shaping public urban space, which plays an essential role as a catalyst for social processes, is a field for action that has great potential, in my view. This action will not necessarily have to be manifested in permanent architecture. On the contrary, it is precisely temporary architectural interventions that allow more scope for seeking out different paths and breaking new ground.
How do these subjects influence your teaching?
As part of the design-build projects we are trying to tackle some of these themes, especially urban public space as a field for social action, in a very direct and immediate way. While as a rule most university teaching and research takes place out of the way of public perception, design-build projects manifest themselves outside the university environment, in the public or semi-public sector, in the form of real objects and interventions. Going out into the public arena and facing up to real conditions is not only an important aspect of learning for students; it also contributes to initiating a public discourse about architecture and urban space.
Which challenges is this idea reacting to?
Every design-build project has its own specific challenges. Most of the projects have a socially committed background or at least are pursuing the public interest. Our current project, on which I am working with 30 students at the moment, is the “mobile urban lab“, temporary architecture that serves as a place for seminars, lectures, workshops, exhibitions and participatory events in the field of architectural and spatial planning, and is used again and again in different districts where the city of Vienna is expanding, for one year in each district. This structure therefore had to be conceived detached from any location rather than for a specific place. For architecture to be removable from one place to another, it must possible to disassemble it easily into individual modules. It also has to be tailored to measurements that are coordinated with road transport. This is the framework within which we have to operate, and it is completely different from architecture designed only for one particular permanent site.
What exactly is the example of the “mobile urban lab” about?
The “mobile urban lab“ is part of the “urban future lab“, a platform for experimental and transdisciplinary research and teaching at the Faculty of Architecture and Regional Planning. A showcase and satellite of the faculty, the “mobile urban lab“ will be in use until spring 2014 in Resselpark on the doorstep of Vienna University of Technology as a public lecture theater and a place for learning and research. After that the building, which is based on modified, used shipping containers will be “on tour”, and will show the flag wherever particular challenges are evident in the urban development of Vienna. The challenges in planning this mobile structure lay in the need to react to different settings such as a campus, a park and a residential area. The architecture has to be adapted in accordance with the settings, and is also intended to use things that already exist on the site so that the architecture interlinks with its surroundings and can be designed with new modifications.
How do you prepare your architecture students for the task?
First of all it is important that the students are simply confronted with aspects of reality: a real planning and construction task, real clients, real users, real budgets and then of course implementing the built reality. This also means getting them out of the universities and lecture halls onto the street and into a proper project. The aim is to give students the opportunity to take on responsibility themselves and gain their own experience by means of a specific task. In principle this means getting away from dry theory and closer to practice, in terms of content but also of space. This can sometimes mean getting out of Europe to carry out projects in Africa or Indonesia in cooperation with the local population. Learning by doing, an extremely direct and immediate process.
Is that also the idea behind the design-build studios, to make students acquainted with the practice of architecture?
Exactly. The design-build studios arose from precisely this educational background of learning by doing. Architecture students have the opportunity to pass through all the phases of a small but real construction project: starting from the first sketched drafts, the development of models and detailed plans, communication with real clients, users, public authorities, specialist planners, materials manufacturers and sponsors, and going right through to carrying out all the building work with their own hands. By means of implementing themselves what they have planned, the students learn not only how the building trades really work but also experience the problems and resistance that are involved with implementation. For their later profession of architect it is especially important to know that the planning of a project is not the end of it all, but that the true challenge only begins when what is planned is turned into reality, into a building, and that many a plan turns out completely differently in this process. For example, we once designed an orphanage in Indonesia and then built it in the village in collaboration with the local people. That is when you are confronted close-up with the culture, the structure, real scenarios and all the problems of these countries. Even in difficult situations the student team works jointly, and all participants take the associated responsibility and concrete consequences as a team. That’s real!
Who initiated these design-build studios?
At architecture schools in the USA there is a tradition of design-build that goes back decades. The first so-called rural studio comes from Auburn University in Alabama. At Vienna University of Technology we initiated the first design-build project in 2000. At Berlin Technical University, design-build has also been practiced as a teaching method for many years. The Orange Farm Township Project, which we at Vienna University of Technology started in 2003 in a South African township on the edge of Johannesburg, became a pilot project for a design-build movement in which a large number of European universities are now participating. Since we started, more than 30 projects have been carried out in South Africa by a variety of architecture schools, in Munich, Aachen and Dessau in Germany; Linz, Kärnten and Graz in Austria, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Winterthur in Switzerland and many others. The Viennese association Sarch is the interface between the universities and South Africa. It was founded after the pilot project, and the financing mainly comes from sponsors from the universities concerned. Sarch takes care of the basic financing of the projects, which are also partly sponsored by South African companies. The students have to pay their own travel costs.
What have you learned yourselves from these projects? And what is the most important thing that you hope to pass on to the students?
These projects involve continuous learning, especially because each project is accompanied by different conditions and different participants. It has a lot to do with group processes and the question of how to motivate students. An extremely important point for them is to learn to work in a team and to take decisions jointly rather than on their own. For this purpose they are expected to find a consensus in the group, and in doing so each one usually finds his or her role in the project. The design is deliberately not carried out as a competition. It is not the case that the students compete with one another and the best design is then implemented. Instead there is a joint process that goes on over many stages. Although the work is done in separate teams that take care of different variations of the project, common meetings and discussions are repeatedly held to look for a common denominator, which is in turn the starting point for the next phase. In this way everyone can get involved, and the course members progress one step further together. This is extremely important, so that every participant sees his or her own contribution at the end of the project, and the building is really a joint product of the whole group and not the result obtained by a sub-group that has split off. Only in this way is everyone willing to take into account the huge expenditure of time and put in great individual commitment. On the whole it is remarkable and extremely pleasing to see how the students put their heart and soul and a lot of positive energy into these design-build projects!
Why do you think this happens?
One big motivation is often the social nature of the projects, which really do benefit the people out there. Apart from that, for many participants it is a rare opportunity to carry out a project themselves and to push it forward energetically from the first idea to the inauguration. This is definitely what leads to the greatest commitment. I think it is not so much about getting good grades. Of course there is also a certain group spirit that motivates them all. Because everyone wants to make a contribution, and also have the feeling of having achieved something real. There are always more applications than available places for the students. Sometimes 80 apply for only 20 places. And these projects are only offered once a year.
What problems have you encountered in the past?
As the projects are very diverse, the problems too differ widely. One problem is undoubtedly always the limited time frame in which these courses of teaching take place. It is usually difficult to estimate the duration of the construction phase, as it is done not by practiced building workers but by students who are still learning, and learning by doing always takes a little longer than when companies carry out their standard tasks. But at the same time, this is exactly what is so good about design-build: that you try out new solutions, experiment, and are not subject to any commercial constraint. Not having business pressure creates a time bonus, and we take advantage of this “luxury”. Experimenting like this is also huge fun and in the end gives the group a fantastic feeling of success.
When is the time pressure greatest?
It is at its strongest during the construction phase, actually. Planning happens fairly quickly, but then the moment comes for implementation. And it varies a lot, depending on where you are building. In Vienna, for example, the steps in the official planning process up to gaining permission to build take up the most time, and often open up big holes in a very tight schedule. On projects in threshold countries it is more about the logistical questions: where can we get the materials from, especially in a short time? But there are also health issues. For example, what happens in terms of medical care and insurance if someone is injured? One big advantage of the projects abroad, on the other hand, is that the whole group is on the spot together and there are no distractions. Everyone can concentrate entirely on the project. This affects not only the students, but also me as their supervisor. With the projects that we carry out in Vienna there are always many other commitments at the same time for all those involved: part-time jobs, other courses, relationships, families and so on. Abroad, everyone is there for the project alone, round the clock, for a certain period of time. A completely different momentum arises.
What projects have you already carried out?
Some of them are permanent buildings for social facilities. For example, in South Africa we have built a day center for people with disabilities, a kindergarten and an extension to a school. In Indonesia we have planned and constructed a multi-purpose building for an orphanage. In the first years in Vienna and Graz we focused on temporary projects in public spaces, architectural interventions and actions in the urban environment. In the meantime we are constructing permanent facilities for social institutions here in Austria too, for example the “parklife” project, a building for supervised play and educational activities for children on a high-rise estate on the edge of Vienna. Or the “actionfabrik“, a center of competence for socially committed young people that we designed and built for the charity “youngCaritas” in railway arches in Vienna.
When you set out on a project like this, for example the orphanage in Indonesia, where do you start?
The first phase is always a period of intense research that usually takes 2-3 weeks. The task is to find out what it means to build in tropical countries, for example, or what structural approach to take in respect of earthquakes and other forces of nature. In this case a further issue was: What does it mean in concrete terms to build for children, and what do children really need? The subject of materials is also an important element: What materials are available locally and how should they best be used? What traditional architecture already exists? The themes that we are involved in are always very wide-ranging and complex. At the end of this the participants present their results to each other in the group and add to them together. In addition there is important input from the local partner, in this specific case the nuns who run the orphanage there. The partner, client and source of finance for building materials was the charity Caritas Auslandshilfe, which made a very valuable contribution to the content of the project from the beginning and also gave us extremely professional support in implementation.
Do you think that design-build studios will be more widespread in future?
Hands-on is definitely a major issue, and in the last ten years a great deal has happened at universities in this respect. Berlin Technical University has a design-build tradition that goes back about as long as that of the Vienna University of Technology. In cooperation with the TU Berlin we are currently launching an international design-build knowledge network within the framework of a European Union project and trying by this means to record and link up existing design-build initiatives at universities. This network is intended to be available to other universities too as a knowledge platform for establishing new design-build studios. There is a lot of interest in this topic. It is quite simply a many-faceted subject that connects very many diverse fields: social commitment, teamwork, relevance to practice, learning by doing, and above all learning how to get a project into reality on the ground.
Do you think this development in teaching has an influence on the nature of the architect’s profession as a whole?
Yes. With the aim that in future architects should always build themselves. This is not what it is about. Nevertheless, it is demonstrated to the students what it feels like to construct such a building with their own hands. It is very important for all of them to have tried this for themselves in order to incorporate it into planning later. The idea is not to turn architects into manual workers, but through this personal experience they learn to judge the value of manual work better, to communicate differently with workers and to recognize problems earlier. This means that in later projects they can take the right approach in the planning and design stage. This works out best when the architecture student has seen a 1: 1 model once before and worked on it with his or her own hands.
How do you see the connection between architecture and mobility in future?
In future a closer interlinking than ever before between architecture and mobility will be required. Especially in threshold countries, where motorized individual traffic is increasing extremely rapidly at present, public transport has to be intensified and conceived as part of urban planning. But here in Europe, too, it cannot be regarded as sustainable to live in a passive house in green surroundings but to commute into the city every day by car. There is a huge amount to be done in the future.