TITLE WIDE ACTIVISM
FIRST PUBLICATION VOLUME #30 PRIVATIZE! - title : Tribute to an active tribe
AUTHOR Oscar Gential (Laurent Guidetti/TRIBU Architecture - interview)
DATE February 2012
This article was firslty published in VOLUME #30, PRIVATIZE!, in february 2012 under the title : Tribute to an active tribe
Any representation or reproduction of this article and it contains images made without the agreement of the author or his personal representative is illegal (except under the right to quote or copy private home or personal use).
Winner of the urban design competition Metamorphose for the design of a new eco-neighborhood called Plaines-du-Loup in Lausanne1, Tribu Architecture is currently involved in the renewal of Lausanne’s urban space. Nevertheless, their winning entry ‘ZIP’ is not the only means of action for Tribu, in taking part in the improvement of public life in its fullest scope.
The tribe2 pursues its activism by infiltrating a lot of associations, architecture and urban planning circles, and political and resident groups.
Laurent Guidetti, who started architecture with the idea that he would not practice it, co-founded Tribu Architecture with Christophe Gnaegi and Alvaro Varela. He discusses the involvement of Tribu and its employees in urban planning issues.
OG What are the different fields of action in which Tribu is currently involved?
LG We’re strongly involved in both political circles and associations. In terms of political circles, we engage as activists, and I’m also a councilman for the City of Lausanne; in terms of associations, we are members of different national and local organizations involved in territorial planning, habitat, architecture, and education issues. We built links with these circles just after our graduation because it followed some ideas we claimed at the time: communication between the public and professionals, architecture as a discipline more than a profession, planning issues before architectural ones, etc. To us, architects were not often present during debates led by associations and political parties.
OG Could you tell us more about the origins of your connections with these environments?
LG Personally, I started architecture being more interested in territorial planning. I was aware of planning thanks to my father who was planner for years.
I think that for all of us at Tribu, this interest in planning came from the need to give meaning to what we were doing. The lessons of urban planning at school were not so great, considering that the discipline is fundamental. For us, it seemed relevant to always integrate the discipline of architecture into planning, and not the opposite. The situation at the time also played an important role. Most of those who graduated in 1997 were unemployed. These conditions led us to reinvent our profession. We therefore developed positions and stances, wrote articles and initiated awareness campaigns on the built environment in classrooms. It was also the beginning of political and association involvement for Tribu. Notably, in 1998 I chaired the planning committee of the Vaud Socialist Party and I became a board member of the association Droit de Cité – Christophe Gnaegi subsequently chaired this association for two years. Positions and debates in associations and political parties were much more interesting than those taking place in the school of architecture, but we also had things to bring as architects.
OG What were your sources of inspiration for the development of your positions? And through which contexts did you implement them?
LG We probably have been influenced – more or less – in the school of architecture by some teachers such as Luigi Snozzi and Bernard Huet but mainly Martin Dominguez, Mauro Galantino, and Christian Gilot. They were certainly less known but very involved in teaching and had a real thinking about the city. We also learned a lot from professors with whom we were in complete disagreement… In fact, debates have fueled our positions and confrontation has taught us to assert ourselves. For my part, I was really influenced by an extraordinary architect from Lausanne - Marius Vionnet – and his discourse on urbanism and planning, a relentless activist. Furthermore, the writings of Ivan Illich, Leonardo Bénévolo, Adolf Loos and Gustave-Nicolas Fischer – a psychosociologist of space – were unmistakably more substantial sources of inspiration for us than architectural magazines.
Newly graduated, we wrote articles highlighting our position and launched our awareness campaign on the built environment. In 2000, we also had the opportunity to participate in a study of the Renens city center where we could shape our planning ideas and our urban design skills. It was the same way in 1998 for the Europan competition at a site in Geneva, which was obviously unsuccessful: not visual enough, not formal enough, and too much reflection for Europan…
OG We could also wonder how all these initiatives appear in your latest work and in your achievements. In your ZIP project for the eco-neighborhood of Plaines-du-Loup in Lausanne you designed a participatory process. What is the nature of this approach and how did you connect it to the whole design?
LG First of all, it’s necessary to know that we didn’t invent anything new for this project: we proposed exactly what we have always claimed. It is a pure continuity of our work. The citizen participatory process was a requirement for the competition. We linked the participation element to the relevant issues of the project to offer real leverage power to the inhabitants. Because the competition area is currently uninhabited, it was important for us to involve the future inhabitants in order to save the debates from outsider lobbyists. Therefore, we thought up a process that enables us to progressively pinpoint the mutual commitments between the future inhabitants and the municipality. At the beginning, the discussion between the two parts is general. Then, the subjects become more substantial: my street, my courtyard, my stairwell, and then my home. Thus, in each step we have to confirm some principles, then others, and so forth. There is a long-term logic of planning that must lead the logic of participation. It’s central for us. The problem for the politicians is that they have to take on commitments to the population, based on more than simply talk.
OG Precisely, how did you deal with these discussions, and generally with the politics, during the project?
LG We proposed something that we called the Inhabitant Diagnosis. In fact, if we consider the enlarged perimeter of study, the neighborhood is actually inhabited, and we highly insist on this. If there is a participatory process with the future inhabitants, it’s important to involve the current inhabitants too. Focused on the areas nearby, this Inhabitant Diagnosis is crucial. All the more so while we called our project ZIP, with the ambition of linking up the future area to the existing ones and making it a piece of a larger district. The whole urban structure of the neighborhood is designed from the streets of nearby areas. There are also urban issues in these areas: public space design, mobility management, and density increase. This topic is also linked to my political activity: I submitted in 2009 a postulate to the town council that concerned the increase of density.3 I asked to study the potential of this increase where it is the most relevant, that is to say in the districts with low density.
OG Since recently, you’re no longer just an architecture office, but also a real estate development company. Therefore, you’re both the client and the architect. It seems that you like conflicts of interest.
LG We have done this precisely because we think there is no conflict of interest. And moreover, it is two different companies. Actually, when we have an approach that says the issues are elsewhere than the strict field of architecture – that the real issues, such as the lack of accommodation, are political and urban –, it is evident that we challenge the choices that are the responsibility of politics or contracting firms. Nonetheless, we’re not alone. We know several architects who develop real estate. More often than not, the motivation is to make a business card without the constraints of the client, who are often considered as insensitive and uncultivated. When we are the clients, we talk a lot about economy and savings, which could frustrateour employees who are working on the project. We’ll be transparent with the expected yields with this project. We would like to demonstrate that in spite of the plot’s value, we could reduce the construction costs and make these dwellings affordable for most of the population. The parcel of land we’ve bought is considered to be poorly located. We’ll build in a socially difficult situation, underneath a freeway bridge, surrounded by low-rise ugly blocks, a high-voltage transmission line, and in front of a noisy road. The challenge is to demonstrate that from this piece of land, we could arouse an urge from people who are currently declaring that they will never live in this dump. This is how we want to succeed! All the more reason to limit the costs and make this housing accessible to the majority of the population.
OG Real estate developers have a crucial strategic vision of territory because they have to know the political issues and planning strategies at hand in order to know exactly where they have to build and to invest. Nevertheless, profitability is their one and only objective, while also a constraint. In this project, where your intentions seem rather to serve a general interest rather than maximizing profits, what is your strategy about that same incontrovertible constraint?
LG To get a line of credit from the bank, we had to introduce ourselves as the worst property developer, to present abusive yields, clearly beyond what the tenant law allows. In contrast we have scrupulously complied with the rules used to meet subsidized housing standards – because we believe in it! For example, we defend accessibility for disabled people, so our project must be compatible. We can’t build dwellings of 200 square meters for a couple while we regularly weigh in to denounce the huge inequality in the spatial consumption of housing. So, we will build apartments of 60 square meters for a two room dwelling, 75 square meters for a three room dwelling and 95 square meters for a four room dwelling. It is also necessary to bring down the construction costs. We are in theory an economic player supposed to make some profit, but we will make our statement without getting rich on the backs of people. That’s the principal challenge. I like when Jean Nouvel says that good housing is spacious housing. Nevertheless, I think this is a way of thinking from the eighties that contributes to the current the lack of accommodation. In fact, these types of housing are more expensive. They are cheap for the economic player but the rent is a function of the amount of square meters, and so more expensive. There is no need to design thirty percent larger, but thirty percent better.
OG And in this serious context of crisis and lack of housing in the Lake Geneva area, what levers could ameliorate the situation?
LG The main issue today is about land property, the shortage of which creates the speculative bubble that increases costs: the real estate community has never before made so much profit with so little. Now there is a need to give public authorities new tools to find buildable lands through pre-emption and expropriation rights or taxes on capital gains. These issues are actually disturbing. A recent study shows that there are currently stocks of building zones where land is simply being hoarded and not developed.4 65 percent of owners neither want to sell nor build. By taking into account the planning durations of current large projects and without new legal tools to prevent hoarding, the entirety of ready-to-develop land will be built in five years. The construction market will collapse because of the lack of land up for development and also because public authorities hadn’t anticipated this.
OG The land question is crucial. Nevertheless, in view of this speculative phenomenon, don’t you think that some current initiatives can be seen as possible alternatives? For example, the project of real estate development that you propose, or the very Swiss model of resident cooperatives?
LG Once you’ve got the land, yes. There is a great cooperative tradition in this country, created first by the working class. Different sorts of cooperatives exist. This is an alternative economic example that enables a group of buyers to purchase housing with only a five percent down payment – which is really a bargain and affordable. The banks put up eighty percent of the funds and the local authority guarantees the other fifteen percent. Profit is not directed to any single property owner. There are many models of cooperatives. Some small ones have only their inhabitants as members. Some big ones have thousands of members with only a few of them actually living there – for the non-resident co-op member, their membership can be seen as a low-interest investment. Several people in TRIBU are also co-op members. They need members to build. Christophe Gnaegi and I are members of a cooperative called CODHA.5 This co-op is interesting because it encourages community involvement. That’s a typical Tribu experiment: the Lausanne cooperative didn’t use the associative lease model. We brought it from Geneva to Lausanne. The municipality gave them a plot through us and we are the architects of this project, as a reward for our efforts.
OG How did you integrate these examples and this approach into the Metamorphose project?
LG On Metamorphose, the social diversity was decided politically, led by leftist parties. The town council imposed the following division in order to bring about this diversity: one-third cooperative housing, one-third rent-controlled housing, and one-third open market housing, so with a higher profitability. On our side, we defend the fact that only one private investor should realize the three thirds inside the same block, in order to better distribute the costs and benefits as well as making a clear distinction as to who subsidizes what.
1 Metamorphose project, Lausanne, Switzerland www.lausanne.ch/metamorphose http://tribuarchitecture.ch/node/29
2 In French ‘tribu’ means tribe.
3 ‘Densifying the city efficiently and sustainably’ postulate submitted in 2009 by Laurent Guidetti http://tribuarchitecture.ch/node/250 (accessed November 16th 2011).
4 ‘Vaud Housing: Analysis of the Shortage’ IConsulting, March 2011 http://www.iconsultingsa.ch/FichiersCommuns/PenLogVD.pdf (accessed November 16th 2011).
5 Cooperative of the Associative Habitat www.codha.ch