Kerb: You seem to contend that what you call the organic rationalist model of understanding the city is unable to deal with the contemporary city. Firstly what is the contemporary city? Secondly you seem to be fascinated with ‘vision’; does this pertain to this inability to understand the contemporary city?
Ignasi: Hard question. We are facing very fast and large changes that cannot be un- derstood by using this evolutionist model borrowed from the sciences. This evolutionary model has to do with a build up of factors and is redundant because its transformations are extended along a large period of time. It seems that there is now the process of moving from one situation to another which is imperceptible.
When we face contemporary situations in which the changes happen in a very compressed period of time we have to look for other models. Another biological model which is applicable is the model of mutation. Mutation means that at a certain point internal changes in the system, the internal information of an individual, or of cells, occur for unpredictable reasons. Some kinds of these sudden changes happen, and this produces, or defaults to, the changing situation.
This kind of model is useful if it fits with some of the kinds of changes we face in contemporary expression of cities. It would appear that in many places instead of the expression of growing, of transforming, what happens is that, because of large investments, social movements, political changes, war or natural phenomena, some kinds of important changes happen. For example with the thing that is happening now in Berlin, it’s not a process of continuation, because something happened politically speaking that has to do with the general equilibrium between East and West, and in fact all of this meant change. Change which altered completely the relation between political rapport, which reproduced in the city this important transformation which is no more an evolutionary process. It could be the same if you look at what is happening in the Chinese cities where certain developments introduced important changes. Alternative cases could be what is faced, for example, in the reconstruction of Beirut, or what will happen in Sarajevo, or what will happen in Japan near Osaka, Kobe in fact.
K: Could you characterise your notion of terrain vague?
I: Probably because these kind of changes happen very fast, we are faced with another situation which is that inside the cities there are certain areas which are characterised by becoming obsolete in terms of capacity for being productive and are expectant in terms of what should happen in the coming future.
These areas have become places in which it seems that certain possibilities are regarded as possible and better than in other places. You have to consider that in many cases the large cities do not produce a sense of happiness in the residents of the city.
The model of these cities is a place in which it seems the people don’t always feel a certain will of looking for alternative situations. It is characteristic of contemporary human beings to look for alternatives. As the cities become more important and efficient, large and sophisticated in terms of their facilities and so on, it seems that people wish for alternative situations, alternative spaces: alternative in location, alternative in natural areas, alternative in free movement of the modern city which is one of the ways we live in city life. This is a way that cities help modern life. What we have discovered today is that these empty, abandoned or expectant spaces are another kind of landscape which are not usual and which could provide an alternative.
Sometimes it could be said that terrain vague, in the contemporary situation, is another kind of landscape in which people, instead of meeting with their interpretation of the natural world, meet, basically, with the representation of uninhabitable space; of the emptiness which means something not related to production, efficiency and control. Terrain vague is the abandoned industrial buildings and empty sites full of expectancy. Why do we segregate and not populate the space for a contemporary museum or space for exhibitions? We consider an abandoned industrial warehouse better and in some sense more full of richness of suggestion.
K: The culture of landscape and terrain vague has a strong link. You have said that ‘the mechanism of approaching terrain vague should be similar to the culture of landscaping in the nineteenth century.’ Could you elaborate on this?
I: Well, my impression is that terrain vague is in some sense asked to be a certain role inside the cities: its interest and values and satisfaction is similar to those we ask from parks. Parks in many cases are green spaces a to us, a very vague expression.
K: Green stuff?
I: Yes. Green spaces started in the nine- teenth century cities, basically using scientific or hygienic justification, but in fact at the back of that it was a very symbolic interest. It was to be in contact with natural elements.
A new sort of landscaping will be necessary to deal with these empty, historical - let’s say obsolete - spaces in which again people look for these few things: free spaces, open spaces, which could be filled with alternative, individual, non structured activities, or connections, or so on. In some sense we have to invent probably the way in which people could, the development could, use spaces for their own will of expressing themselves and generating their own way of living. In fact, that exists in some sense be- cause many of these empty spaces sometimes are used for rock concerts or let’s say special impromptu meetings against French government nuclear policy. In these spaces those things happen and they are produced from the people.
K: They are temporal in a way.
I: In many cases they are temporal.
K: They react to the space — go for the duration and then finish. That temporal aspect is very important.
I: Absolutely. Very important. If it is a permanent settlement, that means these a spaces become, in a sense, an established function. It is now an arts and crafts shopping area, or it’s a place for playing games, but probably what people like is to go there because today it is nothing and tomorrow it should be - I don’t know what. It has to do with activities, it has to do with walking, with meeting and SO on. In other words it is a sort of landscape: because landscape or parks, let’s say, have been and will be in the future, empty spaces for walking, for just being free, etcetera. But of course parks have to do with the conservation of natural elements and the presence of those things - and this is probably the difference between parks and those empty spaces. If in parks natural events are the protagonist and the main elements present, then in those empty spaces the deficient and lost elements are the protagonist.
K: The park is a monitored space but the surrounding environment is by nature spontaneous. Anything could happen without that political control. People control: that would be the difference, wouldn’t it?
I: Yes, well, that’s one of the most difficult problems: how to develop that without a strong sense of control because the contradictions follow, for in some sense we look for freedom in the sense of being outside the main eye that controls everything but in another sense we like that control and certainty.
K: Discuss your idea that we should start with the everyday cultural anthropology in design and the potential that you find in the everyday. The cult of the object rules and historically the everyday iS lost as a source of knowledge. Are there any examples or language or modes of analysis that deal with making something from this everyday?
I: Yes. Yes.
K: I suppose terrain vague has something to do with it. It just seems to be an unspoken area and yet we rely on it but we don’t consciously talk about it.
I: For sure, but it seems that in the big cities what is more or less structured and organised are the main systems: traffic, security, health, distribution of goods, etcetera. But people with city sense feel sometimes that they’re not fully engaged with spaces which allow us to be not using structures that are predesigned, pre-established, organised by officials, by administration, organisations and sO on. In that sense of course the new, approaches to human problems must pay attention to this discomfort, this dissatisfaction in people. My feeling is that we have to accept that cities grow, cities become efficient and so on, but people in the cities are not happy. They don’t feel right; they feel inside the machine which destroys them more than it offers them the possibilities of expansion, personal values, relations and connections. In that sense I’m not for totalism because it seems to me very misunderstanding of the everyday. Let’s go back and do an anthropology of what is an individual, the behavours of the inhabitants in the large cities; in Paris, in London, in Melbourne because we will understand that maybe the kind of life which happens in these places has richness and rules and interest that we maybe don’t know very well.
K: In relation to terrain vague there are both places that are going to happen, as well as places that never happen in a sense, and will never happen. Is their role to locate the rest of a city around them and as such are they as strategically important as any development, as they put into context the things around them? What becomes interesting is the manipulation of them in design and the choice to leave one here and eat into one there, develop around this one, and there could be an important strategy built around this.
I: Well, there is a technique of renovation, of reusing parts of the city. In fact the urban planners and urban designers know very well this technique. So how to afford the transformation of these abandoned areas? Do you remove certain areas to replace the needs of housing or industrial settle- ment? Well, that’s the logic in these places which are vacant and expectant and could be reintroduced into the normal processes of the city. What propose is a more subtle approach which is not exactly accepted.
Many people, when they see an industrial area which is no longer productive, see it as an economic waste land with good possibility to build a new business district or a park.
If it is to be reused as a park let’s use it as a park that keeps the memory of what is there and this is a field in which many experiments have been done. Parc de la Villette for example is something which has at least certain sensibilities in this direction. La Villette has been used as a point of reference in the last ten years. It’s a park in which there is, on the one side, cultural exhibitions, museums, centres for concerts and so on while the other side of the coin is conservation. It still remains, the presence of the slaughterhouse which was there, the old canals whose use has run down. Well, it seems to me that I would say it is the unique issue. The present shows that capacity of understanding which produced the park in the central obsolete or abandoned area in Paris. It couldn’t be any more as it was in Paris one century before, to reproduce mountains, lakes and well, you know, this beautiful park, La Butte Chamont which is fantastic but it’s sort of a theatrical representation of landscape.
K: The French picturesque?
I: Yeah, it’s very funny and I like this park very much. It’s like going to a theatre or a show. This is more artificial than Parc de La Villette in some sense because it is really a sort of presentation of a natural space which is completely done in an artificial way. On the contrary, in La Villette, to use this example, (there are many others), it is not the gain between the real past of this area and also the sense of emptiness which brings the main interest. Another thing which is interesting about La Villete and, for example, in Parc del Besos, instead of trying to organise fuller space they just try to organise certain points, or parts, giving again parts which are full or open or empty. It seems to me in terms of design strategy also very worthwhile instead of filling everything: here bushes, here trees, here kiosk, here for music. They just establish certain very precise gestures. The rest becomes more open and this new landscaping, which is maybe not the best word, should be more related to justice and to insinuations, to indications that are a fulfilment of the space.
This interview was conducted by Peter Connolly, Tim Nicholas and Julian Raxworthy.