The Open Architecture To Come: an Interview with Esra Akcan

The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 1, no 1 (2018)
ISSN 2612-0496

The Open Architecture To Come: an Interview with Esra Akcan

Vando BorghiUniversity of Bologna (Italy)

Esra AkcanCornell University (United States of America)

Amir DjalaliUniversity of Bologna (Italy)

Published: 2018-12-31

When this article was first published online on January 31st, 2018, the title contained a spelling error and the word “interview” was spelled “intervew”. This has been corrected on March 1st, 2019. See https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.2612-0496/9143.

Fig. 1 Cover of Open Architecture, with the collage Freedom of information, artwork by Esra Akcan.
Fig. 1 Cover of Open Architecture, with the collage Freedom of information, artwork by Esra Akcan.

Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship, and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87 is a unique book in its genre, dealing with a unique case in the history of European cities.1 Written by Esra Akcan, associate professor of architectural history at Cornell University, it sheds light on some of the neglected aspects around the celebrated Internationale Bauaustellung Berlin (IBA), the last and largest urban regeneration process in Europe through public housing, which gathered in the same neighbourhood the works of some of the most famous architects of the time. While the general strategy of the “critical reconstruction” of Berlin’s 19th-century fabric and the single architect’s buildings are well known, the political context in which the architects were called is often overlooked. IBA operated on the area of Kreuzberg, a district of West Berlin, where great part of its inhabitants were foreigners, in particular Turkish guest workers who started arriving after 1961 and refugees from the 1980 coup, living segregated in torn-down buildings in poor hygienic and structural conditions.

The book reconstructs the discriminatory policies that were adopted by the Federal government and the Berlin Senate as well. As part of these, the limit that set, with the excuse of avoiding the creation of “ghettos,” the amount of foreign inhabitants for newly constructed buildings in Kreuzberg to 10 percent. Akcan reconstructs the ways in which architects and planners faced these policies, which ranged to pure indifference to strategies of open resistance, shedding a completely new light on well-known buildings and their architects.

Akcan does this by mixing the traditional methods of the historian’s archival research with an onsite exploration that lasted many years, in which the historian met activists and the inhabitants which took possession of the apartments after their construction. In this way, Akcan elaborates the methods for writing a history of Open Architecture as a tendency—something that has never been and that cannot be defined once for all, but which nevertheless has always been latently present in the work of many architects.

We had the opportunity to have an exchange with Esra Akcan on the issues of citizenship and hospitality in European cities, and the role of architects, researchers and educators vis-à-vis the phenomenon of global migrations.

Authorial architectural dismisses the voice of inhabitants, politics and conflicts, giving all the agency in the transformation of urban spaces to architects as the depositaries of architectural knowledge. On the other hand the so-called “activist architecture” refuses a strict control over architectural objecthood, focusing more on the subjects and processes that traverse and produce the built environment. Despite the good intentions of both authorial and participative approaches, exemplified in your book by IBA Neubau and IBA Altbau, you showed that neither have had the power to radically criticize the discriminatory policies of the West German Government and the Berlin Senate.

At best, architecture seems to work as a palliative, to improve the dwelling conditions of inhabitants, or as a critical testimony without the capacity to affect reality. Wasn’t perhaps O. M. Ungers—the protagonist of the most emotional of your chapters—right in saying that after all architecture does not have the power to change things, that architecture should not be messing with politics but only with its own internal problems? Or, in the words of Rem Koolhaas praising the paradoxical architectural qualities of the Berlin Wall, that “were not division, enclosure (i.e., imprisonment) and exclusion—which defined the wall’s performance and explained its efficiency—the essential strategies of any architecture?” In other words, isn’t it “open architecture” a contradiction in terms?

Let me rephrase some of the arguments in the book, because this is not the conclusion I draw from the historical evidences pertaining to the urban renewal of the immigrant neighborhood Kreuzberg. For example, I posit the IBA-Altbau (the section that practiced participatory urban renewal without displacement) as one of the most successful examples in history. It had many limits, as I discuss in the book, especially pertaining to the noncitizen population. Nonetheless, after the process, the resulting “percentage [of immigrant population] was well above the Senate’s 10 percent threshold.”2 Namely, the Senate’s discriminatory regulations about the immigrants were indeed subverted through the work of the IBA-Altbau team, who were employed by the Senate itself. Here we see an example where architects achieve to overcome their own employer/client’s discriminatory rules. This entire chapter is about “IBA-Altbau’s success in empowering inhabitants vis-à-vis the state.”3

We can speak of a similar structure throughout the book. All of the chapters both define forms of latent open architecture in history and expose their limits, in order to make a call for the future open architecture. “The book asks what would have happened if the architectural discipline and profession were shaped by a new ethics of hospitality toward the immigrant, and calls this open architecture.”4 For this reason, the book exposes the contradictions in the way latent open architecture has been practiced in the past, but open architecture is not at all a contradiction in terms itself. It is an incomplete process with unresolved aspects.

I think your question reflects a common habit in architectural criticism today, but one that I try to distance myself from. Namely, the role of scholarship needs to be creating nuanced understandings of past practices, not identifying heroes or villains in an operative way. The book does not turn a blind eye to the contradictions of some of the best practices, but after analyzing the incomplete and unresolved aspects of past practices, I do not reach the conclusion—like you have done in the question—that “architecture cannot change anything.” Or after seeing the impotency of this position, I do not shift to the opposite end of the spectrum and naively say “architecture alone can change everything.” We need a much more nuanced and realistic understanding of what architecture can do, and how. And there is a lot architecture can do, especially if architects collaborate with others, and cultivate themselves about matters in addition to form and client requirements.

Fig. 2 5 June 2012, Memorial in Oswald Mathias Ungers’s Block 1 for IBA-1984/87, photographed by Esra Akcan, Berlin, 2012,
Fig. 2 5 June 2012, Memorial in Oswald Mathias Ungers’s Block 1 for IBA-1984/87, photographed by Esra Akcan, Berlin, 2012,

A particular place in your book is occupied by the figure of John Hejduk. John Hejduk’s architecture is neither “participative” in the classic sense of the word, neither politically critical in content. In his designs the presence of the architect as a creator of form is still very clear. However, as you show in the book, these forms are neither tied with specific uses, nor relate with any historically or culturally defined typology, leaving these forms open for appropriation by anyone. Can we see Hejduk’s architectural adventure games, as you call them, as a third way or a line of flight to the deadlock of the debate between autonomy and participation?

Yes, I argue in the book that Hejduk’s practice constituted one of the best positions to set an alternative to the opposition between conventional autonomy and participation; but his is not the only one. Actually, there are many other practices analyzed in the book that illustrate viable positions, albeit with unresolved aspects, contradictions, or negligence, including those of Alvaro Siza, Hardt-Waltherr Hämer, Heide Moldenhauer, Cihan Arın, Bohigas/Mackay/Martorell, even Aldo Rossi and Rem Koolhaas and many others with varying degrees of openness to the immigrant. Let me quote from the Preface: Even though this is a story of discrimination and negligence, “this book is also a chronicle of hope. It reports inspiring stories against all odds of immigrants who rightfully take credit of making Berlin’s Kreuzberg one of the most exciting places to live in the world. In cases of the lack of hospitality reflected in architecture, it records examples where individual residents triumphed over these non-open spaces. It also brings out solidarities between ex-migrants and citizens, despite the overwhelming discriminations. Additionally, it records one of the most successful chapters of public housing in world history, a program that has since then almost disappeared from the purview of architectural publications and discussions.”5 We need to learn from these practices how architecture could be open, but also observe their contradictions and unresolved aspects to make a call for the future of open architecture. Moreover, I do not think Hejduk’s Berlin projects are short of being “politically critical in content” as you say. On the contrary, the “Victims” project proposed for the site of the former Nazi headquarters, which then turned into his Berlin Tower Housing, is very political.

In which ways is architecture open today? Can we find new instances of such a condition for architecture after the 1980s and the IBA debate?

In the book, I define the architectural (formal, programmatic, design process oriented) tactics of open architecture as flexibility and adaptability of form, unfinished and unfinalizabile design, collectivity and collaboration in the design thinking process, participation and democracy in decision making, multiplicity of form’s meaning, and open-sourceable design. Any practice that moves toward the expansion of human rights and social citizenship, and toward transnational solidarity can be defined as one type of open architecture. It is true that the sociopolitical and economic conditions of the world we live in today discourage such practices, but they do exist and even get facilitated with the new communication technologies. It is true that the more dominant voices coming out of the architectural discourse today trivialize, dismiss or even oppose such practices, but as far as I can tell by observing my students, there is a growing consciousness about these issues among the new generation. I see that my students are very disappointed with the uncritical, opportunistic, even sometimes anti-intellectual stances that they observe in the recent state of the profession.

Certain manifestations of today’s architectural practice can be ascribed to the logic of humanitarianism. Cooperation and development projects often imply migrants or poor populations as “victims” (not in Hejduk’s sense) in need for help, without seeing them as active agents of their own choices, and eventually reinforcing the stereotypes and power relations that govern their life. Despite acknowledging the role of humanitarian support, especially in the present political conjuncture dominated by openly racist policies which are threatening the life of many people moving from one country to the other, can we think of open architecture as a critique of humanitarian architecture?

I think you are right about the paternalistic undertones of some of the humanitarian practices, which rely on ages old Orientalist stereotypes. Open architecture anticipates and encourages resident agency, and in that way, it differs from practices that constitute the habitant as a passive and helpless subject. Thank you for noticing this distinction. Yet, this also depends on who in particular we are talking about, because I cannot imagine those dedicated to humanitarianism have not heard of recent ideas in postcolonial theory and critical race studies to overcome this aspect, and move their practice to one that admits and allows more agency to all.

What seems perhaps a crucial aspect of architectural knowledge is its openness to potentiality, with what is already but not yet there. Architecture, as the art of the project, feels somehow more at home with virtuality rather than actuality. You seem to develop a methodology for writing the history of something that has never been, but which has somehow always latently existed; open architecture has sometimes resurfaced into official history, in incomplete and fragmented form, but never becoming hegemonic. Is this a history of a concept in its becoming? Contrary to Hegelian history, in which the “not yet” is “already there”, open history situates itself in the time frame between “the no longer and the not yet”. You define it “a history written in the past perfect tense”: “the book asks what would have happened if the architectural discipline and profession were shaped by a new ethics of hospitality toward the immigrant, and calls this open architecture.” At the same time, open history is neither a history of Utopia, nor a Utopian history. What we find very interesting about this approach is that open architecture and open history respond to very urgent and very practical needs concerning the reality of the work of architects and researchers alike, looking for an ethics of intervention in the politics of city, without necessarily incurring in what Manfredo Tafuri had censored as “operative history”. Do you see open history as the possibility of a militant history?

I agree with everything you said until the word “militant history”. Yes, the chapter “Stop VI: Open History in the Past Subjunctive Tense,” where you quote these sentences, more explicitly discusses what I call the history of possibility, (against Hegelian notions of actuality and possibility), but there is a general intention in the entire book to posit open history as an alternative to both operative history and unengaged history. But I would not call this “militant”. As a matter of fact, my previous books and articles are about perpetual peace, which I see as the opposite of militancy. So, I would not associate open history with this word, but I would use words such as engaged, geopolitical, committed to design practice.