AK — I know that you recently came back from St. Petersburg, where you are Director of a Master Program on Urban Design, organized by the Institute of Urbanistics “Sreda”.
St. Petersburg is a very young city compared to Barcelona. Let us start our talk with Barcelona –what is the main feature in the city character which best defines the city identity for you? How would you comment on the main idea of the city structure offered by Cerda for Barcelona?
EM-B — Originally the structure of L’Eixample (the XIXth century extension of the city) was caused by the necessity of expanding the city at a moment when it was growing a lot. After Catalonia failed in the war against Spain (it was more or less at the same time when St. Petersburg was founded), Barcelona was punished to keep its walled precinct and could not grow naturally. Due to these restrictions the city could not grow beyond the walls for more than 200 years. After the 1850ies the city economic growth began and the Municipal Government began thinking what the city should look like, with the antagonism of the Spanish Government, which did everything to keep the punished status of Barcelona. But eventually the city walls were torn down by the people, against the will of the Government, and it resulted in a great celebration, a moment of great optimism and joy. Later, a competition was announced for the project of the plan for the city extension. Cerda did not participate, but he was finally commissioned with the project. It was a good choice actually.
What do you think was the most special feature of Cerda’s plan?
AK — Some associations of the urban history come to my mind: the 1st is the social idea of the Hovard’s “The garden city” with neighborhood united around the public space of the common garden; the 2d is a grid of the Manhattan plan; and the 3d –is the similarity of the facades of the building in L’Example to the Petrogradskaya storona in St.Petersburg with the Art Nuovo Style and the system of development by the continuous street facade and high density….
But as it turned out …
EM-B — The most impressive issue about L’Example was the possibility to build it because there was empty land around the city. The area was very dense within the city walls but the area outside Barcelona was kept empty for military purposes in case of war conflict, and it was not possible to build anything within the range of the cannons from the fortified walls. This situation provided the possibility for a city expansion of this extraordinary caliber. The growth of all European cities the size of Barcelona was organically achieved over the years progressively occupying the surrounding areas, whether planned or chaotic. But that was not possible in Barcelona.
When we started designing the Tower we tried to express this very spatial and extraordinary location. That why we called the project “Diagonal ZeroZero”. It’s like a gate between the city and the sea beach.
AK — During the history of Barcelona you have not lost traditions in architecture as it happened in Russia. The last time the crisis point was when Khruszchov cancelled architecture for the prefabricated production of mass housing …
EM-B — In general you are right. We saved traditions but not all things were going smoothly, some breaks happened as well…
I know your history a little bit . And particularly the Microrayon system which appeared in the 50s-60s as the main city planning image of the Soviet time.
AK — Do you see any possibilities of upgrading the Microrayon?
EM-B — A lot. In St.Petersburg my students and I worked with this model. We have had a workshop on this precise issue. It has a great potential for improving the quality of life. Those microrayons of the 60-70ies are very good. Those of later time are perhaps too high and huge, but still have potential.
A microrayon is a wonderful thing. Compared to the new developments in St. Petersburg the microrayon pattern is so much better. There are a lot of possibilities. Some things could be replaced, building and spaces could regenerate. There is a lot of potential. It is a model which allows for changes, it is open, and very capable of incorporating very contemporary issues like new approaches to sustainability or to mobility.
I have seen several new city developments. As far as I know, they could be grouped into two categories: the first one is of high market and gated community isolated from the city context. Such developments take advantage of what the city has to offer, but do not give anything back to the city. The second one is huge scale developments,very different from the microrayon in terms of density and capability of future changes, like the one you can see in Parnas, for instance.
It is totally closed as well, but in a different sense: unlike gated communities, it is possible to go through these areas, but they are closed in the sense that don’t incorporate the possibility of change in them and use up all the available space. So they cannot be transformed. The density and elements of structure like public area and public facilities are so huge that it would be very difficult to change anything to incorporate it into the city and make anything for its improvement. Such housing projects can create a very big problem for the city in the future. Such areas can hardly be regarded as city environment.
I am sorry to say, generally I have not seen a new development in Saint Petersburg which would try to give something to citizens or to connect it with the existing city, any really good new development.
I am very angry with the city situation. The city planning and urban design in Saint-Petersburg with its green open spaces has a great past, a very good and very long tradition of making a beautiful city, including the Soviet times. And now it seems to me that some things are going very wrong. Now what we can see is mostly bad architecture, very banal. And urbanism is even worse. Something has happened which is wrong and should be changed. I believe in the great traditions of the Russian architecture and their willingness to connect with the international discussions. This is why we are doing this Urban Design Master Program in Saint Petersburg, because we believe in this great city and we think we can help it to regain quality for the citizens and international status with its urbanism, like Barcelona.
AK — Have you seen any modern constructions in the city center which imitate the historic style of the past? What is your attitude to this kind of contemporary architecture?
EM-B – Yes, I have. I think it is not the way contemporary city should be built. It’s like a fake city, just like a theatre background.
AK — What is your way of thinking when you design a contemporary city?
EM-B — The main feature to create a rich cityscape is to consider the relationships between spaces and buildings, people and communications, built up and open, dense and soft fabric. Objects like buildings or public space are not significant by themselves. Designing just an object is wrong. The matter of style even if it is very bad is not that important. The main thing is relationships of all sorts which makes it possible to create a city. In a classical sense a city is a “polis” i.e. a place of political discussions in the wide sense. It is a place where each person can develop his personality as a society member, get wide possibilities for human growth.
Relationships must be the main way of thinking. Dealing only with objects, I mean either buildings or open spaces, because sometimes piazzas or streets are also treated like objects, is a wrong way. We should think about space for communication and interchange. In the Master program we are trying to change this way of thinking and designing.
The current city policy focused on the “object” should be much criticized.
AK — Have you discussed these matters with the architects in Saint- Petersburg?
EM-B — Not yet, only with my students. Our next workshop will be on Moskovskiy Prospect in December. There is a thin facade of buildings built in the period of the 30ies-50ies and there is nothing behind them. The workshop will last four weeks. As usual it will be presented for public discussion at the end of the second week. Of course we will be glad to see you and other architects at this presentation. It will be a good opportunity to exchange ideas, and we are also thinking of doing a small event celebrating the end of the first semester of the Master Program.
AK — How is it possible to save the identity of St. Petersburg in the situation when architects deal with their “objects” and do not influence the city planning process?
EM-B — Saint-Petersburg has different districts. The challenge for the city is to save diversity and enhance the reality of wholeness: the historic center is Saint-Petersburg, and so is Kupchino. Something should be done to make it possible for the people to like the place where they live, to fall again in love with the places they inhabit. Living conditions of kruschovky is generally quite poor, housing diversity is also very limited. But it can be changed and improved. There should be a chance for people to have varied possibilities of their own choice.Now there are only the same apartments, the same open spaces. It is necessary to give more centrality and more diversity, make comparable conditions for real choice: to create jobs, to make it possible for people to work where they live, providing some clean industry, to offer people their own space. The Microrayon is an basic model which is repeated numerously, so it should be given more personality, and it can change a lot. For people outside St. Petersburg there is the Hermitage, and there should be also Kupchino, like for someone in Barcelona there is the Gothic quarter, but also L’Example, although there are a lot of neighborhoods built up in the XX century which need changes. In Barcelona the situation is perhaps less crucial than in Saint-Petersburg, but it is still very important to fill the gaps.
AK — What is the main feature of Barcelona for you?
EM-B — I think that the main feature of Barcelona is its concept of public space. This is what Barcelona has been famous for over the last 20-25 years. Of course most cites have public spaces, but Barcelona values public spaces as a tool to improve the life in the city, rebalancing inequalities, providing a sense of identity and belonging, and of pride. People enjoy open spaces a lot, and they feel proud of being citizens of such a city.
AK — I have seen people in the oldest park – Ciutadella. A lot of people were dancing, playing, boating …It seems to me that the climate also influences the character of people. In our city people are graver.
EM-B — Of course climate helps a lot. But cities like Copenhagen, where the climate is not too easy either, people have learned to enjoy public spaces a lot and over the last 10 years the city has improved its quality considerably.
St. Petersburg could also change this. There are so many people walking along the streets especially in the city center. They have a lot of energy, sometimes some things happens spontaneously. There is a big potential for the use of public spaces. The main thing is the willingness to make it possible.
Planning is the basis for city management. The city is a place where conflicts confluence. There are different interests that have to be mediated: public vs private interests, economic, social, etc. The way to resolve these conflicts is participatory planning, or at least promotion of public discussion about these issues. It should be an open democratic process. The key issue is public discussion which incorporates not only architects and engineers but a lot of different specialists: sociologists, ecologists, transport planners etc. who present the plans to the citizens, and continue the discussion with this social participation.
AK — We have similar public hearings but they are rather formal.
EM-B — For me it is a matter of democracy. Master plan should not be a secret. Planning should be a result of public discussion. This is why planning is a tool for resolving questions. If people agree with what has been presented to them they vote for it, if not they protest against it.
It is terrible if you lose the whole. Connections are the main thing.
It is necessary to encourage public criticism.
AK — Who should be the leader in arranging public discussions so that the atmosphere of discussion was constructive and positive?
EM-B – There is a problem of communication. There should be professional discussions. But each person has his/her own opinion about money, for instance, as well as about other challenges of the city.
In Barcelona everybody’s feeling of belonging to the city is very high. But we also have problems, of course.
For example, Barcelona is very successful with tourism. Over 8 million tourists visit the city per year, 80% from abroad. On the one hand it is good but on the other hand a lot of visitors in L’Example or the Park Guell create stress for people who live there and there are other consequences, like distorting the price of apartments. So in Park Guelll administration was forced to limit the visitors because maintenance is very expensive.
Paris and Rome, for instance, are facing the same problems but however, both cities are fighting for tourists because tourism is very important as a source of money and the city image. How many tourists visit Saint- Petersburg a year?
AK — Near 6 mln totally and a half of them come from abroad
What do you think of the development of the city in the future?
EM-B — I am sure that Saint-Petersburg in the very near future will grow up. It has a very huge potential. We have to be optimists.
AK — Is the public spaces program in Barcelona designated for the whole city or each district has his own development?
EM-B — There is a program for the whole city. And each district is responsible for parks located within.
AK — Is the green infrastructure a part of the city master plan?
EM-B — It is a part of Barcelona master plan which is of 1978 and rather
old. It is unbelievable that there were so many changes and it was possible to handle them according to the plan. Now the new master plan is being dealt with. Now we are working for greenery as a system which regards all parties involved, not only in the city but with the parts of Barcelona Metropolitan Area with the population more than 5 mln people –close to Saint-Petersburg. So we have to do many things to understand the greenery as a system.
AK — Diagonal Zero Zero is close to the “22@ district“ – is it project of redevelopment of the former industrial area? What is the main thing in the process of redevelopment of industrial zones: is it about how to manage the relations between Public &Private sectors or about the protection of industrial heritage?
EM-B — Land Control and the Public&Private collaboration is very important.
The land use policy which was adopted did not cancel industry use changed for its technology. There is housing so there is mixed land use. I am not satisfied with the architectural result of building and space but as a strategy it is very good. Public&Private procedure is absolutely necessary to have collaboration between private and public sectors.
AK — Could you explain your approach to sustainable architecture. Is it possible to have green buildings without sustainable urban policy?
EM-B — You can have a green building without the green city. There is no sense in applying technology in making a green building like saving energy, water recycling etc, etc. But if you need a car to get to a river it is not a proper way as a system in which buildings, transportation, facilities should be oriented towards sustainability.
Sustainability is also a matter of ratio of public and private values in the city development purpose. In general the whole system used in Russia in and Saint -Petersburg in particular is more American than European,
which is a pity.
Of course sustainability in the USA follows the principles of energy saving, green construction, preventing climate changes etc, etc but in general they look for profitability development. It is used more for private than for public needs.
AK — Would you like to design anything in Saint-Petersburg?
EM-B — Of course yes. My idea of the city is made by of layers of history, year by year, generation by generation. My idea is that we have to take responsibility to add another layer of our own, to be able to create something new with understanding of the past. It will enable us to leave the doors open after our design. History should be used in its true sense. I am not a preservationist. We can demolish something if it allows to build what we have to do with the purpose to improve the quality of living.
I was in some debates where they discussed St. Petersburg as a historic city and how to deal with the UNESCO limitation. But St. Petersburg is much more than a historic city. St. Petersburg is not Venice. I mean not only that there are big prospects oriented for the future. St. Petersburg is confident in its future. I mean the center and other parts should be in balance. It is impossible to freeze one part of the city and develop the others.
The great past of St. Petersburg requests of us to make a contemporary city but not in a provincial banal way. It should be a city good for the present, with great past, in confidence with its future.
AK — What is your education program in “Sreda“? How do you teach?
EM-B — The core of the Master program is simple -“learning by doing” with classes of theory that complement and enlarge the scope of what we do. In design studio we would like to convey very basic but the fundamental idea that to design public spaces connections between buildings and people and for people should be top priority.
AK — What is the status of architects in your society ?
EM-B — Architects position is quite privileged; what is more, we are very close to power. It started from the time of Cerda when all people were very much interested in the city extension plans and it is continues till nowadays. Architects were and are very important. Public debates and their results make the city news most important for media. Traditional proximity of architects to power still exists with the new political parties. Barcelona usually has a left government but now it is more central but also with the influence of Socialists and Trade Unions. They rely upon architects on the one hand due to their links to business, on the other hand architects work for the public interests. There should be a balance in collaboration to meet new challenges.