We are based in Gdansk Poland and we have a post-graduate project there called Architecture + Dialogue which is two years old. What we are going to show today is a method we invented together for coding a city. I should say that the professional application of our method is much more precise and much more advanced than the “Fast Urban Research” which we will present today.
In the SEAS project we arrive in many different port cities, but we always experience the same incredible contradiction between a closed industrial area and an extraordinarily open urban space. To deal with this contradiction you have to set up certain concepts, certain ideas and definitions. In this conference we are talking about another contradiction - arts and science – what does this mean? How do you define this? What is the common platform and what is similar between artists and scientists, and what is different?
I like to see arts and science as two ways of understanding the world around us. We all agree that the world around us is guided by two very important things: the ideal of truth and the ideal of freedom. I believe when scientists look at the architectural environment of the Gdansk shipyard, for example, they believe that they understand the “truth” of the buildings from their function and then find a way to be “free” in side this space. At the same time artists probably walk the opposite direction. They say “I will experience my own freedom in the space and I will then understand the truth of the space.” So they are on the same line but they are approaching the idea from two opposite directions.
There are certain ideas which are driving the mainstream of development and advancement in the field of architecture. For example - sustainability is the mainstream advancement of the idea of functionality, which you have not only in architecture but also in the cultural environment in eastern and western Europe if not globally. So we try to ask the question what is really sustainable. Is the Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal by Rem Koolhaus a sustainable object? It is certainly a very celebrated object. But does this object sustain the community or will it erase the community forever? And the older buildings around it – are they just simply old or do they carry a sustainability which we have lost in our contemporary concept of development?
We are surrounded by existential solitude. I really like to go whenever I can to the Deleted Messages performance of BadCo because it is about the difference and opportunity to skip solitude and encounter others. It is an opportunity to skip one mind set and go into the other which I believe is much more promising. When we are working together, Monika Zadawzka and I, we don’t concentrate on the monuments or specifics – but we like to concentrate on the situations that are encountered in between architectural events. Monika and I are tying to work out the language of the architecture of the deformed. We believe in the non-hierarchical world of architecture. For us, it is not the big or extraordinary that is the most important in aesthetics but the small deformations.
What do I mean? Well,one can see this same approach contemporary neuroscience which has begun to understand how we identified faces (as architects would call them - facades). You can see here some drawings of Susan Brennan part of her research into caricature and how we memorise faces. Susan Brennan made a prototype of the human face. The brain is economical in memorising things. So the brain probably stores prototypes like the prototype of a face. And you can see here in her research that Ronald Regan’s face was used. This Reagan face is result of tiny exaggerations of differences between real face and the prototype.
What does this mean? It means that the key information that identifies an individual unique face is found the tiny deformations of a prototype. This search for the deformations of the prototype is the core of our methodology. We search for prototypes of cities and then try to identify the moments and situations, and events that deform that prototype because these small changes are the precious differences that define a city’s identity. It is important to protect these tiny differences and even to exaggerate them a little. Hence in contemporary design you can use prototypes as the basis for a project. You can then codify the design for the reproduction of unique elements but still identifying this as a particular design based on a prototype.
I believe there is a code for Odessa and every façade and every street is slightly different. And because of these tiny differences, Odessa’s identity is created. In our research these tiny differences are actually key elements in creating local identities. You can find it in historical buildings. You can also find it in contemporary buildings when architects understand the value of it: not the richness of the building necessarily but very sophisticated deformation.
Let us go then to Odessa and to the results of our work here. I was in Prague Airport and I saw this advertisement. I was thinking where are we going? What is Odessa like? Is already part of this global atmosphere of global advertising or has it some how managed to escape this? And what I found is that this type of world is absolutely present in Odessa. It actually creates much more urban and architectural events than I expected. The wide boulevards of Odessa are used by advertising companies to put billboards on the main streets of cities.
Then I found an incredible car culture in Odessa with cars I have never seen before in even in the most advanced European countries. Then I saw new technology coming in and recreating old architectural facades in the city, either modern or historical. The equipment for air conditioning is a contemporary decoration for the Odessa facades. And then I found a lot of construction sites which means that big money is not only wasted here but also put into the right situations. And then thanks to our friends cooperating with us here in Odessa we met the people. And this was of course the most important requirement to decode the images around us and to start understanding the city.
So we met this very nice person, an architect Alexander Postolov, who introduced us to the key word (as he said) in the contemporary Odessa – luxury. He showed us some projects he had worked on. Then we met another person who showed us that, although Odessa’s architecture is in bad condition, there is still a lot of passion and care for it here. He took us into many buildings to prove that people still live in those damaged spaces: sometimes we couldn’t believe it. And then we recognised that there are a lot of muscles ready to work on the city. Because the beauty of the city is that when you walk along the street, get lost in the streets, look into gateways, you realise the enormous power of the place, its aesthetic, architectural and cultural power.
For us after five days of research, Odessa appears to us a place of promise, for architects, or architectural qualities and possibilities.
I will now go as a newcomer in Odessa to understand the life of the city. We got lost in the city very easily – its so well-organised. Fast Urban Research of Odessa is for us a way not to find something specific but to understand the space generally. So I will show you how we decoded the city…
There are two very important elements. First the Potemkin Steps. I know some of you from Odessa are already fed up with this tourist passion about the steps. But there is another local passion for the building which is considered the most imposing feature in the city (the Opera). These two objects lie behind our decoding work.
Step by step we constructed the city’s essential prototype. First we began with the port and the slopes of the city, and we marked the location of the steps. And then we recognised that there are other streets along the edge of the port, all of them connected with the slopes. But then we recognised that there are two parallel canyons which run into the city to allow people to walk up to the higher ground of the town. These two parallel spaces are the key lines that enabled us to understand the city plan. We found that the position of the Opera House, which faces the city, stays in the exact centre of the grid of streets between these two canyons.
Next we found the borders of the centre of the city and the central grid, which is very regular based on one repeated dimension. Then we recognised that the city is growing to the west. And from this another grid is created with some important places. And then the city is growing toward the beaches towards the east in a similar grid using the same dimensions as the central area.
So there you can see the prototype of Odessa. This allows us to identify what we consider to be the most important and unique spaces in the city. We superimpose the prototype over the street plan and we find the key spaces which should be dedicated to the work of contemporary architects. These few places (in red) that deform the prototype and break this geometric rigidity are very soft and sutble forms of environments.
So we see the real face of Odessa, the prototype which Odessa shares with many other cities around the world in the sense of geometrical structures but also the uniqueness of Odessa in those little points where the structures are deformed by the local conditions.
Presentation on Odessa: fast Urban Research
Author: Jacek Dominiczak and Monika Zadawzka
See also this artistic contribution to…