I don’t remember who was giving the lecture or what it was about, but at some point in the talk the lecturer mentioned a building in Paris. As I remember, the building was from the mid 1800s. And in a large apartment, or maybe rather a whole floor, lived an 80-85 year old woman. She had lived there her whole life, and her parents had also lived on that floor of the building their entire lives.
But the property owner had decided that the building had played its part, and that it was time to tear it down, and build something new instead. Those who lived there would have to move out, and everyone in the building had accepted it – except for the old woman on the 4th floor.
The owner of the building tried everything to convince the woman, but she refused.
I guess the owner thought about the option of waiting her out (until she died), but as the old woman was so stubborn, it could well be a challenge such as this which would motivate her to live to 100.
After many ifs and buts, the owner of the building finally decided to devise a very special solution. He lifted up her apartment, stacking it on stilts, and tore down what was on top and underneath. Above and below, he rebuilt completely new. I don’t remember when this happened or what it looked like, but I imagine that it was something modern. Let’s say that the building got a modern glass façade on the first 3 floors, and then suddenly the old woman’s floor from the mid 1800s, and above that, a couple more floors in glass.
I think the reason I remember this story is that the old woman’s resistance and stubbornness, together with the developer’s conviction and stubbornness created a type of performative architecture where several voices and intentions could exist simultaneously. Without their co-existence, it would most probably have ended up as a rather uninteresting new building that did not contribute so much to our built environment. But instead, it became a kind of narrative architecture. An architecture that told a very specific story. And the old woman created the grammatics for the new building and her voice was forever there as part of the dialogue in our common spaces. Politics. Activism. Resistance and development. All in one.
My old classmate did not recognize the memory or the building. Maybe because we all see different narratives in our shared environment. But I think I remember this so clearly because it is connected to, or maybe even the reason why, soon after this lecture I decided to stop studying architecture and instead applied to an art academy. The reason why I stopped was not because I was no longer interested in architecture. The reason was perhaps more connected to the realization that my classmates at the architecture school would not even remember this story because it had very little interest and value to them.
The starting point for and the approach of the studio OF PUBLIC INTEREST is very closely connected to this story. To the old woman. The studio works with art and artistic strategies and methods in our common spaces – as a way of insisting that our voices and strategies take an active role at a time when a pandemic, the climate crisis and issues related to Black Lives Matter highlight the need to rethink the values that our society is built on.
And we, like the old woman, might try to be the ones that add a component of resistance. Not because we believe that the old woman should have succeeded in saving the whole building. A city has to be in a constant process of change to stay alive. What we believe in, is, that it was the multitude of intentions which made that new building interesting in the same way as it is the co-existence of different voices and intentions that form the basis for any interesting context. Whether that context is a city or a conversation over dinner.
In this sense, disagreements can be more important than agreements. And the space that we call public should be able to host them all, while creating a foundation for safe conversations. It is more important than ever to insist on this in the current political climate. A society that strives for absolute consensus, for all of us to agree, to have the same dreams, goals and politics or to look the same, is rather striving for a form of passivity and silence.
The studio OF PUBLIC INTEREST wants to take a seat at the table together with the actors who shape the various regulations, public policies, profit-driven interests which form our common spaces, as well as the differing goals, attitudes and aesthetics.
Founding director of the Studio, OF PUBLIC INTEREST