INTERVIEW: "We Need New Narratives"

Joachim Declerck is founder and partner of the Architecture Workroom Brussels; Educated as architect and urban designer; from 2008 to 2011 head of the professional development program at the Berlage Institute; Curator of the 3rd International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, in 2007; Curator of the exhibition Building for Brussels. Architecture and Urban Transformation in Europa in BOZAR (2010). He was part of the Curator Team of the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam - Making City (April 2012).


For almost 10 years now you and your office ‘Architecture Workroom Brussels’ have been working on European topics. First it was Brussels as a Capital City of Europe, now you are working on regional questions in the Flemish Diamond and Brabant. Where do you see Europe in terms of spatial and political agenda? What do you see as the big issues that are being discussed, where space and politics come together?

Currently there is a huge fight between the logic of countries and the logic of urban regions. Europe has installed this fight by its urban- and INTERREG- programs and the regional developmentprogram is looking for specific needs and potentials of each region. 

That is a strong thing and builds experience between cities. Only it is very much oriented towards public-authorities and not towards civil society, professionals and experts. That is a weakness.
Another topic is the interpretation of the word region, especially in the neo-nationalist rhetoric. There are those that see the world as something organised around city- or urban logics and people that follow a more nationalist logic and neglecting that the world is rather spiky than flat. This is a major implicit debate, which is never verbally expressed but is always present in the committee of the regions and cities.
The situation between these two effects of globalisation is one of the major challenges for Europe. Everything is much more urban and everybody wants to retreat into something that is a whole, a world in itself. My country, my region, my neighbours, which are the same kind of people.

Is that simply a question of power shifting away from the nation states towards Brussels or do you see it actually hamper development because certain issues cannot be dealt with at that level? 

The question is whether the nation states should be considered the units to talk to, or whether they should move into a facilitating role, connecting the urban situations with a greater Europe. Nation states are interesting inventions, exactly in-between where it really happens and the higher levels on which collaboration needs to be organised. The network-city is a centuries old European buzzword, from the networks of monasteries to the Hanse cities. Talking about network cities is to return to the essence of where the continent has grown from. And this is very closely connected to economy. It’s the moment to get economy back into the field of our discussions. But not as a world in itself, that has its rules and principles that should be followed - which is a bit how politics looks at economy. It is an important shift in thinking that still has to be made in many countries, that you can steer and you can facilitate economy.

One hypothesis of our research concerns to the topic of ‘Core versus Periphery’. Would you agree that in recent years we have seen a shift in stimulus investments from the periphery to the core?

Well, a lot of money goes to the periphery but it’s not that it only goes to the periphery. If the one gets more in cohesion funding, the other one will get more in INTERREG or URBan 1, 2, 3, - 15, - 25. Europe functions like that. The weakness is that it’s a stabilising system. If it were a choice to invest in the periphery or if it were a choice to invest in the centre, that would be strong. Because it would make clear that there is thinking behind subsidies.

It is an interesting question how far can you steer economy or in how far politics is simply following the economy. Boris Gehlen described how far the private sector has taken over even urban development and raises the question how governments could be more steering, more than through tender procedures and narrow corridors that again make the world flat.

Governments can help to create climates in which things become rather feasible than not. Economy has a pretty simple logic: to make profit and to exploit. It’s also a constant conflict between agglomeration and moving away from agglomeration.



Interview conducted by Martin Sobota & Helmut Thoele 

Full version of the interview can be downloaded below (PDF)

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