In this week’s Arts my guest is New York-based landscape architect Martin Barry who last year launched a new festival and conference in Prague called reSITE, focussing on urbanism and rethinking the public space. To this aim, he and organisers involved everyone from internationally recognised designers and urban planners, to students of arts and architecture, and last, but not least, politicians.
“I came to Prague in August of 2011 on a Fulbright scholarship. My field is landscape architecture and I am a practising designer in New York. I took a year off from my job there and the intention of the Fulbright was to teach in Prague and expand the understanding of contemporary landscape architecture and urban design in the Czech Republic. As it stands, in practice and education landscape architecture is really a garden profession in the Czech Republic, whereas the things I have been involved in around the world have really been improving waterfronts, improving urban plans - more of an urban profession.”
But you also founded reSITE...
“That’s right. We were talking about contemporary practice and expanding on that and as part of the mission, rather than just teaching at the Faculty of Architecture, I began talking to people about the issues of public space and realised that it wasn’t be discussed that much. There was a budding interest but it was a matter of re-phrasing the questions. The initial idea was only to have a small symposium to address the issues in the region but the interest was so great that within five months we went from holding a half-day symposium to a six day festival and three conferences looking at public space, complete with all kinds of events, a free pavilion and screenings and so on.”
Do you take, as sort of a launching point, the fact that are always elements of living in cities that can be improved or should be changed?
“Yes. I think that the city is an organism that is always evolving and as designers, politicians, financiers, community members... we always need to be re-thinking the cityscape and making sure that it is keeping up with contemporary demands, be they ecological, economic or development demands. Cities always need to be changed and I think that all those groups that I mentioned have a stake in it.”
“Well there is no question that Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Being in the centre of Europe it benefits from an amazing amount of energy and architecturally it is exquisite. Prague sees itself as an architectural gem, with centuries of different styles preserved as it was minimally bombed during the World War. It has intact its medieval core and I think that people really enjoy this. It is easy to walk through this medieval centre and this is definitely very attractive. It’s not surprising visitors fall in love with it and come from all over the world to experience it. There is an amazing amount of intellect in the city, always has. So I see the city very positively in this respect.
“Of course, it has also gone through many trials, being occupied, 40 years of communism... which was a disaster. It has taken almost 20 years how to get out of it in terms of forming a modern city. The good thing is that the new generation which has no experience with communism that is determined to introduce change and have a positive impact on the city.”
The Communists were famous for some horrific urban planning or lack of it, some famous examples being threading a major throughway through the centre of city and cutting off the top of its most famous square... today there are also many more cars do Prague suffers from traffic congestion... Are those some negatives or are there others that city councillors and designers need to be looking more at?
“Well, if we put it in perspective if you look at the last 20, no 60 years in this city, there has been a really single-minded focus in planning, be it transportation planning or residential development. This single-mindedness doesn’t work and it never has. There needs to be an openness for collaboration between different disciplines and if you look at other countries in Europe you see more teams with diverse expertise trying to solve problems and urban projects from the smallest park comprehensively and holistically. I think that is one thing that is not happening in Prague. The planning process is closed and it is not international. There aren’t many international architects, if any, and politicians are looking at these problems really for political gain, in my opinion and that of many experts. They aren’t really thinking about the city positively and sustainably in terms of growth.
“It’s also not just about corruption or transparency is one problem, but one thing we learned from reSITE last year is that there is a void, a lack of quality leadership and governance. Quality leadership would bring the realisation that the problems suffered in the city are shared by other cities in the world and the recognition that solutions can be learned from other places.”
In reSITE you are cooperating closely with ARCHIP, the first private university of architecture here: I imagine that art schools, architecture schools and the arts community in general are very important in introducing new ideas, would you agree?
“I would agree. I think that the right university with the right faculty is key and we’ve found a really great partner in ARCHIP in Prague, They are only in their second year, as is reSITE, so we have grown up together and continue to grow together. This is really important. What ARCHIP is doing is to start a new discussion about architecture and planning and urban designs and landscapes in the regions and in Prague in Prague in particular. I think it’s very important to get away from older discussions that aren’t as productive, aren’t as collaborative, open or international.”
In the first inception of reSITE one of the aspects that was very interesting was this reclaiming or transformation of public space: you used a square at the National Theatre, where you created a temporary bubble pavilion... are pavilions going to be important at this year’s reSITE?
“They will be. We are working in collaboration with a young studio called Cold Call and also ARCHIP to create a small pavilion that will be the home of all public events at reSITE. We had such a positive response last year with Rosie the Ballerina – the bubble pavilion – that we wanted to do that again and we wanted to do it with our own device to activate public space. So we want keep doing this into the future and this year we are also launching a design competition which will culminate in a two-day workshop led by one of the best structural engineers in the world Cecil Bauman and what we will be doing is to select around 25 people from all around the world, hopefully mostly young architects and we want there to be an inter-disciplinary team as a result of the workshop should be a concept design for yet another pavilion which we would introduce next year to re-use into the future, which would be more moveable and we would take around Europe discussing similar problems. ”
If we return to one area that you specialise in, the waterfront, as an observer who has lived in Prague for 20 years, it doesn’t strike me that waterfront space in the city is all that well used: much of the space is empty or at most used as wharfs for river boat tours. Is there room for improvement there?
“Well it is true that it is a very under-used waterfront, that was one of the first things I noticed. Often, the space is only used for advertising. The space is often left-over. There are exceptions, however, such as Náplavka in Prague 2 that is quite well developed. There is a bike lane there (albeit not well placed as it divides the space in three) but there are some bars and bike shops that have popped up over the years and have been successful. And that suggests that the rest of the waterfront could be useful and re-thought – not only for development but for public space. That’s really what waterfronts should be for: public space in cities.
“One of the things that we really want to do is to catalyze business leaders also, because if we can business support behind the idea of collaboration towards a more liveable city, then politicians will really have to start and listen. That is what has happened in other cities I have found. So last year we catalyzed the business community by establishing a partnership with Skanska – one of the world’s construction companies and developers – and we launched a competition for the riverfront. It was aimed at re-imagining the riverfront, the first international competition. We had 150 designs from around the world and we had 20 finalists and three winners. Proposals ranged from small parks to floating pavilions. So the vision for reSITE in the future is to catalyze business as well as community groups and try and enforce changes within city councils. So this is really the start of a re-envisioning and reimagining the city.”