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‘Few architects have embraced the idea of user participation; a new movement is needed’

Housing university louvain 7

Community engagement has gone from being a hard-won achievement to something paid lip service. It’s time to return to working with the people

5 December 1986 – residents of Afrikaanderwijk, a historic 19th-century quarter of Rotterdam, have been invited to a public meeting to express their views on a future housing project. The session won’t start for a few minutes but the main room of the local community centre is already heavy with hand-rolled cigarette smoke. Most of the locals are employed in Rotterdam’s nearby port and ‘organised’ gatherings usually serve as sites of protest against the erosion of workers’ rights. To the people in the room, meetings are – by definition – a form of resistance. It is the only kind they have come to know in recent times. 

The projection screen is barely visible: the stale air is a literal smokescreen, pre-empting the arguments designed to convince the residents of ‘good’ and ‘necessary’ changes to their neighbourhood. The municipal official chairing the session has trouble making himself heard, even with a microphone. The architect, he announces, will start a few minutes late. The crowd is not amused and demands an apology, a sign of goodwill. The chair doesn’t know how to react. As far as he is concerned, this session is a simple back and forth between the architect of the project and its future users. Unsure how to appease, he points to the crates of beer in the back of the room, intended for the end of the evening.

Lecture by lucien kroll

Lecture by lucien kroll

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Students working on the housing project for the University of Louvain

Children working on mondels for the housing project for the University of Louvain

Children working on models for the housing project for the University of Louvain

His concession does the trick. The noise subsides and, in time, the architect begins. His story is well rehearsed and progresses smoothly, punctuated by the popping open of beer bottles. With the exception of a few squabbling teenagers, everybody listens politely and when it is the time for questions, there is a hush. A bulky man in a leather jacket in the front row raises his hand. Scanning the room for tacit approval, he kicks off: ‘I would like to ask the architect … In my current home, when my neighbour above me flushes his shit, I can hear it. Will that also be the case in your building?’ The architect raises his eyebrows – not a question he had expected. He starts on a technical explanation of modern insulation standards, abruptly curtailed when the whole room erupts in laughter. ‘Don’t be so serious, we’re just fuckin’ with ya!’ 

‘To the people in the room, meetings are – by definition – a form of resistance. It is the only kind they have come to know in recent times.’ 

‘What are these doors made of?’ asks another resident. The project is deliberately presented at an early stage – as a result, this question cannot be definitively answered. The architect proceeds to list various options, using the kitchen doors as a welcome opportunity to show his eagerness to engage. ‘I am keen to make decisions in close consultation with you. We just propose; you choose. It can be anything: wood, plastic …’

‘Glass! That would seem the most elegant option to me,’ someone interjects. ‘Mmm, me too … But we are working with a limited budget here,’ the architect replies. ‘Glass!’, somebody else chimes in: ‘Glass!’ The preference is quickly adopted by the rest of the room, building to a fervent chant: ‘Glass, GLASS, GLASS!’ The architect smiles. In reality, the issue is of little concern to him: when it comes to kitchen doors, he is willing to concede, happy with the distraction from more contentious issues – which indeed remain undiscussed for the rest of the evening.

Housing university louvain 7

Housing university louvain 7

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Change harding 2 copy

Change harding 2 copy

Source: Courtesy of the architect

And the contentions are many. Firstly, the formal proposal has nothing to do with the neighbourhood. The architect has taken his inspiration from Niemeyer’s Copan Building in São Paulo, transposing its sensuous concrete curves to Rotterdam South’s 19th-century urban fabric (this historic part of the city is lucky to have survived the onslaught of the Luftwaffe intact). A month before the consultation, one of the city officials gently pointed out what he considered the project’s main weakness: while differentiating new buildings from their context is not a cardinal sin – contrast can even be a form of contextual respect – it is nevertheless well known that the architect has proposed this same design in about a dozen other locations, without success. To the official, the architect’s arguments seem fuelled by desperation rather than considered reflection. 

The architect will have none of it. He has been on television recently as one of a new and promising generation. For architects, youth is a relative notion: he has turned 40 and is in a hurry, viewing clashes with local authorities or evenings like this as necessary obstacles in a career path. After the TV appearance, the ultimate goal is international fame. The conversation is finally freed from apologies for new urban interventions; newness is once again believed to have legitimacy in its own right. In the prevailing discourse of the late ’80s, there is a consensus that Architecture (invariably capitalised) is an autonomous discipline, independent of any context be it material, societal or otherwise – context must be recognised as unstable as architecture itself.

Lucienkroll dordrecht woondrecht adliraalsplein 800

Lucienkroll dordrecht woondrecht adliraalsplein 800

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Housing university louvain works

Housing university louvain works

Source: Courtesy of the architect

‘The mock-house method is a live demonstration of the design process he envisions for the project as a whole, enabling future inhabitants to discover untold needs.’

In Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, a wealthy New York City trader finds his gilded life disrupted: accidentally entering the Bronx, he and his mistress are suddenly confronted with a world that has been blocked from their lives thus far. In many ways, the evening in Rotterdam could be a parallel – a sociological mismatch, serving as the ambitious architect’s Waterloo, or at least a battle that dents his ego. But it isn’t. The evening is but a necessary distraction from the pursuit of his real goals. A community meeting was never going to change that.

Cut to the present day. I remember the first time I ever saw the idea of resident participation taken to something approaching a full conclusion. The year before the Afrikaanderwijk meeting took place, I was taken to see a student housing project on the outskirts of Brussels. Though controversial in the 1970s, the building’s trials seemed a distant memory to us 15 years later – we visited from curiosity rather than reverence. Commissioned in 1968 by the Catholic University of Louvain, the relocation of the medical faculty at a remote location was the result of increasing tensions between Belgium’s Flemish and French-speaking factions. This turned the university of Louvain (or Leuven) – formerly an integrated language community – into a scene of violent conflict, propelling the expansion of the Francophone medical campus to an alternative location. 

This conflict merges, in 1968, with a more general revolt against the university authorities. The architect, selected by the university, has proposed a sort of 19th-century classical pastiche, inspired by the typical American Ivy League campus. Characterising the political climate of their time, the students protest against what they perceive to be a bourgeois imposition, demanding a new selection process. Remarkably, the university agrees to the formation of a student committee, taking a seat but forgoing the right to vote. 

Housing university louvain works 3

Housing university louvain works 3

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Housing university louvain works 2

Housing university louvain works 2

Source: Courtesy of the architect

The student committee produces a counterproposal by Lucien Kroll, also just over 40 and known for his co-operative manner of practising architecture. Already a notorious figure among students, Kroll’s reputation features tales of secret nightly sessions coaching students to prepare for reviews at La Cambre, where he himself had studied. The university is perplexed at the students’ choice. Kroll has no prior history with the university; having practised mainly in Belgium’s African colonies, he is an unknown quantity. Still, happy to put an end to student unrest, they concede and Kroll sets to work. His appointment is clearly a trade-off; acquiescing to the demand for Kroll, the authorities hope to play down the underlying language conflict, which is potentially a greater source of political unrest.

With Kroll as their guide, students start focusing on La Maison Médicale – La Mémé, as it is nicknamed – even participating in the building’s construction. Kroll organises collaborators and students into groups, encouraging the use of models over drawings. This method becomes manifest in the building’s facade, which reflects the coexistence of disparate political factions: here shaped by the fascists, there by the communists, and so on. 

‘Distance from the institution would allow the process to unfold with more freedom.’

Having defused the conflict between the students and their university, the production of architecture provides a vehicle to transcend differences within the student body itself. Kroll works intimately with the students over a period of two years. They work long hours at his home studio. His wife, Simone, prepares dinner; when there are more people than chairs, they eat collectively, on the floor. Happy days.

The location of the meetings – in the privacy of Kroll’s home – is intentional. Distance from the institution (which had previously forgone any participation) would allow the process to unfold with more freedom. The location, however, does not discourage the university’s committee members from dropping by (and enjoying pleasant picnics in the garden). In an attempt to fend off ‘institutional involvement’, the meetings are pushed later and later, ultimately into the weekend. This has the desired effect. Belgian civil servants observe strict hours, and the university can scarcely afford overtime rates.

Housing university louvain 9

Housing university louvain 9

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Housing university louvain 10

Housing university louvain 10

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Kroll takes the idea of collaboration between architect and user to an intimate extreme – a kind of architectural ‘method acting’. During one of the legendary meetings, he learns that the group has collectively purchased a small house with the sole purpose of rebuilding it: ripping up floors, demolishing walls, stairs, the whole nine yards. Kroll turns this into a core method: building a shell house and allowing inhabitants to transform it. The mock-house method is a live demonstration of the design process he envisions for the project as a whole, enabling future inhabitants to discover untold needs. Kroll accepts every outcome, even if it defies all prevailing architecture conventions. A tall American student designs himself a very small room to be 7 metres high; even though the room’s next inhabitant may have very different wishes, Kroll remains silent. The building’s future popularity proves him right: when the student leaves, three others argue over his room.

Louis Le Roy, a self-professed ‘ecotect’, is Kroll’s preferred gardener for the project. Central to his philosophy is that people should work with nature to reach the highest degree of complexity. But the university refuses to engage him, and no one else is appointed. The project has a large landscape component and Kroll’s ambitions are not limited to the official boundaries of the site. In his vision, La Mémé’s social zone links with the adjacent neighbourhood. The students initially baulk at the idea; having recently gained autonomy from the university, they are reluctant to engage with the townsfolk. 

Kroll gets his way in a typically unconventional manner: halfway through construction, he throws a summer party at the site and the festivities alert the neighbours. Curious more than alarmed, they enter; after hearing Kroll’s explanation, they return home to bring back plants from their own gardens. The project succeeds in soliciting participation beyond its boundaries, without even intending to do so.

The first two years are happy ones. The collaboration with students is harmonious, and even relations with the university are not altogether bad. In autumn 1972, however, when the representatives of the university come to visit the project, all of that changes. Confronted with a result that does not seem to represent their ‘values’, the university demands dramatic action. In addition, the building is substantially over budget. Kroll is fired.

Housing university louvain 8

Housing university louvain 8

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Housing university louvain 2

Housing university louvain 2

Source: Courtesy of the architect

‘According to Vitruvius, the Roman master builder, architecture was the combination of three virtues: utilitas, firmitas and venustas. He forgot humanitas […] That, I felt, needed changing.’

Kroll’s response is unexpected: seeking alternative suppliers, he lowers the projections for material costs dramatically to bring the project within budget, without making a single alteration to the community-led design. He effectively exposes the main contractor as guilty of cartel pricing – a common practice at the time and rarely questioned, especially not by architects. The contractor, seeing his (illegitimate) hopes dashed, is furious and seeks compensation. The dispute is fought all the way to the federal minister of finance, who eventually decides in Kroll’s favour.

In response, the university decides to cut his fee, arguing that the previous year’s summer party had vandalised the building site. Kroll takes the matter to trial again. The eventual hearing demonstrates little sympathy for Kroll or his ideological struggle. Representatives from the order of Belgian architects are conspicuously absent, officially declaring a neutral stance. In reality, there is an element of schadenfreude for a traitor who had, in their view, attempted to undermine the authority of the architect.

Their views are echoed 10 years later by the professors showing our group around La Mémé. Why voluntarily surrender when the powers of the architect are already so eroded? What use is a project where only first-generation users have the opportunity to adapt their space? Participation, they argue, reduces architecture to a game of chance. Descriptions vary from ‘failed experiment’ to ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ to ‘less than the sum of its parts’. We are encouraged to take stock, forget and move on to more serious business. And we do.

Housing university louvain 4

Housing university louvain 4

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Housing university louvain 5

Housing university louvain 5

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Roughly 30 years after that visit to La Mémé, I spoke with Lucien Kroll. Recent discourse had made me curious about his views on the past, on La Mémé and the ensuing controversy, and on the present, in which participation has acquired a new relevance, a new tang. Ironically, like ‘community’ before it, the term ‘participation’ has come to reinforce convictions at both ends of the political spectrum: for the right, the term allows for a seemingly benign rollback of the welfare state, reducing public spending; for the left, the idea relates to equal opportunities for democratic agency. 

Located in an inconspicuous block, the Kroll residence is apparently indistinguishable from all the other apartments. There are two doorbells, one for his home, the other for his atelier, which still goes by the acronym AUAI (Atelier d’Urbanisme, d’Architecture et d’Informatique). We ring but no one answers. A passing neighbour advises us to just keep ringing – both bells. We decide to sneak past him instead, descending into the complex where we find a door, unlocked, marked AUAI. We enter. The place is overrun by old-school drawing boards but there is nobody inside. We are undoubtedly trespassing; still, we take our chances and proceed. Have we missed our last chance to catch Lucien Kroll alive? But then, we hear voices in the garden, people finishing lunch … 

This must be the ambience in which Kroll met his students in the mid-’70s: a wooden table set with food and drink amid the garden, all made by Simone. Kroll is at the head of the table, a tall figure with his back to us. Our main purpose is to reconstruct the events surrounding La Mémé but, at 89, Kroll does not remember much. His anecdotes are, at best, atmospheric, recalling emotional exchanges with various nameless, ageless actors. His spotted memory has an interesting effect: the lack of precision forces him to reflect on past efforts in grandiose terms: ‘According to Vitruvius, the Roman master builder, architecture was the combination of three virtues: utilitas, firmitas and venustas. He forgot humanitas […] That, I felt, needed changing.’ 

The student clashes at La Mémé are compared to women’s suffrage, the early granting of which, according to Kroll, could have prevented industrialised warfare, potentially lessening the tremendous loss of life of, presumably, the First World War. Moreover, without rapid industrialisation, the Bauhaus – in Kroll’s opinion, the ultimate source of evil – may not have opened.

‘The building’s facade reflects the coexistence of disparate political factions: here shaped by the fascists, there by the communists, and so on.’

Housing university louvain 3

Housing university louvain 3

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Housing university louvain 1

Housing university louvain 1

Source: Courtesy of the architect

Visiting Germany after the war, Kroll had witnessed the dangers of rooting architectural consensus within the benediction of the building industry. Anonymous housing was the antithesis of what he hoped to achieve; if industrial building methods were indeed an inescapable reality, then the only possible approach for diversity would be to pursue a tailored, case-by-case application. Only in the individual wishes of users could an authentic source of diversity be found.

Our conversation is coming to an end. Kroll escorts us to the taxi, and we share a few last thoughts on the evil nature of companies like Uber. Participation is enjoying renewed attention today, and Kroll’s legacy has moved back into the limelight: he gives interviews, features in publications, and appears in videos on the internet. La Mémé has earned its place in history: petitions against its gradual demolition are met with massive support, while much of the 1980s statement architecture barely registers in our conscience.

Traditionally, the commissioner of a building is also its user, and participation is guaranteed through the dependency of the architect on his or her patron. The advent of the welfare state and the introduction of mass housing changed things fundamentally. Commissioners are no longer users, and participation no longer exists by default. The urban renewal processes of the 1970s reintroduced certain aspects of traditional practice – users can express their wishes directly – but the architect is bound only to the extent that the client (and not the user) agrees. This half-baked involvement – a suggestion of power – discredits the whole notion of user participation, and is dismissed as a frustrating process for users and architects alike. The atmosphere of mistrust and resistance during meetings, as seen in Afrikaanderwijk, finds its roots here.

 

In the questioning of larger structures, the power of a project like La Mémé is apparent. By allowing the students to take agency, the university could go where society as a whole would not dare tread. The same political experiment, transplanted into a regular part of the city – such as working-class Afrikaanderwijk – could have consequences beyond our wildest imagination. 

Reinier interviewing kroll

Reinier interviewing kroll

Source: Courtesy of Maarten Lambrechts

Bxl ucl meme82 kroll dia1

Bxl ucl meme82 kroll dia1

Source: Ch.Bastin & J.Evrard / Bruxelles

Last year, I revisited the Afrikaanderwijk project. Most of the social rental apartments had been sold on the market as private residences. Following a property boom radiating from the centre of Rotterdam, the area had been transformed. Residents now exist in the abstract as ‘prospective buyers’ and new projects are no longer subject to painful interrogations in smoke-filled rooms. Projects either sell or they don’t. Only the market passes judgement. 

The 1960s catered to a largely anonymous population of tenants, categorised by the similarity of their needs. In the 1970s, user participation served as a tool against the uniformity created by the welfare state. The 1980s shifted focus towards the individual: needs became a matter of user preferences and demands. The triumph of the market economy in the 1990s caused a breakdown of both of these logics. In the context of property markets, buildings are tradeable assets on balance sheets. Users and their demands are irrelevant – the decisive factor becomes the elimination of financial risk. Paradoxically, the market’s celebration of diversity (‘consumer choice’) has largely achieved a monotony, one made not by standardised industrial production but by an invented virtual consensus. 

‘The mock-house method is a live demonstration of the design process he envisions for the project as a whole, enabling future inhabitants to discover untold needs.’

Few architects have embraced the idea of user participation; fewer still have taken it to an extended conclusion. Users as co-creators have steadily gained traction in other creative domains, yet any notion of ‘the people’ as a participatory force – one that helps to determine the outcome of a design process – finds architecture well outside its comfort zone. Such ideals are still considered naive and irreverent; many champions remain largely unsung. Segal, Hundertwasser, Kroll, Habraken and de Carlo are among the names we know – but the identities of those behind today’s Baugruppen, for example, remain undisclosed. 

In the context of the paradoxical mechanics of a free market economy, it is increasingly unclear for what, for whom and why buildings are produced. As a result, architecture routinely loses itself in overwrought mental constructions to justify the physical ones. It seems a new revisionist movement is needed. After making a convincing case ‘for the masses’ in the 20th century, architecture will have to be with the masses in the 21st.