Civic Pluralism: The Architecture of Modern Democracy and Civic Identity

Project

“How can architecture celebrate notions of collective identity and respond to shifts in attitude towards public engagement in the political discourse of urban governance?”

Linguistics, culture, geographical residence and political beliefs are all important factors in defining one’s identity. The notion of identity and who one is, is central to the shaping of society both on civic, national and international level. Architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schultz’ describes the centre of a city as a place where “one goes to gain confirmation of their identity”, while the city hall, the place of urban governance, acts as a symbol of civic pride and identity of the citizens.

In Modern Europe, the notion of collective identity; the very idea of who we are and how we co-exist together, has been challenged by a steady rise in right-wing populism triggering political events such as Brexit and a growing desire for political autonomy and secession. Such paradigms and events that have led to an ever-divided European Union, have triggered the conception and subsequent line of enquiry in this thesis provocation.

The city of Antwerp is one comprising of many identities. With over 172 nationalities and 9 separate districts each with their own local political autonomy, their co-existence within the urban fabric shape the collective identity of Antwerpians. However, expansion in city scale and population, as well as a shift in attitude towards urban governance and public engagement within political discourse, have posed questions as to the relevance of the current city centre and city hall as symbols of identity and urban governance in modern day Antwerp.

The major biaxial intersection of Franklin Rooseveltplaats is a significant yet undervalued site for posing an architectural argument. Being the historic location of the city gates, the threshold between the four administrative boundaries and a symbol of collective solidarity in its historic use as a monumental public space, it can be argued that it is an appropriate location for a new political and social threshold, that can celebrate the collective identity of Antwerpians and propose an alternative for the governmental typology and challenge the architecture of democracy today.

The architectural argument proposes a new City Assembly of Antwerp, that provides a critique on the architecture of democracy, present functions of government buildings as well as their symbolism of civic pride and collective identity. The architectural response attempts to address key questions; location, landmark, [architectural] language and function.

The proposal shall act as a threshold for negotiation between the identities of the nine districts of the City of Antwerp through the House of District Representatives, where local issues can be discussed on neutral territory in an attempt to provide cross collaboration, while creating transparency in political decision making and discourse by creating a fusion between politics and people.

Interview

What Prompted the Project?

The selected programme and area of study had been chosen after extensive research into notions of the collective identity and the current European socio-political situation.
Europe currently faces an increasing rise in right-wing populism, with an increasing number of nationalist parties taking majority seats in several European national governments. Ideas of nationalism are generally associated with ideas of one’s identity. However, such nationalist rhetoric from many nationalist parties in Europe does not attempt to recognise or accept any notion of collective identity (recognition of multiple backgrounds and cultures as a collective) but rather preach for identity through the exclusion of others, as can be seen from many arguments from such parties against immigration.
Such a rise in right-wing populism can be viewed as a backlash to a political establishment and an increasing distrust in government policy and decision making. One could argue that a lack of public engagement and transparency within political discourse and decision making has led to such rhetoric being on the rise.
When looking at the city, according to Christian Norberg Schultz’, the city centre is considered the place of which one “goes to in order to get confirmation of one’s identity”, while the city hall is the architectural symbol of the city’s identity and centre of political discourse and decision making. However as cities have grown and attitudes towards civic governance and public engagement have changed, it can be argued that such city centres and city halls are out of date in their reflection of modern identity and societal attitudes.
The project aims to challenge the architecture of democratic buildings, creating an architectural response to the current European political climate, where creating transparency in discourse and decision making as well as collaboration and negotiation, and a blend between civic and political activities can allow for a fusion

How and to what extent has Brexit affected you as a student and citizen of Glasgow?

Brexit has brought about a great deal of uncertainty to me as a student and citizen. As can be seen from media sources that we are exposed to everyday, we see accusations of top political figures of misleading the public with false facts and figures, members of our government battling over a good deal for the people vs their own party power struggles, and a continued rescheduling of the official leaving date of the United Kingdom from the EU. While being abroad, people have often asked me “So what’s happening with Brexit?” and most of the time my response would be “honestly, I don’t really know at this time”. Such confusion and lack of clarity creates deep uncertainty to many people in the UK and their future life decisions.
Architecture is an international profession, where one has opportunities to exercise their skills and talent anywhere in the world. Myself like many of my peers in their final year of architecture school endeavour to find work within the profession in the UK and abroad. However, Brexit has caused a great deal of uncertainty as to the stability of a job in the UK, future transferability and recognition of British architectural qualifications abroad, as well as the uncertainty of ever being able to return and practice in the UK if one chooses to move overseas.
As a citizen, it has for me, as much as it has for others, caused a great deal of distrust in modern British politics. Scotland as a nation voted majority to remain within the European Union during the referendum, and many feel their voice has either not been heard, or that we are being forced out the EU against our will, leading to a great distrust within our political system, as well as uncertainty into not only the future of the UK, but the future of Scotland and its people.

What Informed Antwerp as site and testing ground?

When one talks about collective identity and political negotiation, one seeks to find a threshold between many entities. Antwerp is unique as a city in many ways that makes it appropriate for this project. Firstly, it can be considered the threshold of Europe, being the second largest port city in the world; most imports to the continent pass through Antwerp, making it a threshold between many nations.
With trade also comes migration. Antwerp’s cultural mix boasts over 170 cultures and nationalities, each with their own identity, beliefs and backgrounds, while all recognising each other and themselves as a collective known as Antwerpians. This diversity and collective solidarity proves to be an example to celebrate not only on a civic level, but on national and international level.
Politically, Antwerp is unique due to its division of districts. The city is divided into nine separate districts, each with their own political autonomy over local issues and individual identity. One could view these districts somewhat like small nations, with potential for a place of collective recognition and a neutral negotiation located within the threshold between them.
Ironically, despite the city’s huge diversity and acceptance towards individual identity, the current Mayor of Antwerp is a member and leader of the NVA (National Flemish Alliance) which is considered a right-wing nationalist party often accused in the media of right-wing and racist rhetoric. This, considering the wider issue the project attempts to address makes Antwerp an ideal testing ground to challenge current societal paradigms.

How did you acquaint yourself with the site?

Through rigorous testing of various sites within the city, the site known as Franklin Rooseveltplaats was chosen. The site is the most major biaxial traffic intersection of the city, where traffic flows from outside to inside the city and vice versa, from East to West and North to South, making it the threshold of movement and point of convergence in the city.
The site also has symbolic and historic significance that is currently undervalued. It is the historic site of the former city gates, of a time when Antwerp was a fortified city. Symbolically, the city gates mark the point of transition, contemplation and constant negotiation between the outside of the city to the inside; a threshold and neutral territory. After the demolition of the fortification and gates when Belgium received its independence, the site was originally developed as a major public square, named Victorieplaats (Victory Square), as a symbol of change and progression. From there Franklin Roosevelpaats marked the point of outward expansion of the city and modernity.
Over the course of its history the site has been renamed serval times, from Victorieplaats (Victory Square), to Gemeenteplaats (Community Square), to Franklin Rooseveltplaats, after the US president Franklin Roosevelt, who during his office in the US government aided the Belgians to fight for freedom against the Nazis during the Second World War. Such names have been historically synonymous with ideas of collective solidarity of the people and a symbol of change.
Furthermore, the site lies between four administrative boundaries of separate sub districts, making it an ideal point of neutrality for political negotiation and celebration of collective identity.

What are your hopes for the project as it develops through time and the necessities of the citizens change?

The hopes are that the project can serve as a basis for discussion into the architecture of modern democracy for future change. The intention is that the building can become a symbol of change in societal and political attitudes not just on a civic level, but on a national and international level. The building does not serve to solve issues regarding modern democracy. I can say with confidence that there is no right answer to the architecture of democracy. It is a discussion and issue that has been ongoing for thousands of years, and develops according to shifts in societal and political attitudes over time. Instead, the project intends to continue to act as a civic hub and a monument to the celebration of the city’s diversity and collective solidarity, perhaps even act as an example of a typology to be critiqued as societal attitudes and civic needs shift in the future.

What is the importance of the drawing as testament to ‘unbuilt’ architecture which although unbuilt plays an important role within our contemporary architectural discourse?

The drawing is an important form of communication, and an instrument of reflection of an idea or particular social/political/environmental/architectural agenda in an attempt to provoke thought or discussion. It allows one to translate abstract thinking and an otherwise complex conceptual framework into something that can be experienced and understood.
The drawing can take many forms and can convey varying types of information. Plan and section drawings for example can help convey scale, spatial qualities and organization, while simple diagrams can communicate the narrative of the architecture or help explain complex information such as the building’s structural evolution, while visualizations can help convey mood, atmosphere and architectural intent.
Drawing has been used as a tool in this project as a means to subtly communicate the wider issues the project intends to address and expose. For example, the deliberate inclusion of European Union flags and the regional flag of Flanders intends to provoke a discussion and thought into the current socio-political situation of modern Europe and the question of national and collective identity, strengthening the narrative of the unbuilt in relation to context and intent.
The unbuilt cannot be experienced in the same way as the built as it does not physically exist. However, the drawing, whether it be realistic or conceptual, of the unbuilt provides a means to speculate its existence through communicating key information that would otherwise not be understood through other means of communication and allowing one to draw their own conclusions.

How important is the realm of academia as a means to explore and test architectural production?

Academia gives one the freedom to test and explore architectural ideas and concepts, as well as a means to challenge the everyday and the wider issues in society at one’s own pace and with one’s own personal means of communication and visual representation, which could otherwise not always be achievable within a professional context.
It is a means of learning, developing and exploring one’s interests, style, tools available, as well as core beliefs within the architectural world and society itself, and can allow one to come to ones own personal conclusions to issues explored and to the possible solutions. Academia is highly important, as by having such freedom to explore and test architectural production, it allows one to develop a means for critical thinking and allows one to be more loose with ideas which can lead to a more creative and interesting outcome. More importantly, it allows one to fail, to try again, perhaps fail a second time, but learn from it and eventually succeed.

What role did the sketch play as tool through which to develop and test the project?

The sketch was always the first means of translating ideas in my head to paper. Regardless whether the idea was outrageous or pragmatic, the sketch allowed me to visualise and test a particular idea or concept based on sometimes very complex research or simply something that was in my head in the moment. By sketching, it allowed me to develop the project lot quicker than if I had drawn it on computer software, and allowed for more freedom to test and explore due to the nature of the sketch being very loose, not requiring to be a polished final drawing that would otherwise take care and time to produce. It also acted as an important communication tool when discussing the project with others, as ideas and concepts could be explained visually and orally at the same time, creating more clarity for discussion throughout the project’s development.

What tools were implemented in the development of the project, from concept to research to execution?

In the early concept and research stages, reading sources (books and the internet), the sketch and the working physical model were key told in exploring, testing as well as communicating ideas. These formed the basis for development of the project towards other means of exploration and communication.
Drawings and diagrams were also a very effective tool, especially when translating research that can often be very complex to understand to something more understandable for discussion and development. It proved to be very valuable throughout the project’s development to help develop narrative, scale, composition and spatial qualities.
Towards execution, computer software such as 3D CAD and postproduction programs such as Photoshop and InDesign were the key tools for creating final images and collating research booklet and wall layouts. However, the physical model and the sketch remained important even towards the end of the project’s development.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

The mind. Every piece of architecture begins in the mind. We are born with the ability to conceive ideas from nothing and put them to paper in ways not done before with the tools available to us. We are able to take a client/engineer/member of the public’s thoughts, desires and ambitions through words and translate it into a drawing and a built form. It is a powerful tool that can do something so small as to please a client, to something so large as to change society.

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