Roberto Dell’Orco. Dialogue with Yona Friedman

Photo by Nadia Gric

RD: Yona Friedman, can you explain your idea of  « Ville spatiale» and where does it come from?

YF: The idea essentially doesn’t come from architecture. It is, if you want, a certain negative reaction to the over-uniformity of life in the cities. And this is something that doesn’t come from the people, but they are pressed into a mold. I began realizing this quite early in Israel where there was a very strong impact of Bauhaus. I found the Bauhaus theory absolutely fascinating and absolutely false. The idea was in the teaching Bauhaus thought out optimal solutions, ergonomic and so on. Through simple contact with many people I realized it doesn’t work. People don’t want the optimal solution of Bauhaus. They want their own. So householders, housewives, they didn’t want their kitchen the Bauhaus way, they wanted it their own way. And it became clear very early on, even before the university years, that this uniformity which we are pressed into, called always in Europe the American way, was just as present in Europe. And I felt that it’s not acceptable for the individual.

These concerns are old. The surrealists started in this way, trying to install another reality different from the official one. Very early on I was looking for how such another way could be realised technically. My first project of this kind was in ‘45 immediately after the war. Why should rooms have this standard shape? Why can’t I make a round room? Or an elliptical room? Or an irregular room? And the technical solution was evident: screens, paravents. So I was working on it in ‘45, and then, step by step, I developed it further to kitchens and bathrooms. Why shouldn’t they be like pieces of furniture, like a cupboard? And then I began developing what was called Meuble Plus, which means that the furniture has usable space around it, that it can be a box. So you don’t just push the table but the entire dining area corner.

Then came the question: why shouldn’t walls and windows become, everything, movable? And the technical step followed, that it will be possible as long as they don’t bear the ceiling. This means that the structure has to be independent. So if you make an independent structure everything can be mobile in it.

RD: This can be true for a house, what about the city?

YF: The city, the roads and so on, are not mobile. They can be mobile if there are no foundations, if there is no impact on the ground level. So I arrived to a structure with only very few impact points, the staircases and that’s all. The ground level is free, all levels are free. The residential level is manipulated by the individual inhabitants, and the ground level by the collectivity, but not necessarily by the city it can be another neighborhood. A small neighborhood of a few hundred people can manage it, maybe not the street, they don’t oversee everything, but it should be more or less this way. I’m exaggerating for the sake of the explanation. I tried to make every level as free as possible. And for this there was the technical solution of the collective structure.

From ‘59 I started working with circles, with rings, so that all the structure could be changeable, because with the rings you don’t need to stay in one type of grid. You can go from a cubic grid to a tetraedric grid and so on because the circle can be seen from one side as a square and from the other side as a triangle. And this is really the final part
I was proposing all this because I had been asked by the refugee camps to make a cube. It costs about 150 euros and weighs 30 kilos. That means that four people can lift it, and that they don’t need to be very strong people. You can place it anywhere. I was making the model of how I see a refugee camp. It is simply like a native African village, meaning that the cubes are arranged according to social groups.

Photo by Nadia Gric

RD: Which role can have the architect in this process?

YF: All this was coming together to bring the initiative to the inhabitants and take the architect out of the planning process. But the architect can have a role. What I was trying to show with the exhibition is that he is the sculptor of the void, of the space. This means that he can be the artist in the process.The organiser is the inhabitant or the group of inhabitants. But the architect can have more experience, which is whatI’m trying to show for example with the Serpentine installation in London. It is completely improvised. I think that the element I was introducing into the process was improvisation, improvisation can be implemented in architecture.

RD: This process rely on good communication between the parts involved. How do you communicate this ideas?

YF: For communicating the ideas I started using cartoons, and they work very well. I use this form of communication, again, not only for architecture but for social problems, for political issues, for science. Language has its own rules, and language makes us unfree. To communicate freely you have to use visual elements. What you have in face to face communication simply your mimicry, gestures, everything-you have to replace with images once you change over to written communication. You have to make use of images because the images give more than the text.

I really make use of this and something I was speculating about recently was the constant conversations around artificial intelligence. I am asking myself, is artificial imagination possible? It is. But then we have to change one thing with our computers.

And this is easy to explain. You know, you look at the image, at once you have an immediate impact and only afterward will you begin to look at the details. Not the computer, the computer scans. But this is not necessary. Technically the computer could work with an immediate impact. And then with this image of immediate impact it would make associations. That means you have to give associative rather than logical memory to the computer. Afterwards it can go to the classical logical system, something I’m not able to work out, obviously, but technically it is possible.

Photography, the camera, the classical start of film, it takes an immediate impact. It doesn’t scan. And obviously any electronic recording can do it without scanning, technically.

RD: How are all these things related?

YF: They are related by the essential aspect of being unplanned, as unfixed as possible. In this way the computer would improvise.The inhabitant improvises, the architect can improvise, the scientist improvises and everything in our everyday behavior is improvised. I’m not calculating what my movement will be in thirty seconds from now, it happens. And this is really the main point. Improvisation means a certain freedom. I started with it in architecture, thinking of ways to improvise your residence, your living space, but it goes much further. We improvise everything. And in all my real experiments, let’s say from the 70’s onward, I was always trying to show this improvisation with concrete cases. An example is the high school in Angiers, which was planned by the people involved. For a long time they were thinking it over, but it was improvisation. When I was building in Madras it was improvisation. I decided simply to draw the outlines on the ground and all the technical aspects. All these realizations with the space chain, they always improvisation. I’m not giving the shape that must be done, I’m explaining how to do it and then it is done locally.

RD: Is it a doable program for architects and users? Is humankind ready to improvise on life?

YF: I think it is a nature thing. Every living being improvises. All the survival process is improvisation, continuous improvisation, reacting to the outside. A cell inside you improvises. Our brain improvises. A dog improvises, a plant improvises.

RD: We are very connected to our rational side, how can the two things go together?

YF: You know, I am very much the rational type, but I think what we call rational, Freud would call it a complex, is not reality. Animals behave rationally– my goodness, they have never heard about rationalism! You, a cell or any new cellular being is rational, because we explain it as rational, but it is different. I believe more in reactivity and rationalism is some complex form of reactivity. In the physical world, in physics, every phenomenon you describe is reactivity. It seems rational, it isn’t. We explain it, we have the complex of translating it into our vocabulary.

RD: Some scientists are saying that laws of nature are evolving, they are not constant, they are not fixed forever but that they change in time.

YF: Improvisation is evolving, it builds itself up. What we call nature is again an absurdity. What is nature? So you say nature is everything. Fine, then we don’t need it. Even what is artificial is, in part, nature. We are prisoners of historically inherited concepts. Freud was using the Oedipus complex and so on. As a species, a rationality complex, which is not bad, which is useful, but it is not reality, it is a mythology like Oedipus. A very comfortable mythology, I’m glad to use it, but I wouldn’t say that nature is rational, I wouldn’t say that anything is rational. It is our convened language within a certain period. Thinking that everything in the external world is rational would be nearly as comic as thinking that the external world is speaking Italian.

[Laughs] Useful, but they don’t speak Italian, they don’t think rationally. They behave reactively. So, that’s the point. Ville Spatiale opens for the reactivity of the individual.
An example thought in Paris.

RD: How can we see the idea of the Ville Spatiale, applied, for example, at the nearby Marché de Grenelle?

YF: With this market I wanted to show that the idea of the Ville Spatiale, my goodness, that it is very old! Not this market [de Grenelle], it dates from the late 19th century, but this kind of market is old. The Roman Basilica is nearly the same. This type of market, my goodness, is perhaps ten thousand years old. What we know from old illustrations, even with the Egyptians it was this way. Therefore, I am essentially not trying to impose a new thing but thinking about traditional things that already exist and adapting them to the present conditions. Thirty years from now it will be different. I’ll give a simple example. When I was a student we learned that the city is connection, people meeting and so on. You need forums and you need places where people can meet. Now it is different, you just need a cellular phone! You fix the meeting place. It is no longer random meeting like in the past. So the entire idea of city planning of the 50’s is changed by the simple fact that you have a cellular phone and you can talk with your friend and make an appointment anywhere, improvised. This cellular phone might completely change Ville Spatiale. It is not necessarily the concentration, it is not necessarily the proximity. I can be in contact with somebody by cellular phone. With the ordinary phone I was still linked to a network. It’s not a random thing. It’s a cloud, so the cloud replaces the city largely. The metro line on top of the market stands on columns.

Columns are like trees. This is why i was interested in using trees. It is the same principle. A forest is a perfect building. Architecture practice starts always on cutting down the trees. A tree has foundations, it is a pillar, so use it. I found that what is important is the approach, then the technical improvisation may be very different. Let’s go visit the market .

Photo by Nadia Gric

This interview was realized in Paris in 2016 and published for the first time in Visionary Thinkers/archphoto2.0

Roberto dell’Orco (1978), designer and visual artist, co-founder of il Motore di Ricerca, an artist collective devoted to public art and participatory processes. He develops a spatial practice that deals with collective memories and group decisions trough visual and performative arts. For more information visit