In the framework of the Young Architects Forum last year in Barcelona, ACE talked with n'UNDO about quality in the built environment, sustainability, cultural heritage and the relevance of architectural policies.

ACE: Thanks for attending Perspectives: Young Architects Forum last year in Barcelona.
What are your ‘take away messages » from this conference?

  • Put people at the centre of the architectural approach;
  • Real sustainability must be a synonym of architecture;
  • The image of the architect as sole practitioner should be replaced by collective and collaborative models;
  • New problems and opportunities in uncertain times, need new approaches;
  • Tools are not practice! Architecture is not about how we do things but it's about what do we really need to do, why we build and how necessary is it to build.

Debates, cultural and ideas exchange are always the highlight of conferences. It was great to see many different approaches to architecture, different from the classic and dead ones.   

ACE: n’UNDO is an attitude, intervening in spaces and in the city from a position of No Construction, Minimisation, Re-use and Dismantling. Can you tell us more about the genesis of n’UNDO?

n´UNDO arises from the need to make architecture using a different approach. After years of practicing architecture in a traditional manner, we realised that this was not contributing to improve people´s live and bring more equity to society. We started to work on Humanitarian Aid, in the Southern hemisphere – which still occupies 50% of our time - and understood it was possible to do many things, even great architecture with almost nothing; and moreover, sometimes even not doing or dismantling. 
In 2011 that position arose from activism, from criticism, but over the years it has become an increasingly broad and grounded proposal - we deeply believe in - to improve the future of cities. We organise ourselves as a hard-core with many satellites orbiting that come in and out depending on the project, interests, backgrounds and proposals. We try to be as heterogeneous and horizontal as possible, the limit being time and implementation milestones.   

ACE: In 1996 Juhani Pallasmaa writes “in memorable experiences of architecture, space, matter and time fuse into one singular dimension, into the basic substance of being, that penetrates our consciousness. We identify ourselves with this space, this place, this moment, and these dimensions become ingredients of our very existence. Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.” Is your view linked to this slow movement?

Cities are an addition of different layers piling up fast, one over the other, with no time to think of good solutions that address real problems and opportunities instead of profit and numbers.  So, our view is linked with the slow movement, in the sense that we don´t understand architecture as a ‘good’, as a financial asset, as speed. Architecture is connected to the environment and acts as a bond between both, but always contributing to the improvement of this environment and the life of the people that inhabit it. Slow for us, means proximity, respect, pre-existence, slowness and walking as a way to approach knowledge and architecture; to dissociate development from infinite growth.  

ACE: How can our heritage be more profitable? What are the benefits of investing in our heritage? 

Heritage can be profitable if we don't assume that profit is just money. This is not the way we should want to measure the development of our societies. Profit must be considered in a broad and integral way, counting economical-social (not financial), cultural and environmental factors. Social profit in response to existing demands of the neighbourhood and the city, reusing existing spaces with minimal possible investment, with viability plans based on the management of functionality and spaces, which imply benefits such as education, participation, diversity, professional and creative development, equity, social justice and universal accessibility. Cultural profitability – is understanding culture and sport as generating quality of life from an economic and social point of view. 

Heritage is about valuing what we have, considering the different layers of the city, its’ internal knowledge and the different possibilities it opens.  

ACE: ‘No' is not negative, it´s a disruptive way of re-thinking the way we do architecture. A new position. Can you tell us more about Not-doing in your Kalmar project in Sweden?  

Unique, living frame and meeting place of the people, the landscape is crucial to material, mental and spiritual welfare of individuals and societies. European Landscape Convention.

The idea behind Kalmar´s project was very simple, there is no need to build in a coastal wetland, in a beautiful and unique landscape. Instead the proposal was to make more diverse, complex, compact and sustainable the existing mono-functional neighbourhood; giving priority to the conservation of the space and the landscape as part of our human right to have a healthy environment and proving that the strategy could be more economically profitable.
How to do that? 
No construction on the wetlands, out of respect for the areas of high environmental value that make up the very identity of Kalmar.
Consolidating and protecting landscapes and existing voids, through a re-routing of roadways, re-defining the main road - a barrier separating the houses from the wetlands - as a street, now an integrative rural-urban element which makes it possible to reach the coast line by foot in a 15 minutes’ walk, turning it into the new neighbourhood park. 
Minimising interventions, with criteria – for new constructions – that are of minimal energetic, environmental and visual impact. A model of precise, intensive urbanism, as opposed to extensive one. The complexity of the urban grid and, as a result,  the enrichment of social links, is achieved through the diversification of uses and types. Re-using spaces and existing infrastructure, optimising them.
Densifying the existing grid pattern of dwellings, without losing the human scale and developing new centres in order to make the neighbourhood more varied and complex. For a real sustainable city, we need to talk about one in which the system requires less energy and more urban complexity.

ACE : In your view, what is the relevance of architectural policies? What do you expect from the European Union to support the practice of the profession and achieve quality in the built environment?

The EU needs to play a more active role in how architecture deals with itself, with the environment and with daily practice.  Greater priority should be given to funding urban research, new innovative practices and new ways and formats for urban plans, responding to the real needs of citizens´. Policies should support architecture that improves people´s lives with a minimal transformation of the environment, minimal energy consumption and minimal emissions. This is what we call quality architecture!  Architecture needs to be more democratic and transparent, needs to find better ways to communicate with citizens and users, showing that architecture is not only a matter of architects or developers but of the whole population. The EU can raise awareness of this fact.   

ACE : As a young architect, what was the best advice you received.

Kill your idols and think differently!  We can (not) do very much. 

About n’UNDO 

n’UNDO´s proposition demonstrates that, rather than seeing construction as a traditional way to improve our environment, it is possible to build more and better by not doing, re-doing or undoing; actions that guarantee economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability. It is not a question of less is more, but rather whether nothing can be more.  
DO NOT - non-active and purposeful, demonstrating the sustainability and profitability of not intervening. RE-DO - understood as re-using, regenerating, reverting, recovering, rehabilitating, revitalising, relocating, restoring, valuing pre-existence. 
UNDO is to reduce, minimise, eliminate, dismantle, demolish, as an effective response to excesses and what is left over. n’UNDO bases its work on criticism, debate and proactive reflection where, through its theoretical basis, generates practice and (no) intervention. 
n´UNDO is constituted as a Think Tank, a centre of urban thought and experimentation, from where it develops research, criticism, teaching - formal and informal – debate, urban actions and artistic interventions. This theoretical action is carried out through a technical consulting office, implementing alternative solutions based on pre-existence, uncertainty, flexibility and time.

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