A few weeks ago, ACE talked with Rudolf Gräf about the Covid-19 impact, the urban festival Street Delivery,  climate-proof urban development approach, quality spaces and architectural education.

ACE: The covid-19 crisis has multiplied questions on urban planning and climate issues. In your eyes, how will architects rethink cities and reinvent spaces?

Rudolf Gräf: During this crisis, we noticed that ‘proximity spaces’ like the places near your home became much more important, especially when living in a high density neighbourhood. During the lockdown, we were not able to travel far, it was important to be able to have some activity nearby, close to your home. It also showed that urban street design, especially, was not up to the task.
The way we designed streets over  the last 50 years was lacking multifunctionality, amenities and micro-climate for enjoyable and local outdoor activities. Not everybody can have a park or a playground within 10 minutes’ walk of  their home. Not everybody can even walk 10 minutes. There are a lot of people who are not young enough or sufficiently strong  to do this. In such situations, the street itself must be able to take over and adapt. Architects are generally not involved in street design. It’s rather seen as not very high-level work  - not like the historic, symbolic places that we like to design. There is a lot of work to be done in this area for architects too and I think architectural schools in general are not very good at imparting that type of knowledge. On the other hand, when we think about the direct Covid implications, like physical (social) distancing, it shows that it really increases the capacity of our spaces, like  pavements, even for the smallest place where 5-10 people can meet – they need a different size to  what they have now, if they have any  at all.  

ACE: Let’s speak about the urban festival Street Delivery, an event that started with the mission of making the city’s streets more available to its people rather than to  cars.

Rudolf Gräf: It was a library that initiated the Street Delivery concept because they wanted their street to be livelier. In Bucharest, it was fortunate that it was in the same street as the Order of Architects. They put the  quality of streets for pedestrians in perspective to bring life to  the streets. They approached the topic very early on, being  interested in having a good street. It took a long time to reach mayors and professionals. Even today, in Romania at least, street planners, who are trained as such, don’t understand the challenge, they just see the technical perspective. On the other hand, architects  often see it in a very design-oriented way. Very few can look at it from a social perspective, from the perspective of a micro-climate improvement and climate change mitigation, because it’s a big topic for the next year. We should develop more this for the future. A street is a good street when it is designed for the weakest. If the weakest member of the society can use a street safely, it means that you are not doing anything wrong. As a society, it’s crucial to have this empathy. In street design, it would show a lot about how much you think about the others.  

ACE: What are the biggest challenges when implementing a climate-proof urban development approach? 

Rudolf Gräf: First, I think the biggest challenge is about awareness. The awareness that this phenomenon it is not a one-time thing, like  the storm  you had last year in your city; many people live with the hope that this was a one-time event. It happens once in 50 years. Well, it’s not the case anymore and having the awareness that this peak of bad weather will come over and over again, is  very important .  
Secondly, beyond the strategic concept, to ensure that all projects that the city implements respond to some of the issues raised by climate change, we need an administrative instrument to make sure that this topic of climate change is embedded  in each implemented project. If we speak about climate change itself, I see a very big problem for the future: water scarcity. Access to water will be, for many parts of the world, a real challenge for the time to come with real geopolitical and military implications. Access to water is something mankind has been fighting for since a long time, but we forgot about it and I think it will come back with great force.   

ACE: In the last years, you worked together with Helsinki Zürich on a new urban development procedure based on the Urban Design Management concept. Can you tell us more about the new tools you are developing for stakeholder engagement, urban development contracts, private public partnerships and cooperative planning? 

Rudolf Gräf: The idea of our project was to force urban planning stakeholders to communicate more with each other and to strengthen the informal part of urban planning. One of the issues with urban planning is that development is a question only discussed between investor, developer and the administration for example, leaving out a big part of the society.  We also lack the tools, in  administration for example, and in a society, to manage parts of the city where there are many land owners; all of them are stakeholders to some extent, each of them wants to make a profit out of his land and during this process, we don’t manage to coordinate all these investments and developments. We don’t manage to build up a city that works as a city, a city that really can answer questions  you have asked, a community that can be supportive and that works as a community. This question of coordinating urban planning was in the centre of the discussion and the urban design process was basically to develop a procedure out of several workshops to bring everybody together, and not just try to build a compromise.  
The idea is to generate added value for everybody involved. Implementation is also very important - just by following the steps  of the procedure, you won’t necessarily reach your objective, because the field of work is  such a sensitive one, you work with a lot of people, with a lot of interests, so it also depends on who is doing it. But the idea was to show at least some guidelines as to what  a process can look like, that really adds value for everybody involved, and by doing so, building up a city that can provide answers to  issues like  climate change mitigation or the one we are living with -  COVID 19:  a liveable city that can provide life support for its citizens.  

ACE: What is your definition of a quality space?

Rudolf Gräf: It should be a space where the weakest ones can be free, and not subject to threats, dangers, and risks. A space that allows the weakest members of our society to live their life as independently as possible.   

ACE:  What are the benefits of investing in our heritage?  

Rudolf Gräf: Often, when we speak about heritage, we speak about objects, like protected monuments - but we would gain more out of heritage if we look at historical neighbourhoods as social and economic ecosystems as a whole. By looking at them as living organisms, we will see that they offer a lot of space, not only for memory, identity and history, but they offer a lot of space for investment and growth in the most classical, economic way; where you can generate new things. For example, the city of Graz in Austria where I studied, whose historic part is listed in the UNESCO world heritage has some of the most spectacular examples of contemporary architecture in Europe. This is a very good example showing that a historic city, however valuable from an historic point of view, could still offer space for development and contemporary life and by that I also mean contemporary architecture. To do so and to be able to achieve that kind of result, you need to have a very open relationship with your historic city and you need to be also very open and fair about what you want  your city as a whole to be. We all want our cities to be productive places, pleasurable places; we all want economic wealth. Of course, how this is done is the key question and historic neighbourhoods are a great way to have  sustainable city development, because you can densify already built-up locations, you can build-up an identity without wiping out the existing one and you can build on  existing structures,  spaces and human resources as well. The topic might be a little different in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe, because Eastern European cities  underwent a very difficult fifty-year period for historical areas. Western European cities did too , but the fracture was not that important, especially the social fracture. I think there are a lot of cities in Eastern Europe, for example in Poland, but also in Romania, like Sibiu or Timisoara now, where historic neighbourhoods came back, in the last 25 years, from being, let’s say, a negative part of the city - bad infrastructure, with decaying  buildings, lots of problems,   to being, again, the symbol of cities and the core of Eastern European cities. That shows how resilient historic centres are in the end. Cities can overcome long periods of economic and political upheaval, we have seen that after decades of neglect, cities can rebound. 

ACE: Can you tell us more about your project related to heritage revitalisation in Romania,?

Rudolf Gräf: It was rather a financial mechanism that allowed, for the first time, in Romania, private owners to get financial support from the public administration in order to renovate their historic buildings. It was a pioneer project; we worked in the concept phase and in the implementation phase, as part of a bigger team, it was a very valuable experience for us because we understood that it’s not enough to say that heritage is protected. It’s not enough to say what is forbidden or not in this area, you need to have real mechanisms to support investment in heritage and the people who live in this historic area, owners or tenants. Heritage belongs to everybody, but you can’t expect  ordinary people to maintain the splendour of some buildings that are more  than 100-150 years old. Of course, you always have the option to let the market decide, so all habitants will move out, prices will rise, people with money will buy and speculate, they will keep the apartment empty for many years, and just to wait a higher price and sell it. But you don’t want this bad situation for the neighbourhood social revitalisation. Every public authority should be interested in supporting owners and tenants in historic areas. Of course, it’s normal that  people move in and out – this makes foro  a lively city -  but we learnt from this project that is very important not to leave the revitalization of the historic areas to the market alone. That was a big tendency in the 90's/2000's, especially in Eastern Europe.  

ACE: How do you see your buildings ageing? 

We built our office in a former heating facility and we didn’t have a lot of money to do so, so the question of durability and materials was key. On the one hand, if you know how to choose your materials to age well, this is a great thing and it shouldn’t be a problem to see the ageing process.  In general, we, architects and we as  society, take time to get accustomed to the ageing of  materials; we accept that stone is ageing, wood is ageing, but we have a very hard time accepting that plastic gets yellow by ageing. I don’t know if it’s something we will accept in time, because plastic can last  forever, is a very good material, is hard to destroy, but is very ugly when ageing. The question of ageing is interesting because it also depends on how used we are to a material getting old.  

ACE: What differentiates your work from other contemporary practices? 

Rudolf Gräf: I can relate now more to the Romanian context. For our architecture practice, what was important was not to get stuck into an image of the ‘creator’ architects, that’s the image you grow up with in school. When I started architecture school in Romania, I even didn’t understand the collective aspect of  practice. I only learnt this when I moved to Austria for studies - that you can carry out work in big teams and that the most important thing is not to defend your idea, but to be able to nurture other ideas, to persuade others to accept  your way of doing things,  your vision. So, when we established the office, it was very important for us not to fix up a style in relation to certain things we want to do, but really to approach things pragmatically, so when somebody searches for a solution, we want to find a solution to  that problem; whether  it’s a street, an historic building or a new building, the important thing is to find a solution - it’s not a matter of style or being recognisable. I want to believe that all the solutions we find, are found  together with the people we are working for, in that context. An important part of the solution process is to be able to get together  with your client and define the problem you are working on. Very often when a client comes up with a question or a problem to solve, it seems that we just answer to the same problem, but we don’t. It is important to make sure that the answer you give is about the same question and not a different one. I think the process part of designing is an important one. I would like to do more of this part of participatory design in our work, because very often you lack the time to do it and that’s not good.   

ACE: In your opinion, what is the relevance of architectural policies?

Rudolf Gräf:  Ten years ago, in Romania, we had an initiative for an architectural policy that the Order presented to the Ministry of Development and to the Government. At that time, nobody really understood what an architectural policy should be. In the meantime, things have evolved, and I think it is essential that architects count on Europe and the National Organisations to push architecture onto the political agenda, not as a matter of designing buildings, but as a matter of designing our built environment. Here, I also see a big lack in our education that leaves aside a lot of concepts and there is a risk that at some point we don’t understand the built environment as a system. A lot of colleges see architecture as a matter of designing buildings and that’s something we avoid in our office and I think it would be good if, at  European level, the topic of architecture would be about the architecture of space, and not the architecture of buildings. It’s important to push this approach and this is something that only organisations like ACE could do. It is very important also for the visibility of the profession as a whole.  

ACE: You are a Mentor of CANactions School Programme SPACES. The Spatial Planning for Accessibility, Cooperation and Economic Sustainability (SPACES) Programme focuses on the application of European inter-municipal cooperation practices and sub-regional spatial planning tools to a group of real-life functioning formed territorial communities. Can you tell us more about it? 

Rudolf Gräf: I had the opportunity four years ago to collaborate with an Ukrainian initiative for an educational platform. For several years, they have organised one of the biggest architectural festivals in Eastern Europe. Via this educational platform, they offer five to six weeks training programmes, with a focus on topics like integrated urban development or regional planning. For me, it was a great opportunity because they understand themselves to be  part of the reform Ukraine has undertaken after 2014 - this new Ukraine that is dynamic and that can change things and really do things. For me it was also a programme that contributes to this shift of Ukraine towards European integration. Being myself from Eastern Europe, I understand how important this is, not to be left alone by Europe in between a Soviet past and a possible European future. So, the great thing about this programmee is that it brings together representatives of the public administration, from rural areas. This year, we work with six amalgamated hromadas, which are several settlements that are grouped together as part of a big reform Ukraine undertakes to be more efficient in terms of administration.   For space, we had several regions sent in applications and one specific region with six hromodas chosen in the Carpathian area of Ukraine. We worked with representatives from these settlements, hromadas, and with spatial practitioners from Ukraine, so young professionals that work in the field of urban planning, either in spatial planning, geography, sociology and so on, … And what we do with them, is basically to develop an action plan, during this five-six weeks, that improves quality of life in these  regions and looks at what they have in common, so we use space as the common denominator and we want to identify  common spaces for action, what cooperation projects are needed to make this most potentials spaces be valuable, in whatever meaning, not only financial. So we are trying to help them find their new identity as a group of settlements that will work together in the future, to look at this topic from a spatial perspective and to give them a common understanding of the space they inhabit together and the resources they have together. In the end, we will have at least a draft of an action plan, a list of projects on which  they could cooperate and  implement together:   projects they can only do together and not separately.   

ACE: Architectural education is key to a sustainable future. What are the emerging new trends and tendencies? What do you see is evolving in the new generation of architects? 

Rudolf Gräf:  I see a broader interest in the topic of space and society, not only in design and buildings. I see a larger scope and a deeper understanding of what makes architecture. The interconnection between space and society that is expressed in architecture is much better understood now than  when I started my studies. I would like to refer to an amazing initiative in Romania, since several years now, called De-a Arhitectura, which brings architecture thinking into the first school classes, for kids from 5 to 10 years old. It’s an amazing project with amazing results, with a huge number of volunteers. In my opinion, this is the most successful educational project in Romania and even the most successful architectural project I’ve ever seen.  

ACE: What is your advice for young architects? 

Rudolf Gräf: It would be to be empathic towards users of your building, co-workers and toward the social, natural and historic environment you build in.  This is a great thing, and this is something you can also study; some do it naturally, some not, but I think it should be part of the education.When I started, there was no Erasmus. Romania was then not part of the EU, so only a few of us had the opportunity to study abroad. In the meantime, in our office, everybody from the young generation studied abroad with Erasmus, I think it’s one of the best things you can do. I’ve seen it again in Ukraine now, they didn’t have access to European education till 2017 I think, so now it’s much easier for the students to study and travel in Europe. I’ve seen it in Romania and Ukraine as well, this opening up towards Europe is a great opportunity for many young and smart people and I think going back to your own country is  not difficult at all, on the contrary, you can come back with a fresh view on things.  

Read the interview in Romanian.        ​

Rudolf Gräf is an architect with a degree from Graz University of Technology (TU Graz), co-founder of the Vitamin Architects office in Timișoara and has worked in international cooperation projects between Germany and Romania as well as Germany and Ukraine, focusing on integrated, climate proof urban planning and heritage revitalization projects.

Back to top