Future Architecture: connective thinking in a time of political fragmentation

This European-wide network of institutions invites young practitioners simply to propose ideas for the future of architecture. It is the naivety of its mission and its instigation of cross-continental connections that is the platform’s success, says George Kafka, reporting from its fourth annual meeting in Slovenia.

What is the Future Architecture platform? “The Eurovision song contest for architecture”? “An optimistic place to think about architecture”? “A form of diplomacy?” “A talent scouting wedding market for cultural institutions”? “A once in a liftetime opportunity”?

Each of these is more or less true. As described by Future Architecture members, advisors and participants, the platform is a complex, often unwieldy, in many ways undefinable entity. In its simplest terms, it is an EU-funded network comprised of 21 members from 16 European countries and an annual intake of international participants – emerging creative practitioners in architecture, urbanism and the wider built environment. The members are architecture institutions from across Europe, ranging from well-established stalwarts such as the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, the MAXXI in Rome or the Oslo Architecture Triennale, to newer independent galleries and festivals such as Viper in Prague or the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial, which has its first edition in 2018.

While the platform’s appeal for participants is clear, the benefit to members is a little more complicated

Since the platform’s founding in 2015, each year 25 participants have been gathered via an open call for “emerging creatives who work on transformative projects and ideas for the future of architecture.” “It sounded kind of stupid to me! ‘Ideas for the future’, it’s a bit naive as a call,” says Bika Rebek, an assistant professor at Columbia University, a former participant of the platform and now a member of its advisory board. Yet this naivety is arguably part of its success. In the face of myriad open calls requiring often lengthy unpaid work, fees and clunky forms, the FAP offers a refreshingly simple process.

During the 2019 open call, from November 2018 to January 2019, there were 357 applications from 60 countries. Once closed, the proposals are uploaded to the platform’s website where they can be viewed by the public. Of these, 25 are “selected” – 18 by the platform’s members, three by platform alumni and one by a public vote (the remaining three are winners of the Young Talent Architecture Award, an offshoot of the Mies van der Rohe Award) – and invited to a Renaissance castle on the outskirts of Ljubljana, Slovenia, better known as the Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO).

This is the Future Architecture HQ and office of its founder and museum director, Matevž Čelik, a quietly driven former-architect whose shy public demeanour gives him the appearance of a reluctant shepherd leading an unruly mob of architectural sheep. Faced with cuts to cultural budgets under austerity measures in Slovenia in 2015, Čelik applied to a European Union open call for platforms across different cultural fields to bring new initiatives into the museum. In applying, he sought to change the perception of what a Slovenian institution could achieve. “The culture of Slovenia is very inward looking, it stops at the borders,” he explains. “We wanted to showcase that we don’t need to be followers, but we can also lead. In a way it was about building self-confidence, not only for us but for the rest of the cultural scenes in Slovenia.”

Over three intense days each February, Ljubljana and the MAO host the great and good of Europe’s architecture institutions and emerging creatives from the continent and beyond for the annual Creative Exchange. During the event the year’s selected participants give quickfire participants before they are paired up with member institutions.

For the participants, the Creative Exchange is a rare chance to present themselves to an unusually captive audience. “As independent practitioners most of the opportunities come from either applying for something or you really trying to pitch a case to funders or large organisations to support your cause,” explains former participant and co-founder of Resolve design collective Akil Scafe-Smith. “But once you got on the Future Architecture platform you had a room full of people that just wanted you. They were just looking for you.”

Resolve’s presentation in Ljubljana was a summary of their work up to that point. Others can be more pointed: a new method of building ventilation using organic materials; a Blockchain-based solution to housing speculation; a reinterpretation of Madrid’s underground ruins; an architecture school for Belarussian children; community workshops in Portuguese social housing – just six examples of the 100 presented since the platform was founded in 2015.

Discursive collaboration amongst members is where the most considerable development is taking place

Once presented, these “selected” participants are then matched up with members and over the rest of the year are invited to participate in workshops, exhibitions, events and publications in the members’ home cities – all funded by the EU. Resolve, for example, travelled to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, Tirana Architecture Week, Forecast in Berlin and the House of Architecture in Graz. As Tania Tovar Torres – an architect and founder of Proyector gallery based in Mexico City who participated in the platform in 2018 – puts it, “without noticing, event after event, I was not presenting a project anymore, but rather shaping part of my practice along the way.”

While the platform’s appeal for participants – international travel, exposure for their work and ideas, an expanded professional network – is clear, the benefit to members is a little more complicated. As well as opening their doors to new talent, the member institutions have an opportunity to discuss their work with other organisations who may produce similar work but in radically different situations. “This inter-institutional consultancy aspect is something I find interesting,” explains Andreas Ruby, director of the Swiss Architecture Museum, a platform member since 2015. “The more established institutions can challenge themselves against the versatility, the creativeness, the unconventionality of institutions that have just invented themselves.”

This cross-institutional discussion comes to a head during the Creative Exchange at the members’ meeting, a closed meeting with an atmosphere that is part group therapy, part UN security council. “Everyone has agendas, and they’re all trying to work out how their agendas can fit into [the platform],” says curator James Taylor-Foster, another member of the platform’s advisory board. “It’s almost like a weird UN situation, it’s a form of diplomacy.”

As the platform enters its fourth cycle, it seems this development of discursive collaboration amongst members is where the most considerable development is taking place. The consistent presence of these institutions means collaborations are developing; older organisations advise smaller ones on the best ways to work with participants and vice versa; new voices encourage older ones to work beyond and around their orthodoxies. The platform is developing a history, from which is learns and with which it progresses iteratively.

This cross-continental connection is crucial at a time of fragmentation and a resurgent far right movements across Europe

Part of this history is the expanding network it leaves in its wake. Platform alumni include Venice biennale curators, Ivy League educators and magazine editors. For past participant Manon Mollard, Editor of the Architectural Review, the platform “opened up channels of conversation with a new network of potential collaborators.”

For Čelik, this cross-continental connection is crucial at a time of fragmentation and a resurgent far right movements across Europe. He says the “fears that get stimulated and boosted by politicians create divisions, and the possibility of re-establishing borders and building fences.” In contrast, “the platform is looking into the future and creating connections. It’s something that is breaking these fears.”

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