On our common future

A discussion on sustainability, a common future, urban & rural development with Oana Bogdan published in România Conştientă

Interviewer: Who is Oana Bogdan?

Oana Bogdan: I am a human born in Sighisoara, who emigrated to Belgium when she was 21 to see the world during the following 21 years. I love other people unconditionally and look at the ones with whom I interact and resonate as if they were gods or heroes, and I treasure wholeheartedly mother nature. In other words, I am a person who cares deeply about the world in which she lives. While swinging between travels and love stories, I served in numerous committees in Belgium, but also in international juries, and taught architecture and urbanism at the university for 7 years. In 2007 I co-founded an international architecture and urbanism firm, in Brussels. In 2016 I was appointed Secretary of State responsible for Romania’s cultural heritage and, in the following years, I was involved in a civic platform and in the creation and growth of a political party, in Romania

Interviewer: Where does your passion for architecture come from?

Oana Bogdan: My passion for architecture was born in Sighisoara, in a time when I was climbing the stairs toward the medieval citadel three times a week. Right there, at a stone’s throw from the clock tower, was my music school, where I used to take classes for 8 years while also attending the regular school. If it turned out I played well enough during the piano class, I would jump down every three steps on the way back home. If the class did not go so well, I would step twice on the same spot. The beauty of the citadel contrasted sharply with the prefabricated panel building and the north-facing apartment in which I lived. In the evening, while in bed, I was picturing how I would improve the neighbourhood, the building in which I was living and, especially, the apartment. This is what I enjoy doing, even now: to renew, to rethink, to improve a building, a place, a system, an organization.

Interviewer: Why did you choose Belgium for your professional life?

Oana Bogdan: I chose Belgium as a destination for the Erasmus scholarship won in 1999 (at that time only students with very good exam results could leave the country with an Erasmus scholarship, therefore a scholarship was something you won). Because I only left the country once, the same year, also through a scholarship, I really wanted to travel, to see the world. As I had very little money, I decided to see as many countries as possible from Western Europe, so I chose Belgium, which has a central location.  

Interviewer: Can you tell us more about your dearest project in Romania?

Oana Bogdan: I have in mind all the projects I worked on in Romania, which are three: the first in Iasi, the second in Sighisoara and the third one concerning the whole country.The feasibility study for the Iasi intermodal transport center from 2009-2010 is the only architectural project in which our office, BOGDAN & VAN BROECK, was involved in Romania, enough to realize how awry things are going in the country in which I was born and from which I left in 1999.

In 2015 I returned to Sighisoara with an idea: together with some exceptional people from there, I started to build the NGO S2029. The name “S2029” comes from Sighisoara in 2029, the year in which, we believed, the transformation of the city into the place we dreamed of since we were children will be completed. When I became Secretary of State at the Ministry of Culture in 2016, I had to leave the NGO, in order to avoid any conflict of interest.

My activity in the Ciolos Government and in Romania 100 – a platform that promotes participation in public life, and the creation and development of the political party PLUS are one and the same project: the completion of Romania’s modernization. For this third project I left my architecture office in Belgium between 2016 and 2019. At the end of 2019, I returned to Belgium, where I continue to work on the political project started in Romania, only that this time it covers the whole world. Ambitious isn’t it?!

Interviewer: Could you describe Romania’s architecture?

Oana Bogdan: I divide the Romanian architecture into three periods: the one before the ’80s, which is now in danger of mutilation or demolition, the one from the ’80s, which is the product of Ceausescu’s ignorance and megalomania, and the one after 1989, which is a sea of kitsch from which, now and then, exceptional buildings are rising, designed by a few extremely talented architects Romania has. The overlap of these three periods in the built environment and the lack of care for the public space are oppressive, aggressive. Yes, I could say that, in Romania, the built space aggresses the citizens. On the other hand, the slower development of Romania has led to the survival of buildings that would otherwise have been demolished. If there was a national strategy for capitalizing on the built cultural heritage, combined with civil society projects, the built environment in Romania could be transformed well and quickly. This requires a vision, a thorough understanding of the Romanian city and village and a lot of political will. The will of the citizens exists, but it is fragmented. It lacks a framework that can only be created at the political level.

Interviewer: In Romania there is a lack of quality in the construction and use of space, both in urban and rural areas. It seems that people do not have a vision, and many exclude the possibility of “a better life”. How can we make people cooperate when it comes to planning, designing and using the space?

Oana Bogdan: The explanation for the lack of cooperation between Romanians lies in the history of our country. The level of trust between Romanians is very low, which makes cooperation impossible, as cooperation is based on trust. I, therefore, hope that the Romanian youth will succeed to build this trust in the years to come. Maybe they will achieve what has not been achieved in 30 years since the Revolution. If they will vote for those politicians who care about future generations, if among those politicians there will be young people, if they, the young people, will organize in cooperatives to have access to housing, but also to ask politicians to settle neighbourhood agreements, a new social contract and contracts between generations, then that modernization of Romania that we were talking about earlier will be completed. Because such things happen only through cooperation!

Interviewer: I come from Băile Govora, a town which is famous for its holiday building architecture. But many of the buildings are in an advanced state of disrepair. We talked about the town’s potential in two articles that you can find here and here. Can you give me an example of a city where the buildings were in a state of advanced degradation, but which, thanks to the involvement of some institutions and people, could be brought back to life?

Oana Bogdan: A good example is the city of Bruges, for which I worked as an UNESCO expert for five years. From a rich international port and the main commercial centre of North-West Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, Bruges became one of the poorest cities in Belgium around 1850. Although it emerged relatively untouched from both wars, in the second half of the twentieth century, the city centre had become extremely dilapidated, many of its inhabitants moved to the outskirts of the city and, with them, the economic activities started to be relocated. As a result of post-1970 urban renewal campaigns initiated by citizens (!) Bruges has gradually evolved into a major tourist destination.

The restoration of buildings is a tradition that Bruges has been financially supporting since 1877. The city was and still is a major project in the field of urban restoration and renewal in Flanders. And heritage conservation in Bruges has been monitored very consistently and efficiently by all local governments since the 1970s.

If today Bruges was the poorest city in Belgium and many of the buildings were in an advanced state of degradation, then the urban strategy would have been one of regeneration. This concept appeared in the early ’90s and since then is the dominant practice in the field of restoration of historic centers. Unlike previous strategies, such as the urban reconstruction of the 1950s, the urban revitalization of the 1960s, the urban renewal of the 1970s (applied in Bruges) and the urban transformation of the 1980s, urban regeneration requires a sustainable, comprehensive and integrated approach of the economic, social, ecological and physical degradation of a given space. A possible disadvantage of this strategy is the appearance of gentrification, but this can be avoided if the strategy is in accordance with socio-economic and ethical norms, and especially if the project also includes the participation of citizens in the development phase.

Other examples that I know well are two former industrial areas of Belgium, with a lot of industrial cultural heritage: the old port of Antwerp (https://www.visitantwerpen.be/en/districts/eilandje), where I started my career as an architect, and the canal area in Brussels (https://canal.brussels/en), where our office has carried out a project to capitalize on the industrial heritage (https://www.bogdanvanbroeck.com/projects/coop-anderlecht-be/) and completes the construction of a community center (https://www.bogdanvanbroeck.com/projects/truss-molenbeek-be/).

Interviewer: Like you, I support the idea of ​​sustainability and I am sure that many people, even those who are not necessarily connected to the field of architecture, are aware of the importance of the buildings around them. But it seems that we are inert, that we barely change things, that we do not act. How does Belgium, for example, manage to get people involved? Can you give specific examples of some policies and initiatives?

Oana Bogdan: Belgium is the most urbanized country in Europe and has a political and administrative structure based on the recognition in its Constitution of three Communities (Flemish, French and German) and three Regions (Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels Region), to which the federal state has delegated issues related to housing, urban planning, urban renewal, economic development or environmental issues. The federal structure of Belgium influences the way urban policy is structured. Urban issues are also considered at different political levels. This is why the federal authorities have already had an integrated urban approach since 1999

At the regional level, urban initiatives have been in place since the late 1970s. Flanders has made urban policy one of its priorities – a sustainable policy that offers structural solutions. The main challenge is to stop the migration of residents from cities to suburbs. The Brussels Region has a Regional Sustainable Development Plan, which is the engine of the region’s development. The region also has urban policies for the integrated development of disadvantaged districts. The main objectives are to maintain or bring the inhabitants back to the city, economic development and job creation. In Wallonia, urban rehabilitation policy has always been part of regional development policy.

Being an extremely urbanized country, Belgium approached urban management quite early. The federal government, as well as the three regions, have developed their own urban approach, each with its own distinct characteristics, but also collaborating with each other. In programs such as city and housing contracts, sustainable city contracts, neighbourhood contracts or urban regeneration contracts, attention is paid primarily to social cohesion, sustainable development and urban regeneration, often, but not exclusively, in vulnerable or disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

If we add to all this the architectural competitions for all buildings and public spaces, the institution of the  Government Architect of Flanders and the one of the Brussels Region, the Flemish Institute of Architecture, the Architecture Cell of the Walloon Federation-Brussels and the local authorities of Wallonia, CIVA – museum, library, the archive and publishing house for Belgian architecture of the Brussels Region, the organizations for architecture spread all over the country, competent civil servants, the inclusion of the participation of the civil society in any public project, it is not surprising that people get involved.

Interviewer: How can we hold architects accountable? What levers exist and from whom should the initiatives start?

Oana Bogdan: I often say that an architectural project is as good as the client. So not the architect, but the client plays the most important role in a project. In other words, there is a need for education in architecture in schools and high schools, there is a need for architectural competitions to raise the quality level of the project (I even think of private projects for which competitions are organized), there is a need for citizen participation in projects for public buildings, in neighbourhood contracts, in urban regeneration projects, there is a need for deontology courses at the Faculty of Architecture, there is a need for institutions to ensure the quality of architecture, there is a need for architectural policies, urbanism and cultural heritage, etc. For all this, you need visionary public authorities. Unfortunately. the built space looks and works according to the image and resemblance of politics.

Interviewer: What is your advice for young people (Romanians) who want to become architects?

Oana Bogdan: I ask young people to be aware of the responsibility that comes with this beautiful profession! Therefore, keep in mind these three things:

Architects are creators of ideas. They do not build but generate ideas about buildings. Therefore, architecture is primarily a creative industry, i.e. it has its origins in creativity, skill and talent. But unlike other creative industries, architecture is also a liberal profession. This means that it is protected and, at the same time, limited in its economic ambitions by deontology that obliges architects to consider the common good of society, rather than the financial interests of investors. Architects are licensed professionals who provide services within accepted professional standards, regulatory standards and legislation, such as building codes, land use and other similar regulations. Since buildings and other structures are centres of human activity, architectural projects need to ensure the health, safety and security of people who will spend time in and around buildings. This is the main reason why architects need to be licensed.

Etymologically, the word “architect” derives from “architectus”, from Latin, which, in turn, derives from the Greek “arkhitekton”   (arkhi, chief + tekton, builder), more precisely, chief builder. However, today’s architecture is no longer only a construction activity, but it must define the way in which human existence is organized. Therefore, the horizon of architecture extends beyond buildings and becomes a process rather than just the construction of a product. This is the new world of the architect, which is not necessarily the production of artefacts, but the production of actions.

We,  as architects, must look at buildings and the space between them as intersections between social, natural, economic, cultural and political, and design them sustainably encompassing aspects beyond natural resources and the environment: huge challenges are taken into account in explosively populated areas, food security, energy crises, socio-economic instability, pandemics, etc. And let’s not forget that, unlike scientists, who analyze facts and phenomena to discover new perspectives, architects invent models and concepts to discover new possibilities.

Date: 08.11.2020