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Interviews 51N4E

We at a+u are attempting to both process and adapt to the unfolding global health crisis. As a way to engage with this situation, we would like to use our digital platforms to compile and publish freely-accessible observations, commentary, and messaging from within the architecture and urbanism communities. Below, please find the second contribution to this series, by the members of 51N4E.

[This text is a collection of thoughts shared on April 24th 2020, in Brussels, around 5PM, during and after an online debate between different members of 51N4E, to reflect on our role during and after the COVID-19 crisis.]

On a daily basis, people are always busy. They tend not to take time to think about what surrounds them. Suddenly, we slow down altogether. This is a rare opportunity to think in a collective way, to build a common ground from where we can focus again on what is important for our cities.

We are, in our work, always creating conditions for relations between people and their environment – a window towards the outside, a place in the park where you can meet. Now that we all realize something else is possible, couldn’t we be agents of these changes, create conditions for a dialogue, take bigger steps?

Many places in Brussels now are only used by pedestrians and bikes; since everyone has the chance to experience what it’s like to walk around and conquer the streetscape, shouldn’t we take time to think about this situation as a test ground for what a city with fewer cars could be?

The experiments with collaborative design tools are also valuable knowledge and experience to share with our clients and partners. 51N4E is always talking about bringing the client to the discussion table, getting him/her involved, engaged, and now everything is becoming more direct, more personal. Are we, step by step, creating a more horizontal relationship between architect and client, less formatted by the role everyone is supposed to have?

Perhaps this experience might change how people think about new relationships between programs & functions, inside & outside, urban & nature. How do we, as citizens, turn public space from a somewhat hostile environment to an inviting and amicable one? Why do we create so many offices if we can work from home? Is this crisis the start of a new rise of the suburbs and the countryside, of living away from the city?

The inequalities are even strengthened now. We realize this every day, living for some of us in the densest part of Brussels. There is, suddenly, a widespread sense of solidarity and a unique sense of common urgencies. It puts us in a situation where we are conscious of our comfortable position as architects and makes us reflect on people who do not have this chance. What can we do to help?

What is crucial to have in mind in this time is that we are living in a moment in history which is a once-in-a-century experience. Our role as architects today is to push forward the shaping of our common dreams with courage and persistence, as such moments of collective consensus are rare and short-lived.

51N4E is rooted in Europe, where comfort slows down change. In the face of a democratic and ecological deficit, transformation happens here in a space that is already occupied by multiple and often parallel realities. In this context, we use design to help overcome opposition and create integrated value and new experiences.

51N4E is a self-steering collective that wants to empower people to be both autonomous and connected. It does so by organizing the supportive processes needed for a collaborative design culture. This collaboration platform combines the internal studios with a growing network of external partners. As such, it mirrors today’s complex reality and produces an ecosystem of knowledge.