One of the side effects of the crisis in the building and financial sector is that it has become harder for architects to find new projects. As a result, the sector has to be extra creative to do what it wants to do. A new approach to architecture is on the rise, in which some architects start to do it all themselves. They don’t need a project developer or local government for a project, but do it at their own risk instead. They become indie architects.
Decades ago, new ways of producing developed into a huge independent music scene. Recently a book was published about so-called ‘indie brands’. Now we see architects working in the same independent role, searching for freedom in their artistic choices. We’re not talking small interventions and private houses, but large-scale challenges and public buildings.
During a recent trip to World Design Capital 2012 Helsinki we were introduced to Tuomas Toivonen, one of Finland’s famous contemporary architects (and also a well-known musician). Dressed in heavy building boots and an army-colored winter jacket, Toivonen didn’t particularly wear the clothes that you expect an architect to wear. He looked more like a construction worker, something that may tell much about the way he works. At the moment, Toivonen is working on a public sauna for the city of Helsinki without any official assignment — not by the local government, not by a sauna entrepreneur, not by a project developer. Toivonen’s office NOW independently builds the building with all the financial risks included.
After completion, the sauna will be the fourth public sauna in Finnish capital. Traditionally there were many more public saunas in Helsinki, but since almost every apartment building has its own, the characteristic Finnish public sauna culture has slowly faded away. With this initiative NOW wants to restore this public sauna culture in the city. A contract with the local government stipulates that Toivonen can run the sauna for the next 30 years. In the first years this means that the architect will be setting up the business, including everything that comes with the job like cleaning the towels, heating the ovens and selling the tickets. The architect becomes an all-round entrepreneur.
Another great example of indie architecture comes from the architecture firm ZUS. In their home-town Rotterdam the office bought a huge empty office building, the so-called Schieblock, to redevelop it into a collective office space for creative industries as well as their own headquarters. Doing so the architects have become a stakeholder in the urban renewal process, which has given them a new and more independent role in activating the surrounding neighborhood. This has led to some interesting projects, like the urban rooftop farm Dakakker and the almost famous elevated pedestrian bridge that connects Rotterdam’s Central Station district with the city’s North side. The ownership has helped ZUS to work on the area without any commission.
This way of redefining the role of the architect is interesting in a time in which architects in Europe suffer from the financial crisis. Don’t wait till the client comes to you with an assignment, but start building the things the city needs. The offices of ZUS and NOW here show how to really work on larger scale and public projects in an independent way.
This article is part of Pop-Up City’s Trends for 2013. Reflecting on what we’ve written in 2012 and looking into the new year, we’ve composed a new list of remarkable trends that we consider to be important for our cities in the coming time. Feel free to contact us in case you want to learn more about our reports.