A Model Architect

While only a few of Yona Friedman's designs have come to fruition, he is responsible for the tiered Spatial City movement, which had a big impact on his field, and his ideas have inspired planners around the world.

In 1957, Yona Friedman gathered up his things in Haifa and emigrated to France. At the time he was 34 years-old, a graduate of the architecture school at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

Only 11 years had passed since his arrival in Israel by ship from Romania, after escaping the Nazis in Eastern Europe during World War II and surviving the Holocaust. Some said that his departure was one of the greatest losses for Israeli architecture and art.

Yona Friedman at home in Paris - Gali Eittan
Gali Eittan

For the past 45 years, Friedman has been living in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. His apartment is filled with tens of thousands of models, sketches, drawings and other items.

Among them is a small photomontage that has faded and yellowed with the years. It's a photograph of an Israeli beach, with palm trees and sand and sun, on which has been overlaid a somewhat sloppy "simulation" of cylindrical residential units that are arranged atop each other like a pile of barrels.

It's part of a series of sketches on which Friedman focused during his final days in Israel, in an attempt to find a use for hundreds of superfluous sections of water pipelines, concrete cylinders with a diameter of 2.5 meters.

With the help of several rolls of toilet paper and several pieces of cardboard, he prepared wood and aluminum models of his improvised community.

Friedman was unable to carry out the experimental project in Israel. In France, the idea was well received and was even partially implemented, becoming the "cheapest industrialized housing unit in Europe that year [1958]," he explains with pride, speaking a mixture of English and French, with a Hungarian accent.

Later in his life, Friedman joined the United Nations and worked on the detailed planning of a number of additional models of cheap housing units, which served as emergency housing in Africa and South America.

Friedman was one of the first in the world to present ideas of megastructures - i.e., cities spread atop the roofs of existing cities, above rivers and fields. Paris seemed more suitable; there he decided to begin a research group for what he named mobile architecture, Groupe d'Etudes de Architecture Mobile, which was defiantly opposed to dictates of CIAM, the International Congresses of Modern Architecture, the organization founded in part by architect Le Corbusier.

Today, at the age of 88, Friedman rarely leaves his apartment except to walk his dog. He says he last visited Israel in 1990.

In his native city, Budapest, a comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his works opened this past Saturday at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, one of Hungary's most respected institutions. He doesn't think he'll travel to the show.

"It's very hard for me to be mobile now," he says, ironically. "I prepare PowerPoint displays with detailed instructions for constructing and installing large works, and send them off."

Tall and white-haired, Friedman spends most of the day in a small area in the center of his apartment. It's not that his apartment is so small, just that it is exceptionally crowded. That is the main reason that he began working some six years ago with the Kamel Mennour Gallery, a leading Parisian gallery specializing in local art, he says.

"I had no more room in the house, too much stuff. For me they aren't works of art," he says. "They're simply used materials. An architect makes models for buildings and at a certain point he has too much. The gallery suggested that I sell some of the old works through it. I agreed. After all, why not?"

Each of the models contains an additional visual development of the theories that Friedman still thinks about. It seems that those theories, which he began to formulate in the 1950s, are as cogent, valid and practical today as ever.

"Today there's a school of thought called 'architecture without architects.' I don't think that architects are an unnecessary thing - on the contrary. But we build far too much. I'm in favor of 'architects without buildings,'" declares Friedman with a smile.

Only two buildings that he designed have actually been realized to date: the Henri Bergson High School in the city of Angers, France, and the Museum of Simple Technology in Madras, India. They are of negligible importance in the body of his works.

'Paper architect'

His spatial city, however, which he planned in dozens of locations in the world, has never been built except in models. Again and again he drew, wrote or sculpted a similar picture: an existing city above which there is an additional urban layer, encompassed by a stainless-steel frame with multiple beams and pillars whose design is airy and geometrical, supported by thin pillars that rise up from the ground.

Within the broad stainless steel frame he imagined the residents of the upper city building their homes freely, with local materials, and even able to move around from place to place in the city, like furniture.

Friedman developed his ideas with greater momentum during the 1960s and 1970s. Although his drawings often seem somewhat threatening because of the huge dimensions they portray, they stem from his continuing and primary demand for the rights of man and his environment, an influence that may stem from his history as a Holocaust survivor and draftee into Israel's War of Independence effort.

"They were done as a provocation, not as one-on-one design," he says of the drawings. At the height of his activity, he was not invited to develop his ideas to the point of implementation, and when the future became the present, Friedman was abandoned in the past.

Many describe Friedman as a "paper architect," a moniker that doesn't bother him in the least. "The reality changes all the time, and Europe is turning into one big metropolis. How amazing it is that it's possible to get to Lyon, to Brussels, within two hours. Paris is only another overgrown suburb of the European metropolis."

The sound of a passing train can be heard through the window. The landscape outside is hard to see. Friedman has covered even the windows of his apartment with dozens of shelves holding models he created or statuettes he collected.

He continues to fill every room in his house with his works all the time.

"I have a problem with plain walls. I have to make them belong to me all the time. That way I always have sun even when it's cloudy outside," he says. "I was in Canada a few years ago. I saw a building there that I wasn't familiar with, which is very similar to my sketches. It made me happy and I photographed it for myself, thinking 'How nice that my ideas weren't lost after all.'"

Prof. Micha Levin, head of the department of multidisciplinary art at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, and a former lecturer at the Technion and at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, believes that Friedman's ideas haven't been lost at all, and have even substantially influenced contemporary city planning.

"Compare this to the city planning of Le Corbusier, who was also busy teaching others and was a prophet of doom; it didn't work or prove itself ... despite his [Le Corbusier's] efforts. Then it is actually Yona Friedman, who seemed so bizarre, so far from what could be implemented, who can say in hindsight - 'I accomplished something.'"

Train stations and shopping centers, large multipurpose buildings, and particularly the works of architects like Peter Eisenman or Rem Koolhaas, are worthy examples of Friedman's influence. Paris' Pompidou Center, Levin says, is similar to the visual nature of Friedman's works not only in its facades, but also in the division of its floors and in the freedom of movement and positioning that it enables in its interior spaces.

Friedman himself participated in the historic competition for designing the Pompidou Center, which holds an art museum, library and other cultural facilities.

"Then a problem came up because I felt that the building had to move and change in accordance with the exhibits. What happened was that I couldn't offer a single plan, or a single facade, as a concrete proposal, but only the idea and the technical solutions for building it," says Friedman. "In general, building a museum is a terrible investment. Both in economic terms and in terms of the environmental damage created by construction."

In recent years, he has begun to create designs alternative museums composed of huge iron hoops, between which works of art can be placed, and bridges and exhibition rooms can be located.

Currently, Friedman is working on the design of a hoop museum of this type, which he calls "Iconostase," as a proposal for a new museum of modern art in Warsaw.

"The Poles bought the design as well as detailed drawings for construction details," he says. "These projects are easy to build and don't take up too much room, and still they're a museum."

Recently he was asked by the Shanghai municipality to design a number of long bridges on which tens of thousands of housing units can be built. The model he submitted was extremely abstract and the sketches looked more like comics than anything else.

"I do that so they won't take my design and build it exactly like that. The Chinese know how to design and they have their own architects, and I'm no longer young, and at my age I can't carry out and supervise such a project," he says. When he returned to Paris, he displayed his work from the project at the gallery.

Friedman's work is known for its engagement with movement, and so he says he thought that "it would be right to display exhibitions with large works near an airport runway where planes land, and in that way people could see them like an exhibition from above." The work he proposed as an example is a drawing of a primitive stick figure, 350 meters long, drawn on the ground by means of paths of white gravel on lawns. The sketch was one of an ongoing series, whose main part is printed on a small scale and covers the walls of Friedman's living room.

Artist or architect?

Marie-Sophie Eiche, a partner and director at Kamel Mennour, says the gallery learned of Friedman's works through a video installation by another one of its clients, artist Camille Henrot.

"We were familiar with his articles and his early books, but his way of life and his entire world were fascinating," she says. "Although he is almost 90, he may be our youngest artist. The current generation of artists seems to find a great deal of resonance in his works."

In the seven years that the gallery has been working with him, Friedman has participated in 10 different projects, including solo exhibitions at the gallery, an exhibition at the Basel Art Fair, the Biennale in Venice and the Documenta exhibition of modern and contemporary art in Kassel, Germany. Another project will be the upcoming retrospective, which will be on display for about three months in the Hungarian capital.

"Personally I fall in love with his legendary figures, unicorns and human beings, each of which symbolizes a different utopia for him: respect for nature, equality, freedom of expression, children's rights, education, sexual freedom, the right to a roof over one's head, and so on," says Eiche. "It's hard to say that there's really a 'market' for his works, despite his huge and important body of work in architecture and art. And yet several private collectors and institutions such as the Pompidou Center, the Getty Center, the Museum of Modern Art or the Paris Museum of Modern Art have original works of his. At the same time, our attitude toward him is somewhat different. I would say that he is beyond the question of the art business."

Levin says the wall that normally exists up between architects, who design in concrete ideas, and artists who work in abstraction, doesn't necessarily apply with Friedman.

"In any other case, that would be the situation," says Levin. "But with Friedman, the understanding is different. Again, Le Corbusier saw himself totally as an artist and tried to dictate a certain school of cubism, along with Fernand Leger, for example. But his works didn't stand by themselves: People commissioned them in the past and purchase them now only because they are works of a very famous architect. Friedman, on the other hand, manages to demonstrate that within architectural design there's room for considerable creativity, and he has the ability to keep his works fresh. To some extent, you could say that when you design architectural utopias, it's hard for you to sell them to entrepreneurs to build, but on the other hand they definitely are suitable for display in a gallery or a museum."

The objects that Friedman creates are for the most part illustrations or representations of theories that can be found in his writings. He has published eight books, the most well-known of which are "Mobile Architecture" (1958 ), "Toward a Poor World or How Scarcity Might Prevent the Catastrophe (1973 ), "L'univers erratique" (1994 ) and "Pro-Domo" (2006 ). Last year, Kamel Mennour published a thick album with almost 1,500 images of sketches and models by Friedman, made between 1945 and 2010.

"Most of my colleagues, people with whom I worked or with whom I had a dialogue through my work, have died. Even those who were younger than me are already old now," says Friedman. Recently, he says, he became a great-great-grandfather.

"My projects today have a basic connection to what I did in the past, but I think somehow that architecture shouldn't be subject to the authority of the architect. It is very important that people from outside, like curators or museum workers or ordinary citizens, can participate in the planning process," he says.

"Democracy is not only a political question, it begins when you yourself are capable of deciding about the kind of life you want," explains Friedman. "In housing too, you should have the opportunity to change, to 'push' the laws, and therefore you as an architect cannot create an absolute facade or a fixed plan. I'm critical of today's architecture. It's not the fault of the architects - it's not anyone's fault: The world has simply changed and you have to think differently. When I was a student, we learned that in a city it's very important to plan a large central square where people can meet. Today? That's not the situation. Everyone has a mobile phone and nobody goes to the squares in our cities."

He also submitted a proposal for an ongoing development project for greater Paris called Grand Paris.

"According to the guidelines, you can immediately understand that this is geared toward a 19th-century project," he explains. "Metropolitan Europe is one entity, with 40 million inhabitants. And in the same way, Israel is also one city. I'm not saying that pessimistically or optimistically, I'm simply saying that that is the existing situation, whether it's desirable or not. The same is true of the morality of Israel's existence. It's an existing fact, and that's that," he emphasizes, adding in Hebrew "ein breira" (There's no alternative ).

He presses a button to turn off the laptop on his desk. "Go to sleep." In recent years, instead of going to speak at conferences, he sends DVDs of himself. "It's easier for everyone, and cheaper than actually bringing me," he explains.

"I studied architecture about 100 years ago, it's already very far away," he says. "But to keep working while the world is changing causes you to be open to the idea that things change. All those people - everything is already very far away. And me, I'm happy. But not because I still exist, but because I'm still active."