Tel Aviv, the City of Society in the Making

Andre Jaque, the golden boy of European architecture, explains upon his second visit to Israel how his vision of a society created out of common people's daily experiences could be applied to the country.

Tel Aviv, says Spanish architect Andres Jaque, "is a kind of gathering point for different cultures .You need to find out how to bring diversity into the whole urbanism of the country.”

Jaque, owner of an architecture firm that bears his name, came to Israel this week to teach an intensive course at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. After a week holed up in Jerusalem, he gave a lecture in Tel Aviv. It's his second visit to Israel.

Jaque, born in 1971, is one of Europe's most intriguing architects. His high-profile project "Office for Political Innovation," which he launched in 2003, is an urban laboratory that brings in sociologists, economists and journalists to examine architecture's social and political possibilities.

Jaque's workshop in Israel doesn't look like a typical architecture workshop with people bent over sketches or models. Instead, people map their lives via photographs of themselves doing everyday things.

According to Jaque, cities can be seen based on what they mean to the people. "So in recent years I’ve been trying to think what would be the design of a city, not as much by plans and aerial photographs, but by the way people experience the city.”

Jaque says there's “a kind of urbanism” around the world in which people visit one apartment and then another “like the way they buy ingredients to make pizza and invite their friends, telling them ‘I’m making pizza, come over to my place.’” He says “you can design many things if you take into account those realities. And that’s what I’m doing now here. We're starting a number of things like that – 12 realities, and we're seeing what they mean to the city.” Sure enough, food is a key element uniting people, he says.

Israel's uniqueness

Jaque says Israeli cities are very different from other cities he has visited; Israel is like “a big city which is diversified into neighborhoods that call themselves cities.”

Jaque says this is interesting because people around the world "are moving from one place to another all the time. They leave their parents, live in a city, live in another one, study in another one and have friends in a fourth. People are very intelligent; they find a way to live in a place that maximizes their possibilities and work in other ones that provide the best job opportunities.”

To Jaque, architecture makes possible “lifestyle and associations.” “It’s very important that we criticize and evaluate architecture not because of its style, and not just because of its beauty . So when I say architecture as a rendered society [the name of his lecture], I mean we have to think about what kind of society we want and try to do the architecture." He talks about "mixing different kinds of houses in the same neighborhood.”

Jaque’s urban ideas, like his office's mapping work, recall the situationist architecture of the 1960s – “how to connect architecture with society and daily life.” He says architects like the situationists were thinking about how to create a society out of common people's daily experiences, “not so much by big discourse on history and style,” but by “basic things – what people are trying to do, how they meet their friends, what they need to do for money, how they get together to organize dinner, how they get lost.”

Jaque acknowledges the many experiments in Israel on how to construct a community and suit architecture to the society people want. But “these days’ things need to be reconnected – somehow we have a great opportunity for rethinking cities not just by their geometries but by the way people get to use them – for people to be connected with farms in the city; things that are happening in the countryside.”

Although Jaque plays down the importance of beauty in the urban context, he is certainly aware of the need to create attractive images and names. His projects have titles like “House in Never Never Land,” “Skin Gardens,” “Rolling House for the Rolling Society,” “Peace Foam City” and “Tupper Home.”

The latter, in Jaque’s version, became a system of colorful, tiny apartments. “Tupper Home” won a Mies van der Rohe Award, an EU prize for contemporary architecture. It was the smallest project ever to earn this honor.

“We need to make people understand what we're proposing,” Jaque explains. To do so, he and his colleagues are constantly working with communications and graphics experts “to make things understandable by all people, and also to make our work cheerful – so people get optimism out of it.” Jaque believes it's important “to experiment with daily life,” and while precautions must be taken, “the future needs to be constructed with our desires – what we would like situations to be like – not with fear.”

The lesson of Dorian Gray

A Jaque work shown at the iconic Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1929, is an example of such an experiment. The pavilion became a symbol of everything sublime in architecture, practically devoid of objects. Very few people knew that such delicacy and emptiness were possible at the pavilion, because the building had a basement “where everything that is too ordinary gets hidden.”

Jaque compares the basement to the picture of Dorian Gray – an ugly object hidden away with other imperfect items. His installation, which was called “Phantom, Mies as a Rendered Society,” showed items that had been hidden in the bowels of the building – vacuum cleaners, plumbing gear, cleaning equipment. “Contemporary people are ready to see that the ordinary is not that ugly,” he says.

He says one of his works shown in New York, “Couch City,” addresses global contexts created by a basic element like a living-room couch. In a 2009 interview with artist Silvia Poloto, he described how the social arena expresses itself in virtual space:

“If I had to choose the Central Park of the suburb where I had to live, a meaningful space, I think it would be the TV remote control. Because it is an object that generates much controversy, many arguments at home; exactly because it represents the origin of the expression, because when someone wants to watch football on TV, he has to defend why football has to overtake the National Geographic documentary. He is showing a scale of values, a way to see the world, and he has to argue with his sister who wants to watch the National Geographic documentary or with his father who wants to see a talk show.”

Now Jaque says there is a need to find ways to bring different elements “into sweet discussions – not violent ones.” While recognizing the difficulty of managing many conflicts, he says “micro-conflictivity is best managed when relatives and friends and people that know each other can somehow mix affection with the management of differences.”

In this, Jaque sees “a challenge for the urbanist and architecture – how to move from a culture of gated cities to that which effectively scales down the conflicts.” According to Jaque, such micro-relationships could be prototypes of the big challenges facing Israel.

Jaque makes sure he incorporates societal aspects in his work for the “Office of Political Innovation.” For example, his installation “Escaravox” consists of two structures, each 10 by 40 meters, which have been rolling through the streets of Madrid since July. The project has been a roaring success; every month around 150,000 people take part in its parties, fairs, concerts and spontaneous events. “We could with these ideas produce phenomena that gain in scale in the way they are associated with people,” Jaque says. One project of the “Office” was bought last year by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Meanwhile, Jaque believes that the economic crisis in Spain hasn't prevented architects from working on big projects. This is “because the main issues that are challenging architecture are not only architectural concerns – ecology, diversity, integration of minorities, gender equalities. These are the big issues that architecture is committed to, but it’s not something we can resolve with architecture. We have to work together with experts, the users and the authorities so we can measure the impact on the environment.”

What architects can't do, Jaque says, is to “try to impose concerns that might be only ours." He says architects have to make themselves "relevant for society – not its problem.”

Yael Engelhart