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It’s been a busy few months here in Tallinn, but by now we can conclude that this year’s TAB Symposium was a great success!

A few months ago I published a blog post saying I was appointed as symposium curator for this year’s Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB). TAB is a relatively young but quickly growing architecture festival that takes place every two years in Tallinn, Estonia, and the symposium constitutes one of its central parts. Hence, being invited to head the preparation of the symposium by this year’s main curator, Marten Kaevats, was a great honor, but also a challenge: other parts of the biennale have been in the works for about half-a-year by then, with the symposium drastically underdeveloped.

As a symposium curator, my responsibilities included everything you can think of, when organizing a major international conference – topic and program development, selection and communication with speakers, marketing strategy development, securing the consistency of event’s graphics, budgeting, volunteer coordination and so on. There was an incredible team behind me to help with the specifics of each task, but still, it was a lot of stuff to take care of in a relatively short period of time.

Getting into my new role, I had one major idea: I wanted the event to be a “dialog”. Unfortunately, in my practice I’ve discovered that architecture is often seen as a quasi-elitist profession where others are not usually welcome (just ask Kanye), a field exhibiting a certain lack of outward interest and high-brow withdrawal of discourse from the general public. In my view, though, architecture is by default a dialogue: developers commission, architects design, city officials restrict, neighbors protest, regular passers-by ask “What is THAT?!”, end-users complain, and so on. There are constant feedback loops between all parties involved, and as we see from the above, some of the named relations are far from perfect. Hence, for me it made sense to use a major architectural event to let those diverse agents get together and talk – in public – what they really thought was going on, or rather, what they though was going to happen with the built environment in the future. We want the environment to be as good as it can possibly be, I reckoned, so we’d better include everyone who has a say in its development process earlier rather than later. Interdisciplinary communication became symposium’s main tool.

Given the time constraints, I decided to “walk the talk” and started applying my dialog approach from the get-go. First of all, I set up meetings with previous TAB curators and all the members of the team individually, to see what everyone’s expectations were. Later, using advice and connections of the team as well as my own “cold-emailing” skills, I managed to compile a list of 14 international speakers from diverse disciplines – from data science to journalism and, of course, architecture – and subdivided the two-day event into four sessions, with the first two being super-broad, and the other two – more specific:

  • “III Industrial Revolution” discussed the origin, evolution and influence of the phenomenon on spatial development,
  • “Data” – which is the “material” of our contemporary world – was devoted to the notions of data, the internet, telecommunications, IoT and the „Smart City“,
  • “Mobility”, focused on autonomous vehicles, new modes of public transportation and the resulting changes to road infrastructure, zoning and architecture, and
  • “Fabrication”, which focused on new geometries and techniques of architectural production.

The event was structured so that each session would last for about 3 hours and consist of the following:

  • 3 x 30 min – Lectures by industry experts and architects directly involved with the topic of the session,
  • 15 min – Coffee Break,
  • 1 hr 15 min – Relating the topic to the Estonian spatial / political / economic context via a panel discussion and Q&A with the audience, which included all speakers plus 2-3 local influencers from backgrounds related to the topic.

As you can see from the third point, I found it crucial to not only include representatives of diverse disciplines, but also local stakeholders in the discussion taking place at the symposium. We did not want the symposium to become a show of global best practices, irrelevant to / irrespective of local conditions.

Needless to say, the format of the event invited both praise and criticism from the team, with some complimenting the intention of striking a conversation among disciplines, and others being concerned about it not being “architectural enough”. However, despite the reality of a near-zero budget, complex speakers’ itineraries and skepticism about its format, the biennale in general and the symposium specifically proved to be a great success.

Apart from the fact that this year’s attendance of the biennale multiplied comparing to the last time, the list of participants in all TAB’s events was beyond ambitious. At the symposium, the President of Estonia Toomas Hendik Ilves himself delivering the opening address, followed by talks by Prof. Carlo Ratti (MIT Senseable City Lab), Prof. Lev Manovich (CUNY, Software Studies Initiative), Steven Poole (The Guardian), Salome Galjaard (Arup) and Roland Snooks (Kokkugia) among others, who discussed their work and what they thought the built environment of the future would look like.

The symposium venue – the machine hall of a recently renovated energy plant “Kultuurikatel”, graciously lent to the symposium by the TAB Lab exhibition and beautifully augmented by Marco Casagrande’s Paracity – was the best possible venue for a symposium aimed at discussing how technology and architecture intertwine. It was close to full throughout the symposium’s 8-hour long days, and additionally was watched online via a stream on ERR.ee (Estonian State Broadcasting Corporation) by a few thousand people.

The media coverage was spectacular. If you are interested, a selection of publications that featured pieces about the biennale and the symposium is here. Below is a brief piece about the biennale on Euronews:

Also, all the videos of symposium presentations have been uploaded to YouTube, and are available here:

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Click on the image to be redirected to TAB’s YouTube channel

So, for those of you, who attended the symposium this year – hope you found it inspiring! For those of you who didn’t – well, let’s jut say you missed out. In two years from now, when the next TAB will take place, make sure to come and visit. I am sure it will be a blast. Again.

P.S. In case any of the team, sponsors, speakers or volunteers are reading this – please accept a big personal Thank You! from me. The symposium would not have happened without you.

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Today, I wanted to share with you this image from “S,M,L,XL” by OMA, Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, called “Asian cities of tomorrow”:

scan_of_SMLXL_OMA-RemKoolhaas

"Asian Cities of Tomorrow"

Beautiful image; love the level of complexity!

Obviously, this image made me think to the images of Asian developments we see today. And I felt there is something in this image that has never made it into the real world – “UTOPIA”. The image above has some sort of “utopia” – an overriding idea of a “better place” – at its core. The images of Asia today – don’t.  In what image are the cities being built today? What is the ideal? Is there any? And should there be any? We hear a lot that we had enough of utopias and don’t want any any more – we “know” they don’t work anyway. But there seems to be a need for some sort of a plan..

Today’s major cities, on the contrary to that, seem to be more about “disaster management” than anything else. Can true cities be anything else, but disaster management at a certain time of their development, or is it exactly what makes a city – a disaster?

Big Cities offer an interesting paradox.

All my life I wanted to go to New York. It was this magical city of happiness, which people sing about and where movies are shot. You know how you hear the song “Empire State of Mind” and your heart fills with this unexplainable joy and longing to go and be there. You pack your bags, you buy a ticket and you go “to New York!” But what happens when you get there? You are in the city alright, but what’s next?

I understand now that the City cannot be enjoyed just as is. There is never this “just come and be happy” thing, which everybody seems to sing about so sweetly. Ironically, unless you have something to do in the city, it will remain useless to you and you will remain useless to it. It will rub you into the pavement and spit you out once all your money is gone.

It is amazing that when you listen to those songs, you think that that is how it is – New York is the city of dreams, that street-lights there shine bright and all people are all smiling and loving where and what they are, so different and so special. In fact, to feel this all, one needs not simply to come to the city, but to live the city. You need to know why you are going to New York, to see the “dreams” part of it after. Like it or not, you need to have a practical interest in the city for it to be interested in you. You cannot simply come and enjoy. It is exactly the hardships and the work that the artists have been through in the city that now allows them to sing about it – post-factum. Jay Z and Alicia Keys don’t sing about New York’s streets and people in as a romantic manner as they do because they dream about it – they’ve been through it and now, after having lived and worked, they see it. Now they appreciate it. Now they can reflect on it. Same with Sinatra – he “made it there” first and only then started singing about it. But initially all of them didn’t come to the city just to see their own mouths fall wide open – they came to the city to make a living, to “make it” (whatever that meant for every one of them), to survive. The city only becomes romantic after the fact, not beforehand.

If you say this all to a “dreamer”, it will kill him/her. A dreamer does not want to have any obligations, or to know any work in the city he/she “loves”. However, there is no such way. Unfortunately for the dreamer, the city needs to be exploited to become a friend – an unpleasant but very true way to put it. The city can remain an ideal dream – only in the dream. Once it becomes the reality, there is no dream no more.

Reading Le Corbusier’s writing, it is amazing for me to find, how in the very beginning of his career he wrote exactly the same things about Paris – his own “dream-city”: “Paris is the immense city of ideas – where you are lost unless you remain severe with yourself… Paris is the crack of the whip, death of dreamers”. I guess there is some logic to my thinking then.. Thanks, Corbue!

A Physicist Solves the City
By JONAH LEHRER

The New York Times
Published: December 17, 2010
“What makes a city grow and thrive? What causes it to stagnate and fall? Geoffrey West thinks the tools of physics can give us the answers.”