Focus on a better environment
Ulrik Raysse is the founding partner of the Copenhagen-based Arrow Architects. This November, he will take the stage of the Baltic Real Estate Leaders Forum in Riga to lead a panel discussion on placemaking and whether we should care about it at all.
We sat down with him for a conversation on placemaking and the keys to successful real estate projects that ended up revealing some unexpected observations about the Baltic states, as well.
Placemaking is often described as a community and environmentally friendly economic development strategy. Can you describe what a successful placemaking project looks like?
The places that have implemented placemaking as most people would understand it, are the historic centers in capitals – the places with many layers that have had centuries to evolve. At one time, there was a restaurant on this corner, then there was a bank, a cafe, a clothing shop… Over time, that corner evolved to find the right function for it; people learned that this spot had a certain activity.
We want the same in modern cities, but we don’t have the patience for it, nor can we wait 200 years. So there’s a lot of impatience from a design, financial and an expectation perspective.
That’s the primary challenge for us, professionals – being caught between what everyone knows a place feels and looks like, and the dilemma of achieving it in urban development master planning for cities that are growing at an increasingly high pace all over the world.
So is that being done successfully anywhere?
Yes. In the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, there was this idea that you just needed to destroy everything and rebuild anew because, as planners and architects, we knew better. Then we started to slowly understand that the history of a place was extremely important, too.
There are developments today that enable a balance between the historic and the new. Aker Brygge in Oslo is a very good example where you can see a very high density development that’s interspersed with historic buildings, refurbished and reused.
It’s also successful because of its many layers – the different elements of design and time which people are very sensitive to. For me, it’s really about layers – how to have more infusion of the place to the most detailed level, to the handle, something unexpected on the pavement… All these elements are very complex to think about, but the more you have, the better your understanding of the climate of the area, the more successful your project will be.
We have that exact combination of historic and new buildings in some of the larger projects we’ve been working on, for example, in the Dublin docklands. It’s a whole landscaping approach, which also has to be there on the client’s side to create functions and activities that support the design and the heritage of a place.
That’s another important element – being conscious of where you are. Historically speaking, architects tended to be very local so you had a very local identity. Today, most architectural companies are very international.
You have a much bigger mix of designs and ideas, but in some sense, also more uniformity where you risk losing much of the local heritage.
You don’t know if you’re in Poznan or in König anymore. Everything starts to look the same.
What other projects could you mention as examples of a successful placemaking strategy?
King’s Cross in London I think has been quite successful. [Pauses] I’m trying to think of entirely new projects. Actually, there aren’t that many.
Both Aker Brygge and King’s Cross have a very unique, very privileged location close to the city center. When we start to move out of the city, away from the tourist attractions and densely populated areas, that’s where it gets more difficult.
Historically, if you wanted entertainment, you had to go to the city. Today, you don’t have to go anywhere.
We’re at a point in time where you don’t really need the city anymore.
You can order food from home, watch cinema from home, you don’t even need to go out to meet someone, you can just date them from an app!
That sucks out a lot of life from the city. To some extent, we’re gradually losing the kind of vibrancy that used to be there.
Perhaps the age of internet is essentially changing the relevance of placemaking? Or changing the placemaking method at least?
Yes, it probably has some influence on it. I think we’re in a transition period. Sites like Amazon certainly put a lot of pressure on smaller shops.
We see an increase in entrepreneurship today. That creates a kind of vibrancy that wasn’t there 10 years ago. A lot of food courts, a lot of pop-ups – things at a much smaller scale than before, much more self-created. Here in Copenhagen, there are many such projects that have been extremely successful.
There are also places that were relatively on a plan but are evolving on their population’s own terms. I see both movements.
I think the inner cities of any European capital will have a relatively easy time surviving. The question is what will happen to the second tier layer of cities.
I feel like there’s a part of the city that we don’t really pay attention to, which is probably suffering quite a lot.
What is your opinion of the placemaking method created by the UN-HABITAT and Project for Public Spaces in 2013, which calls for buildings and spaces that improve the public health?
There are a lot of criteria [in placemaking]. In fact, the more you can take into account, the more successful a place you’ll have. It also depends on the project – is it private or public, what are the climate, security, community integration considerations.
There used to be a tendency to separate functions. You would have residential in one part of the city, and all the offices in another, which lead to a part of the city being dead half the day. Today we’re integrating everything in mixed-use development, which is trying to liven up the city throughout the entire day.
At the end of the day, as an architect or a planner, you can only create the basis for life to unfold; you cannot control it. Of course, it has to be followed up with economic and environmental sustainability, too. We see a lot of empty storefronts and commercial spaces that will never work. How does that influence the community? It might look great on a rendering made by an architect with 5000 sunny people, but that’s just an image. What’s going to happen in reality?
The vision and reality don’t always correlate because of bad planning or unrealistic expectations.
It’s economically demanding and tie-consuming to plan it all out in the right way, which means you need developers and municipalities willing to invest.
Yet, placemaking has been around since the 1960s, and it’s been caught in discussions of community vs. economy ever since, particularly when compared to other forms of real estate development. Is it even possible to capitalize on it?
Yes, I’d say so. A building or an area that is unused must simply be the most unsustainable thing.
What we want is to create places that are used, so I think it is definitely at the heart of any successful development – from a human, financial and social perspective.
The more vibrant a place you have, the more attractive it will be, the better you will be able to rent or sell it. That’s the very key to an area’s social and financial viability, and placemaking is the basis for it.
Who should be the driving force behind it? Is it architects, investors, municipalities, or a combination of them all?
That’s a good question. I think the easy answer is – the more, the better. If you have a vision and no financial backing, that’s utopia. If you have financial backing but no vision, that will also fail.
I believe it’s about all the different parts – public, private, the creative – working together.
In the private sector, it’s very much driven by the client. Thankfully, most of our clients understand very well that their
buildings don’t stand alone in the city – they are part of a broader community, and the better they integrate into it, the more successful a project they will have.
Which cities would you say are currently in the lead in placemaking?
I think the UK has been very much leading on those notions.
I noticed at the Expo Real in Munich that every major European city is very conscious of the importance of placemaking. I’d say this consciousness is widespread, at least from a political perspective. Whether they’re able to deliver it successfully, is a different question.
A European project that I would emphasize is HafenCity in Hamburg, but then again – it has a lot of privileges: it is close to the inner city, it has water, a strong cultural and historic heritage. All these elements will always be successful because they’re simply ticking the box of what people find attractive.
Would you say this consciousness is developing in the Eastern Europe and the Baltics, too?
I see it still developing there. Speaking very broadly, there seems to be a lack of planning where these elements are taken into account. The more East you move the less you see it; in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, there I’d say it’s non-existent.
In my experience, there’s more of it in the Baltic states but there’s still some way to go. Vilnius, for example, has been extremely dynamic in developing a large central business district where some overall [placemaking] guidelines have been taken into account but it’s detached from a public perspective.
We have a project there – S7 – where we’re creating more open spaces, integrating buildings with the public spaces in quite a spectacular way. We designed the first building and the master plan, they’re following up with additional three buildings. There, you can see people using these spaces and it creates a lot of vibrancy, although it’s a bit isolated from the rest of the city.
Is there any project you’re working on in Riga?
Yes, two projects. A larger one is “Preses nams”. We’re taking into account the building’s industrial heritage, so we created one that’s very much technical, maintaining the printing machines, reflecting its industrial heritage. It’s also very open to the city. There is a master plan trying to capture the sites relationship with the surrounding area.
Our other project is a very large office building made entirely out of timber on the other side of the city. It will be a very unique building at a European scale, with a LEED Zero design – we’re trying to create a carbon neutral building.
That’s very exciting.
To me, that is a testimony to the willingness in the Baltic countries. They’re very, very dynamic.
There is, of course, an attempt to break away from the past and the heritage, redefining themselves as young dynamic countries with young leadership.
I think that also leads to bold decisions and bold designs that have been very interesting for us to follow. There are things happening that wouldn’t be achievable in Denmark.
For example, right now we cannot make a timber building of that scale in Denmark. The type of designs that we’ve been able to do in Riga and Vilnius would not have been possible in Denmark.
A lot of the projects in the Baltics are quite courageous. To me, they’re testimony to finding a new identity – one that defines the new generation that’s actually in power right now. It’s quite interesting – everyone we see in leadership roles there is very young. Seems like 1-2 generations have been jumped over because they were related to an old regime and an old way of thinking. Now there’s a very young, dynamic, open-minded generation that is ambitious to be equals with the image one has of the Western Europe and the Nordic countries. That is a very strong inspiration.
I think they will get there for sure. It’s just a matter of time.
The interview was prepared by Zane Geidmane and originally published in Dienas Bizness.