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Cities in the Sky: Re-evaluating Yona Friedman

By William Harris.


Drawing series, Amorphous Architecture, c. 1990. © Yona Friedman, courtesy Marianne Homiridis

Which today carries more irony: being a paper architect, or just being an architect? Rem Koolhaas—himself celebrated by the left much more for his writing than his buildings, which include Prada stores and Beijing’s CCTV Tower—described the impossible task of the contemporary architect as having “to express increasing turbulence in a stable medium”. The condition of today’s cityscapes, according to Koolhaas’ famous tag, is junkspace, an ambitious, glitzy, fat-pocketed imaginative excess that—momentarily shackled by austerity after the 2008 stock market crash—now continues to bling finance capitals with renewals and regenerations and demolitions. Cities plunge on, bulldozed and cluttered at delirious rates, and it’s perhaps the buildings that just went up that will soon come down.

Meanwhile, the places that best express modernity have shifted—no longer modernist Manhattan, with its grid and skyscrapers, its horizontal and vertical orders, but the megacities of the global south: China’s Pearl River Delta, with its constellation of cities (Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Macau) linked by highways and public transport, challenging ideas of urban limitation; and cities like Lagos, sprawling and provisional, bursting with informal economies. These selections aren’t random; Koolhaas has positioned both as emblematic, dedicating the first instalment of his multi-volume Project on the City to the southern Chinese megalopolis, with a future tome on Lagos supposedly in the works. Few have written as ambitiously as Koolhaas, and with as much surreal, totalising verve, on the bewildering turns and spatial shifts of our advanced globalised age. But his architectural practice (spectacular buildings, an ambassadorial embroilment in the culture industry) has made him something of a contradiction. What is he to do, trapped in an architectural irony? How to “express increasing turbulence in a stable medium”, and how to escape the logic of spectacle society? Koolhaas laid bare today’s crisis in architecture, but perhaps the most original and restless addressing of these questions comes from the work of a different figure: the “feasible utopian” architect and urban theorist Yona Friedman, who’s made a career—pursued primarily on paper—of thinking within just these confines.

Born in Budapest in 1923, Friedman discovered early on the loose fragmentation of cities, how they transform and dissolve in a set of moods. A city by night is different than a city by day; a winter city is different than a summer city; a city in peace can’t imagine a city in war; and each mood or imperative requires improvisation. “When I was very young, I thought very positively about modern architecture,” Friedman told the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2005. “Then came the Second World War, and I’m practically a product of this war.” Friedman joined the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Budapest and was informed on and detained; the Soviets arrived, Budapest was liberated, and he left Hungary, moving first to Bucharest and then Israel. The war revealed cities to him as survival tools, ones that, to fulfil their function, had to be adaptable. In the years following he spread and adjusted his improvisatory theories amid the feverish culture of postwar modernism, a process now laid out in exhaustive detail by Manuel Orazi in an essay that takes up the back half of a new doorstop, Yona Friedman: The Dilution of Architecture, published by Park Books.

Yona Friedman

Orazi shows Friedman in all his sponginess, his ability to collect influences from seemingly discordant disciplines, countries, zeitgeists, things trivial and fantastical and scientific. Throughout his career Friedman has surfed—and frequently anticipated—the avant-garde, but there’s also an aloof particularity to his interests, some of it accidental and geographical in origin, but much of it ideological. As a secondary school student in Budapest he attended free university lectures: those of Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who critiqued scientific determinism, offering in its place an uncertainty principle, and Károly Kerényi, a totalising thinker who insisted on rejecting disciplines and envisioning collective life as a unified system, part psychology and part mythology. The binary poles of Friedman’s theories were already becoming clear—a radical belief in individual freedom alongside something structural and ambitiously public.

It’s an anarchist or utopian socialist tendency, one further realised by Friedman’s time in Israel—adrift in the early, pre-bureaucratised settler days—and extended by his growing awareness of modernism, of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. After researching prefab materials in an attempt to address housing shortages across the post-war world, from Israel’s large-scale immigration to Paris’ swelling population, he confected his first major theory, L’architecure mobile, presented at Dubrovnik’s 1956 Congress of Modern Architecture. Friedman went to the architect conference and attacked architects: buildings should be mobile, he declared with manifesto-panache, and the user, not the architect, should decide its arrangement. It was a way of sublimating turbulence in what would no longer be a stable medium. His theory was detested.

But only in some corners: Le Corbusier, for instance, gave encouragement. In Israel the state was turning insular, and Friedman relocated to Paris, the city where he would decorate his apartment a la the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters—a studio in the 15th arrondisement exploding with perennially changing elaborate patterns, twirling hangings, repurposed junk, striped ready-mades, primitive paintings, childlike sculptures, airplanes assembled from beer cans, scrolls of hieroglyphs, sets of mythological figures, model megastructures, Styrofoam masks, hut-like birdfeeders and boldly lettered Simple Truths, plastered on the wall in English. (THE SECOND SIMPLE TRUTH: WE DO NOT NEED TO UNDERSTAND THE UNIVERSE.) It’s a confusingly serene clutter—a chaos of colours, but somehow seeming almost monochromatically ochre—an interior intensification mirrored by his proposed intensification of the built environment on a citywide scale, la ville spatiale. It wasn’t enough to suggest the need for a new type of design, able to be taken down and resituated, arranged according to its inhabitant’s preference. Architecture needed to engage with the existing city; it needed to be both utopian and feasible.

The idea of the spatial city raised Friedman’s mobile architectural theories to new levels of both absurd techno-optimism and literal height. The plan layers a city over the city, with existing blocks or underused urban spaces (railroad tracks, ports, parks, parking lots, bridges) spanned over by huge, hollowed out infrastructure in which small mobile units relate in a grid. The units can be stacked on top of one another and designed by their inhabitants, and the infrastructure split in two, so that supporting structures store utilities while containers in between house individual prefab units. The appeal was clear: cities were giving way to sprawl and drastic demolitions, the world population was growing and urbanising, and in response Friedman theorised an intensified city, a way to keep urban life dense and contextual, modernist, but not tabula rasa. It was very much a plan of its time, in which the modernist “streets in the sky” turned into extended cities in the sky, a project Friedman kept “feasible” by fitting each plan to a specific context, firing off proposals to city governments across the world.


Extensions to the Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, 2008. © Yona Friedman, courtesy Manuel Orazi

It’s amazing to think that officials in Paris, the city once so scandalised by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ fun house, arcade game Centre Pompidou design, seriously considered Friedman’s schemes in order to alleviate traffic congestion, but apparently they did. Friedman himself proposed a design for the Pompidou—a museum on stilts, free public square underneath, in which the building’s façade would change with each new exhibition—and his spatial city was launched with Paris Spatiale (1959), a citywide plan that led to more specific proposals, such as an application to transform Les Halles food market. Friedman wanted the market left alone and a new urban layer stretching above it; instead, the city went with demolition and a mall.

His proposals fall on a spectrum of provocation, and use two dominant techniques: colour and photomontage. The most charmingly risible were meant as demonstrations rather than actual plans; they take iconic sites and turn them into mobile architecture, so spatial cities metastasise around the Golden Gate Bridge and Potsdamer Platz, or above the Champs-Élysées and lower Manhattan, projects modelled in Friedman’s crude, boxy, Klee-like drawings, splashed with colour and superimposed over mild-mannered postcard images. Friedman’s actual proposals used the same methods, and it must have been stunning, as a city bureaucrat, to issue out a call for projects and receive Friedman’s submission—the present space left intact and a network of colourful rectangles hoisted above. Such projects found their way to planners advertising competitions for Tunis’ medina, Dar es Salaam’s Parliament House, the European Union’s administrative centre, and Samarkand’s city centre, and other projects, often more ambitious and never solicited, were drawn up to allow expansion into the sea in Monaco and over the highways in Los Angeles, the docks of the Hudson River, the coast of Tel Aviv, the canals of Venice, a strip of the English Channel, and even over the oceans between continents, linked in Friedman’s scheme by ground transport routes and bridge towns.

He became more of a travelling theorist than standard architect, oscillating between enormous plans for fixed contexts and enormous plans for the whole world. Europe, he suggested in the 1960s, could be one gigantic city, composed of 180 villages or neighbourhoods and perforated by hinterland; he was laughed at then, but for a time at least, before the recent flare-up of nationalism and anti-migrant hysteria, something like this was nearly achieved. As for actually existing buildings, Friedman only designed one: a school, planned in consultation with teachers, parents, and students, standing flatly and dully on the ground outside Angers, France.

If he was original in his dreamy techno mega-ness, he wasn’t alone. Mobile architecture spread widely, influencing the Metabolists in Japan and Archigram in Britain, and before long the 1960s were seen as the short decade of the megastructure, defined by Reyner Banham as having “construction according to a modular scheme; unlimited possibilities of growth; structural framework in which smaller units are inserted; [and] longer duration of the main framework than the smaller units”. The spatial city seems an ideal example, though Friedman objected that megastructures were planned totalities, while his ideas minimised planning and championed individual freedom.

The history of megastructures is a largely unbuilt chapter of modernism, taking in utopias like Constant’s New Babylon and Peter Cook’s Plug-in City. But versions were also realised: in Japan and Singapore, for instance, and frequently at expositions (Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s stacked, foliaged prefab housing complex in Montreal, constructed for the World’s Fair under the direct influence of Friedman). The megastructure cast a thrilling shadow—its mark is all over Piano and Rogers’ Centre Pompidou—consolidating into architectural modernism’s decadent stage, which, as Hal Foster has charted, was finished off in the 1970s by ecological concerns and the puncturing of techno-fetishism on the left, and by the historical pastiche of postmodernism on the right. Friedman in many ways stood in relief against the predilections of the megastructuralists; his spatial cities were made of neutral, see-through infrastructure, to be filled in by users and adapted to specific urban contexts, in sharp contrast to the typically monumental megastructural visions of the Metabolists and Archigram. Still, he was viewed as representative—in Koohaas’ manifesto on “Bigness” he names just one architect, Friedman, before dismissing him as “criticism as decoration”—and after the age of the megastructure Friedman’s stock fell with the rest. The spectacles of postmodernism landed and he turned to simpler, ‘survival’ forms, while the world began the slow process of forgetting all about him.


Tunis Medina, 1959. Sectional perspectives of the Ville Spatiale above the Medina © Yona Friedman, courtesy Marianne Homiridis

How to characterise his post-70’s work? It’s a clear turn, even if it’s just as clearly not a break—a turn to new media and a new geographical orientation, as some thirty years before Koolhaas began his Project on the City Friedman quietly shifted his attention to the global south. UNESCO dispatched him on research trips to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, leading to an un-translated book on scarcity and design, L’architecture de survie: une philosophie de la pauvreté (1978). Lessons in scarcity pushed him to experiment with formal accessibility; he reduced his role as architect to an even greater degree, drawing self-help manual cartoons distributed around India by the millions. The cartoons conveyed good sustainable building practices: how to collect water, build cheap houses, enrich and store food and so on. Indira Gandhi co-signed, and soon Friedman had backing to construct the Museum of Simple Technology in Chennai, a rare actual construction that’s nevertheless just temporary, a sort of pop-up exhibition realising the cartoons’ suggestions. Friedman emerged anew: from spatial city megastructuralist to NGO architect, denouncing state paternalism but offering instead didactic, easily replicated possibilities. The Museum is composed of a series of small bamboo huts; woven spiral overlays make up the roofs and manuals are posted to the walls beneath. There’s a whiff of a vulgar project to come: Renzo Piano’s Cultural Centre in New Caledonia (1998), a wind-backed set of proudly erupting pavilions blending a fetishised tribal vernacular with light, capital-flow modernity. But Friedman’s Museum, striking as it may be, couldn’t be further distanced: there’s no faux-traditionalism with the Chennai museum, just a reliance on local material and dedication above all to science and the economical.

Friedman’s focus on participatory, economical design impacted his work in Paris, too, where he installed Urban Carpet (1975), a street-painting exercise redolent of the Situationist proposal to pave Italy’s motorways with Abstract Expressionism, and Museum Without Doors (1987), an open-air shelter fleetingly installed in Parc de la Villete featuring simple, publicly-curated curios. Innovative enough at the time, today these initiatives are the stuff of gentrification-smoothing block parties, and perhaps even then their not-so-radical side showed, as Friedman came under fire from Marxists for neglecting the totality of capitalist conditions. For him, however, the freedom of the individual was a political program of its own, and as his career developed, two things became clear. His anticipatory genius, for one, his knack for predicting the shape of globalisation, the turn from megastructure to scarcity and the vernacular, the rise of urban farming and creative urbanism, now faddishly co-opted by Richard Florida-esque bourgeois creatives. The second is his commitment to continuity and an aesthetic of rehearsal: an intellectual life adding up not to a total theory but to a series of gestures that talk back to one another, cohering satisfyingly into an oeuvre.

Friedman is now 92. His interviews with Obrist finish with a forward-looking reflection:

I have the impression I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. … What I’m really interested in is having a certain number of different ideas linked together. And that’s very hard to do. In fact, what I look for now is less to keep realising new things than to be able to perceive and formulate a group of ideas out of what has already been done.

The interview series signals a resurgence in the critical appreciation of Friedman’s ideas, and this final comment’s intelligibility is time-marked, in that it’s only recently that we’ve been able to glean the drift of Friedman’s career. A crucial figure during the utopian ‘60s, for much of last century’s end Friedman worked in relative obscurity, concocting designs both modest and audacious in his Parisian Merzbau while critics and scholars looked elsewhere. He was written off as either an anachronism, or an irredeemable utopian, or as a supposedly practical theorist and designer who never managed to square up to the realities of late capitalist political economy. Only later did it come to light how centrally he stood in the debates and vicissitudes of a convulsive, spectacle-saturated modernity, and even then only partially.


I first learned of Friedman last year, when I was living in Shanghai and the city’s best contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art, had an exhibition on his theory of mobile architecture. The museum, a repurposed industrial relic on the west bank of the Huangpu modelled after Tate Modern, had on the top floor a crash course on the collected output of Renzo Piano, and below, an odder, playful introduction to Friedman. School kids built tiny dwellings from cardboard at a corner table. A small television showed Friedman leading a documentarian around his busy apartment.

Between 2002 and 2007 Friedman spent time in Shanghai. He noticed pedestrians couldn’t cross the Huangpu, the river dividing the city’s duelling skylines, and so he designed sketches for seven bridge-towns, presented in a solo exhibition on the Bund named ‘Utopia Realizable’. At the Power Station the designs were again prominently displayed. There was a photomontage of the city’s colonial west bank, pictured in black-and-white, a faintly blue elevated bridge vaulting over the river and extending Nanjing Lu, Shanghai’s most famous shopping street, from the stately colonial skyline to the futuristic financial towers clustered on the east bank. On the river’s north end streets hung from a bridge that gave rise to thin intersecting towers, and you could see all the bridges laid out in model form in the exhibition’s centre. Each bridge was multi-use and multi-level: a layered network of “streets in the sky” filled with cafes, offices, gardens, apartments, shops. The bridges seemed almost plausible when contrasted against Pudong’s eccentric financial core, posed outlandishly on what was marshland just 25 years before. But the museum displayed the project less as provocation or possibility and more, to return to Koolhaas’ rejoinder, as “decoration”, another representation of futurity in the city of the future. The spatial city had collapsed into Shanghai’s whirling marketing machine, and it seemed as if Yona Friedman had been put to official use.

It’s something like this that Manuel Orazi fears at the end of his long essay ‘The Erratic Universe of Yona Friedman’. The long neglected Friedman is now receiving renewed critical interest. A spate of recent books—Yona Friedman: Structures Serving the Unpredictable (1999), Pro Domo (2006), Hans Ulrich Obrist & Yona Friedman: The Conversation Series (2007), and now the nearly comprehensive volume, Yona Friedman: The Dilution of Architecture (2015)—has come at a time of heightened museum interest, producing new exhibitions and catalogues and interviews. It’s not primarily architects, however, who have rediscovered Friedman; it’s the contemporary art world, whose turn to participation and relational aesthetics has brought Friedman’s commitment to self-building and the freedom of the individual in space into sharper focus, while also institutionalising him. As Orazi notes, it’s hardly a thrilling sign that Friedman’s “prototype of a cardboard shelter for the homeless” now sits at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto, “mummified and put on display like a chloroform butterfly.” Friedman’s message, Orazi worries, has been “elevated to the status of a work of art while exorcising all its political significance”.


Stages in the development of housing forms, from 1958. © Yona Friedman, courtesy Marianne Homiridis

And yet something, as Brecht liked to say, seems missing. Friedman’s work has profoundly political implications—but what exactly are his politics? Or: what makes him so attractive to the contemporary spirit of relational aesthetics? Relational aesthetics imagines art as a space in which viewers come together to participate in the art at hand, to become not viewers but a community whose engagement with each other functions as the artwork’s actualising element. The critic Nicolas Bourriaud, relational art’s first champion, defined the mode as “an ensemble of units to be reactivated by the beholder-manipulater”, and the most famous instance is Rikrit Tiravanija’s 1992 New York solo show in which he cooked and served Thai food to visitors in the middle of a gallery. Content has leaked from relational art, or been redefined: it’s less about what participation brings about, or in what context it occurs, and more about the mere fact of it happening. We live in a deeply alienated world, relational art implies—participate!

Friedman’s allegiance to the user over the planner or architect shades into this post-critical, content-displacing territory. His 1975 book Utopies réalisables envisions a world of small, non-communicating utopias, all with their own political characters and social structures and linked by a neutral global infrastructure allowing for the free right of migration. It’s another version of mobile architecture: neutral infrastructure enclosing user-designed units. The vision revels in the indeterminate, and this is precisely the aspect of Friedman’s work that’s been embraced by relational artists. But the indeterminacy of these projects can come to seem naïve, too, as if they disavow knowledge of existing systems of power. Talking over Thai food is nice, and there’s something liberating about being in control of your own spatial design, but under present conditions, who gets to experience these things as cultural capital-accruing luxuries, and who doesn’t have the time? If designing the contours of your own living unit is a radical extension of democracy, it nevertheless seems a marginal one—one out of step with a deeply undemocratic world.

Participation, however, still carries the day, and in architecture it’s the site of today’s most promising and increasingly most celebrated work, as fatigue with postmodern spectacle gives way in neoliberal times to a concern with scarcity and the repressed modernist questions of social housing and public space. The architecture collective Assemble, winner of Britain’s 2015 Turner Prize, made their reputation installing temporary public venues in abandoned industrial spaces in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. An old gas station in Clerkenwell turned into an outdoor movie theatre. For nine weeks in 2011, a defunct expressway in Hackney Wick spanned over an arts venue, Folly for a Flyover, made from recycled materials. Now the group has moved on from a pop-up response to precarity to more lasting constructions: renovating a derelict neighbourhood in Liverpool, as cheaply as possible, by using participatory methods. Assemble held public workshops on self-building, and worked with the community to avoid demolition and instead adapt the existing homes, adjusting each based on its particular dimensions. Their turn has been from temporary to permanent, but also towards, to steal a phrase, the dilution of architecture.

In 2016 the dilution has continued, with architecture’s top prize, the Pritzker, going to Alejandro Aravena, head of the Chilean collective Elemental. In 2003 the Chilean government assigned Elemental with legally settling 93 squatter families on a small piece of land near the centre of Iquique, giving them $7500 per family, enough to buy the land or build a house, but not both. Elemental’s solution was to build each family half a house: a kitchen, a bathroom, a roof and a concrete structure with open spaces between the houses for expansion, left up to the families to build themselves. The plan earned wide acclaim, and Elemental has since developed similar schemes in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and across Chile, where they’ve been hired to re-plan the earthquake-ravaged city of Constitución. It’s gone entirely unnoticed that Aravena had a modernist predecessor: GAMMA, the Moroccan chapter of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne), whose “evolving housing”, theorised by Georges Candilis and realised by Elie Azagury in 1958, likewise built small houses with free spaces left for possible expansion. Perhaps more relevant, though, as Justin McGuirk notes in Radical Cities, is the long history of do-it-yourself schemes in South America, brought to global attention by British architect John Turner. Turner argued in the ‘60s against large-scale Brutalist housing complexes and for the resourcefulness of slums—planning had failed, Turner declared, resulting in slum demolition and forced relocation to inadequate housing on the city’s outskirts. Progressive-seeming at the time, in the ‘80s his views suffered co-optation by neoliberal structural adjustment programs, but they’ve retained a certain appeal in some quarters of the left, reinvigorated by the austerity-era proposals of Assemble and Elemental. What’s gone overlooked, however, is the seeming influence for all of these economical and participatory plans, GAMMA’s as much as Elemental’s and Assemble’s, of another theorist: Yona Friedman.


San Francisco, 2006. © Yona Friedman, courtesy Marianne Homiridis

It’s here, at the intersection of neoliberal scarcity and Friedman’s work, where Koolhaas’ prescient imperative for today’s architects—“to express increasing turbulence in a stable medium”—demands additional significance. Turbulence now isn’t just the frenzied, capital-intensive turnover of space, but the confluence of ecological devastation, war, neoliberalism and mass migration. How can architecture, a stable medium, respond to these ongoing fluctuations?

The emergency of neoliberalism in which the state acts (militarised borders, bailouts, wars) and yet does so in an atmosphere in which the redirecting of its energies to social democratic projects seems impossible, will doubtless continue to result in ambitious government building, in “big big walls”, to quote a certain fascist American. The challenge is to overcome these restricted horizons, to redirect state activity to public use, and the work of Elemental and Assemble has been invaluable in returning architectural discourse to this end. But under their direction this discourse has remained tethered to an economy of scarcity, to small-scale, acupunctural solutions. The reappraisal of Friedman’s full vision, however, suggests the contours of a possible new urbanism, blending the flexibility of these recent participatory models with the systemic ambition of more comprehensive urban planning.

The Friedman revived by relational aesthetics is the theorist of the individual, of adjustable prefab, self-design and spatial indeterminism. And yet there’s another side to Friedman, global in outlook and indebted to the heady days of the modernism he rose to prominence within, a side insisting on the state obligation to democratic public infrastructure alongside indeterminacy and a lucid registration of the need for economical solutions. Planning and flexibility, state infrastructure and individual participation—this is the direction, too, to take the achievements of a group like Elemental, to tie their innovations to a broader social democratic political imaginary. In Koolhaas’ documentary Lagos Wide and Close, the architect narrates how he came to Lagos trying to figure out how to move beyond planning to some theory of the informal, only to find the city’s informal networks inscribed in early postcolonial designs and have his interest in planning restored. It’s precisely in times of extreme turbulence that the large-scale imagination of state planning is indispensable: this, perhaps, is the counterintuitive lesson to draw from the diluted architecture of Yona Friedman.


William Harris

William Harris has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Awl, Full Stop, The Point and Rain Taxi Review of Books. He lives in Minneapolis. Mail: willrussellharris@gmail.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 19th, 2016.