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Inside the New European Bauhaus: How to design and build a more sustainable future?

Written by Ivana Katsarova,

What techniques, materials and skills will be needed to foster a better future in the wake of the global pandemic? This was just one of the questions raised during a European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) online roundtable on the ability of the New European Bauhaus initiative to pool expertise and ideas from architects, urban planners, designers and citizens, on building a more sustainable future.

This lively discussion took place in the slipstream of the recent European Commission pledge to bring the European Green Deal into people’s minds and homes and become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Indeed, one of the ways to help achieve this ambitious goal lies in the new European Bauhaus initiative, set to demonstrate that what is necessary can also be beautiful. Participants in an online roundtable entitled ‘Inside the New European Bauhaus: How to design and build a more sustainable future?‘, which took place on 16 March 2021, looked at these issues through the prism of a number of inspiring projects, offering advice, but also expressing some caution.

Etienne Bassot, Director of the Members’ Research Service in the EPRS, set the scene for the debate by outlining the wider context of the New European Bauhaus initiative.

Laurence Farreng (Renew, France) European Parliament rapporteur on the greening of the EU’s flagship programmes Erasmus+, Creative Europe and the Solidarity Corps, confirmed that the cultural and creative industries are ready to take part in shaping the European Green Deal by bringing innovative ideas. While hailing the fact that professionals and citizens have already made more than 300 contributions, Laurence Farreng expressed concern regarding the initiative’s funding, which has not been clearly defined, and pleaded for a top-up from the European Regional Development Fund.

Similarly, Laurence Farreng regretted that the current name is linked to the past and is not evocative enough for citizens, but also expressed the hope that the New European Bauhaus initiative will help to add a human dimension to the European Green Deal. Finally, she reminded the audience that the original Bauhaus school was known for its craft-based curriculum, hoping that the initiative would become a true driver of change while also bridging the gap between the creative sector and the education sector.

How can new life be injected into a cultural heritage gem from 1930, knowing that historical buildings need to meet the same requirements in terms of safety and comfort as modern ones, and that fitting technical infrastructure in such buildings is expensive and clashes with the preservation of the original aesthetics? Krystyna Kirschke, Professor at the Faculty of Architecture at Wrocław University of Science and Technology (Poland) answered this tricky question by explaining the complex renovation techniques used to restore the Renoma department store and the old railway station in Wrocław to their former glory. The success of the Renoma project was such that the modern extension to the store added in 2009 was nominated for the 2011 EU Mies van der Rohe Contemporary Architecture award; the Wrocław railway station meanwhile welcomes 20 million passengers a year.

Interestingly, the approach advocated by the panellists, went well beyond creatively-designed projects, presenting new visions for society as a whole.

Highlighting the importance of the circular approach through the reuse of materials (without transformation, as opposed to recycling) Maarten Gielen – co-founder of ROTOR Design Practice in Belgium – presented an Interreg-funded project launched in 2019, which aimed at a 50 % increase in the volume of reclaimed building elements in north-west Europe by 2032. Today, only 1 % of such elements are reused, the rest ending up crushed, melted down, or disposed of, with a high environmental impact and a net loss of economic value. The aim of the project is to help dealers in reclaimed materials to structure their efforts, for example by producing technical specifications for specific materials, enabling them to participate in public procurement procedures.

Importantly, Maarten Gielen reminded participants of the need to examine the various forms of sustainability critically. Indeed, despite its formal beauty, the Bosco Verticale project (2014, Boeri Architects, Milan, Italy) – the pioneering incorporation of a vertical forest into 44 storeys across two towers – incurs very high maintenance costs, making it accessible only to wealthier residents. In conclusion, Maarten Gielen called for the reinvention of beauty, with careful restraint and a focus on perception, sculpting the eye instead of the building. He also expressed his hope that the various partners involved in the New European Bauhaus initiative would be invited to help design the legislative efforts accompanying it, so that it becomes more than just another EU-funded programme.

The round table event was also treated to a musical interlude. A video excerpt from Benjamin Millepied’s L A Summer Dance intensive classes offered a fresh and inspiring perspective on creative learning. By turning an old garage into a space where young people could practice what they love, a neighbourhood grew into a community. Over two weeks, the project provided 24 secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds with two weeks of full-day, professionally taught dance and choreography classes, resulting in a full dance piece performed at the project’s annual gala.

Focusing in particular on the challenge of improving city dwellers’ experience, Xavier Matilla, chief architect with Barcelona city council (Spain), shared some insights from the Superblocks project. The idea was to offer a quiet space for inhabitants to enjoy local cultural events and activities. The Superblocks project seems to have found the solution: by giving streets back to the people, revitalising social events rather than just improving physical infrastructure, organising mobility more efficiently and, importantly, offering new opportunities for outdoor activities. The aim of the project – currently under way in the Eixample district – is to offer all residents a square or ‘green street’ within 200 metres of their homes, with a substantial increase in the number of meeting and relaxation areas. In addition, the transformation of the space has helped to increase the number of social activities in the Sant Antoni neighbourhood from just one in 2013 to 32 in 2019. This successful blueprint is now set to be extended to the whole of the city of Barcelona. Some priority areas have already been defined with a view to lowering air pollution and expanding green areas.

Highlighting the importance of participatory music projects in combating xenophobia, racism and antisemitism, Lukas Pairon, co-founder of the Social Impact of Making Music (SIMM) platform, talked participants through some inspiring projects being carried out by practitioners united by their common interest in the role of music as a social work tool. De Ledebirds, a community orchestra from Ghent in Belgium has a large repertoire of world music and welcomes musicians (to be) of all levels. Similarly, the Al‑Farabi Music Academy in Berlin (Germany) offers a chance for young people who have fled conflict zones to sing or play music with young people from different backgrounds, thus experiencing the universal power of music. Launched 10 years ago, Demos (France) is a cultural democratisation project mixing various social groups and centred on musical practice in an orchestra for children aged 7 to 12. Having successfully expanded to the whole of France, the project expects to number 60 orchestras by 2022.

Finally, Marcos Ros (S&D, Spain) founder of the New European Bauhaus Friendship Group at the European Parliament confirmed that the project comes at a crucial moment for the EU – a time of transition towards economic recovery, the Green Deal and digitalisation – and should serve as a preliminary phase for the renovation wave. He also argued that this should be an opportunity to reimagine not only buildings and cities but also our way of life. Insisting that the funding of the project should reflect its interdisciplinary nature, Marcos Ros pointed to various potential financial sources such as the Recovery and Resilience Facility, Horizon Europe, and the European Regional Development Fund, without ruling out the possibility for co-financing from EU Member States. Hoping that open citizen participation will prevail over elitist movements, he underscored that Parliament should retain a substantial role in the process. Bringing the inclusion dimension to the fore, Marcos Ros argued that the New European Bauhaus initiative should reach the smallest towns and villages in the EU, so that real money and real solutions can reach real people.

The event gathered some 150 virtual participants at its peak, with audience questions focusing on elitism versus inclusion, European versus local level of intervention, new versus old construction materials.

Interestingly, an instant poll among those attending the event revealed that over two thirds perceived the New European Bauhaus initiative as a mixture of architecture, aesthetics and arts, climate change, energy efficiency and innovative social solutions.

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