Teaching, researching and practicing

Talking with Haris Piplas, from Urban-Think Tank, ETH Zurich

'Sarajevo Now' Pavillon in Arsenale Nord at 15th Venice Biennale. Photo by Jim Marshall
'Sarajevo Now' Pavillon in Arsenale Nord at 15th Venice Biennale. Photo by Jim Marshall
18 MAY 2017
by

Haris Piplas, born in Sarajevo, is a landscape architect and an urban researcher & designer. He has studied and worked in Sarajevo, Berlin, Denmark, Milan, and Zurich.

In 2011 he joined ETH Zurich’s Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) Chair of Architecture and Urban Design in 2011, established and led by Prof. Alfredo Brillembourg and Prof. Hubert Klumpner since. Haris conducts research and writes a dissertation on critical urban transformations in Central-Eastern Europe and directs the U-TT ‘Reactivate Sarajevo’ project.

He also works on developing innovative research and teaching models in collaboration with academic, industry, and policy partners, including the Digital Urban Toolbox for the “Urban Stories” Lecture Course. Haris curated the “Sarajevo Now: People's Museum” Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016. Haris is also active in the Urban Land Institute, Aga Khan Foundation, ISOCARP, Matica B&H, and the European Forum Alpbach.

Your curriculum vitae is very peculiar: lecturer and course coordinator at ETH Zurich, as part of the Urban-Think Tank Chair and lately, you were the curator of the Sarajevo pavilion for the Architecture Biennale in Venice, in 2016. How does all of this merge?

The biggest problem in architecture today is that teaching, research and practice is fragmented. Many of us try to bridge it, but eventually end up having three different professional lives: one teacher, one practitioner and one researcher – but how to combine?

We all know that the cities are the biggest human invention. When people started moving to the cities, the human civilization started blooming because different people, opinions, skills, knowledge, political power and culture, densified. And this is where the human kind started growing and develop further. But in this century, when we look at our society today: climate change, economic crisis, the cities are also out biggest catalyst and problem. But how do we deal with it? There is a profession called urbanism and architecture and it should deal with that. But then it does not work that way, because if you look to who really designs and built cities, it is developers, politics and paper work. Urbanists are often not involved, or they are secondary and tertiary, after politics and economy do their part. But let us not blame others.

As a student, I went to a conferences about real estate and smart cities and met those professionals how are the decision-makers within urban development processes. And at first I thought that I was studying to be at the end of the food chain as an urbanist, but then I noticed that it is not that we are not heard, we just do not participate in processes where decisions are being made.

After finishing my studies and collecting professional experience, I start searching a place where I could bring my history and my knowledge and be somewhere where things are actually happening. And that's when I discovered the Urban-Think Tank and how I met my mentors Hubert Klumpner and Alfredo Brillembourg. It is a very dynamic place to work but the Urban-Think Tank approach to deal with cities with political problems, conflicts and socio-economic challenges connects also to my own experience.

I grew up in Sarajevo, as the city was part of the Yugoslav socialist federation and when the war started in 1992, its idyllic urban landscape was objected to a complete destruction. Sarajevo is a historical mix of cultures and also its architecture was very diverse. The city symbolized coexistence, peace and multi-culturalism, it became the target of destruction. In order to destroy this concept of unity, the enemy started to destroy the city because of the concept of culture and their first big target was the national library, which the Serb nationalists burned down. Sarajevo experienced "urbicide" - the killing of the city.

As a kid in a war it makes you ‘grow up’ very fast. When the war was over, you see a post-war anarchy, nobody knows what to do, in a new system. By this time, in a very naive way, I wanted to do something to help and since everybody was choosing economics and I was not best friend with abstract numeric calculations, I thought by studying something more ’concrete’ and necessary to rebuild the wounded city, architecture, landscape and urbanism came almost as a logical choice. I wanted to be ablento help to rebuild the city.

When I first approached Hubert and Alfredo saying that I wanted to the same that they did in Latin America, in Sarajevo, they looked at me and smiled "Either you are crazy or you know what you are talking about". It was with this positive craziness that I started engaging in the post-socialist region, not only in Sarajevo but also in Serbia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, etc. Of course learning from Hubert’s and Alfredo’s experiences of the urban case studies from Switzerland, the Americas, China, Southeast Asia etc. receiving their great support and mentorship.

The exhibition at the Venice Biennale came out as the perfect opportunity to show what we did preliminarily in our ‘Reactivate Sarajevo’ to the world. Bosnia and Sarajevo never had a pavilion after becoming independent in 1992. And nobody invited us to organize a pavilion, commissioned by the Bosnian cultural organization from Switzerland, Matica, with support the Mayor of Sarajevo, Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs, Swiss National Science Foundation and many colleagues, friends, students and young professionals from over than 15 countries. The pavilion was a collective act and for many reasons unusual, powerful and a message to the world. Let us learn from Sarajevo too, it is only to help Sarajevo, but can Syria from our example.

On my understanding, the Urban-Think Tank is a group of specialists, with different backgrounds that intend to work together for a collective research. Based on your experience as being involved in teaching and practice, do you feel that the academia is changing in this way, and the architecture course is going towards this idea of working together, and less individualist?

All these interdisciplinary approaches that everybody is talking about, it is what we do at Urban-Think Tank. Urban-Think Tank is a collective that prove to be able to change cities. We do not just sit and work in our design. We work with the society and the real stakeholders. You do not wait, you invent you own project. We invented our project for Sarajevo. It came out of a lot of research, discussion, meetings, frustration and communication. Now we collaborate closely with the new Mayor on the next steps. And this is how things should be: to get engaged with the society and bring all the knowledge base necessary.

This is how my own personal history and vision merged with the Urban-Think Tank: design, research, communication, practice while working with different people with different backgrounds.The times are over the lonely guy seating in the office, where you usually have a male architect seating and doing some design. Now all projects are showing that it is a collective act of millions of interests and inputs. Definitely architecture has to change immediately, because we are the people who know about cities and cities are the biggest problem but no one is asking us because we are not showing that we are relevant.

There are a lot of TED talks about innovation, but every innovation has to come through this critical lens. Being suspicious and critical is a human defensive mechanism! Many people talk about cities, architecture and that we have to change, but many know how. And problems are just growing and there are more models, renders and images, but the problems are not becoming smaller.

Our generation, younger people, they already understand that we are global citizens. With a smartphone you automatically become a global citizen, ten years ago we didn't have it. The world is globalized, let us face it, and architecture and urban design can be the solution for most important problems of society: climate changes, pollution, food shortage, traffic, etc.

From your experience in the academia, do you feel that the students are still too distant from reality? Or is this a thing from the past?

Often they are. Architects like to read, to travel...and our students as well. We try to tell them that they have to connect, what do they see when they travel? What can you bring? How can you learn from this? What did you observe? How people move in the city? How has architecture been destroyed? And built? etc. This reality check is very important. Instead of only working alone ‘nightovers’ on a model.

Even as a student, you have to be engaged because it is urgent to deal with the reality as soon as possible. This is what we do with the students in ETH Zurich Urban-Think Tank: they get involved. Architecture it's a process that requires going through many different problems. We work with student and connect this to teaching, we connect a research with teaching by involving the students so they can give their inputs but not only in design.

It has been a lot of discussion on the way we have been teaching architecture and on alternative schools of architecture. Does ETH Zurich positions as one of these "alternative schools"?

I have read many provocative discussions about that. It not black or white. First of all, it's all about people. ETH it's a public and technical school, high ranked. When I read about "alternative school" it is always a little school. We have to adapt what we do to the needs of the society. But I do not think that we should abandon the old concept of school and close the existing schools.

ETH tries to bring new experiments in teaching all the time. I believe that our approach of Urban-Think Tank was a clear statement about innovation, new ways of thinking about architecture and urbanism, about teaching and research, etc. ETH is big organism, but, it is also a very international school. The architecture department was created in the ETH at the very beginning, in order to apply and test all the research from the other departments.

The word "alternative" tells you that there is another thing. Alternative to what? In this sense, and if wanted to be very provocative I would categorize it in two ways: the ones who are in love with themselves and the ones who are realistic and interested in engage with the society.

As a teacher, do you have any general advice for students who are now starting to learn architecture?

HP: Go out, talk to other people, make your opinion relevant (because it is relevant) and get engaged. Cities are the biggest problem and people do know know how to change cities, how to stop climate changes, how to stop segregation, etc. Help them.

Architects are really proud people, because we sell our concept and we do not like to be criticized. You must be more realistic and put away this artistic pride. Closing yourself in the design studio, that is a disaster, then you go out to the world and you are away from the reality. It is essential to keep yourself active and curious.

Communicating what we do to the society is the key. Otherwise, we will be wasting our time.

What do you feel that are the major changes in the students path due to the proliferation of contemporary digital tools in the classes?

Digital tools are just tools like any else. Tools are changing and developing so fast, yesterday was a hammer and today is something else. Digital technologies (not just 3D softwares) help globalize the planet. There are even apps to design buildings. Digital tool can help us to reach out and better communicate your ideas.

It's a self-teaching process because tools are developing so fast. I am very much into this notion that finally we have the global knowledge in the phone and we have so many possibilities that you needed years to read books but now everything is there and architects must use it. But not in a sense to become a slave. Make use of tools in a smart way, not only 3D software but simple tools to communicate your ideas. It's an opportunity in a short time to make our opinion visible. And again, it's all about communicating. Use the tools but don't forget about the main task.

As Jan Gehl said "cities are made for cars, not for people" it's the simplest argument that I have ever heard but it is also true. Make this beautiful and unique moment in human history that we have all the knowledge fingertips away.

Technology is revolutionizing and democratizing knowledge. It's bringing us closer to society, news are coming fast and new ways to get engaged. Maybe now we also have to express in a different way. As a kid, in war and post-war in Sarajevo, technology helped me to understand what was going on on the planet and how I could get engaged. In that moment it helped me to understand who I am, what I wanted to change and to communicate with other people from other countries.

Do you see yourself as a young teacher or as an old student?

We should all stay students forever. I have to learn things every day because it is coming so fast.

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

My message is based on my experience because as a kid I was subjected to war and I'm happy to share it with the people that were lucky not to go through, with the people from Syria and with people from Switzerland too. And again, I think that from these extreme circumstances you can learn a lot! In many ways, what happened in Sarajevo it is connected to what is happening around the world today.

For the students, I can say: choose the right mentor, get engaged with the society and use the digital tools in a smart way. These will help you to be realistic and useful for the society. Intellectuals should be constructive for the society and not for their own ego.

About Reactivate Sarajevo.