It is all about openness
An interview with Belgium based landscape architecture Studio BASTA.
authors - Bert Buschaert, Kenny Windels, Marta Tomasiak
imprint - INSPIRO, Strefa 52
year - 2014
Marta Tomasiak: Maybe at the very beginning, the beginning of BASTA. How did it all happen?
BB: BASTA is five years old now and we started at school. Kenny and I met in Holland, where we did higher education in landscape architecture. And that was really necessary to understand landscape and to understand it as the ‘big picture’. Many schools consider landscape very local, very narrow. But it starts always with good education – every time you should think about the landscape as a whole. That’s good starting point. And then let say we drunk beer together, we did projects together at school, and we discover ELASA – European Landscape Architecture Student Association. We went to one of the meetings, and at the time we didn’t know what it was. We have met a lot of colleges from Europe. So for us, really rooted in western European context, knowing very well countries like France, Belgium, England, Spain, it was great experience to meet people from central and eastern European countries – Hungary, Serbia, Poland. The whole bunch off countries. It was really eye-opening, mind opening. And for us it all started there on ELASA.
Then we met there Le Balto, they gave a lecture on temporary installations in urban spaces. What does it do with you, how does it interact with people. It was something very fresh for us that landscape architecture does not have always be these big projects with stone and big amount of money, in a traditional way. What they showed it was in a whole other way, something that touches your senses.
So education in Holland and then meeting at ELASA, meeting Le Balto, was very much our starting point, starting point of a broader view. And then, yes, we met Wagon, we worked together. All things we saw, we took it back home and started some projects here.
So first project was hospital here, where we started with this idea of urban wastelands, rebuilding them through small scale interventions, with a small budget, open minded way of working. We were also interested in participation, yes. But participation is very much a fashion word now.
MT: Yes, it is. I do not know how it is in Belgium, or your environment, but I have a feeling no one knows what it means exactly, or rather everybody has its own definition of participation.
BB: Yes, indeed. Everybody has its own interpretation. Let say from the start we were very much interested in this.
MT: And what it is for you? What is BASTA’s definition for it?
BB: It is an openness for people who you work with. It is an openness to listen to them, to talk to them, to present your thoughts, what you draw, to think together and debate about your plans, to tell them what is going to happen, to invite them to help, to build. It is an openness. That is really the main word for me. Participation it is not obligatory – you can be involved if you want. I made a presentation for the province government about participation, just two weeks ago.
MT: So you are becoming participatory design experts in Belgium? Giving lectures…
BB: [laugh] We are not experts, we are not participatory design experts at all.
MT: Rather practitioners?
BB: Voila. We do it from the belly.
MT: Ok, but one of your projects, in Rabot, in Ghent - it is a beautiful story of participatory design, it happened quite early in your career. You were what - 2-3 years old as BASTA when it came? Tell me the story.
BB: Yes, exactly, we were quite young in our carrier. So there was a neighborhood in Ghent, that was very rich back in time, and now it is a rather poor district. A lot of people coming in – it is a transit zone for many immigrants, many foreigners who arrive to Belgium.They go to live in Rabot – some of them stay there, some go further very quickly. So you have new inhabitants and Ghent residents who live in the area for very long. And they observe their neighborhood going down. Urban spaces developed in a negative way. The benches go out, playgrounds go out – all because of reasons of “social security” let say. And so Dimitri who works for city social services, he came with the project to us. And in Ghent all the city services, they work closely together. The city workers from different city departments, they all work very much together. So Dimitri, he had a very small budget and a project to rebuild urban space. And he really wanted to change the environment of Rabot in a positive way. Put back again these benches, put back again playgrounds. So he came to us and that is how we started. And all this supposed to happen in a participatory way. Both in design phase, and construction phase and maintenance. And that was a beginning.
MT: So they asked you for the one small intervention at the beginning, but you in a way redesigned the way of thinking about the project? You turned it upside down by proposing very different process instead?
BB: Yes, it was a small budget to start with, just one intervention, one thing to do. But there was also the City of Ghent master plan for this part of the city. So they were busy with big scale thinking, they had a lot of analysis about this neighborhood and surroundings. And in the beginning we felt like doing double work, all these analysis we had, all these top-bottom ideas – “big structures” . This thinking was already done. We said we will begin at the bottom, we begin rethinking small spaces.
This way we created 1 to 1 models , to try things directly in the urban space, to make new temporary design, temporary interventions. So when the designers who think on the neighborhood future in a very big scale, when in 10 years they will be implementing their design, when they come to this point to really build it, then, they should see what we already tried. We tried several things, and so they can be inspired to create a durable projects learning from what we did. What we did was temporary – low cost materials, interventions planned for 5–10 years maximum. So that is what I meant we begun at the bottom. The masterplan – they are thinking in big scale and in time we supposed to meet at some point with our bottom-up project. So this was the main idea behind the project we had. The neighborhood was rather big and we had this idea of doing it piece by piece every year. We had general plan for the neighborhood and we could move step by step with the interventions.
MT: But what I find really interesting is that you - landscape architects, someone who was asked for the project, you change investor’s way of thinking. You were asked for small intervention and you came up with long term project that transforms spaces all around the area. Noone asked you to do it. Was it hard for you to encourage the municipality to be on board? Of course those are temporary interventions you work with, but at the same time it was a project that was supposed to last good couple of years, right? Are you finished already? Or you still doing some interventions at the time?
BB: No, not anymore. I think it is done more or less. We “did” a lot of spots in this neighborhood. I think it was a good start, it was a good work I think and now the job is to maintain it well. Then we can build on.
MT: I think about this project as a testing ground, the laboratory. You checked couple of things, what works and what does not in the space. And they can use it for durable design.
BB: Voila. And I think also spacial tests like this one should’t be only about building. It is not always that we build to have things growing, moving on. Maintenance, using it, all this little things are great signs that project is moving on. If we build again and residents do not use it and it is not maintained, we should stop.
MT: But how it is in Ghent like? Have you actually seen the process of people being involved more and more in the project? The intervention happened every couple of months, you were there for like a week or so? And from my perspective, cause I was there two or three times with you, I noticed people, they treated you successively more and more as one of them. Throughout the project you became members of the community. And also have you seen the change of how people use the space when the project developed?
BB: Well, we do not see it a lot, as we are not in based in Ghent and we do not live there. So we cannot say we see what is happening on a daily basis. But sometimes, when we were there we had a feeling there was not enough attention, maintenance. It was because the complications I think. But I saw they start again with maintenance and I think it is going well over there. I cannot imagine this project would be considered a bad idea, just small scale things, and if they maintain it and use it I think it cannot be something wrong.
MT: And also because the design, it came from people, as you consulted all the design proposals, right?
BB: Yes, we did. There was this dog space design that we change two days before construction.
MT: Why is that?
BB: Well, there was one big block of flats, that was under construction. And the garden, just around this block. Nobody ever said anything during the consultation, cause there was nobody. No residents yet. I remember, I went there two days before this intervention was planned to happen. Just to check out everything on site, if we can start. And then there was a lady at first floor of this brand new building, she was moving in. Her boxes where in the apartment. And so we started to talk, she asked what are we doing. I explained. And then she said, she likes very much this project, but she does not want dogs to be there, just in front of her windows.
MT: So you reacted. Did you change the location for the dog space? Did the intervention happen when was planned?
BB: Yes, actually the dog space went on the other side of the area. And we had to do it this way. Her point was clear and she was right — that it was bad idea. And yes — if you do a lot of analysis of the space and you have all this data commanded you have all the puzzle. And sometimes you just need to put it in another way than you thought you would. So you just have to keep your mind open and be reactive, cause things like this situation happens. And if you react, then everything, all the puzzles fall in a good place. Some time later, this lady had another complaint about some other things, but we did not agree, so it stayed as it supposed to. We did not do it as she wanted. And I think it is also participation. Reacting on what happens, in a positive or negative way. If you do not react there is nothing about participation in it.
MT: Do you think Rabot project was a bit of a cultural project? Like a cultural animation thing? Big part of you being on site was to talk to people, to encourage them to build together, take a hummer or sow, to plant trees with you? So in a way you were there playing a role of animators, or someone who is activating the site. Is it a way you think of this project?
BB: Well, let say I understand this idea, but I do not like this way of thinking of our work there. If you say animator, cultural animator – it is someone I understand as a person that keeps kids or adults busy. And this is a concept we do not support as BASTA. It is waste of time and waste of money. It is this kind of thinking – keep them busy so they will not complain. So what we do, it is not animation – we want to change things. There are some studios that do cultural animation as I understand it. They go with some plants, and tools, they dig, plant and they take pictures and then they leave. It is short thing for them.
MT: It is not about coming and being there few hours to disappear after. Cause those people they stay there. It is rather about building the relationship with the locals and working with them and for them.
BB: Let say carnival that is animation, party is animation and yes we did also animation in Ghent.But rather disagree, discuss and debate, do not agree with all residents out there, than please them and animate them.
MT: Was it a challenge for you when it came, the Rabot project? It involved so many different people. And I know when you had all those consultation meetings, you always had translators, you always had people from the municipality. And there were also so many different disciplines involved in the project. Was it challenging because of that?
BB: Challenging? Yes. But it is just what you, it is just your job. You are paid for it, you know how much, you know there are other people involved. So yes, it is challenging. And Rabot yes, it was challenging because we did not do it before this way.
MT: Well, didn’t you? I am thinking of you volunteering for Le Balto projects now. Wasn’t it something very similar?
BB: Yes, but the way we do projects is to build step by step. We grasp some way of running and doing interventions from Le Balto but I think we put more and more this participative approach working as BASTA. And we are growing step by step. Every new project is a new step and a new challenge. And when it comes to participative project there is always a challenge. The question is what the participation in a particular project means. And our first project - the Rainbow garden - was just a spontaneous action and the biggest challenge was how can you actually make a spontaneous interaction.
Very different , there is a new project - Textile Museum. It is really the one with the fashionable word ‘participation’ used from the beginning. It is a new government here in Kortrijk and they wanted participatory process. And we did not really see how to make this project participatory design. For us the challenge was to make it useful. There was no chance we can build it together, the investor, they could help maybe just a bit with the construction. We came up with an idea they can tell their stories about the textile industry, both the museum and the local residents and we will put the stories in the garden. People from the neighborhood can find their stories in the garden, and that way it becomes their garden too. And for me that was useful ‘participation’.
This is the main question for us always, what is this ‘participation’ useful for, why do we do it. And if you can answer this question why do you do it, then you have good participatory project.
MT: Do you think participation can be a ‘wrong’ thing under some circumstances? Can hurt someone or turn the project in the wrong direction?
BB: I cannot imagine why. You search for this interaction always. If you do not do it, then there is a risk the project will come to the point when it is too late to react, and then you have problems.
MT: Is it for you very intuitive way of working? Involving people so strongly in the project, searching to build quite a close relationship with the inhabitants? Or this is just how it looks like in Belgium? I am wondering if your way of thinking, and really doing honestly participatory design projects in different scales and using different methods, does it come from you, or it is rather something that is regulated by law in Belgium, or you are always asked to do it by the investor?
BB: It comes from both sides. There is always some question and we react on it keeping our minds open - we do a dossier that shows who we want to reach by this project and how will we do it, what is the goal of it. So it is some kind of a process scheme we have for the project. And in all phases, we show how we imagine people are involved in it. Then it is really clear for everyone. Some of our early project were done more ad hock, but now we always plan it that way and inform investor how we imagine the process. And for us as designers, it is also a way we organize our work, the amount of hours. And this way you can also easily convince the investor that the participatory design tasks, workshops, talking to people it is necessary part of your work, so you should be paid for it as you are for drawing and designing. And if you are convincing, if you present it in a good way they will buy it. And then you take it seriously and people come back to you with new projects.
MT: And this is the recipe for the success.