Talking to – Dominika Tihany

Dominika Tihany è un architetto del paesaggio e fa parte del gruppo Ujirany Landscape architects. E’ stata lei che ha dato il via ad alcune delle sperimentazioni più interessanti in termini di progettazione partecipata e di coinvolgimento delle comunità locali nel trasformare il proprio spazio pubblico. La prima sperimentazione è stata quella del Palace Quarter, seguita da Teleki Square.
Abbiamo avuto il piacere di intervistarla su diversi argomenti che ci interessano: dall’uso dell’arte per coinvolgere i cittadini al ruolo delle amministrazioni. Abbiamo deciso di tenere l’intervista in inglese per non rischiare di perdere qualcosa nella traduzione.

Needle: From the projects we analyzed, it emerged that the most difficult part was dealing with the administrations and bureaucracy that risk to choke these spontaneous initiatives. Based on your experience, do you think there should be a different form of planning able to consider and deal with bottom up processes? And what could be the new role of the city administration?

Dominika: In the case of Palotanegyed it was quite a good form of urban rehabilitation, since there was a company dealing with it. In this rehabilitation office there were professionals: urbanists, sociologists and architects so it was easy to work together. Although it was the company of the 8th district, somehow it still made a difference. I believe that it is good construction to have an office like this in charge of the rehabilitation operation that works together with a separate office (like Újirány) that only deals with projects to help locals get involved. (This is important since people have lost faith in all sorts of authorial projects and an office who is not connected to authorities acts like an ‘in between’ actor between locals and authorities. A neutral office can stand up easier for the people’s needs.) These two actors should work closely together. In this case city administration gives trust to these two offices to do their best and doesn’t get too involved. Of course it has to know about the process, and has to approve of the process, hence it acts like a ‘father’ in the family.

Open-ended approaches are very hard for a major and the authorities to encounter. If the positive outcome of a project is not justified in the form of plans, it is very hard to get support for it. It was also very hard to make officials understand why we were actually doing the actions as the reasoning of creating benefits for the future was quite a vague one. As a promising outcome it can be said that after the project were realized, positive feedbacks came from the authorities and the major himself. So, we could say that also city administrations still have to get used to this new type of projects and they do not know yet how to deal with it. However, they are understand the importance of involving people and have community centered projects in order not to waste money.

Needle: In our opinion, one of the main problems in our cities is BOREDOM: especially when we look at the modernism heritage, everything is the same. This is one of the reasons why we started being interested in the so-called “street art”: graffiti, murals and urban installation that can completely change the perception we have of our street/suburb/city. Based on your experience with the Palace Quarter, how have people reacted to your installations and what are the results of these experiments?

Dominika: Since our projects weren’t approved by the authorities I was always afraid when we were out on the streets painting or putting out tablettes… Thankfully while doing these guerilla acts people always asked what are you doing, we explained and they told us how wonderful that is and to go on and do more of it. All of the projects were admired by the locals and it really generated talks between them. And that was our main goal for people to talk about their surroundings.

In the end, the biggest impact of the actions can be seen in the activation of the local inhabitants and activists/artists that were largely inspired by the project. To this day, all participants try to continue to create more and more site-specific actions and events/cultural programs similar to the ones developed by this project. This proves that the realized projects were able to create platforms for informal meetings where a good set of people actually did get to know each other better and formed an active community that is eager to help changes arise in their neighborhood.

Needle: With the rise of prosumers and “DIY architects” (normal citizens who take actions to renew the places where they live), how will change the role of the architect? How can he adapt himself?

Dominika: I think it is very important to have someone (an architect or an office) that sees the whole process of change in a whole. It wouldn’t be all that good, if anyone did anything just out of enthusiasm randomly. We need to have locals design professionals and authorities to work together as the processes in a city are very complex and the more people discuss certain problems the better the answer will be most probably. But the architect himself should definitely change the attitude from being the only person knowing best who forces ideas on others without discussing it first. It requires openness and humbleness. Theoretical works of Nicolas Bouriaud or Paul O’Neill and Claire Doherty or architects like Stan Allen note that these new practices are “less concerned with what they are, and more concerned with what they can do” and teach us the importance of learning to inhabit the world again. Such practices help in constructing or even reconstructing the identity of a place (which we know is not static) building upon existing knowledge of the community. As defined by John Hopkins landscape architecture, like art “is the manifestation of the collective cultural, historical and philosophical identity of a community.” As so: it can be said that landscape architects today also/should have a great/leading  role in helping communities to have a better understanding of their landscapes – let it be in an urban or rural setting.

As I saw it at Teleki square the people really looked up to us as landscape architects and trusted our professional knowledge. And going back to the first part of the answer: people have interesting tastes: there really has to be someone to coordinate and also educate people through a design process as people have no education in design and architecture. Although they have vast knowledge of the area they are also part of learning to understand how a coherent whole can be achieved through design. Each participant should respect the other’s knowledge and think of design as a learning process where everyone learns from the other one. It is also learning to accept the other one’s ideas and to create a common ground.

Needle: Another project of yours that fascinates us is the participatory design for Teleki Square: what was the process for engaging the local communities and what sort of tool have you used?

Dominika: Teleki Square is one of Budapest’s urban center’s oldest and storied squares, located in one of the city’s most profoundly disadvantaged neighborhoods. Following an EU tender that successfully resulted in funding for renovating the square, New Directions Landscape Architects set out to create an inclusive community-based planning process that would result in what is now a barren, ill-reputed, crime-ridden and functionless space becoming a vital neighborhood center in a part of the city desperately lacking green space and outdoor recreational and social opportunities.

The neighborhood is unusually diverse for Budapest – there is a significant proportion of Roma, as well as African and Middle Eastern immigrants, the presence of which can be clearly seen by the various ethnic groceries and shops around the area. The community planning process spanned nine meetings over two months and engaged a diverse neighborhood team, including elderly people who have lived there for fifty years and still recall the horse-drawn carriages that brought goods to the old square’s market; the young rabbi from the neighborhood’s synagogue, which is the only Sephardic rite synagogue in Hungary; young intellectuals, Roma parents and children, and a horticulture graduate student who grew up in the area.

Nine meetings and a Facebook page served as the main modes of communication; the project’s Facebook page was soon joined by the page of the Teleki Square Association, which local residents formed to be able to continue to contribute to the square’s management and ongoing improvement once the renovation is completed in spring 2014. The New Directions design team took the approach of first discussing the site’s very rich and colorful history and culture with the participants and creating a mental map of the space: not of its problems, but of its history and potential.  We tried to use the idea of ‘inclusiveness’ as a unifying thread: the square’s namesake was a statesman known for his idealistic, progressive, assimilationist views of what constitutes a “Hungarian” (this was very important in the 19th century when the country’s population was growing very rapidly from inward migration). This progressed to a more concrete vision of the small park’s functions and potential, on to its physical rendering and the plant and hardscape materials that would be most appropriate and sustainable. We used a variety of tools to bring the residents into the picture: lectures and discussions/debates, as well as on-site activities like interactive mapping, temporary land art installations and photo exhibits. With each meeting we posted photos and a summary film of the evening’s accomplishments on the Facebook page, to ensure that with each meeting new decisions would be made and progress would be thorough and swift. At each meeting we displayed photos and posters showing the results achieved until that moment. (All of the above would be incorporated into a poster design, if accepted). We believe the inclusive planning process was essential to creating an inclusive design.

Needle: One of our main concern regards the life after the project: have you ever experienced any management solution that allows the project to have a lasting effect on citizen life?

Dominika: In both cases (Palota and Teleki) it is important that associations were formed to help keep up the engagement of locals. I believe that this is the key to have a lasting effect on citizien life. In the case of Teleki the people who took part in the design process feel such grand ownership that it might even be too much. But I believe that it will balance itself out hopefully.