Interview with Prof. Kees Christiaanse


Kees Christiaanse has been working for over three decades in urban design and architecture as a practitioner and academic. Since 2013 he has been the academic partner of the Schindler Global Award through his professorship at the ETH Zurich. It was this partnership that took the Schindler Award, active since 2003, global and gave it a renewed focus on urban-scale projects. We sat down with him to discuss the SGA and urban design

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Interview with Prof. Kees Christiaanse

We are now in the third competition cycle of the Schindler Global Award – after doing two, what has become clear from doing the award?

The Schindler Global Award is an attractive competition for students precisely because it addresses global problems in urbanism. In addition to the prizes awarded, there is a considerable chance that participants will have an impact in the real world by virtue of participating in the competition. This is the role that the SGA should have. It acts as a hub for ideas but also a hinge between students and a larger network of people working on urbanization problems – it helps to prepare students for the reality of working as architects and urbanists in practice. This has been borne out by our experience with the competition, for example the winners of the 2017 Schindler Global Award were asked to present their work to the city of São Paulo. That is an unusual chance for students as they begin their careers, an early point of validation that they are involved in something way beyond a simple student project or participation in academic discourse.

What is the overall benefit – or benefits – of doing an urban design competition?

The most fundamental problems in architecture and planning are urbanistic, and related to mobility and sustainability. This is the reason why the award exists – not only to produce beautiful drawings, but also to engage students in the challenges we face in an urbanizing world and as urbanists. The SGA also functions to help Schindler position itself as a general mobility firm, something that we need as it becomes clear the public and private partnerships are part of achieving the goal of making cities more sustainable and livable. More and more companies are thinking about the interface between the core of their business and urban settlements. That’s a positive movement with a lot of potential for meaningful positive change in the built environment.

What is the benefit for student participants?

First is the exposure to an international network. I was recently at a conference where one of the panelists said they did research on an urban theme, and the most important source for their work was student networks. They elaborated that these networks appeared to be much larger and diverse than the network of professors.

Second, by participating students train themselves to produce a high quality competition entry – and competition entries are an extremely important part of the profession around the world. In my experience, more than half of projects are acquired through competitions and tenders. The earlier students have exposure to this, by making serious competition entries themselves and seeing which have success, the better prepared they are for this reality later. We carefully select sites and cities and have targeted range urbanistic problems; societal relevance of this award is high. The students will gain something from exposure to the competition themes and issues grounded by the site.

We see a lot of people trying to shape cities these days, as we become more and more aware of the extent of current and future urbanization. Who should shape cities and how?

I believe that one cannot do this as an individual; it is a collective affair. From one standpoint, it is the most complex collective piece of “art” conceivable in human culture. The challenge of being an urbanist is exploring and discovering in what way you will have impact and in what way you will not. It isn’t about setting out to design or shape a city – it is more like seeing where you can effectively “adjust the screws” and begin a process of change.

What are some of the most important things students can do to become better urbanists as they move into professional roles?

Do competitions. Travel – in giving the prize, holding the competition globally, that’s partially what we want to encourage. Look for internships in strategically important institutions. Explore the direction they might want to go after graduation. Some students after involving themselves in urban design might become architects, or social geographers, or go more into sociology, project development, or urban economy. There’s still a lot of freedom at the end of school and just after graduation to explore possible career paths, and I think now there’s more space for new constellations and configurations for practice. That’s encouraging.

What advice would you like to offer to the students participating?

They should look for a suitable urban design-oriented teacher in their school to advise them on their entry. Try to find a group of three or four people, to create a collective work with a real urbanist standpoint. The SGA is targeted toward students who have a sense of urban design and an affinity for urban problems. It is very much based on teamwork, and therefore selecting the right team and learning to work together is important.

It would also be good to look at the award books from the 2015 and 2017 competitions, to examine the successful entries and the jury notes that explain why the jury selected the project specifically. Students should also examine the products of other competitions, to look at the level and means of presentation, and then measure their work against what seems to be successful. This should help students to determine what seems appropriate for the SGA and calibrate their entry to what they discover.

What more should students do, read, or see as they go about researching and preparing their SGA entries?

Look into study materials and publications that have been made in the respective city where the competition is being held, that have been made by major urban people. If you look at Mumbai, we have the work of juror Rahul Mehrotra, and we have UDRI, a repository for research on the city, which was one of our partners in preparing the brief. It is valuable to select key readings and publications, to get acquainted with site and conditions. A broad base of information is essential. Urbanistic projects do not arise out of thin air. They are impossible to do well without preparation and insight into the specific conditions on the ground.

After working for over 35 years in the profession, what do you feel most positive about the evolution of urban design as a practice?

The profession is becoming increasingly actual and important. It is going to be globally in demand, and not tied narrowly to the aesthetic notion of design, but tied to transport, waste, water, human living conditions, the design of environments. The big firms that work on urban design scale projects approach them from an architectural and more traditional design perspective. They don’t work with integrated urban planning. Urbanists must work with integrated projects, and this is happening more and more.

What were your impressions of Mumbai?

Mumbai was wholly different from anything I’ve seen before – and I’ve seen a wide variety of places. The contrast it presents is stark: one hand it is kind of an urban quagmire, on the other hand some things in the city are fundamentally sustainable. Seven million people commute daily by public transport, and while the train system is overrun it still works. There are thousands of taxis and motorized rickshaws and if you imagine that they were electric and self-driving, it would result a very promising urban transport system. A lot of waste is recycled and reused in the slum areas where the treatment of resources is very interesting, and should be examined.

What is the significance of the competition title “Leapfrogging Development: Urban Transformation in Mumbai”?

The title was selected because we would like to stimulate a kind of thinking that leads Mumbai to deviate from the development patterns we’ve seen in many places that have unsustainable aspects. It is a chance for students to elaborate on sustainable points, build on the strong public transport tendency, the waste recycling, to create another track towards an acceptable urban condition. This could lead to powerful ideas about future urbanization processes.