Culture is future » Territorial attractiveness and social cohesion

09.01.2011

DEBATES 2011 - Investing in culture - Interview of Kjetil Tredal Thorsen, architect, Snohetta

Could you give us a definition of cultural investment? 

For cultural projects as well of the other architectural projects, the notion of investment can vary depending on the different cycles of the project where, what matters at a moment will be able to change later. Every project fits in a planning triangle: the time factor, quality and money. Depending of the state of progress of a project, these three variables will occupy the first place and overcome with importance on the others. At the beginning of the project, quality leads the way, and then the time factor becomes decisive, before money which has priority in fine, when the budget is being consumed for the realization itself of the building. The time factor appears again at the end, at the finalization of the construction.

Hence, there is a sequence in every project which explains investment. The operational management of this succession conditioned the project’s success. Depending on this ambition and the goals of each project, several elements can overcome: the financial aspect in commercial projects; the time factor in several public buildings, for instance for the construction of a hospital where there are statutory deadlines; quality, which characterizes cultural projects.

All architectural projects include cultural elements, but it cannot be said that they all are cultural projects. Nevertheless, they all contribute to urban culture, each project reinforcing or modifying a specific cultural situation. A cultural project, to be qualified as so, must have a cultural purpose, for instance an opera, a concert hall, or even a stadium which hosts shows.

We also find in every architectural project an attention in durability, which can be social, cultural or economic. Relying on the importance given to one of the three element, we can proceed in a categorization of architectural projects and distinguish between public and private buildings for instance.

Then, what does the cultural dimension mean in an architectural project?

In cultural projects, durability relies on the accessibility for public. On the contrary, a building with a private vocation, for instance a head office, needs to have a private access. And this is taken up in urban space. The private building will have a limited mark on the ground, with a vertical approach to optimize the space available and limit the openings. On the other side, a building with a cultural vocation, opened to publics, will always have an important ground mark: it spans horizontally and favors the multiplication of entrances and circulation spaces. From this point of view, functionality decides the nature of the project more than investment, which does not have a very strong consequence on the architectural choice.

Could you give us an example of your realizations illustrating this approach?

I would take the example of the Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) of San Francisco, a project being in progress, and as most of American museums, financed by private investors, in this case the Fischer family. The latter owns the brand Gap and takes 1% of the sold clothes’ prices to invest in art.

The SFMoMA of San Francisco is an interesting example insofar as it is counter-intuitive. Space is rare in San Francisco and we had to think a construction between two buildings, with a limited ground mark, which does not correspond with functional demands of cultural buildings.

The idea was to break up with the functional alignment of commercial construction. Rather than filling the space between the two existing buildings and close perspective lining up the facades, we had to choose a building with a squared triangle form, cut at its summit. So there are opening on each sides of the building. Leaving this space between buildings, the idea was to identify the building as cultural and non commercial, and public to identify it as so, engendering a relaxing feeling in comparison with the architectural obstruction nearby.

To accentuate this feeling, the construction has been adapted to San Francisco’s toponymy and its consequences in terms of space circulation. In this town, blocks are not adapted to the undulating ground and, circulating through San Francisco and its Russian mountains, we realized are spending more time to get in and out of the different spaces. We chose this approach for the SFMoMA construction, where space allows this impression of recurrent in and out.

And how has it been decided to invest in the SFMoMA?

The main criterion is the decision is subjectivity. Even if the Fisher family is the philanthropic financer, we also have to integrate the curators, town, urban community and users. Architecture is a negotiation between different parts, but subjectivity overcomes, especially at the origin of the project, where the nature of it, its quality is presented to win support.

Depending on the countries, the chain of decision will change. In the Southern countries, maybe because the sun sets vertically, the decision relies on a pyramidal structure. On the contrary, in the Northern countries, where the sun spreads more horizontally, the approach is weaker with a large number of individuals implicated. The United States are in an intermediary situation. These differences also cover the ones between catholic and protestant countries. But, in any case, the economic criterion is not determining in decision, subjectivity wins, even if cost guides the decision in other phases of the project. The question of cost becomes determining in the final phase of construction, when we have to find materials, decide the details. And even at this moment, these factors influence the project, for instance the educational dimension of the project.