by Jincy IypeAug 04, 2023
Arriving in the Danish capital for the third time, and the first for a conference of this scale, I carried much curiosity, beyond discovering the rigorous programme of UIA World Congress of Architects - Copenhagen 2023. There is something about the second happiest country in the world with the highest prosperity index, that has over 85 per cent ethnic Danish population and is known for its rich architectural heritage, taking charge of the discourse around the built environment and our natural habitat at a critical moment in our socio-environmental condition. A natural skeptic, I was eager to unpack the hegemony anticipated in that context and against the byline of the congress—'leave no one behind.'
Themed, 'Sustainable Futures – Leave No One Behind,' the congress received more than 6000 participants from 135 countries, 150 sessions, 250 science papers and 400 speakers, across the four-day programme. Practitioners and researchers, architects, designers, material innovators, scientists, students and policymakers, discussed how design can combat climate change, increase biodiversity and promote social inclusion. The congress concluded with the launch of 'The Copenhagen Lessons': 10 principles for rapid and radical change in the built environment.
In order to assess the impact of such initiatives it is pertinent to dive deep into their genesis. Declared in September 2015 by the United Nations, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for 2030 are ambitious at the least and risk being read as 'wishful', given statements such as 'We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere.’1. It is to be noted that the goals are not legally binding for participating nations. As per a World Bank 2022 report, "The number of people in extreme poverty rose by 70 million to more than 700 million people. The global extreme poverty rate reached 9.3 per cent, up from 8.4 per cent in 2019." 2 While the pandemic threw a curveball on the SDG progress, it also demonstrated the lack of accounting for variables such as the pandemic, war and political instability; and from a human rights perspective, the people for whom 2030 is already too late.
However, what emanates as a binding factor from this UN ambition is the emphasis on the 'collective' for achieving the SDGs. It is no more about cleaning one’s own house. The realisation of our interdependence and interconnectedness across borders—national, racial, economic, gendered and so on; the human position, role and impact within the ecology and across species; and our inability to escape each other anymore, ensures that the ones with power are forced to think beyond themselves, even for their own sake. Evidenced at the recently concluded UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 in Copenhagen, I couldn’t help but notice their deliberation in maximising diversity. The diversity of its cross-disciplinary talks, and the racial and regional multiplicity on its panels that led to meaningful debates, installations demonstrating radical design proposals, intergenerational paper presentations, and collateral programmes across the city with themes such as ‘Copenhagen in Common’ at the Danish Architecture Center that vies for transparency with the public and showcases the city’s best and worst architecture.
Yet, someone was left behind. In a conversation with STIR, City of Sydney Councillor, an architect and a young politician, HY William Chan asked to reflect upon the congress theme and who it is for by first taking a moment to “acknowledge the privilege of who is here at the congress." Our wider conversations with the keynote speakers such as Francis Kere, Yasmeen Lari, Jan Gehl, Bjarke Ingles, Anna Heringer, Jeanne Gang, Xu Tiantian, Carlos Moreno, Chris Downey, Nathalie de Vries, and Natalie Mossin, the president of the Congress, offered the opportunity to map how different practitioners read ‘leave no one behind,’ and what constitutes the ‘all’ or ‘everyone’ through the lens of their practice. Discover their views in the title video.
A range of perspectives emerged through their responses to the common question. Christian Benimana of MASS Design pondered, “I don’t know what we can do now to not leave anyone behind without actually making some of the people that were left behind, catch up first... I am resistant to just make it about humans." I found resonance of my own critique of the hierarchical structures within any models of charity and do-gooding in what the Artistic Director of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Aric Chen said, "It's great to talk about inclusivity but maybe another way of framing it is 'collaboration' in tackling the big questions. For architecture in particular, I think we are very good with taking the bird’s eye or the God’s eye view of things, so we are also very good at talking, and especially talking to each other. But maybe now is a good time to also begin listening more." Reinier de Graaf of OMA brought the conversation to a conclusion in his signature style, “There has never been a time when more people have been left behind and there has never been a time when the statement 'leave no one behind' has been uttered more frequently. This is the total hypocrisy of our time that manifests in language in the extreme.”
I ask for forgiveness for creating this ideal of architecture... - Anna Heringer
During the Obel Award Talks on the second day of the conference, titled 'Mending,' Heringer chose to forego a presentation about her studio’s work, offering instead an apology to the Global South on behalf of the architects from the Global North.
Heringer said, “I ask for forgiveness for creating this ideal of architecture which was supposed to give us a safe, happy and comfortable life…”, taking ownership of how it is largely responsible for the climate crises and various injustices while adding, “I’m deeply sorry that we even colonised the dreams of how a good home is supposed to look like… and that we made you believe that imported and industrialised materials are superior to the local and the indigenous ones." She ends with her ideal of looking at the world as, "One global family sharing one beautiful planet." Her speech was met with resounding applause and some tears, a few of those my own. However, there is something about the nature, position, context and implication of such an apology that continues to occupy my thoughts.
We live in an age that seeks to establish truth and accrue evidence. Our contemporaneity is steeped in historical issues of justice, resistance and subversion of the forces of oppression. Globalisation, migration—forced or voluntary, travel and communication add compounding complexities to our understanding and relationship with the world around us with reference to our intellectually shifting positionality. This condition also places an ‘apology’ under the scanner. While personal narratives form a strong route to empathy, what does it mean to apologise on behalf of anyone else? Heringer’s apology to the Global South on behalf of the architects from the Global North can be read in many ways. On the one hand, inspiring and moving, for the courage it takes for a woman practitioner in a man’s world of architecture, coming from the Global North and having trained in the Global South, to sit on a massive stage laid out by the powerful Euro-centred UIA, and take a bold stand. On the other, overreaching and overarching for not all she’s apologising on behalf of, share the same emotions, values, considerations or ethics in their practice. So, does this make Heringer’s apology empty or a tool for provocation?
It certainly doesn’t bring Heringer’s own intentions under any doubt as her years of on-ground work stands testimony to her ethical practice. Then is this to incite self reflection and critique that amalgamates the world across the horizontal divide, through practice; as in the realm of architecture, words mean little.
We are seven years from the SDG 2030 target and have one more UIA Congress scheduled in Barcelona in 2026. Amidst the threat of the unforeseen, unaccounted and unpredicted, how the efficacy of the architecture community and its industry’s recalibration will be measured, is yet to be seen.
1.UN Declaration-The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda.
2.World Bank Report: Understanding Poverty, an overview: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview.
The UIA World Congress 2023 programme featured talks, panel discussions and presentations by influential and innovative creative practices. STIR as an official Media Partner, brings you the highlights of the congress through a series of interviews, visits and conversations.