A SUGGESTED LABORATIVE APPROACH
You could say that the Testbedstudio architect group havechosen a slightly different career path from most architects of their generation. By opening their own office soon after graduation and making independence and artistic freedom a priority, they have avoided being swallowed up by the larger firms. The flip side is obviously a greater financial risk, which means that the group works with practices ranging from design and urban planning projects to seminars, writing and education.
Founded by the newly qualified architects Fredrik Magnusson and Jonas Olsson in 2000, The group has five members and two offices, one in Malmö and one in Stockholm, and it is in the latter that Anders Johansson and Erik Wingqvist, who designed the Interfaith Centre for the Polynational War Memorial, are working. The ultra-compact and indeed homey office is beautifully located in the city’s south central area, and from the large table that occupies most of the floor-space they have a glorious view over the sea and the central parts of Stockholm.
A new generation of architects
What the five members of the group have in common is being a part of a new generation of architects who try to find new ways to approach the design process. Tomas Lauri, who curated the exhibition “Young Swedish Architecture“ at Moderna Museet in Stockholm earlier this year, in which Testbedstudio participated together with twenty-one other offices, called them the “analysis generation“ a term that Erik and Anders find to be quite relevant to their work.
Erik believes that this trend in contemporary architecture has emerged partly as a reaction against the aesthetic expression characterising the post-modernism of the eighties. “Today, many architects want to make their artistic decisions by conducting research,” he explains. “These methods are just new ways of approaching the design process, which is still both traditional and intuitive,” Anders adds, emphasising that design already happens in the choice of study object. “It is hard to distinguish between analytical and design phase, and the whole thing has to be seen as a continuous process, which is important, and often forgotten. To argue that you first analyse something and then proceed to a design phase is a quite undeveloped way of looking at it".
Testbedstudio’s primary field of interest is urban planning and development. “Even though it might be fun, our dream assignment is perhaps not to design a villa on Lidingö (a high income area in Stockholm) for an ex-rock star,” Erik says. Testbedstudio has, however, lately received enquiries about such assignments, following the creation by the Malmö office of a round villa for a Home and Villa fair.
Instead they embrace the complexity of planning processes. “In a city you get many actors and physical components interacting with each other in an intricate way, and the result is emergent: it emerges from these meetings. What interests us is the interaction between these forces, all desires and vectors, and the results they are generating,” says Anders.
For the last two-and-a-half years Anders and Erik have been working with a phenomenon called “shrinking cities,” which was much discussed in Germany in the beginning of the new millennium. They have participated in a competition and written articles about the issue and are at the moment developing a conference which they hope will interest Swedish local authorities facing problems of depopulation.
Two factors tend to predominate in a shrinking city. There is a housing surplus because of depopulation in combination with unemployment, which means the city’s economy and size are decreasing. These communities cannot afford to maintain empty apartment blocks and therefore demolish them. The issue is how to transform the cityscape in a functional, creative and positive way and it is here that Testbedstudio enters the picture. Their role is to analyse a shrinking city and suggest a package of measures. “One could add buildings, work with the public space, create social projects, local co-operation or culture projects etc. These projects can include various groups of people, different economies and different time perspectives and yet be expressed as a part of the same goal,” says Anders. For an architect such projects can be paradoxical. “What is the role of the architect if no new houses or streets are necessary?” says Anders. "I firmly believe that there could be building projects even in shrinking cities, but it nevertheless requires you to take a fresh look at your own involvement."
“We sometimes use the term Aikido-urbanism or the Aikido-method,” says Erik, a term alluding to the martial arts discipline Aikido in which the competitor defend himself by using the force exerted by the assailant. “This means that we are trying to find out if there are inherent positive forces in things that may be viewed in a negative light,” he continues, and mentions the Ruhr in Germany as an example of an area that has gone through such a development. From being known as a region of heavy industries and huge environmental problems, the communities have managed to change the attitude towards the region by transforming parts of old industrial areas into parks.
Testbedstudio have developed a diverse practice where they work with large-scale urban projects side-by-side with projects requiring a minimum of resources. An excellent example of the latter is 100-krona architecture, a project that deals with the possibility of influencing the cityscape with a minimum of resources (100 krona is the equivalent of approximately 9 Euro). To illustrate their point the group made a series of architectural displays in their neighbourhood, which each cost less than 100 krona to produce.
Activity-oriented architecture and live-architecture-battle
Another term that Testbedstudio is using frequently is “activity-oriented architecture.” A good example of such a project is their competition entry in winter 2005 for a suburb of Stockholm, Tensta, in which they presented a concept for transforming a parking garage into a sports and activity square. The blueprint that was handed in to the jury shows the square seething with the activity of small figures engaged in fitness sports of all kinds.
“Live-architecture-battle is another method of working. It’s a concept for exhibitions in which we are focusing on the design process, rather than exposing products,” says Erik. “In a live-architecture-battle several architect groups produce live architecture, in front of - and together with - the public,” Anders adds and continues: “The whole design process is happening on site. It is a more inclusive form where visitors can meet architects and take part in the process. It can include the creation of models or drawings or arrangements such as discussions, seminars or presentations.”
Many visionary and interesting projects are presented during the two hours that the interview lasts and I ask them if it isn’t time that they expanded their business. “Well, it is almost necessary,” says Anders, “because we have a tremendous lot of work to do. We would need to hire three assistants, which at the moment is economically impossible. So, it is something of a Catch 22.”