muf_Mark Lemanski

M.- Hola Juan. My name is Mark Lemanski. I´m a practitioner, and educator in architecture. I practice with muf architecture/art and I teach at the University of East London


+ One of the main questions that come up in these interviews that are related to the AUTONEIGHBORHOODS, to the project we are doing in Madrid is related to…Why and how do you start this practice with local communities, with this kind of processes, long term, etc.

M.- I think…I think as spatial practitioners our responsibility is to find the proper responses to a situation, and I think that if you understand space, not only as a physical quality but as a social quality as well, then in order to find an appropriate response to uses and users, you need to engage with those users, so it’s important to understand the lives they live, and the constraints they are under, the desires that they have for space.


+ And how do you engage this people? I mean, you arrive to a neighborhood. What is the methodology and how can you get to know those people and their needs?

M.- I think that´s the question, isn´t it? I think there isn´t a formula, or if there is a formula then it needs to be specific to people´s needs, which are different, and I think…one of the problems with mainstream engagement is that they try to come up with a formula because is cheaper, is convenient, is deliverable and is safe. So it’s like children bouncing castles, no? Children like balloons. So you can go with the balloon and then you know that children are gonna like it. But it just, it doesn´t do more than confirm an understanding that you already hold, so that doesn´t allow you to learn anything new. So, in a way, if you want to allow people to imagine what isn´t there yet, and to imagine the visionary or the original, then you have to try things out to live with, and in a way you can create like an unusual situation and you can work with theater, and you can work with. You have to take risks, you have to allow them to do things, and you have to allow them to take control of the situation to some degree, you have to give it up in a way.


+ So somehow, that would be like creating an scenario where the unexpected could happen?

M.- Exactly, and that´s like in spatial productions where programs are tight and budgets are set.


+ And goals are already set. 

M.- Exactly


+ So you need to give an answer to those goals.

M.- And like I said that´s the biggest trouble, with much of engagement is just working towards confirming goals that are already set, exactly as you said, yeah.


+ So is it possible to work without goals?

M.- Yeah! Totally. I think it is possible to accept that you may fail I guess isn´t it? Which again is something that is deeply unpopular in architecture culture.


+ Now, I´ve got a lot of questions. One for example is, once you work with the unexpected, how can you gather the information from these extraordinary situations.

M.- You have to accept that you have a role but you´re kind the instigator of a process, but that you also are just an observer and maybe that you´re also just a participant. I think that every day we create cities not just as participants, also as citizens. And we have this multiple roles we bring to those situations we´re in, when we are engaged with people, don´t we? And so in that case we just need to accept that sometimes we´re just citizens, a part of the group. Sometimes we´re not just the organizer, there are this kind of multiplexity of roles and sometimes I guess, you have to step back, and just let´s say, behold while other people take over. Because, in the end when you produce spaces that you only coming in for short periods of time, and sometimes, we can extend that time, like you project, if your engagement is quite long is good. But it gets longer because we´ve accepted our role not just as participants but because our roles in civic engagement, our role may be as neighbors, or may become one of friends, so all of this is what stretches it out. So yeah, I guess. I´m not sure what I was saying.


+ That lead us to another question, which is: how can we from the unexpected arrive to, or face our long-term project? You start and you have to set our environment where these unexpected or extraordinary situations could happen. How do you transform this into a long-term feasible process?

M.- I think the dots in a project is an example in which first we did listening in a way. Then the second thing was to make partnerships and then, following the establishment of the partnerships we were able to do some things, like we built a Windpark pizza bakery, and the partnership with an art gallery allowed us to plant a wheat field. So it was just a transformative moment when all of a sudden we could invite decision-makers. We hadn´t really been aware of the sight to acknowledge the sight, because it was just something there, and it was also so slightly overwhelming so you could imagine all the uses all of a sudden for the space, and then, out of that you could just see where programs could be accommodated alongside, from that you could establish relationships with member of the community who could sustain that program over the long term and then in a way you could start to develop like a design for a structure that could accommodate those programs that it´s just the other way around. That it starts thinking about the relationships and program other than, develop a program, the special design.


+ I was thinking in two things. The unexpected, which I love. Do you think that culture or art are good tools for working in this sense? How does it relates with architecture or urbanism? I mean, the tools to create this situation.

M.- I think if we create the unexpected situation is a step within the process. In the process, I think you just take left turns and right turns. It´s just trying and figuring out and you have conversations. I think there is space in architectural practice to do these things and I think the practice would be better if it did more those things. But I think ours, as a discipline, lends itself a little bit more to failure because it´s not so cold or inherited. There is a biggest acceptance in the processes of the failures I guess, and it´s something that isn´t always a given in architectural practice. Our setup is interesting in a way that there is at least one qualified artist., which allows us to access crowdfunding for example, and sometimes it´s just about that no? But at the same time I don´t think architecture and art are interchangeable, but by collaborating in our practice…I really enjoy working with an artist, because they have a different sixth sense by their training and just value processes higher and I´ve been educated to value the final product higher.


+ When we were talking about Autoneighborhoods project, at the very beginning I think: “Ok, this seems that is quite fluid, the process, so everything can happen, because there is a lot of space for assigning infrastructure to receiving energy that we transform”. Do you think there is a possibility that this fluid becomes solid with the pass of the time, and starts to be, at the end, an already, let’s say fixed structure, instead of an infrastructure that allows people to work with, again, the unexpected?

M.- I think its closely related to the view that we hold of it, that we isolate any situation within a city, and over a period of time. You know, like children going to school or a park, parents going for a coffee afterwards. Would that situation overtime become more rigid? So I think it’s partially to do with how you view the extent to which you frame that situations, observe that situation, and, because that´s kind of what allows users to engage with it, and interpret it, and contribute to it, and then, if you say “it’s a thing”, then a place, like a Dustin curve, in a way that you give it a label and then it’s really useful for the process to attract funding. Then it also limits of course the future flexibility of a place, of a process, of the use.So it is kind of, it´s just not about the place, it’s just not about the practitioners who facilitate, it´s also about, yeah it’s a multiple use of a situation I guess.


+ Once you start naming something its´s like it cannot longer evolve, huh?

M.- To some extent, doesn´t it? Which is kind of good and bad at the same time, allows certain things to happen and then limits other things, yeah.


+ For example, in the Dawson project, which were the quarrels or the milestones that you could have all along the process.

M.- I think in the beginning it was quite awkward because it was partially self- initiated, because a collaborator was living next door and really took an interest in it because she was local and she wanted somewhere for her kids to go after school and hang out. That always helps, being physically colse. But the milestones I think were the ones that I described, that we identify the place, we may build these relationships and I think this installation of the pizza bakery was really a milestone where we could really draw attention to it, and then next step was to. That attention allowed us to attract funding to develop it further. So the first funding came from an art gallery, the second one was political, and then the ones to build the garden and the house came from somewhere else and then it developed further as a green house. But the final funding was almost more important, then it was to develop a program that provided funding that could sustain the engage of the people who run it. The self-sustaining. I think they were all milestones.


+ And… what were your role in that project, you were facilitators, you were designers, you were constructors, you were all of it or…?

M.- You have to. I mean there were lot of partnerships, in that we don´t know much about trees, so we work along somebody, so we work with somebody that knows a lot about trees we don´t know much about actual building things with the community, so we collaborate with someone who did so, to build the structure with young people from the area so we don´t anything about baking pizza… We were partners in a process that involves many, many people, and things like this, as you know, they just need many people and many relationships to work.


+ Complexity to face complexity, no?

M.- Exactly.


+ And one thing is: when did you realize that there should be a pizza bakery? I mean, not because of the pizza itself.

M.- I think it just needs less skills to provide through most people´s lives, and the ingredients versus the price you can ask for it gives the biggest return of any fruit you can sell probably. So its partially and economic skill-based and an economic decision I think.


+ When you were talking about long-term situations. How do you start the project? How do you start pointing out that place and gathering the people?

M.- I think that was quite boring. I think we were commissioned to do study of the wider area and that´s part, we looked at that space and we just thought that was actually worth investing time and energy there.


+ And then you started working with the people, and then ideas come up, and the design how we could arrive to it.

M.- Yeah, I mean, it was really step by step. Once we started we didn´t know there would be a garden and a little center. I think we just go. What would it take to make this attractive to people?


+ So again, having those specific goals, helps you to find solutions. Maybe I´m more linked to the circumstances that surround the process. That could be.

M.- Yeah. I mean I think the aspiration initially was not to build the structure, to build the roof. Initially the aspiration was to build the garden, because there is little green space in the area. And then the question needs to be who do you sustain that garden? And well, we probably need somewhere for somebody to sit. And we probably need a toilet for that person to go to. And what else? And then it just becomes other things. But I thing initially was, would be nice to have some green space and that be good, because there isn´t any.


+ I was thinking also. I wanted to know about the specific place in Dalston and also the general challenges that you have to face. I mean after time. From within it looks quite set. You have the garden, people that are going, you have the pizza and also events that take place there, there is a library and a lot of things. So it quite seems that there is not future challenge for the area, maybe there is and I want to know if that´s the case.

M.- There is a challenge to develop the land behind as housing and to make it into the main access. So that´s kind of an existential challenge. Which about that there is a very conservative kind of challenge so that´s really interesting. In the beginning it was sort of a creative challenge. It´s now conservative challenge to retain what is there at the moment. I don’t know what that has less value, but what´s amazing is that many people value it very deeply, and have come to value over the last five years or so. And are prepared to fight for it. It´s a very, very type of different challenge and energy.


+ And regarding that, would you say that is a global challenge? At least in London it looks that it happens a lot. You used to work in an area, you achieved to move a lot of personal energy. That combines to create a special space and once its created. It becomes a hype and a lot of people come and this economical pressure arrives and kills this place. Do you think it is global, is specific of Dalston?

M.- No, of course its global and I think that is something that every practitioner struggles with. Either you accept that it is really temporary, and accept that it will be exploited to some degree by the kind of the people that come after to seek opportunities to make profit on the back up of these projects. […] You need to buy property in order to allow artists and manufacturing business to stay in the area, because if you don´t, they are asking about how they could retain the existing qualities of the area, while they are making it more interesting, attractive, whatever. And of course, the answer is economic in this place. It´s the only way to make sure that it remains affordable to those people who make it special at the moment, buying some properties, so we facilitate that. Again, that is really conservative, isn´t it? You just buy a piece of city, so it stays as it is.


+ As it was an extinction of species, and then you buy a specific part of the jungle, so no one can´t get in, and can develop there and keep there, and living with all the pressure is that is pushing them away.

M.- But I guess it´s always a combination of being creative and being advocates of change. Advocates certain qualities that we like about places
Another of the problems we are facing is: how we explain the achievements of this kind of projects, because we are used to indicators, quantity indicators. For example, they ask us: How many women? How many children? How many people from Arabic countries? How many people from Latin America? So the thing is that: How do we measure the achievements? We measure the achievements more like, five months ago, when this guy who collaborates with us was walking on the street and people used to run away from him, specially elders, and now people go to him to talk about the next movie or whatever. So that woud be an achievement. We don´t know how to set these indicators also because we are working with the unexpected […] How can we, work with the ways of evaluator to show the achievements? I´m not sure. Well, you could propose different indicators I guess. How much longer do people walk outside their door at the dark. How much slower do they walk as they pass by? The new spaces here created. How many more looks people look at things? There are many different ways of quantifying it but in a way it would be quite revealing I guess because its related to what you want to get out of it. […] So I guess, it’s really interesting to try to quantify the measures that you find interesting about the way that is changing.


+ And another thing, how do you quantify the success of the project in that sense for example? For example, now one indicator could be that now there is a lot of economic pressure on the area and that´s also a success for the project. What would you say would be the achievements?

M.- Personally, I think it is being self-sufficient, I think it gives economically some validity, but I think it´s just close to people´s hearts to be able to go there with their young children. It´s kind of difficult to quantify love as well, isn´t it? And precious moments


+ Yeah, that would kill a lot of arguments between couples! You can´t quantify love.

M.- Yeah, I think this thing like people who haven´t meet before meets. I think that is something very valuable. And I´ve worked in a number of projects in which groups of teenagers were antagonist. We were trying to make them talk to each other and share spaces with each other. […] That is always the first step to building bridges and I think space really kind up that role that society constitutes itself within those spaces, more than digital spaces can, I think a particular quality of that is really that people who otherwise wouldn´t meet each other, can meet each other. And that´s the kind of spaces given to those who usually wouldn´t be given space. I guess that also leaves back about what we were talking in the beginning, we talked about how to make space for the unaccepted, so the council has an obligation to reach about 30% of ethnic minority people, but it´s not really about that, is about making space for this groups to meet.


+ Yeah, one thing we discovered is that if we work with a neighborhood with young people and you do something that is attractive for the neighborhood, at the end you will have all the people that live in the neighborhood. Women,Arab people, people from the Middle East,etc… even if you don´t put pressure on that, or you don´t put attention especially to that. So at the end you´re working with a community, and you really are in both community, community comes. And if communities are composed of different cultures or whatever they will arrive. I wanted to ask you another thing, because you´ve done several projects and one of the achievement of this project is that it´s self-sustainable economically. So, is there any other ways of getting these achievements, because in these cases, in these specific cases, is like the pizza I mean, someone that produces something and sells at the same time, so they got some money in return. Like an specific service

M.- I think scholarships comes in many ways. It can be publicly funded of course and that´s partially justifiable in the same way that other social services are funded by taxpayers money. A garden is really important for mental health, like green spaces are really important for it. We spend that much money on mental health services if justifiable to pay somebody a wage and be on side to make sure that the toilets are locked, and water is available because it has that much benefits on mental health. That is justifiable I guess. I mean in these country at the moment public resources are so strapped and tied back that you couldn´t possibly make this argument at the moment. I guess in another places you can make that argument.


+ Regarding your point of view. Who shoud be paid in these processes? Because you work with experts, with advisors, with volunteers? At certain point maybe, paying someone and not the other one can break the strength… etc..

M.- But I think, similarly that there is this expectation that people just come to meetings and do things for free all the time. And many people hold on to three jobs oor you could say the opposite: everybody should be paid for coming to those meetings, which we´ve done in one project, we´ve given everyone kind of 20 quid to turn up to a meeting. And in a way, you know, if you look at the fees that we are often paid is totally reasonable to do it. That was not intended to be provocative. And why the people in the local authority expects everyone to contribute that time, when they maybe didn´t contribute that much, awareness, engage in the way they should be, like in the clients side? But yeah, it’s kind of an open question, many possibly scenarios. I think, should we be paid to be doing it? Should we be paid as professionals, or should we´ll be paid as citizens, or should we´ll be paid as friends of the people who do it? I don´t know, because we all have multiple roles, I don´t know. What do you think?


+ That´s also one of the questions that came up in the studio, it´s also related to transparency, how transparent you´re with the information, the budget, etc.. and people think that sometimes you earn a lot of money, meanwhile I´m here helping to construct for free, or I´m managing this but that one what is he doing? We should be paying schools instead of building gardens? So it´s also a problem of transparency and communication and I wanted to ask you about that as well. How do you control the communication and the transparency of the project? Who has to be aware of everything, which kind of information we deliver to who.

M.- I´m not sure. I don´t want to speak for everybody in the office. I think I´m a little bit manipulative with the information that I release and how I release it because I really designed that information very tightly I keep control of it as much as I can (laughter). And I think that´s really interesting questions. Because if I just talk about facilitating the unexpected that´s something that I´d be really worried about, which I don´t usually do it I guess, just to make everything transparent. I think that´s a really personal thing as well, that has to do with insecurities and things, that would be for me, that would be really designing the unexpected to just make everything totally transparent. That would be nice, yeah.


+ (Laughter) That would be the point for doing that, no?. How do you get to communicate, because I guess you work with different circles; people who are closer, then your team, then facilitators, advisers, providers, etc. And then you go away farther away and then you have the volunteers and participants and then you have people that only just pass by and…How do you set up the communication within all these different circles?

M.- I think something we often do is just to build an oven and bake something or something. Just to set up a situation where people feel comfortable just to hang out a bit. Where it isn´t so time constraint, and that´s a bit of freedom and is more lose. We designed a park on the coast. Czech Romas were one of the groups heavily using that space, but the place has an American heritage. So the common denominator that identified those two groups was tattoos, they really liked tattoos, so in the tattoo shops, lots of tattoo shops you can see three generations of a family picking a tattoo and the Czech Romas have lots of tattoos on them, so we did an archeological dig an after the design art would work on the basis of these archeological artifacts and then make a temporary tattoo, where everybody could just make tattoos. And that was really successful because they could both relate to it somehow, they didn´t become friends but they just made overt a common interested which allowed the conversation


+ You were saying that people who wanted to be part of the decision makers, so how open is the circle that is designing, or is designing somehow the processes to these incomes or how open it should be because sometimes you just get troubles.

M.- Yeah, I don´t know how open it could be. Because you´re always manipulative in a way, you want to… in order to speak to people or get people to speak to each other. I mean it’s benign social engineering. It creates a conversation then it creates community, you have to be manipulative in order to do that to some degree. But I can´t think of projects that have gone anywhere because of the conversation that ensued. I can´t think of a project that has gone in a totally different directions that I would have expected, but I think that´s partially because in some projects I didn´t really have an expectation of an end project. I think in many projects I just went along with it.


+ When you´re working with this communities accepting this kind of products. Do you already have anthropology, sociology or you introduce this role or figure or professional into the project or anyone else, or it is just providers, and the architects?

M.- Sometimes I´m working on a project at the moment where we asked somebody else to be the main contact point. We actually have to other people to act as this first point of contact […] where you give it a degree of independence from the things that you´re doing and that is really interesting to do that. And it was more challenging because you can´t spin the information you receive in a way that you naturally do I think because you´re confronted by someone who hopes that conversation anchors correctly. I would love to do that more in the future actually. It´s funny though, because in one hand you want to have those conversations yourself, and you want to be involved in it; on the other hand for that information, for those conversations to be independent, we just need to withdraw from that situation sometimes. So I thought that was interesting, that you have different conversations that reside with different advocates and operators.


+ As you´re talking. It´s clear that you cannot go with a recipe, you cannot go with a methodology to one project to one project to develop, but you can set some, how to say precautions, there will come up a lot of unexpecting things a community so you need to be able to introduce a new profile in case you want someone to be the facilitator between this community and you or suddenly the practical way of the communication is thorough the tattoos so maybe you need someone that can talk about designs with these people so we just set some types of situation that you don´t know what is going to happen, perhaps, they will, for sure need to be attended. For we could change, the recipe, for example, like your mother, just in case I would cook for twenty, and just in case I would something with veggies and also with meat just in case your friends call.

M.- Yeah, exactly, it is like a ship, with a lot of people in, and if somebody falls out of the board, you just fish them back out or leave them behind, depending how it goes, but you´re still trying to keep the ship on track a little bit. I´ve had real ship wrecks I think, where the ship sinks I didn’t safe themselves to the coast, try again, buy another product. But, I´m not sure if I ever had someone come on board and say “no, turn the boat around we´re going somewhere completely different”. And I wouldn´t like that either. Maybe I wasn´t always so interested. Maybe I´m making that up but maybe I´m kind of interested in how the boat operates and the people are coming in. I´m much more interested in the process that in the harbor you end up. Sometimes you get off the boat and another people get in and go to another place, like the Dalston project, which took it a while, it took between two stretches […], but then we got off the boat, and somebody else took over and did the pizza thing and maybe we got back on, and sail a little bit further.


+ And what happens if everyone gets exhausted or everyone leaves the boat. What happens there? Do you think it deserves to continue pushing to see if we can reactivate the boat?

M.- Yeah, I think probably does. I would say yes, I would say depends. Sometimes needs a little bit of wind that is very welcome if you´ve been rowing for a long time. Just the unexpected. Just kind of a barrel of fresh water that comes along when you´re exhausted. I mean, there are nice things sometimes. The thing is when you´re the only one rowing. And nobody else in the boat is doing anything, then maybe it´s not worth it


+ Yeah, because sometimes, it happens, not only in the project we´re running right now, but also the other projects all over the city. That has been a lot processes in Madrid that are based on individual energy, sometimes. There is not budget to make them sustainable and they didn´t reach that point or the final way of having an income. So at the end, most of the problems come from people getting exhausted and they don´t have a takeover.

M.- Yeah, yeah, they don´t have a backup or replacement. Now I agree. Yeah, that just happens, that was a really interesting conversation. I liked that.


+ Thank you very much. Thanks a lot

M.- You´re welcome. It was a nice meeting.