The first of december marks the beginning of my sixth month outside of the European Commission. It has been quite an experience, from the initial work as senior designer at the EU Policy Lab, to the last two and a half years in the team that started the New European Bauhaus.
Because of that experience, I am still often invited to talks, such as the last SME Assembly in Prague, and I am asked questions, such as the one Lisa Lang asked me then: “so, what exactly is the New European Bauhaus?”. Or: “Why is the European Bauhaus so vague?”, or again “what do beautiful, sustainable, together mean? What is beautiful, sustainable, together?” And finally, “are you talking about buildings? Or cities?”
While I was at the Commission my usual reply was that the novelty of the New European Bauhaus initiative is exactly in its open approach. By soliciting and rewarding with visibility and prizes the examples of “beautiful, sustainable, together” already present all over Europe, the initiative is demonstrating a sensible approach to realising the future that we want, without being prescriptive.
My position was that beautiful, or sustainable, or together have different meanings across Europe and are translated in very different and sometimes contraddicting ways. While living together with nature could be beautiful to some, it could mean anxiety to others. In a similar way, sustainable life or a sustainable building in northern Europe is radically different from its equivalent in the Mediterranean, and so it really makes little to no sense to define a priori what the New European Bauhaus is: we need to let it emerge and recognise it locally.
This approach not only represented a powerful link to local cultures and to indigenous, open, collaborative forms of architecture, it also prevented lobbyists to come up with a convenient translation in their typical “either/or” scenarios, while pushing their own particular approach or material, or technology.
I gave Lisa and the audience the same answer a week ago as an “informed alumni”, and what I sensed was a familiar reaction. While some people were happy and felt that they could start acting, others were apparently not. And I have the impression that while the concept in itself may have been ok, some people still felt uneasy about the openness. How can we act if we don’t have a definition? How do we know what to do, if we don’t have clear guidelines with KPI’s?
So, today, I will complement the answer with a bit that maybe was always missing. It just hit me after the panel.
The reason why the New European Bauhaus is so difficult to understand is because it’s conceived as a design brief. And on top of it, not as any kind of design brief, but as the design brief you get from the best client you may dream of.
So let me clarify first what is a design brief is, in the remote case that you are not a designer or an architect. A design brief is the request you receive at the beginning of a project, that usually defines the boundaries of what you are expected to do.
In other words, a very high level design brief could be “I need a poster on…” or “I need a house for my family in…”
Now, here is the trick. The level of detail in the brief makes the difference. Too much detail, too many constraints, and the brief misses the opportunity to engage a designer’s seniority. Too little detail, and the result may not match the client’s expectations. But there’s a hidden implication. While a good designer will follow up (sometimes with experiments and prototypes) to understand better the expectations behind a brief that is too open, she will very likely dismiss a brief where constraints are too many and too rigid. It’s a matter of seniority and competence, among other reasons.
So here’s why, in my opinion, the New European Bauhaus is the brief from the perfect client.
First, because it addresses a societal, environmental and economic need starting from its emotional side. It solicits a value-driven response, while giving society enough space to act creatively. A perfect clients asks for a house that “feels” in a certain way, and maybe gives hints on her favorite colour, or object, or material. She does not decide the size and position of the kitchen, and the brand and type of appliances.
Second, because from a political point of view an open brief demonstrates that when policy moves away from solution-making and embraces sense-making in all its complexity, the results look a lot less like the expression of a mono-culture and a lot more like a true ecosystem.
Finally, and importantly, because it’s a brief backed by money. And it’s money coming from different parts of the institution, with different lenses: from research, to culture, to regional development, etc. It has a potential to be transformative in several fields.
In the end, what the New European Bauhaus is asking us all is to become better designers. It’s asking us to move away from binary ways of addressing fundamental questions, to enter into the space of relationships and conversations that is needed to design beautifully our future.
It is a form of inspired freedom that we may not be comfortable with, but that I believe is very much needed.