In Conversation with Architect and Urbanist Henrik Valeur

Interview by Niveditha Ravikumar in Zingy Homes, Tete-A-Tete with Experts

Henrik Valeur, the Nykredit Encouragement Prize winning Danish architect-urbanist is better known in India for his book – India: the Urban Transition A Case Study of Development Urbanism, where he discusses and proposes solutions to some of the basic concerns of human existence – air, water, food, housing and mobility in urban Indian cities. Henrik is the founder and creative director of UiD – a networking urban consultancy and has the distinction of being the curator of the Danish pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2006, where the project, CO-EVOLUTION: Danish/Chinese Collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China, which he conceptualised and coordinated, was awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Pavilion.

Henrik has been actively involved for half a decade now, with prestigious architectural schools in India, and has been closely working with Government bodies, bureaucrats, developers, entrepreneurs and activists.

Born in Denmark to ‘creative’ parents – Visual artist Mogens Valeur and Fashion designer Birgitte Valeur, how do you think you have sought inspiration from them to become an Architect and then an Urbanist dealing with cities?

You can rebel against your background but you can’t escape it.

I guess that’s my experience. I decided to become an architect because it represented something different from art and fashion but due to my upbringing I probably have a more creative and artistic than say technical or scientific approach to architecture though I was exposed to that side of the profession too as my grandfathers were both civil engineers.

I grew up in a small village in the countryside and, in reaction to that, I was always fascinated by big cities and have enjoyed living in a number of big cities around the world. But lately I’ve become more appreciative of the “slow” life of the village and the close relation to nature.

Having gained recognition around the globe as an Urbanist, could you rewind a bit and narrate a short story of your design career?

When people talk about a career they often imagine someone climbing a ladder, whether that ladder symbolizes status, money or whatever. However, some careers, including my own, are probably better visualized by someone dancing in a room. You move a bit in one direction, then a bit in another. There are ups and downs and at the end you realize you’re more or less in the same place where you started.

As a student of architecture I went to Barcelona, found a place to live in the historic part of the city and began studying with Enric Miralles who was known for an artistic and personal style, like his predecessor Antoni Gaudi. But I was also fascinated by the modern city and went to Rotterdam, a city that had been completely erased during the Second World War, to work for Rem Koolhaas who is known for an analytic and eclectic style.

I started out on my own making competitions and nearly won one for a new university in Copenhagen, a multi-thousand crore rupees project, and worked on some relatively large urban development projects, but I also made small artistic projects, including a sound installation in a phone booth, and digital projects, including an interactive 3D planning model.

In 2005 I began working in China, in 2007 I founded UiD Shanghai Co., Ltd in China and in 2009 I had to close that office down again due to the financial crisis. Actually, I lost more or less everything. Then in 2010 I came to India where I have been teaching, researching and practicing independently and in collaboration with others.

Back in 2004, you were awarded the Nykredit Encouragement Prize for your work on developing an architecture that corresponds to a new globalized reality. Now we are in 2015 and which work of yours would be the best example to showcase your correspondence with the current global reality?

Back then I was interested in the possible impact of globalization – how increased time-dependency and decreased place-dependency would alter the way we think of architecture and how increased global competition and decreased local cultural homogeneity would transform the way we think of cities. Later I became interested in understanding shared global challenges related to poverty, health, environment, climate change etc. and the opportunities offered by globalization to solve those challenges by working together across cultural boundaries.

That is what my recent book India: the urban transition is about. Much of the content for this book was developed in collaboration with people in India. In it I discuss some of the basic concerns of human existence and wellbeing in urban settings – these concerns include the air pollution, the contamination and depletion of fresh water resources, the precarious food situation, the lack of proper housing, the new lifestyle diseases – and I propose a number of possible solutions that address these concerns. One of the proposals is the vertical kitchen garden, which I developed with a local NGO for a so-called rehabilitation colony for resettled slum dwellers. These people are vulnerable to the fluctuations of the global food marked and dependent on government subsidies. The idea was to enable them to grow their own food but because of the lack of open space in these colonies it is not possible to have traditional kitchen gardens thus we developed the concept of the vertical kitchen garden.

As the curator of the Danish Pavilion at the ‘Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2006’, your project Co-Evolution turned a Danish-Chinese collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China. Could you share some notes about it?

In China I had seen how urbanization was used to help people out of poverty but also how it could cause environmental disaster. The idea of Co-Evolution was to create proposals to solve this dilemma through cross-cultural collaboration. Thus, we asked young professional Danish architects and architecture students to work with students and professors from leading universities in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Xi’an on urban development projects in those cities.

The Danish participants went to China twice and the Chinese participants went to Denmark once. I am actually not sure exactly how many people participated but it must have been more than one hundred. The four projects they developed were included in the exhibition in the Danish Pavilion in conjunction with a documentary film about the collaboration and a research project about the problems and possibilities of urban development in China. In addition, we covered the pavilion in a typical Chinese bamboo scaffolding with large banners, making it look like a building under construction in China.

The project was awarded the main prize of the biennale, the Golden Lion for Best National Participation, and was subsequently exhibited around the world.

Your proposal on transforming one of the sectors in Chandigarh into a ‘Car free zone’ reflects your social responsibility as an Urbanist. Our readers would want to know your thoughts on the reasons for such proposals not getting implemented.

The car-industry, and the related oil-industry, is very powerful. These industries exert immense influence through political lobbying and clever marketing. They let us think that the car makes us free even if in fact it does the opposite. They have also managed to connect the image of the car with the notion of progress. Thus, across the globe, the car is seen as a symbol of freedom and status. How can you ask people to give that up?

Another reason is that many civil servants seem to enjoy driving or being driven around in cars themselves and rarely get down on the ground. As testimony to that are the many bizarre solutions for pedestrians in the city like pavements ending in nowhere and crossings that can’t be used.

In India, the public has begun to realize the effects of pollution in the cities due to high congestion of traffic and lack of public transport facilities. The city of Gurgaon has started implementing ‘Car-free Tuesdays’ on a monthly basis now. How would you encourage them?

Actually, pollution is only one out of several problems related to transportation in cities and the car is far from the only polluter. Public means of transportation like buses and trains may pollute just as much. And pollution itself comes in different forms such as air pollution, which can have both local, regional and global effects, and noise pollution, which can have adverse health effects. I wrote a paper about these problems, which also include accidents, stress and physical inactivity, and even though I was aware of many of the problems beforehand I was shocked to see them all together. So I wish the good people of Gurgaon all the best of luck with car-free days but I’m afraid that might not be enough.

I think you have to make parts of the city car-free on a more permanent basis – at least for an extended period of time – in order to test alternative means of transportation and to prove the benefits of not having cars in the city. And those benefits are not only environmental and human health related but also social, as cars are taken up the space that could be used for social interaction and by everyone.

Last year I conducted a couple of workshops in Gurgaon with students from IIT Roorkee and Sushant School of Art and Architecture. Gurgaon is a new city but it is also a new kind of city in that public space, understood as meeting places that are accessible to all citizens, seems to be completely absent.

Another remarkable design invention is the ‘Bicycle tower’ in Malmo, which thereby reduces the urban footprint avoiding vast parking facilities and improving the health of the citizens. The future bicycle garage was also exhibited at the World Expo at Shangai 2010. Could you explain the major pros and cons of the project?

The Bicycle Tower should provide easy and safe parking of bicycles next to major transit hubs like metro and train stations, thus promoting the use of both bicycles and public transportation. One tower can hold more than 500 bicycles. It measures 41 meters in height with a footprint of only 70 m2. Thus, in densely built-up areas where the value of land is high enough construction costs can be off-set by the saving of land. But it may be difficult to fit in another building in such an area. Of course, the tower can also be constructed underground, as they have done in Japan, but then the symbolic value of the tower is obviously lost.

As our readers include a mix of laymen and design professionals, could you put in simple words the ‘Smart City’ concept, which has been spreading viral across the country?

The assumption is that by using so-called smart technologies cities can be managed more efficiently, which would potentially lead to less energy and resource consumption and less pollution and waste generation.

In reality however, the picture is not so clear. To give you an example: in my hometown Copenhagen we used to have a free-city-bike system with basic bikes you could use for free by inserting a coin that would be returned when you put the bike back into one of the designated bike racks. It was an old system but instead of some simple upgrading it was completely revamped and now we have public bikes with electricity-driven engines and integrated global positioning systems (GPS). They should promote sustainable transportation but are in fact quite unsustainable. Not only because they use electricity, satellites etc. but also because they are extremely expensive, even by Danish standards. Each bicycle apparently cost the municipality around 80 lakh rupees to purchase. In addition to that comes the costs of maintenance and of eventual disposal. The real tragedy however, is that these bikes are hardly used at all. Possibly because as a user you now have to be registered, in itself a relatively complicated process, and to pay for the service.

Other, perhaps more serious, concerns related to the concept of smart city have to do with the issues of control and surveillance, the risk of corruption, misuse and mismanagement, and the prospect of smart cities becoming exclusive enclaves for the rich.

What is the work culture at your office?

I encourage employees to be both ambitious and humble, disciplined and independent-minded. But I rarely hire people these days. Instead I prefer to collaborate.

Lastly, on a lighter note, what does one see you doing during your free time?

The other day I was picking mushrooms in the forest with a friend. Afterwards we had to clean and prepare them. It took most of the day and at the end it only sufficed as a starter for the two of us. Earlier I would have thought of that as a waste of time, as you can just buy the mushrooms in the local supermarket, but now I feel lucky being able to do things like that.

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