Yona Friedman | book review

MovingCities reviews “Yona Friedman – Architecture with the people, by the people, for the people” [ACTAR], a monograph on the work of Yona Friedman.

Architecture with the people, by the people, for the people | MUSAC-ACTAR

A few weeks ago, MovingCities received from ACTAR two books for review: “Yona Friedman – Architecture with the people, by the people, for the people” and “Roberto Burle Marx – The Modernity of Landscape“. It might come as no surprise that we are keen on the build, textual and visual work of Yona Friedman, intrigued by the rediscovery of his work in art circles, but also taken aback by the overdose of repetition presented in this new publication. Allow us to explain.

The work, thoughts and output of Yona Friedman [wikipedia, dpr-barcelona, megastructure reloaded, FRAC centre or vimeo-channel] measures the impact of space on human, urban and even animal life by presenting structural and large scale living, working and leisure environments. The blurb on the book puts this as following:

His visionary, ground-breaking ideas have been at the forefront for several generations of architects and urban planners, and have clearly influenced the likes of Arata Isozaki or Bernard Tschumi. In 1956, he published his “Manifeste de l’architecture Mobile,” which set an urban structure on piles suitable for areas where building had not been not possible. This text was in turn used as the founding document of the Groupe d’étude d’architecture mobile (GEAM). He developed urban concepts such as La ville spatiale-the Spatial City where dwellings are freely distributed by the citizens thanks to low-cost, reusable mobile models.

Ville Spatiale by Yona Friedman | 1960

Ville Spatiale by Yona Friedman | 1960

We’re more than half a century after the series of spatial possibilities for urban upgrading that Yona Friedman investigated and the monograph presents itself as an update of these thoughts for today’s world. Mobility, engineering and communication are still basic elements, but as Yona Friedman writes: “Now we are the beginning of the 21st century. Social and technological patterns have both changed radically: “proximity” is no longer the absolute imperative for urban living. Communication is no longer linked to a physical network: your phone is in your pocket.

The publication of the Spanish/English monograph coincided with an exhibition of his work at MUSAC. But as a publication on the work of Yona Friedman, the “Pro Domo“-publication, also by ACTAR, is a far more interesting read. The present publication suffers from repetition, absence of several key-examples and rather bland contributions by Kenneth Frampton and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The arrangement of text, images, quotes from interviews feels repetitive with several projects explained, in varying degrees of phrasing, three to four times. And that is a pity, as the clarity of though, writing, editing, design and illustration is one of the main points of attraction to the work of Yona Friedman.

Architecture Mobile by Yona Friedman

Métropole Europe by Yona Friedman

In order to understand the relevance of Yona Friedman today, it is crucial to observe how his work has always had a double reaction in the architectural world. There is the desire to dispose of his work as utopian combined with the fear to see his work as a viable alternative, a forged future. Nowadays, the reading is retro-active, as if his role of an architectural elderly has catched up with his thinking, projections, speculations and reality-checks while he was young and realistic. Today his writings are still clear, insightful and critically amusing. Exemplary is his ps in to the “Métropole Europe” – the biggest “non-city” in the world, an ensemble of existing big cities with a total population of some 40 million – essay:

The author of this paper is 87 and, because of the brevity of his life expectations, free of personal ambition. But, as the ancients said, the role of the elderly is to think and talk. The role of the young is more realistic: they will have to forge their future.

Centre Pompidou by Yona Friedman

The most interesting part of the book is the selection of published and unpublished texts by Yona Friedman. This selection is centered around his ideas for the “Ville Spatiale”, “Métropole Europe”, “Bridges of Shanghai”, “A museum is not a building” and “The Iconostase Principle”. In these texts it becomes clear how direct, open, charming and efficient the thinking of Yona Friedman is. He is witty, humble, precise and evolving.

Probably due to his half a century of stepping in- and outside of the architectural and artistic limelights, he is able to more keenly observe the urban condition than (m)any architects involved in building the city. He thinks about space and place, but primordially, hence the title, about people. He accepts and refuses at the same time. “Society is always in equilibrium, even if that equilibrium doesn’t have my personal sympathy,” he writes. It are not the architects, cities, or even architecture that need to be liberated. Their role is to assist the freedom of the people. A key thought of the Ville Spatiale:

The idea of the Ville Spatiale was to assure for its inhabitant the freedom to shape both their individual habitat and the city layout, freely after their preferences. The second element of that idea was the Architecture mobile, the possibility to periodically remodel the individual habitat and urban layout, without imposing demolition.

A large part of the recuperation of Yona Friedman’s thinking and work is currently happening in the art circles, hence the focus for a large part on the book on his ideas on musea, collecting, archiving and displaying. Friedman is clear about the museum when showing his ideas and proposals:

I think that these examples emphasise the idea that architecture could mean other things than buildings, and also that the organisation of exhibits is not necessarily the subject of “interior architecture”. Museums might be one of the best examples for “architecture without buildings”.

The Ville Spatiale | Venice Biennial, 2009 Photo: Hanna Hildebrand

The Ville Spatiale | Venice Biennial, 2009 Photo: Hanna Hildebrand

In essence the publication doesn’t add too much new insights to the aforementioned Pro Domo publication, on the contrary, it seems to obscure some clear trains of thought through needless textual repetition, the strange absence of visual material of a crucial museum proposal for Venice – referred to many times, but nowhere to be seen – and strange double interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist conducted in 2008 and 2011.

Although H.U. Obrists’ questions are charmingly naive, exploring the vast hinterlands of both ignorance and intelligence, and the written out texts reveals that Yona Friedman half-of-the-time, as a matter of speech, seems to have no interest in responding to the questions. And if he responds, answers provided are similar to what he himself has so eloquently written down in earlier pages.

Yona Friedman’s answers provide although a profound insight in the highly developed humouristic universe in which he functions. It is a pity H.U. Obrist has not (yet?) been able to step into this, let alone edit the whole interview so to make it more readable. As always there are revealing exceptions like these:

YF: I am mainly a pacifist. I don’t like conflicts. I have generally avoided debates. Exchange of ideas is good but debates to impose one’s opinion on others are out of the question for me. [YF replying on HUO’s question “At the same time, unicorns correspond to your idea of the city; it’s not an aggressive city, it’s a peaceful one.”]


YF: The future? I don’t know what the future has in store for us but it’s unavoidable in any case. I hope to be in good health. [YF replying on HUO question “How do you see the future?”]

and even

YF: I have had one very important intellectual guide: my dog. A dog spends its whole life improvising. Improvising in every situation. [YF replying on HUO question “Who are the philosophers and thinkers who gave you ideas? Was Foucault an inspiration for you? Or Deleuze?”]

Le Musée des Graffiti by Yona Friedman | 2009

To know more about Yona Friedman’s present whereabouts check out his vimeo channel called BALKIS PRODUCTIONS [named after his dog, of course] presenting “a corpus of some of Yona Friedman’s short drawing-movies, made and produced by him and Jean-Baptiste Decavèle. […] The Balkis who created this production, was also known under as Balkis Berger-Dobermann. In 2004, she wrote (with Yona Friedman) : “Vous avez un chien : c’est lui qui vous a choisi(e)”, Editions de l’éclat. (You have a dog : she/he is the one who choose you).

Of course “Yona Friedman – Architecture with the people, by the people, for the people” is a highly recommended book. But it is more a minigraph than a monograph. To us it is an appendix to “Pro Domo“, a book, as it written on its cover that “is not actually a “book”. It is a collection of fragments on scatter topics produced in different periods of my life.


Are you an academic, architect, urbanist or artist? A writer, photographer or psychologist? Are you dealing with urbanism, media, networks, cultures, globalization, architecture, people, re-inventing the world, interventions and observations, the culture of craftmanship [before or after the global crisis] or anything else that could be of MovingCities-interest? Are you also interested in sending a copy of your book to China? [contact us for interest, suggestions and details]

Links to images featured

ACTAR, megastructure reloaded, htvdeijsberg, archphoto, dpr-barcelona, art-magazin, db-artmag, exporevue.

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