An interview with Henrik Valeur

The prestigious Golden Lion Award of the Venice Biennale, 10th International Architecture Exhibition, went this year to CO-EVOLUTION, the Danish/Chinese collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China. The exhibition bears the fruit of an international and multidisciplinary collaboration between young Danish architects from the offices CEBRA, COBE, EFFEKT, and TRANSFORM and four Chinese universities (Tsjinhua Univeristy, Tongji University, Chongqing Univeristy and Xi’an Univeristy of Architecture and Technology) respectively.

In their report the Jurors of the Venice Biennale, Richard Sennett (President), Amyn Aga Khan, Antony Gormley and Zaha Hadid acclaim the project as follows:

The pavilion shows us a country looking outward rather than inward, bringing its expertise to bear on the ecological problems faced by cities in China. The Danish pavilion does more than catalogue these ecological challenges; the Danish planners and architects propose concrete solutions to water and energy management through visual forms of aesthetic merit. And the Danes show what they themselves learned from their Chinese colleagues. We salute the creativity, intelligence, and generosity of the Danish pavilion.

The exhibition was commissioned by the Danish Architecture Centre and curated by the Danish architect Henrik Valeur, director of UiD an urban consultancy based in the Öresund Region of Scandinavia and in Shanghai, P.R.China. During the 2nd Architecture Biennial Beijing, prior to the notification of winning the Golden Lion, I had the chance to interview him.

Xian Citywall | TRANSFORM and XAUAT

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The word collaboration is prominent in the title of your project. Could you tell how this collaboration was set up?

Henrik Valeur: My first trip to China, after having decided that the exhibition would focus on China, was almost one year ago. We came here with the Danish Architecture Centre and with the Danish minister of Culture. In Beijing we met with the Chinese vice-minister of construction and it became very clear that the issue of sustainability and sustainable urban development has top priority for the Chinese government, for obvious reasons. We decided our project would have sustainability as its focal point. Later, I traveled around to some of the major Chinese cities to meet with the local universities and planning authorities. I realized that a lot of knowledge, experiences, ideas is scattered around in small isolated pockets, so if we could try to connect these things, this would be the way forward to deal with the challenges in China.

We then selected four of the universities based on their qualifications but also on the cities they are located in. Beijing, Chongqing, Xi’an and Shanghai are all very big cities, facing big challenges in relation to sustainable development while at the same time having the political and the economic capability to make this development happen. Finally we selected four teams which are considered to be some of the most talented of the Danish young architects. Each of the four Danish teams would then collaborate with one of the Chinese universities, and with consultancy provided by a leading international engineering company, on a project of sustainable urban development in one of the four Chinese cities.

Co-evolution focuses on the issue of sustainability, could you explain what relation Denmark has with sustainability and what the China can learn from that?

HV: Denmark is a very developed country where sustainability has been an important point on the national agenda during the last two to three decades. Denmark possesses a quiet developed and advanced industry related to sustainability, to the reduction of energy consumption, the recycling of waste, the creation of a better environment and so on. Initially these companies could start up because there was a home market, but today Denmark is for most of them just a very small market, so many of these companies became global companies. Next to this Denmark has built up during these decennia a quiet integrated infrastructure, different forms of knowledge from different professions can cooperate. This is where I think Denmark really differs from China. I believe there is already a lot of innovation in China and without doubt it is to be expected there will be more technological innovation in China, but next to this I hope China will consider some of the more low-tech solutions which they already have, which often make a lot more sense. But because things are changing so extremely fast in China it is my impression that there has not been any chance to build the infrastructures to integrate all of this; this poses a lot of problems. China possesses really good professional skills, especially in the engineering field, but a lot of this knowledge and infrastructures are not connected. You have for instance an environmentally friendly transportation system landing in the middle of nowhere, so you still need your car to get somewhere. For the moment things seem just not work together.

Magic Mountains | COBE and Chongqing University

The projects presented in the pavilion are very direct, both also humble in their approach. You write that this is the first step in an ongoing process instead of presenting “the solution”. How does the future looks like?

HV: Our first goal was the Venice Biennial, but we presented the exhibition also at the 2ndArchitecture Biennial Beijing and at the Xi’an International Conference of Architecture and Technology.You are right; we consider it being the first step in a process and I think the first and foremost important step is to get to know and understand each other and see what each offers has to offer to a collaboration like this. Next to this it is both important for Danish architects to understand the real problems that China is facing as well as for the Chinese architects and student understand the possibilities in this field in a global perspective.

Next to this we invited important people from Denmark to China so to carry on this process as it is important for potential investors to comprehend the possibilities for them, for Denmark, for us in a project like this. We consider this being the first step in a process as this is part of a new world economy, one that is not based on the exploitation of each other, but based on collaboration and mutual benefits. This project is just a very small part of that, a very small step in that direction. The next steps could be diverse; one for instance could be on the educational level, others need still to be explored. For a project like this, which is still a kind of a dream, it is important to show some results, to see if we can get some of these ideas realized in China. So we are working on different scenarios for that. It could also involve other countries as a lot of what we learned in china is relevant in many other places in the world; a lot of countries are facing the same problems.

In the international architecture world there is a lot of China going on these days, where do you make the difference?

HV: There is indeed a huge interest, especially because China is a very huge market for architects. But we also have to realize that to some extend that the problems China is facing, may also become our problems. One of the questions people asked me the most is Why is Denmark doing this project with China? You have to know; usually in Venice you present in your national pavilion your national design. For us the reason to take a different attitude is the opportunity China poses to develop ourselves. Our interest comes obviously from the importance of China but also of sustainability; here you have the two main world agendas in one project. My genuine interest lays in finding another way of working in this profession. For a lot of the younger generation of architects it is just not so interesting to be this artistic genius. I think they might have discovered that the world is a very complex place and that there is not one right solution. It is not so interesting to just express yourself as it is to be part of something bigger, to be part of society. If you want to have an influence on the way society is developing, you can’t really get that influence by making personal statements, you really need to make your contributions integrated into some bigger structures in the world.

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Henrik Valeur interviewed by Bert de Muynck
Beijing, China | September 27, 2006
Published in DOMUS China #4  | January 2007

Further reading: co-evolution, UiD, Danish Architecture Center, Venice Architecture Biennale
Images: Danish Architecture Center

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