YA+K's "Trans 305" construction site
Stéphanie Lemoine

IVRY-SUR-SEINE — The Plateau special planning district in this small town south of Paris could almost be mistaken for a regular construction site. Since 2007 the multidisciplinary artist Stefan Shankland has guided the construction of some 1,000 apartments according to an “action research” program launched by the city government and developed over the course of 10 years.

The idea? “To integrate art with the transforming city,” by putting into place a HACQ ("high artistic and cultural quality") project.

This particular initiative, called Trans 305, is meant to open the construction site to the public for performances, expositions and guided visits. The installation of signs with information around the perimeter of the site — a legal obligation for the developers — has also become an opportunity to work with a graphic designer and art students, which resulted in signs that were publicly inaugurated.

Transdisciplinary approach

Last year a group of architects who call themselves YA+K opened a space on the edges of the special planning district that is meant to serve as an incubator. From April to June the spot hosted various workshops, inviting artists, local residents and student designers to come up with prototypes for the street fixtures.

“Stefan allows the construction workers, the promoters, local residents and social workers to meet and let their practices evolve,” explains Etienne Delprat from YA+K. “That relationship is where things happen.”

Stefan Shankland’s approach is not isolated. In L’Ile-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, the Bellastock collective is leading a similar project in the construction site of a riverside green development. The group of young architects produces, at the site, prototypes of street installations using reclaimed material.

Like them, an increasing number of artists are using the city as their studio. Some are architects, landscapers or designers. Others come from street theater or fine arts. The youngest aren’t yet 30 years old. They form a loosely-defined constellation in which the participants know each other and work together over the course of the projects. They demand a transdisiplinary approach and ask that design be more closely associated with land planning.

Between art and place

In theory, this sort of request is not new at all: Whether it is public art installations, street theater or street art, culture has always been part of the urban space. But for this latest generation of city creatives, it’s the planning itself — i.e. the transformation of a space — that is the subject and material of the work of art. It influences events and performances, often ephemeral, where the goal is to accompany the rehabilitation of an industrial wasteland, planning for a public space or urban renewal as part of a program led by the National Agency for Urban Renewal.

The artists’ contribution is to both design the urban project and occupy the space as the project is being constructed. “It’s about questioning what art does to the place, but also what the place does to art,” says Maud Le Floc’h, an urban scenographer and the director of pOlau (Center for Urban Arts), an artistic residency dedicated to the connections between creativity and urban planning.

“Asking what art does to the place” obviously questions the way in which cities are developed. All these "interventions" in the urban space collectively turn their backs on a half-century of utilitarian architecture and rational approaches, which they counter with inventiveness, sharing, sensitive exploration and subjectivity.

Since 2003, Laurent Petit, an engineer who discovered street theater late in life, has been “psychoanalyzing” cities as part of the “National Agency for Urban Psychoanalysis.” After interviewing residents on the couch, he delivers his “diagnosis” in the form of student performances, if possible in the presence of elected officials, in which the identification of a “Strategic Urban Nerve Point” (SUNP) leads to a “Radical Urban Treatment” (RUT) which might take the form of “Bucolic Occupation Zones” (BOZ).

According to the artist, these consciously pseudo-conferences shed a totally different light on the city. “You don’t manage a place with equations,” he explains. “Our programs are a poetic tool that allows urban projects to be infused with a little enchantment, poetry and irrationality.”

“The joy of doing”

Creating on-site events is a way to increase the dynamics of urban transformation and challenge the expertise of a handful of urban planners and elected officials, which is where the collective and participative nature of the projects come from. The artists, architects and designers involved all reject hierarchies — their preference for organizing in collectives, which assumes a horizontal structure, is an example of that rejection.

Classical music on a construction site — Photo: Atelier/Trans 305

“In the 1960s, collectives wanted to take over,” recalls the architect Patrick Bouchain, the inspiration for a number of these projects. “Now, it is considered more like a transfer of power away from politics that highlights the crisis in representative democracy.”

But most participants hesitate to politicize their approach. “We are a generation that no longer believes in politics,” notes Etienne Delprat. “We are more into the joy of doing.”

By prioritizing the “doing,” the artists, architects and landscapers involved in accompanying urban transformations challenge their own professional routines. They give themselves the right to put themselves in the position of the user, to try, to leave room to be wrong and to start over. That’s the origin of their fascination with micro-architecture, reclaimed materials, DIY and impermanence. In that sense, they are the heirs of Patrick Bouchain or Lucien Kroll, and they continue the idea that architecture is invented over the course of interactions with users, without a predetermined plan.

“We are not against the classical methods, we are just inventing new ones,” says Miguel Georgieff from the Coloco architects and landscapers collective.

Resolutely Experimental

The resolutely experimental nature of these projects can explain why they are sometimes called in as political reinforcement, especially in “sensitive” situations. In order to revitalize the fragmented city center of Vitrolles, in southern France, and to erase the bad image the region had suffered from since serving as a laboratory for the far-right movement, the Socialist party mayor Loïc Gachon called on Gabi Farage, a recently deceased member of the Bruit du Frigo (Fridge Noise) creative collective. He designed a vast cultural development project: “Interchange Vitrolles.”

Four architects’ collectives were invited to work on different strategic points around the city. Last June, eXYZT installed an “urban oasis” behind the city hall, while Etc rearranged the bus station, creating, among other things, a wooden merry-go-round. For Loïc Gachon, the experimentation had practical benefits: “This allowed us to test and experiment while introducing more permanent changes to the city,” he said. “And everything on a limited budget.”

A city in repair

The collectives that are involved in these urban transformations do in fact have the advantage of being inexpensive, especially because they tend to prefer recycled material, and because they know how to mobilize volunteers. That is an valuable asset, especially in the context of Europe's current economic crisis. Above all, they create a space for cultural appreciation when the usual approaches aren’t working anymore. “Sometimes people call us when the National Agency for Urban Renewal has failed,” explained Claire Bonnet, from the Saprophytes architects’ collective.

But trusting artists and creatives to “repair” the city has its limits. Whatever their virtues might be, these initiatives are not a substitute for a genuine policy of urban renewal.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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