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We should be responsible in creating beauty

29 of December '22

interview from A&B 09|2022 issue

José Luis Cortés, president of the International Union of Architects, talks about World Urban Forum 11, whether Katowice is a dystopian space and contemporary architecture in Poland.

José Luis Cortés is interviewed by Lukasz Harat.

Lukasz Harat:I would like to summarize with you the World Urban Forum 11 (WUF11), which took place in June in Katowice, Poland. From the perspective of the president of the International Union of Architects (UIA), how do you assess the event? This is probably not your first WUF, right?

José Luis Cortés: Well, for me this is the first such forum. Being in Katowice was extremely important for me because of our [UIA - ed. note] cooperation with the United Nations. We feel we are part of a community actively involved in the well-being of our planet and the systematic improvement of the quality of life. Next year in July we are organizing the World Congress in Copenhagen [UIA World Congress Copenhagen - ed.], which will be dedicated to sustainability and climate change, and not only for architects and architects, because we are aware that we can't handle these problems alone. Broader partnerships are needed. Coming back to Katowice: together with the UN, we awarded the Sustainability Award [UIA 2030 Award - editor's note]. There were more than one hundred and forty winners in various categories from thirty-two countries! It's fantastic and extremely motivating that so many people and organizations want to create the future of our planet.

Strefa networkingowa WUF11 Strefa networkingowa WUF11

WUF11 networking zone

Photo: Lukasz Harat

Luke: It must indeed be rewarding.

José Luis: This is our first such big collaboration. Quite a success. Taking advantage of this experience, we have decided that we will hold the competition once every two years, until 2030. By then, we hope to have a wide range of architectural solutions and tools contributing to the fight against the effects of climate change through the awarded works. However, that's not all. As the UIA, together with its global and local partners from more than one hundred and fifteen countries, we are working hard to implement the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Let me use an example - we have published several books for architects and architects on this subject. This is my eyes on the ground. I'm proud of it. I also see that our activities are having the intended effect. A few days ago I had meetings in Brazil, architectural organizations there issued a publication on the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals [United Nations - editor's note], and also organized a national competition for the most environmentally friendly architectural realizations. I am confident that we will soon see similar commitment around the world. I also shared this positive energy in Katowice. It was an intense time spent.

Lukasz: It's good to hear that from your perspective there was a lot going on and it was an important event! Now let's look at WUF11 in more detail. If you had to point out the most important event, meeting or other activity, what would it be?

José Luis: This is a very difficult task! Let me think... For starters, I came to Poland and was in Warsaw for the convention of the Association of Polish Architects (SARP). I saw an amazing exhibition showcasing Polish architectural achievements [SARP Year Award Exhibition 2022 edition - editor's note]. I was very impressed! You have a great passion for the profession here. Then I came to Katowice and went straight to WUF11. To this day, I am still amazed by the quality of the organization. Everything was prepared perfectly. Then I saw the program! It was amazing to have the opportunity to attend so many lectures, panel discussions and roundtables in such a short time. There was really a lot of it.

Luke: Weren't you overwhelmed by the program? After all, on some days there were more than one hundred and twenty events....

José Luis: Absolutely not! I was fascinated by the participation of people from so many countries, the quality of the exhibitions and presentations, the layout of the auditoriums. I was able to move very efficiently between events. What caught my attention was the presence of so many young professionals from many fields from all over the world. This is incredibly important. The young generation is very interested in finding new solutions for a better tomorrow. I perceive them as being involved in creating the policies of the future [future policy - ed. note]. And the situation today is not the easiest one.

Okrągły stół poświęcony sytuacji w Ukrainie

Roundtable on the situation in Ukraine

Photo: Lukasz Harat

Lukasz: Which events were the most important for the UIA?

José Luis: From UIA's point of view, I can single out two: the Sustainability Awards ceremony, which I already mentioned, and the other was about supporting Ukrainian architects and women architects. We organized a roundtable, which was attended not only by representatives of the UIA and national architectural associations, but also by various specialists and professionals from Ukraine. The president of the Ukrainian Association of Architects [Alexander Chyzhevsky - editor's note] also participated in the meeting. This gave everyone an even better understanding of the situation in which Ukraine finds itself. Together we thought about developing a sensible urban-architectural plan for the reconstruction of Ukraine. I am grateful that so many organizations from all over the world want to help, devoting all their time to this topic. The UIA was founded after World War II, in 1948, mainly to help European countries rebuild their cities. This is our heritage. We will help Ukraine in the same way. From this place, I would like to say once again that we condemn this disgusting Russian invasion. I'm glad I was able to speak about it so openly at WUF11 in Katowice. However, as president of UIA, I have to think multidimensionally. This war does not make it easier for us to take care of our planet, it increases the amount of pollution produced. We want to act consistently. We have now gone back ten years in thinking about the climate. Without looking at anything, we are again destroying our heritage and nature. In such a situation it is difficult to globally take care of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, when I think about the territory of Ukraine - destroyed houses, cities full of rubble, and above all, innocent people dying - it makes me really angry that we can do so little. I have ambivalent feelings inside: on the one hand, we want to take care of the welfare of our planet, but on the other hand, reality shows us that it is not easy.

Luke: It is very heartening that you and the entire UIA are not indifferent to this situation. This gives hope for a better tomorrow for Ukraine and the whole world. Let's go back to WUF11. I would like to encourage you to look at this event not only through rose-colored glasses. What did you not like about it? It's not that we should now act like a Marauder Smurf and say how it was hopeless. Constructive criticism hasn't hurt anyone yet, so why don't we try it here too?

José Luis: You are right. One aspect in particular caught my attention. I understand that it is very difficult to organize such an event for tens of thousands of people and hundreds of organizations. But I would like to see senior officials from different countries also appear at the WUF in the future. We need more presidents, ministers and secretaries. Even António Guterres [UN Secretary General - editor's note] was not present. It's hard to make any binding decisions about our planet when there are so few politicians at the event. I would like this to change in future editions, I would like the participation of people who can make decisions.

Luke: In this we also agree. How do you save the planet by creating fantastic ideas that the most important people in the world don't have a chance to listen to?

José Luis: Well, that's exactly it....

Luke: But there is also the other side of the coin. Should we even be holding big events like WUF these days? After all, they leave a huge carbon footprint - flights, cabs, construction of huge tent halls, non-stop air conditioners....

José Luis: That's a very good point, I thought about the same thing. We are now in the era of digitization. We should learn how to make good use of technology. How? I myself don't know yet. What I do know is that we need to minimize the number of trips. Flying is a huge climate cost. Once in a while I am able to understand, but not with such frequency and on such a scale. The WUF could be organized differently, for example, creating smaller regional forums, and then their representatives would meet internationally. This is my personal thought, my recommendation. We need to fight for our future, we need to minimize carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and thus we need to think about how to organize such events. It seems to me that WUF11 was such an accident at work. We are in the covid era, temporarily the virus has weakened in most of the world, and I think everyone had a great desire to meet live and just talk to each other.

Tweety Tweety

One of the Tweeter posts by Danish urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen, sparked waves of discussion

photo: Lukasz Harat

Lukasz: This is an accurate diagnosis. However, we urgently need to develop solutions that allow us to enjoy such events, but at the same time not destroy our planet. It's a pity that there was so little talk about this during the WUF. There was, however, another hot topic, namely the place where the forum was held - Katowice. Mainly due to Danish urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen, who said that Katowice is one of the more dystopian spaces he has ever seen. Let me show you some of his tweets.

[showing tweets]

José Luis: Oh... I've seen that. I like Katowice very much. I was here thirty years ago and for me it's amazing how much this city has changed. However, I also understand Mikael a little bit. Sometimes it's very difficult to establish transparent criteria for selecting a city to host such an event. I think Poland wanted to show the world that not everything happens in Warsaw and Krakow, to demonstrate the development of the country. This is an important issue. When we think of a country, what comes before our eyes is its capital. Meanwhile, there are many wonderful medium-sized cities that should be developed. We should be more concerned with even development throughout the national areas. It's a good thing that they just chose Katowice, which is not known in the world. Probably many people, when they found out where WUF11 will be held, asked: What is Katowice?

Lukasz: [laughs] They probably did!

José Luis: I have come to Poland many times and know your country a little bit. Staying in Katowice and Silesia was a great opportunity to discover a different face of Poland. For me, Katowice is one of the cities that have gone through, are still going through, an interesting transformation, showing that it is possible to change the image of our cities. It's fantastic to know what local governments, NGOs and residents can do. We must also not forget the architects who have contributed to improving the quality of life in Katowice through their projects. As for Mikael's words, I am aware that there is still much to be done here, but we also must not forget how much has already been done. As an urban planner, I can confidently say that I appreciate this Katowice process. Katowice is also a city that has placed a strong emphasis on business tourism. Economically, this makes the transformation process easier. Try harder to show this as an example for others. I know that traveling to medium-sized cities is not that easy and international transportation very often requires many transfers from plane to train, train to bus and so on. For me, it is worth the effort. We need to learn that not only capitals are important, but all national territories. As UIA, we want countries around the world to think about their space in exactly this way. Let's look for potential in every square meter of our planet. This is a clear goal.

 Ceremonia otwarcia dla młodych podczas WUF11 Gram w miasto w strefie expo

The opening ceremony for the youth at WUF11 and the city game

Photo: Lukasz Harat

Lukasz: Now that we have Katowice explained, I suggest we move on to the last part of our conversation - let's talk about contemporary architecture in Poland. How do you assess its condition? Do Poles and Polish women still have a lot of work to do, or are we at a world-class level here?

José Luis: Three years ago I was in Krakow for an architectural congress, which was something like a biennale[International Architecture Biennale Krakow 2019 - editor's note], during which many Polish architectural projects were presented. Even then I was very impressed. Being in Warsaw before WUF11, I saw a huge progression. It's amazing how fast you are developing here. I also had the opportunity to be a jury member in the Polish student competition organized by Saint-Gobain[Saint-Gobain Architecture Student Contest 2022 - editor's note]. These projects were also great! I think there needs to be a much wider promotion of contemporary Polish architecture around the world. In international opinion, you are still a very backward country. We need to encourage everyone who thinks so to come here and see how wrong they are. I also notice a wide interest in whole cities, not just architecture. This is very important, because it directly affects the quality of life.

Luke: In what direction should architecture develop in the future? Where are we currently and where are we aiming?

José Luis: The UIA communicates very clearly what the future of architecture should be. For us, it's the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We need to minimize carbon emissions, which are primarily worked on by construction, industry and transportation. At least two of these branches are related to architecture, of course we have the biggest impact on construction. We need to use sustainable building materials. We should be responsible in creating beauty. Yes, for me architectural design is about creating spatial beauty. It is also good for our cities to be healthy. We need to find a balance between construction and nature.

Luke: How do you achieve this?

José Luis: I guess the answer will be the same as usual: it's very difficult. I get annoyed when I see old buildings, technically efficient, being torn down only to build new ones in their place. It is known that it is much easier for development companies to demolish and build new ones. We must learn to respect the world around us. The key is urban renewal. I think architects and architects understand this very well. But architecture is mainly managed by construction companies, developers and big investment funds. Our mission should be to make this group aware of the consequences of their decisions. First, our cities must be respected; second, there is no easy way to achieve architectural success; and third, we must protect cities from uncontrolled sprawl in all directions, both in terms of urban sprawl and high-rise development. After all, this is extremely costly for us city dwellers. Through taxes, we pay for lighting, electricity, roads or security. We should be densifying cities, betting on compact and efficient development, not just trying to make them bigger at all costs. And let's not forget urban inclusivity. For me, this is the creation of convenient living opportunities for all social and economic groups. This means moving away from the classic housing model and looking for solutions by creating apartments with the minimum area needed for living.

Lukasz: To make it more specific - you don't support pat-development?

José Luis: Of course not. I'm talking about minimum areas, but not too small. I think we shouldn't create apartments only for families with children. We need to design for childless couples, singles, seniors or poor people. What I mean here is profiling the space they will inhabit. Each of these groups has different needs, with the health of these people being paramount. Let's remember that the minimum requirements are not only what will be inside the house or apartment, but access to the workplace, school, clinic or store. This is the concept of the fifteen-minute city. The distance to services should be small, such that we can give up the car. And this involves being able to decide on our budget. I don't want us to be prisoners of fees we can't give up. I'm also against big shopping centers. We need small local businesses of high quality. That, to me, is what a healthy city, or the space of the future, is.

Luke: This is a vision that would be great to strive for. I hope that when we meet next time, we will marvel together that the world is moving toward greater environmental sustainability. Because we will meet again, right?

José Luis: Fantastic idea! We are in touch. Thank you for the interview!

Luke: Thank you. It was a great pleasure.

interviewed: Lukasz HARAT

Photo: Author


José Luis Cortés - architect, president of the International Union of Architects since 2021. A graduate of Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, he studied inCopenhagen ina Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has held leading positions at several universities inMexico, and has also taught at universities inSweden, India andJapan. President of the Mexican Federation of Architects (2017-2018) and the Mexican Association of Architects (2015-2016).

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