Linda De Geus: Countering Social Segregation Through Architecture
Linda de Geus is currently working as an independent architect, as well as a freelance photographer. Her understanding of architecture goes far beyond feel-good aesthetics. Architecture has a grand social value and a significant influence on our well being.
For Linda, it is important to design in a way where architecture will enhance a clients experience in their home. She has researched on how social segregation can be countered by architecture, studying the concept of ‘Architectural Verwandlung’ for two years in Brazil, where she lived in Sao Paulo, as well as Rio de Janeiro. Verwandlung or verwandlen (verb) can be explained as, simply said, putting yourself in someone’s else’s shoes, feeling compassion, therefore being able to really feel someone’s experience and connect . Through this concept, Linda believes people are challenged to step out of their boundaries and are able to meet each other again, as we are, as human beings. We were curious to get to know more about Linda’s research, along with her approach to work and life.
What is, for you, most important when designing for a client?
As a designer I aim to create places where people feel good. I believe this contributes positively to the way people are amongst each other and how their interactions occur. Light obviously plays a very important role in this. But also the materials, the raw product; whether you use for example wood, concrete or plastics, each material evokes a sensation and association on its own. My first intention when designing for a client is to listen and really help the client. I find it important to figure out what he or she exactly wants and what his or her expectations are. Then I try, in the case of designing a house or apartment, to make it more than just a home; to create a place that suits the client’s lifestyle, taste and personality, where his or her life can unfold.
In such projects (mostly private commissions), you develop a long term relationship with a client and build a real collaboration. Building a house is different than buying a pair of shoes. Somebody’s life will take place in the house you create, so you need to listen very carefully and understand the person in order to fulfil his request. What really matters to me is creating something that will remain beautiful and useful for a long time. I strongly believe in this form of sustainability: a church that exists for hundreds of years that is used nowadays for other purposes (bookstore, club, concert hall etc.) In my opinion, this is a great example of a sustainable building, completely erected without using any new/innovative materials or techniques. I try to base my designs on the three central themes as described by famous Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality) and venustas (beauty). In my work this translates in targeting for timeless creations where a certain flexibility is integrated (for example for family growth) made using beautiful and strong durable materials.
Where does your inspiration come from? !
When I design for someone, the inspiration actually comes a great part from the client himself. What the client will bring to me. What their passions are, what they like. Of course my own taste will be visible in the design, or inspiration, coming from a recent vacation, a building I visited or an exhibition I have attended. Usually ideas come to me whilst on a stroll or sketching for a project behind my desk.
You did a research project on social segregation in brazil and how to counteract this through architecture. Why did you choose this subject?
I think it’s important to stay open to people. In our society most people grow up in their own environment, class or ‘bubble’. Depending on the society this is experienced either more or less. When I lived in Brazil I got to know so many different people from all kinds of backgrounds. At the same time I experienced how strong the (in)visible boundaries are between different classes and I wanted to find a way to soften these boundaries. I believe everyone is a human, just like me, and instead of fearing or rejecting each other I hope for the future we will be more compassionate to one another.
You have tried to design a building where people from all walks of life would meet each other. What were your outcomes regarding this project?
Before I started to design a building I researched the cause of social segregation. In the case of social segregation there is one fundamental feeling present: fear. Something else that plays a role in how segregation develops is welfare. The obvious cause of fear is, of course, danger. Existence of violence in Sao Paulo is undeniably present. But on a more subtle level, another cause of fear, which exists in every human being, is the fear of the unknown. The philosopher Elias Canetti formulates beautifully in his book ‘Masse und Macht’: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown”. Since every confrontation creates friction and resistance, you need to put in effort to overcome this feeling. For example, when coming across a homeless person in the street, you will feel something, (undesirable), maybe it grosses you out, maybe you will feel empathy, maybe you will feel fear, it is different for everybody. Confrontation is usually thought to be unpleasant. In the case of social segregation it is easy for the rich to seek comfort and to not get confronted with anything like this. It is easier to be in your own bubble, having your own helicopter, eating in your own restaurants, shopping in your own stores. I clearly witnessed this in Sao Paulo, where I did my research.
The purpose for my building was to bring people together, or at least let people from different backgrounds/classes meet each other. Let’s say an architectural project (building) breaks down in to two parts: program and design.
To a certain extent, as an architect, you have the possibility to shape both. To start with the first: I created a program for the building that brings together different people from different ages, classes and occupations that contained a library, a hotel, office spaces, childcare, homeless care, a restaurant and beneath, an entrance to the metro. Then the internal lay-out of the building helps with these flows of people going to these spaces meeting each other somehow. In my research I developed four techniques for ‘Architectural Verwandlung’ (verwandlung could be translated as being able to connect, to empathize with another person) for this. They make people aware of each other, enhance the mutual visibility of different groups and create spaces where spontaneous interactions with one another can occur. Of course it is not possible that one building or architecture in general can solve such big societal problems. A social building will bring up less money than a shopping mall or office- building, so yet in the political sphere these initiatives need to be supported. But I do believe that the particular design of a building can form an important contribution. I also feel like this is something architects could be taught, if you want to contribute to a community or even society. Sadly, there is given no room for the social responsibility that in my opinion truly touches upon the architectural profession. I think nowadays the role of architects is reduced to serving mostly economical interests.
You have lived in berlin, brazil and now you’re back in the netherlands. What differences do you see from living in europe and brazil?
The first thing that comes to mind is the difference on how you would live your day or even plan your day, it is very different when in Brazil or Europe. It’s about having the option to plan at all, that is difficult in a country like Brazil. For example, you can plan to arrive at university at 1p.m., but if the bus won’t arrive and let’s say there’s a fifty percent chance it won’t, it makes it difficult to manage. There are many of those aspects that made my days in Sao Paulo less efficient, but I wouldn’t say that this is only a negative thing.
The positive side of not being able to plan is that you gain back a certain spontaneity. You have to embrace the fact that your day won’t go according to your plan and have to surrender to this. This changes your attitude in the streets and state of mind during your day, and opens you up to events that occur, a spontaneous talk, a dance on the street.... to life, to live life more from your heart, instead of your mind that is rather connected to planning (such humans we are). In Brazil I loved this kind of ‘flair’ in the daily life. I think this evokes creativity.
In the Netherlands I really appreciate the humor and freedom. The Dutch directness might be sometimes annoying, but sometimes it works well to cross boundaries. In Germany, I really value the eye for precision, sustainability, quality. These kind of cultural differences between the countries are much connected to daily life. But how exactly, is hard for me to put in words.
In general, my experience is that in someway people are also very much the same everywhere in the world. You have this cultural layer, different social backgrounds, but then underneath this, we are all human, different kinds of individuals from all other the planet. This is exactly why I find it so important to stay connected to each other instead of segregating.
Besides architecture you have a passion for photography. What are you looking for in a picture?
Hidden beauty in all aspects of life. Light, air, nature, humans. To show this, and to bring over a feeling. I shoot scenes that capture my attention, which is sudden beauty for me, a sudden composition or human expression. I also find it interesting to capture unexpected beauty that can be found not only from beautiful things but from an aesthetical point of view, like a construction site.