Interview: Yona Friedman


What are your views on planning?
I am very much against planning. We are now in a worldwide crisis due to overplanning. I am against overplanning. Planning means that you consider every event possible. Except an event which is unexpected and sometimes the unexpected arrives. It’s a little thing and then it grows. Its an avalanche by snowball. Nobody made a planning error. The error was that they tried to plan something which is not plannable. This is the error.

What do you think of recent plans to expand Paris?
I was asked in an interview about the president’s project on the greater Paris. I was not involved in this process because I consider it to be absolutely idiotic. That’s not off the record. Because the project was ‘how to make Paris a metropolis’. But that’s not a question of architecture it’s nothing to do with urban planning. London is largely unplanned and it’s a metropolis. Paris is a metropolis but not because of Haussman. New York is largely unplanned. Architecture is nothing to do with it. Architecture is realty speculation.

How important to you are transport infrastructures?
You came by Eurostar yes? This is good. In two hours you are in London, Strasbourg or Lyon. The metropolis is not Paris but a piece of Euronet. Including Brussels, London and Strasbourg and maybe Frankfurt. I was calling this the continent city. A city the size of a continent with a suburban network. And the subway is the TGV. The metro stops is Paris Lille London Paris Lille Brussels. That’s the reality. It’s a reality. I got a phone call from the States. Obama signed an agreement on the first rapid transit system between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This is Keynesian investment. This European metropolis could be very much advanced with the Keynesian scheme. It’s not necessary for Paris to be the centre of the hub. Brussels, and Frankfurt are already part of the hub.

I call this continent city. In the 1960s I was advancing this scheme that Europe is one super city, made up of 180 smaller cities. Reyner Banham made a joke of it, calling it Friedman’s Europe.  It is now a reality. This is particularly where I find that planning doesn’t work. Because planning goes along preconceived ideas. My continent city is not planning, it’s a potential, I don’t know what will come out of it.

If you want it, you cannot avoid the existence of an infrastructure. I don’t know what this continent city will be. The infrastructure is building iteslf up, becaue in the 60s I saw that it was. The Germans started intercitys. It was the first large scale subway network. It was a reality. People involved with planning can’t see that. I’m sorry. They are simply facts.

What do you think of the plans to extend the High Speed Rail links in the UK?
I know Birmingham by car and I know Leeds and that’s logical that they want to continue it there. I can see a time when you can go from Berlin to Paris in 3 and a half hours. Technically it’s completely possible. And it’s interesting – the other fast train system Transrapid [a high-speed monorail train system using magnetic levitation developed by the Germans]  has a big disadvantage. TGV can get out of the rapid system and can continue on normal lines. Transrapid goes on a special installation. They could get to the system but everything changes, motor system, axel everything. I saw it in Shanghai, 500km/h between the airport and the city and then you get into the city and get into a car and you are in the worst traffic jam. It’s not a network, it’s just a line. When the TGV was Paris Lyon it was OK but now that you have many lines and it goes abroad…. The Eurostar was very important. In the UK the will to prolongation is an important will.


What about the USA were there is very little rail infrastructure?
It can become a more scattered city or the hubs can develop more. I was in LA a few months ago. I got this very idiotic idea. The LA traffic is a problem. Simply take one layer of the freeway system, put on trolley buses and call it a subway. The network is there. You don’t need anything especial. It only needs a feeding duct. Take away the car pool lane and put this in its place.

Why were you in Los Angeles?
Getty was buying all my archives. The Getty is quite a respectable institution. And there was a personal reason: my daughter is living there. Getty is important because they will record my archives. They bought the first part last year. The contract was made two and a half years ago. The last part I am keeping at least for a year. Because I am working on it still. There are every year new elements.

What do you think of Los Angeles?
I don’t think Los Angeles exists. There are pieces of Los Angeles and if you are situated in Pasadena, you never go to Santa Monica. I know Los Angeles for 35 years because I was at UCLA. Los Angeles is essentially an idea, but it doesn’t exist. I went to UCLA in the 60s. I was teaching and researching there.

It has a very small downtown and the rest is scattered and changes all the time. The big movie studios they move. It’s a region in flux. And therefore for example for Los Angeles to make a real subway is quite absurd. They were making one metro line. It goes from Pasadena to the Central Station but it’s always empty, because it serves well people in certain spaces but it doesn’t irrigate the area. The freeway system irrigates the area. Therefore I think the freeway system is everything. It’s expropriated space.

Why did you leave America?
The change started with Nixon, Johnson was a presidency was a great era completed poisoned by the Vietnam War but in civil terms it was more Rooseveltian than Roosevelt. In the 60s, universities, were full of people who were simply studying because they were interested in something. They didn’t think of money making and this started slightly with Nixon and was growing and growing. After that it was the Democratic party but it was only nominal.

How did things change for you when you went to America?
My ideas didn’t change. In that period when I was going to America, the academic milieu was positive. I got far more support than here. And this was in the mid-presidency of Nixon. The grant system was altered. The Johnson era – a young person was interested, they got a grant and they went. The modern intellectual climate is the result of the period from the end of the war to the end of the Johnson presidency.

I stopped teaching in the USA in the 1970s. And then I worked for UNESCO, here in Paris but mostly in India.

Tell me about your work with UNESCO…
I started this language to communicate by bands desinees and it was quite successful. Indira Gandhi liked it so I got the possibility to work there. It had nothing to do with politics though because some of the ideas were taken over by Iran of Khomeni. They are actual practical proposals.

It was all about survival. Water policy, food policy, very low level. Not so much what government could do but what the peasant could do. This is why it worked. In India the books had 10 million readers. Not bad. It’s a self-propagating technique. It’s not necessary to print a million copies. This is a communication technique. The internet does the same thing by the way. Things creep like insects.

How did you come by this technique?
In the 1960s I was also making films. I got a Golden Lion from Venice for a film about African legends. My wife was a movie editor. So I said, why don’t I draw? I learned how to present a story. In very simple drawings. It was my technique in lectures. Three lines and you have a human. People also like it because it makes them feel that they can draw too. In India villagers would make cartoon bands about their problems. It’s great technique for the quasi-literate.


You live close to the UNESCO headquarters…
There was no UNESCO when I moved here, so it must be because of me that they moved here.

I have lived here for over 40 years. When I went to the USA the first time, my wife wasn’t too happy with the American lifestyle. So we decided that we wouldn’t stay and I was doing it by shuttle. Commuting. When the 707 started suddenly the USA wasn’t so far away – it was a sensible difference. 6 and a half hours to New York. It was less expensive for my employers in the USA because I didn’t need a standing home there. Their overhead costs were lower.

The end of the 1960s seems like an important dividing line to you…
Everything became very different. People speak about the countryside and the working class but they are both completely different concepts than before. The words stayed the same but the concepts were completely different. I don’t know if it became better or worse.

What are your main focuses now?
I am now having discussions about the way mathematics are used, and the way computers are used. Mathematics I believe is unable to describe non-regular processes. It’s impossible. There’s no mathematic language. We find more and more that it is exactly the process which is important. Maths give a fantastic end result but it has no reality. The average man doesn’t exist. It’s only really people that exist. This is not to say that mathematics that are good or bad. It is just more and more erroneously used.  It gives us very very strict rules in a ruleless world. The AIDS virus appears to change its strategy. So does cancer. It’s the same with the urban process.

The computer is a fantastic tool but it does what you embed in it. It has prefabricated functions that you don’t know and that a mathematician doesn’t know. That’s a problem. It has a security system but the biggest robberies are made by computers and they aren’t detected until long after the fact. All these things involve some necessary precaution. In the 70s we were trying to use self planning and we were trying to use a computer but it didn’t work because they didn’t know what their criteria was and a computer didn’t help them because it immediately told them what it was. ‘This is the best!’ said the computer. But it wasn’t the best. It was the best for the computer. People need to chew and re-chew and use trial and error. A computer is very good for booking a seat on a plane but not very good in helping you discover how you want to live.

 Have you been back to Budapest?
I was invited twice to do a lecture there. It’s true I was not censored. I know the language. I nearly didn’t recognise the city. Since 44 everything changed. I’ve no real desire to go there now. There’s nobody I know there. People are dying out. I am 86. There are less and less people I knew from the old periods. Here too. The older generation there are a few but they are mostly non-active. It’s an animal biological fact. It’s OK. I find its quite easy. The people who meet and talk about the old times, it’s not my style.

How old were you when you left Budapest?
I was 21 when I left Budapest. The changes started around 1940 when I was 17 with the war. In 1944 it was the Nazi occupation. There was a small movement trying to protect people and OK I was taken by the Gestapo, I survived because the Red Army advanced so fast. It was a question of weeks.

I was still at the Gestapo when the Russians were completely closing down the city and you could hear the artillery. This gave us hope. You wouldn’t have had that [without the Russians] otherwise. Many people survived exactly because of this. There are many survivors because of the Red Army’s strategies to cross the Danube at a certain point.

Where did you go after you left Budapest?
I went to Bucharest in Romania because we couldn’t immediately leave for Israel. There is many things that you can criticise Israel for but at that time immediately after the war, it was a good place. At that time the sharp conflict could have been avoided. It wasn’t clear that antagonism was inevitable at that time.

What about your family?
I have two daughters: one in California and one in Tel Aviv. Both are French. You know because one has an American husband and one has an Israeli husband. Girls follow their husbands. Well, it was a rule in certain times.

How do you work?
I work in A4 format with drawings.   I make small models. Here for example are some Shanghai Bridges. That’s another story. They are the study models. Big models are not here. You know the main road, the Nainxing Road, you arrive at the river. Did you try to cross the river? You cannot cross the river except by subway and by taxi, but there is no pedestrian way to cross the river. I found this an absurd situation. I was there in 2002. I was invited to the Shanghai  Biennale and I proposed that you continued the Nainxing Road over the river. I was invited in 2007 again and I talked about this project and people liked it so we got a political green light.

Do you feel like you have influenced people?
Corbusier used to complain about people copying him but for me this is exactly the sign of success. It’s true. Who exactly invented the Gothic style? You can start a trend. But that’s it. OK. My work influenced Archigram. But that’s OK. People should take it over and add and manipulate it. It’s an open system.

I had good relations with Cedric Price. Building is not an object it’s a process, Cedric liked very much this statement.

And how has that idea governed your own work?
When we made a project in Madras the Architectural Review asked us for the façade and there was nothing on paper, there were models of the structure just to work out whether it was feasible or not.

In the west if you are in an empty room, and I say to you, sit down, you would say where? There is no chair. If you say this in India or Japan, they sit down on the floor. It’s nothing to do with poverty, it’s a way of looking at the world. I am not trying to fight against a system. I am trying to offer alternatives. In the East it’s the peasants who look at these techniques, here it is the young architects or artists.

I once imagined a project that would sit on this island above the Arctic Circle. There are many naturally heated regions in the world. So why not have this migration? Today rich people go south for the winter. Why not everybody? There are no shanty-towns in Siberia. Only at the equator. Instead of forcing nature to behave as we want. We can adapt our behaviour to suit nature.



About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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4 Responses to Interview: Yona Friedman

  1. Jonesy Jones says:

    What an old fart! His views on the Transrapid maglev is particularly troublesome, because it means we can’t have any real improvement on transport technology.

    • cosmopolitanscum says:

      Old fart! How very dare you. He’s still advocating a mass network of High Speed Rail across Europe. His criticism of Mag-lev is pretty spot on in my experience. The train from Beijing to Shanghai dumps you in the suburbs and you have to pay for a taxi to take you down town. High speed rail can travel on existing lines in urban areas. And then go very fast outside cities. He’s right as well to stress the importance of a network rather than a line – a negative tendency in our transport thinking too.

  2. Jonesy Jones says:

    It’s hardly the technology’s fault that the Shanghai line stops where it does. There’s no reason what so ever why it couldn’t be drawn into the city center. If you build enough lines, then eventually you have a network. Besides wouldn’t you rather reach your destination twice as fast as a TGV? That is what maglev does, and it does it by consuming far less energy, needing far less upkeep, makes far less sound pollution, and at the same time is far more safe, because it can not derail. Nowadays it is also cheaper to build than a new TGV line. Old farts are accustomed to what they know, and are usually unwilling to change, even if the new technology is superior in every way.

  3. cosmopolitanscum says:

    Yo Jonesy, Cease with the old fartness. He’s in his 80s and advocating a pan-European high speed rail network as he has for 40 years. He’s got a point with Maglev which may be cheaper to operate – personally I believe this when I see it. Even it’s most fervent advocates admit it is still more expensive to lay. Have a look at the costs here

    You say it is a not problem with the maglev technology that it does not go into central Shanghai. I’m sorry but it is. Maglev track cannot easily be laid in dense urban areas. HS trains can move on to urban lines and go to central terminals. In addition Friedman was discussing Europe which already nearly has a high speed network. I’d also point out he’s talking about Europe where an HS network is moving across the continent. Pretty silly to start laying maglev track when the network has achieved a tipping point. Friedman’s age has nothing to do with this. Indeed his progressive instincts are undimmed. Rather than clinging to the allure of a specific technology, I think he’s been vindicated in the importance of HS network, certainly for Europe.

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