The ideal place for public dialogue? We designed it with architect Luc Schuiten

Places for citizen participation in our western societies are now almost non-existent and the spaces made available, be they town halls or reception halls, are not designed to make citizens feel comfortable enough to engage in dialogue under optimal conditions. On the basis of this observation, Missions Publiques and Luc Schuiten have imagined a space conducive to peaceful citizen debates: a practical and adapted installation that would meet the needs of people living in rural and urban areas. The Belgian architect was inspired by traditional meeting places to give life to this project: “an itinerant scenography of a popular debate”.

Missions Publiques: Why do these places of dialogue not exist today?

Luc Schuiten :

They do exist. In Africa, they are called palaver trees. These traditional gathering places, in the shade of which people express their concerns about life in society, village problems, etc., are a place where people gather to talk. In Amerindian societies, it is the carbet, made of round wood covered with palms. Such places where decisions for the community are taken in small committees, can also be found in the Amazon, in Iraq, in Vietnam, all over the world. Returning to the ancestral model, the wise men sit on the roots of the tree. The roots are an extraordinary communication network, as they are connected to each other by the mycelium of the fungi and thus form an immense network of exchange with the natural environment. It is not insignificant to gather under the protection of a tree, its shade, but also from rain, bad weather…wisdom emanates from these sites.

In our societies, the number of people involved is much greater. The system in which citizens go every 4 to 5 years to elect their representatives has its limits. What is at stake in citizen deliberations such as those accompanied by Missions Publiques is very special because it requires a know-how, knowledge and method that is not yet sufficiently widespread to be representative. A particular organisation was therefore needed to manage this collective space.

Caption illustration: The vernacular decision-making areas drawn in each alcove are a metaphor to symbolise the dialogue that is comes through the roots.

"The ideal pursued is to find one's balance in the relationship with others.

Photo: Charlène Yves

Luc Schuiten

Architect

Missions Publiques: In order for many communities to benefit from this space, the place has been designed as itinerant.

Luc Schuiten: This project is based on the model of a nomadic society with its tents. The structure can be easily dismantled and transported in a semi-trailer to allow multiple meetings without too many technical constraints. The circus, which can be set up and dismantled continuously, is a more striking example.

To create the conditions for a peaceful dialogue, I worked with Missions Publiques and applied their method: small groups work together, then spokesperson gives a restitution of each group’s discussion in a hemicycle. The arrangement of the alcoves enables to both work in small groups and the restitution in plenary without moving a seat, while still having an overview of the groups. And of course, great acoustics.

The aim was to create an environment where everyone would feel comfortable to express themselves fully… and to connect with the whole community. We want this space to encourage people go beyond our own interests and have subtle and intelligent conversations. The goal is to find balance in the relationship with others.

A well-functioning city is a city that shows empathy (…) The city of tomorrow is a city that offers a dignified place for everyone.

Missions Publiques: Your projects are all very connected to forms of life and nature…what is your vision of the places where people will live in 100 years’ time?

Luc Schuiten: The most important thing for me is to feel that we are part of one big family: the living world as a whole. 25% of our genetic heritage is the same as that of the tree. And how do we represent our family? Isn’t it always in the form of a family tree? We, the human species, must become aware of this in order to connect ourselves to our place of life, to our future. We treat our family in a terrible way. What can we do tomorrow with the cities? We need to give back a beautiful place to the living, and give it the means to develop: gradually reduce the size of cities, diversify the places where we live, “unblock” part of these by restoring green spaces to houses: putting back nature on the roof to compensate for the nature that has been removed from the ground, for example. In a hundred years from now, the city will have mutated to adapt to living conditions without the fossil fuels that have largely disappeared. It will regain a quality of life that it has lost. New plant structures will complete the present architectural art.

Today, I am very little in tune with the decisions that politicians make when faced with difficulties, the use of the forces of law and order and repression. A well-functioning city is a city which shows empathy. In my projects for the homeless, for example, the idea is to provide those left behind with dignified and respectable housing that is well integrated into the urban environment at a relatively low cost. These small apartment blocks are built on urban cankers, the remnants of urbanisation, abandoned places just like the poor in our societies. Making these two problems a solution seems to me to be the right thing to do. The city of tomorrow is a city that offers a dignified place for everyone.

What we lack are places that will help us to be in the optimum conditions to be able to make the most enlightened decisions (…). Politicians also suffer from this lack of spaces for dialogue, because they are only guided by their own intuitions.

Missions Publiques: Your inspiration for tomorrow is also a return to ancestral foundations and the sources of nature?

Luc Schuiten: Nature always shows us an example, look at how social insects act, some have managed to create a democracy. Take bees, when the hive becomes too large, the bees create a second one. The decision on where to locate it is taken collectively and follows a real democratic process: the bees will explore the surroundings, return to the hive and explain to others. To do this, they dance and each movement is an indication of the location, direction, specificity, dangers etc.; all the bees around react by flapping their wings. Each of the explorer bees will dance in turn and the whole community will show its support, or lack thereof, for the new settlement. It is incredible and magnificent. We didn’t invent democracy, it’s been around for a long time. And the bees have found the method to make it live. What we lack in my opinion are places that will help us to be in the optimum conditions to be able to make the most enlightened decisions.

Politicians also suffer from this lack of spaces for dialogue, because they are only guided by their own intuitions. We move forward at an extraordinary speed and we just look at what is happening in front of our noses; as if we were driving on a motorway at 150 km/h with a visibility of 4 metres. When you go that fast, you absolutely have to see far, very far away. Political power is not in the conditions necessary for making long-term decisions, because voters demand very short-term results. One of the examples I prefer to illustrate this is that of certain Amerindian societies; when they had to make important decisions for the future of the tribe, they summoned the 7th generation, i.e. the one that was going to arrive in 100 years’ time. If the decision was beneficial to that generation, then the decision was made.

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