Genève : Learning from a Postcard City (a view from India)

October 12, 2008

Published in October 2008 issue of Indian Architect & Builder

A view of Geneva.

In the global imagination, Switzerland often represents an ideal society. One in which Italo Calvino would find quite a few cities morphing into picture perfect post cards. Switzerland is at once globally competitive and domestically redistributive, in tune with nature and well protected against its excesses, rooted in its culture, yet cosmopolitan and technologically advanced. Swiss cities are well planned, compact and sensibly connected to the countryside. Politically, they are models of participatory democracy, with cantonal (district wise) and municipal governments administering local affairs and overseeing urban development. Switzerland attracts successful people from all over the world, particularly in the fields of business, research and diplomacy. Many choose to settle in Switzerland because of its comfortable scale, charming landscapes, and well maintained cities.

At the same time, Switzerland is known for its aversion to anything that threatens the status quo. While in India change these days is often considered synonymous with economic growth and rising living standards, in Switzerland it is associated with risk and a possible reduction in the quality of life. It is extremely difficult for the young generation to innovate in Switzerland. Soaring birds, especially if they are rebellious and creative, have to fly far from their nest in order to live up to their potential and aspirations. For them leaving the middle ground often means simply going away.

Vineyards on the coast of the Leman Lake in the Canton of Vaud, next to Geneva.

Genève, the French speaking Swiss city at the end of the Leman Lake, is truly open. It is funky and literally flexible with it multiple formal boundaries (the city, the canton and a part of the lake). Commuters come to it everyday from neighbouring France and nearly forty percent of its residents are not native. The city emerged in the European imagination during the 15th century, with its famous international fairs making it a hub on the ancient trade routes leading to the Mediterranean Sea. These trade fairs were economic and cultural events that brought in thousands of traders and merchants to this francophone city. The fairs were open, vibrant and significant urban moments that shaped its famous banking institutions and inaugurated its destiny as a global city.

Genève derives much of its force from this historical openness to the world. Culturally it appears amazingly rich. It has all the museums, cultural centres, art galleries and operas it needs.

Day long “disaster” installation in front the Grütli House, a heavily subsidised cultural centre in Geneva.

Yet, so many young arts practitioners acknowledge that something crucial is missing. The city hardly allows homegrown innovators and creators to survive. A truly creative city cannot just depend on its formal cultural infrastructure. That may produce a well educated audience, but one needs more than spectators to make for a truly creative city. One needs free actors who can experiment and express themselves without constraint. One needs affordable spaces for them to function as such. And it is here that the city fails to oblige.

A truly creative city must allow creative destruction of the status quo, especially when it is driven from within. It must have spaces that allow freedom and encourage the ability to take real risks for its emerging generation of practitioners. These are things that cannot be part of the formal cultural systems. Genève may support its most successful artists and creators through grants and other institutional arrangements. Subsidies from the national government also make themselves available to a handful of movie producers and musicians who depend on them. However, these are just not enough when free spaces for self-expression are being shut down.

Until very recently Geneva had its own version of the great European cultural practice of squatting. Squatting is something that one never thinks of in the context of Europe, let alone Switzerland. However the European squat movement was responsible for the cultural effervescence of cities like Paris in the 1970s, Copenhagen in the 1980s, Barcelona in the 1990s and Berlin in the 2000s. Similarly, Genève had several squats that provided cheap shelter for students, artists, nomads and other free spirits.

The site of Artamis in Geneva was squatted by artists, designers and musicians. The site is now being redeveloped and the occupants have be relocated elsewhere in the city.

To the Asian reader, the word squat usually evokes informal settlements built by poor immigrants on public land. In Europe squatting basically describes the occupation of an abandoned structure by a group of young people who cannot afford to rent a regular apartment. The degree of tolerance towards this practice varies from one country to the other. In the Netherlands squatting is authorized in any building that has not been used for over a year. This guarantees an optimum use of space in an urban context where it is scarce. Until recently, in Genève, an owner had to show a rehabilitation project for its property before the police could evacuate squatters.

Squats thus provided a natural habitat for those who could not afford formal housing or working space. It was an indirect subsidy from property owners to artists and creators who would not have been able to do their art if they had to work full time to pay their rent.

Artamis Summer 2008.

Genève use to have a fairly tolerant attitude towards squats. Many of them had activities open to the public such as art galleries, theatres, concerts, bars, and restaurants. These constituted a point of connection between the squatters and the public. They functioned as incubators and breeding ground for artists, writers, musicians, designers and so on. A whole generation of local creators emerged from the squats.

In the past few years a sharp rise in property prices and the rise of a new brand of political conservatism in Europe has unleashed a huge backlash against squats and squatters. The laws have changed and now the owner doesn’t need to present any plan for rehabilitation. The attitude of the authorities in Genève has changed, and squatting is no longer tolerated. Almost all the squats have closed down forcing many out of the city.

Ironically this happens just at the time when new ideas about the ‘creative class’ are spreading in universities, planning departments and the political arena. According to the proponents, the new urban elite is highly mobile and creative. In an economic context where innovation is vital to the conservation and conquest of new markets, cities must compete to attract and retain creative people. The creative class wants lively cities with a lively and inspiring cultural scene that multiplies networking opportunities and stimulates imagination.

Various murals and right above the Shark bar in Artamis .

Unfortunately, this idea is more often than not misinterpreted by policy makers to mean an investment in formal cultural infrastructure. It becomes an excuse for more construction-based projects to create new physical spaces such as galleries, museums and formal performing arenas. This in turn makes cities more expensive and actually pushes the creative class (except for a handful of successful, rich and corporate dependent practitioners) outside the city.

Today, Swiss artists are leaving to Berlin, Buenos Aires, Shanghai or Mumbai in search of places where they can afford to be creative. And Genève is increasingly becoming a bankers’ or tax evaders city. A beautiful postcard that strives to preserve its cute image for the greatest pleasure of Saudi, Japanese and Indian tourists.

In many ways Genève symbolizes what is happening in other parts of the world. City authorities are fetishizing art and cultural spaces while outlawing spaces where creators and innovators can survive.

Eventually, the architecture of construction always wins. It is more lucrative, even though unnecessary. While what is really needed, an architecture of improvisation, an architecture that is inspired by the history and practice of squatting, of re-use, adaptation, and innovation.

In contrast to the Swiss city, the Indian urban landscape is a peculiar place right now. In some ways it reflects similar global processes while in others it manages to allow for genuine creativity to unfold. Especially in its vast swathes of informal settlements or in its historical small towns cracking open their shells, coming into their own. These are the spaces that are starting to attract the global adventurer artist, seeking to escape his slick, expensive and closed world.

Squats, East and West, are places of innovation where alternatives to the global standard emerge. They are hyper-local urban spaces that policy-makers, urbanists and architects should respect, understand and support. In essence we must recognize that a city must not only be open to the outside world, it must also allow inner forces to drive cultural innovation and social change.

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