Sat up straight in his favourite armchair amid the drawings covering each wall and the conceptual models positioned here and there or hanging everywhere, Yona Friedman continues to observe the world and its uncanny and binding urban layouts that only seem to compel citizens to conduct standard and forever-fixed lives.

At 93 years of age, the visionary architect has seen, written, and discussed a lot of things. As a result of his Mobile Architecture manifesto in the late 1950s, he gained worldwide recognition, as many architects became aware that flexibility enhances the chance to feel freer in daily life and thereby learned to deal with architecture in a more humble way. In the wake of this openness, he developed the principles for the Ville Spatiale, in which a huge structure suspended above the ground liberates the space below for gentle activities or makes the most of fallow areas. This implantation allows for flexible, prefabricated structures to evolve one after the other, according to necessity or convenience, and a computer program at the user’s disposal sustains free but mutual self-planning. A cable metro system enables mobility and exchange. Friedman held to these principles, and some of them were effective, such as the self-planning involved in Henri Bergson’s high school (late 1970s), while others have just been usefully diverted. “Indeed, the TGV already accomplished the metro connectivity goal. The means are different from the shuttle I’ve foreseen, but the effect could be the same: you have the European city networks and instead of extending each of them according to random economics and fast social growth, citizens could decide to choose a place for living that is independent from their workplace. The TGV could follow the German example of InterCity trains operating at fixed hours everyday, and in order to overstep the price problem you could create a unique Europe-subsidised travel card. Even financing a costless card should be less expensive than each country’s urban planning support!”

To ask Friedman his opinion about the Grand Paris project is like fuelling a fire: “I already made a feasible proposal for Paris at the end of the 1950s. But to consider software construction solutions instead of hardware urbanism is laborious and far less appealing to architectural egos wanting to make a mark with their name. The band-aid approach to today’s urbanism does not satisfy any public scope. Let’s take the philosophy of the catastrophic skyscraper: you fill up a building with office workers and at around 6.00 pm, you chuck them all out onto the street. You no doubt succeed to encourage massive rush-hour traffic problems and packed metros, not to mention the crisis caused by hysterical people trying to get to the supermarket before it closes! New technologies like computers or 3D printers would help to dissipate the crowds by letting people work from home. City planners should take into account these advances and improve public space instead of clinging to tower blocks, which only drag along with them the problems of old. What an architect needs to do more than anything else is to improvise in accordance with new situations.”

Friedman sticks to the purpose of each proposal, even when an open structure happens to be the answer, such as for this year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London. No matter how bad the weather conditions will be for presentations in the open air, the idea is to allow inventiveness. A big show of his work is currently running in Paris at Cité de l’architecture, and again, Friedman takes into account audience participation. Guided by a draft booklet, an often-practised procedure, people will take their own initiative regarding housing development, related to their personal choice.

Undertaking to involve users at each step of his projects, Friedman started with his experience at a kibbutz in Israel where he also watched Arab villages evolve; since then, convinced by the healthy experience, he’s been recording what stops spontaneous housing projects from developing. And, not to be heard by the heirs of John Locke: “It is landed property that blocks the city, when what its leitmotif should be is mobility. Look at the natural growth of slums: close to the city centre, where the work is, they show more resilience than any other neighbourhood. Slums work until land speculation comes to set an imposed order. Problems arise as soon as it is decided to change society according to an image of ‘what it should look like’. This propensity is supported by a mathematical idealism that disregards local attachment.” The architect then cited examples of this fake idealism in combination with the pretention of science. These generalisations committed the most personal and accurate concern in the name of scientific linguistics. Born in Hungary, Friedman’s mother tongue does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages like most occidental ones do; he therefore strongly refuses the statement – first conveyed by Chomsky and affirmed by Western thought – that any idea strictly holds onto a subject/verb/predicate in a sentence. Certainly, this is not the case in polysynthetic Hungarian, where the verb and noun are identical: “The idealistic pattern pretends to be equal for everybody and nevertheless, as per this example, despite our language we are able to think and have ideas.”

Since 1968, Friedman has been occupying the same flat/studio that was originally provided for him by the town council; since then, wire models or “whatever works as material” have accumulated; cork and plastic closures have been used to make the mobiles that are suspended from the ceiling; drawings, paintings, and all sorts of egg-carton bas-reliefs have been nailed to the wall or superposed. All sorts of experimentations have conquered the rooms, outlining a new organic volume. And like Nature shapes a cavern or an invention reveals the mind, rigid lines of construction have disappeared under the work in progress. Similar to Schwitters’s Merzbau installation, one wouldn’t claim it as a much-saturated living space but rather as a highly creative thought, materialised via the recycling process of daily life. This approach matches the ancestral way of doing things, and the archaic characters depicted on the paintings recall the continuity. The architect lives like he thinks and thinks like he lives. No doubt his uncommon way of observing the surrounding world emerges from the most common way of accepting it, getting by. He didn’t wait for think tanks to unveil the primitive method of surviving through flexibility, mobility, exchange, improvisation, participation, reliance, and recycling. These key words provide room to act in the world on a day-to-day basis, and in contrast to many of the think-tank promoters, he doesn’t live in a flat with decorative mouldings or a prim and clean design atmosphere. When one asks Friedman why he continues to engage after so many years, stating that urban planning is a failure well-maintained by politicians and certain architects, he replies: “Because it is interesting, and freedom is individual not collective.”

Yona Friedman: Mobile Living Architecture is at Cité de l’architecture in Paris, France, 11 May – 07 November 2016.

This article appeared in DAM56. Order your personal copy.