How Lars Lundbye creates space by creating the context for life to bloom

Happyplaces Stories (video)

Carla from SPACE10 suggested that I should really talk with Lars while I was in Copenhagen. I already had a quite full schedule, meeting and filming seven people in the five days I was in Copenhagen and Malmö, but after a great conversation with Lars on the phone we managed to squeeze it in. A taxi brought me to an area where the taxi driver kind of lost his way and dropped me off nearby.

Lars has his office on top of the former Burmeister & Wain shipyard, at Refshaleøen in Copenhagen harbour. A massive building that was used to project blueprints for boats from above onto the floor, what explains the height and the architecture of the building. It is located in a bankrupted industrial area and it holds a beautiful patination of decay. It’s an area that is not yet really developed, where you can feel the possibility space for experimentation, trying out. Things that obviously is more linked to Freetown Christiania; this is even more northern als lesser visited. The famous restaurant Noma has its new home nearby, just as Amass, another restaurant. After the taxi dropped me off nearby, I walked the last part. Hopefully the area will never be too developed and remains to be that rugged.

When I approached the building a fresh batch of wood for heating was delivered. One of the team members was, armed with and IKEA bag, bringing the wood up the huge staircase bag by bag. Hidden on top of that building I found Lars in this amazing industrial place.


Natural behaviour

Some years ago, I was in India examining different community lives, especially around resource management. And I came across something that is very widespread in India, old water collection systems, which you find all over the countryside. They’re called stepwells. That are huge holes in the ground, with the stairs winding down, a massive spatial structure. What it does is, when the monsoon comes in, the water that falls it collects the water in these huge wells, and it fills up. The interesting thing about this spatial constructed container is the way that the community interacts with it. As the community starts using the water when the water falls they have to slowly wind down the stairs. What totally fascinated me about that here was a natural technology, a spatial construct of something very complex which is water management, that allows a community to have a self-explanatory interface or regulatory system around water-use, where it is a bodily, an experiential experience of how much water is being used. Compare that to how we use water in general. We turn on the tap, and we have no idea where it comes from or how is used. If we are able to conceive our relationships to resources, to each other, to anything really in term of a bodily spatial construct, we have access to a much more natural flow of behavioural regulations. When we do things naturally, we’ll be responsible to each other in a very natural way. This let me to what we are working with today. The way we construct spaces around us, in our society, in our houses, does that provide an opportunity to start interacting and relating to things in a way that contributes to a more decent or responsible, relevant or fun behaviour?

Physical constructs for social interactions

Space to me is that interesting meeting between an aesthetic physical manifestation and the spiritual, mental or experiential connection to behaviour, to what we do. I’m fascinated by religions. How they use space to help and facilitate the spiritual practice. How a small piece of cloth can be roled out in the middle of a big city and be a temple. How a small altar can provice a huge opening as a spiritual space, a spiritual eternity. Churches and temples are the most sacred examples of course. One of the oldest insights that we have, is when such a thing is in a religion or any spiritual practice, it always needs to have a social component of doing it with others. And then there is always this physical construct like a temple or church, the prayer mantle, the altar; the ritual space in which we practise it.

There are a lot of these ritual practices. These could also be my new years’ resolution like ‘now I’m going to get in shape’ and ‘I start running tomorrow’. And the next morning I do get out and run. And the next morning too. And maybe the next week. But already in week two you just go twice. And in the third week even less. But then, if I relate to others, call up friends, and suddenly we have a running club we have a social construct around that. We decide in which specific area we’re going to run, the routes.

We have that in many places in society, where we try to build those social-spatial places to have the behaviour we want. Workplaces, of course, a banal example, but they’re all about that. How does a workplace provide that framework for social behaviour that is conducted to productivity and work? But the place that maybe matters most to us, our private homes, have somehow escaped this. To a certain degree at least. And that is the area where I am now looking into. If we look at religion, sports, all kinds of practices where this all is acknowledged, the combination of those two elements of social connectivity and spatial ritual spacing of that, why don’t we do that with our houses? How come we have established a real-estate system that makes houses single family units in a row? A small box, with no rituals, with no connectivity, an isolated structure?

News ways to live

What we’re trying to do with a project we’re currently working on is trying to establish a whole new way to live. Where the spatial construct is subjugated to the social construct. Where the ritual of a given community manifests itself on a behavioural level? What’s the kind of life we want to lead? And how can space be conducted to that? How does our living space, our houses, our apartments, the places we live in, how can they become a sort of temple for that life we want to live? Together? What we see on a global level we see this exciting movement of people discussing co-living, community living and different types of social housing. That is course much more than another way of financing. It is more a global awakening to the need for different behaviour. If we want to go back to the stepwell, how would we then provide a space where we together commit ourselves to a more sustainable lifestyle? Where the decision whether to buy organic is not mine alone, but becomes a communal decision? Where we buy collectively, we cook collectively. That establishes routines and rituals. We build a kitchen that is not mine alone, but a communal kitchen where we can establish that ritual.

Create ritual spaces and let life bloom

Denmark is very interesting from a sustainability perspective. I’m always very provoked by Denmark. Of course, it is my home country. We always say that we are outstanding in sustainability, the best. We have these windmills, our houses are the best-insulated houses in the world, and the CO2 footprint we have is amazing for our primary production. We really pet ourselves on the back for that. But when we look at our secondary footprint, our behavioural footprint, we’re amongst the worst in the world. We eat just way too much meat. We have all these gadgets. Our whole consumption pattern, our behavioural pattern is out of sync with the big story we tell ourselves about sustainability. That’s a bizarre and scary paradox. If we look into co-living communities. These have a way bigger sustainable profile and much smaller footprints. The vegetarian lifestyles, organic lifestyles, sustainable energy usage, transportation, consumerism of different types; the whole thing seems to change as soon as you establish a type of ritual space around the behaviour you want. You can commit, you can start living in a kind of self-organising regulatory way. Negatively you could call it a kind of social policing, but it is something what we actually want. Then suddenly you establish a ritual space and it becomes a space for that practice.

I’m a firm believer of that when we want to succeed in radically making the green transition, the notion of these social ritual spaces and committing to each other like with the Indian stepwell, is one of the most interesting and exciting places to start developing on a large scale. And to figure out how these new lifestyle community spaces that allow us to commit and practise can work, more than just like those new years’ resolutions to become the everyday practice.

Communities happen, they are not created

When we engage in a planning plan, a city plan, there is this very vain and megalomaniac ambition or desire to plan or design your way to community. We believe that when we put the roads, infrastructure and things, we create community. Of course, we all know from empirical evidence that it does not work like that. It goes so much against to what we know from real life. And somehow we keep repeating that mistake again and again. It does not matter to what city you go to, they all have the same kind of planning process. You have these dreamlike ideas that we can plan community creation spaces. And then you turn around, and you take a walk in a forest or a field. And then you think: ‘Why is it that life kind of just appears?’ A seed grows, comes up and somehow the ambition of that flower or tree is just to bloom, to unfold, te become beautiful. Just life. So when we talk about community creation, that to me is all about life. It;s about letting go. It is about allowing life. Instead of saying planning — and yes we should think in aesthetics because that is what a flower is, the ultimate aesthetics- and the planning of the seed is that moment of creation where you allow that life to appear, to start growing and unfold. But the actual unfolding, the ambitions to beauty and life is something that just happens. If we’re going to create the context for a community, I believe very strongly we needed to establish the freedom to do that, space, the room to do that. Because life wants to unfold. Life wants to build relationships, establish love, beauty. Everything we do from a planning point of view tends to, in my opinion, do the opposite. Making it hard, rather than easy.

So the question of how to create community is for me in many ways an aesthetic question. How do we get rid of planning? How do use our aesthetic competences to plant those seeds to establish this conducive ground for life to just happen? To community to happen? That’s a whole different approach. Natural community establishment. Communities happen all the time. In the handball club, we get together every Tuesday and Thursday and play handball, have a great time. And we establish a community around that. Or the church and the parish, where they have the flee markets. The whole civil society and life qualities establish around these community practices. If we want to build cities and neighbourhoods that are conducted to those ideas, we need to step back from classic architectural real-estate driven approaches. And ask ourselves what communal practice drive this? The same way as how the flower unfolds? How do we allow spaces to appear? To manifest themselves? Are there communities that get together around particular interests, values, competencies, shared resources, then things form naturally. Life does that. What if our cities and houses existed around that idea? Instead of being subjected to city plans grid structures? The city would be very different, more a community city. A city of large tribes and subcultures and communities that would coexist. It would be a city planner’s nightmare. But it would be life. And so much more fun.

There has some seriously exciting research been done on disaster areas, like after hurricane Katrina. There are some pretty consistent data that show that the most resilient areas that are able to rebound the fastest are areas where you have small homogeneous communities in a more massive heterogeneous structure. So you have a multiplicity of small communities. That’s what you want. Yes, you have diversity like biodiversity, but you have communities or a certain tribal homogeneous nature that allows fast response and fast regeneration. This will enable you to say that you cannot plan cities as big homogenous with structures with a generalised notion of diversity, a big democratic neighbourhood of 10,000 units that are all alike. And then to assume that the variety in that is enough to create a resilient community. That is not what we see in life, where we see all these tribal community constellations in a vast diversity, interacting. And that creates that resilience and ability to rebound when you have a crisis. So, how do we build communities? I think that we let communities happen. It is more about avoiding ruining the opportunity.

Let life bloom!