The path of courage through suburbia (Nina Michlovská)

“There is something big happening between us and those essentially affected by that or cooperate on that feel a sense of deep happiness that it is something new: the restoration of the art of building. A new order of spaces and works, forms and people arises, clear and in the light cleanliness of its strict youth, on the ruins of obsolete memories, claims having lost their sense, and misunderstood symbols, and here and there, new works are being erected whose shape might be compared to the shape of nature at the end of winter, still without all the wealth and yet all filled with promises and hopes that it will happen one day; a shape that does not expect any other ornaments than the ornament of the gently loved and carefully protected human life…”

This timeless statement, full of enthusiasm and written by architect Rudolf Schwarz, may be read by the visitor on one of the thirteen panels of the Path of Courage, inaugurated at the beginning of November last year in the community of Psáry-Dolní Jirčany near Prague. The reality that it illustrates, though, sharply contrasts with the text. It is located in the middle of typical Central Bohemian suburban development.

In the course of last year, the international CULBURB (Cultural Acupuncture Treatment for Suburb) project took place in six Central European countries. Within the project, its initiator, the Centre for Central European Architecture (CCEA) in Prague, drew attention to the issues of suburban development of Central European capital cities. The organisers selected a total of eight residential units, either municipalities or neighbourhoods, that have turned, over time and due to various reasons, either historical or geographical or as a result of the specific development of the given area, into non-functional residential organisms with a frequently unclear status. The open invitation announced by the CCEA in the autumn 2011 welcomed projects whose common objective consisted in revitalising the selected suburban residential areas by means of a single intervention, thus encouraging social interaction that carries the potential to become a catalyser of further positive changes.

In the Czech Republic, Psáry-Dolní Jirčany was invited to take part in the project, being one of the municipalities whose shaping follows a specific and urban development of residential areas in the vicinity of Prague, i.e. the phenomenon of massive unregulated development of the colonies of detached houses – residential areas most commonly labelled as satellite towns. There are a number of problems associated with this type of suburban development. It was not until recent years that these have reached more general awareness. They are associated with the character of the development and its relation with the municipality and the nearby metropolis. The essential problems include low infrastructure, the absence of public life, increasing car transport, excessive financial load of municipalities, and above all, the irreversible devastation of landscape. One of the dominant issues includes the problematic social interaction between the residents of the built colonies of detached houses, as well as between the newcomers and old residents. This usually tends to be zero or, on the contrary, totally escalated, thus hindering the cultivation of the residential areas or even the further development of municipalities.

Using various means, the authors of four selected projects attempted to activate and develop the social relations in Psáry-Dolní Jirčany and thus initiate a process that would result in more long-term positive changes in the location. By means of a simple gesture, the Laboratory decided to activate the interest of inhabitants in influencing and cultivating their own municipality. Laboratory donated the amount for delivering its project to the inhabitants of Psáry. By means of questionnaires, they could propose and subsequently choose how the sum should be used for the municipality’s development. The author’s teams from Slovakia and Germany decided to work with children and young families. Using a form of a game, they attempted to awaken the interest in exploring the environment where they live and deepen the relationship to it, since it is the identification of people with the place that conditions its considerate use and an active approach while taking care of it.

The trio of artists of Matěj Al-Ali, Petr Dub and Tomáš Moravec subjected the suburban environment to the most thorough analysis. In their artistic intervention, the authors work with a form of a nature trail. It has a shape of twelve stops connecting the old housing of the municipality with the newly developed colonies of detached houses at its edge and the free landscape. The artists have chosen texts from specialist publications and websites dealing with the issues of suburban development from various perspectives. Despite the fact that in some cases, these are strict theoretical texts or the language of legislation, they are able to work with them ingeniously within individual stops. They make use of hints, contrast or even subtle irony. They compare the extent to which the theory is applied in practice. They do not ask the reader. Questions arise on their own. Unexpectedly, many messages strongly resonate in the given situations. This is probably the strongest in the timeless statement or Rudolf Schwarz in the introduction to the book entitled Construction Site of Europe. At other times, the texts may seem too descriptive. Yet even here, the description is not used aimlessly. As pointed out by Pavel Hnilička in his book entitled Settlement Mash, focusing on the issues of the suburban development, the description itself is an important tool preceding a deeper analysis.

The individual informational panels refer to the generally applicable phenomena associated with suburbia, and the authors only comment on them by selecting the location. Despite this, the Path has been gradually perceived as a controversial and confrontational project on the authors’ side due to simplified and mediated information. In the introduction to the accompanying map, it was them who included a statement aptly depicting the intention of their artistic and urban intervention: “On the occasion of the congress in Rime in 1936, Le Corbusier described the “architectural walk” as a means of experiencing architecture. Through a walk, we develop a feeling of the architecture, and the shock is a medium of this feeling.” It may be added that this means not only experiencing the architecture itself but also its perception in a broader context within the landscape. The project goals correspond well to the selected title of the Path of Courage. Visiting the Path brings the experience of the place and related situations or the specific housing type of the suburban area and its problems or its possible benefits, as well. This experience cannot be replaced with mediated information. Despite the fact that it may be unpleasant at the particular moment, as it is in fact inherent to every path of courage, it settles more deeply in our memory, thus becoming valuable experience that may substantially influence our direction and decision-making in the future.

Naming the intervention as the Path of Courage is apt in other respects, as well. Working on the project was an imaginary path of courage for the authors themselves, too. They also proceeded from the position of lay public in an effort to trace the factors and mechanisms contributing to a radical change in the environment in which they operate, and by means of various sources of information, to name them objectively and to mediate them to the viewer. There is no doubt that the walk is a path of courage for the visitors, as well. It does not follow a route that would have a defined end or beginning of the meaning. Sometimes we have to go back since we find ourselves at the end of the street that leads to nowhere. We have to walk through some of the places twice or we have to avoid them. The aim of the authors is not to confuse the walkers and let them get lost, but again to point out the characteristic aspects of this environment. Inadvertently, the dead-end streets may appear as a metaphor, stimulating the question whether it is right here that housing development has ended up in a hopeless situation due to the selected development type and its (lack of) planning. Last but not least, the project, owing to its title, attracted the attention of some Internet trippers through whom it enters into the awareness of broader public.

The participant to whom the Path of Courage is now certainly the most miserable is the management of the municipality of Psáry-Dolní Jirčany. Currently, it is facing the reactions of angry inhabitants. They believe that it is due to the Path of Courage that their community has become the focus of media attention as a deterrent example of architectural and urban-planning atrocities. Yet this represents one perspective only. They do not realise that this project merely points out the general phenomena that directly affect them and that they can substantially influence. It is for them and their municipality that the projects may represent the greatest benefit in the future. Certainly, Psáry is an example of the contemporary suburban development with its strengths and above all, weaknesses. Not at all exceptional but on the contrary, one of many. The municipality management has not only realised this situation but also plucked up the courage to acknowledge that publicly, take over the responsibility for it and attempt to deal with it. It is only the municipality that plays the role of the primary and irreplaceable regulator of the current situation and the future development. The on-going debate accompanying the Path of Courage should also involve more distinctively, apart from the intervention’s authors, the project organiser, becoming aware of the strength of its position in it, i.e. the status of a highly expert and independent institution, thus making use of the potential of the open debate with the municipality representatives and general public in the attempt to positively influence the building development of the location, since it provides one of the exceptional opportunities when the theoretical knowledge may be confronted with practice and affect it positively. It would be a great shame to miss this opportunity.

(Nina Michlovská, Art&Antique, 03, 2013)