Architecture of People

By Christina Kousgaard


In the courtyard of the Arkitektforeningen (Danish Association of Architects) in the inner city of Copenhagen, 1,000 hula-hoops lie on the ground. Fifteen people of various professions, mostly architecture students, transform the hula-hoops into modules consisting of pyramids, cubes, and dodecagons, with duct tape as the only tool.

A 94-year-old dressed in khaki walks amongst the group as they assemble and stack the modules, instructing them occasionally when he sees a weak point in the construction. The gentleman is Yona Friedman.

Friedman is a French-Hungarian architect whose ideas have been called everything from genius to utopian to crazy. He first presented his idea on Mobile Architecture in 1958—a concept that later developed into his lifelong manifesto and project Ville Spatiale. His philosophy that good architecture should be easily constructible and readily transformed by its occupants has generally been considered idealistic and out of reach of reality. Despite this, it has had a significant impact on the architectural profession.

As a refugee of World War II, Friedman was 23 when he arrived in Haifa, just as the new country of Israel was becoming settled through the migration of a people who had long been dispersed from their homeland.

I knew Israel at the moment in which it was still a very interesting society, a classless society, based on migration. But then very rapidly, everything deteriorated.

By the end of World War II, Haifa had become the centre of Jewish refugee arrival from Europe. The boats arriving to the city could be carrying upwards of 4,000 passengers, one quarter of whom were typically children. The massive migration demanded a large amount of new housing. (1)

“Peoples Architecture”, Arkitektforeningen, Copenhagen 2017. Photo by Aisling O'Carroll

In 1933 the Nazi regime had closed the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany, and launched a diaspora of modernist architects and designers throughout the world. Many of the Jewish architects affiliated with the school fled to what would become Israel. The modernist architecture and design of the Bauhaus thus became a global phenomenon. The International Style perpetuated the visual style of this pioneering phase, but abandoned many of its theoretical tenets and was often indifferent to context, producing monotonous and impersonal buildings that made no concession to local culture or climate.

Working in Israel after the war, the young Friedman was confronted with the rapid development of mass housing for the newly created state, which left a huge impact on him and shaped his view and vision of architecture. It was in this context that Friedman produced a manifesto, Settlement Revolution, to articulate his visions on the future of architecture. (2)

When I was still a student, I told myself that this was an error. It is not the architect that has to design the building, but the person who lives there.

Friedman’s observations led him to openly criticize the modernist approach to the city and town planning of the 1950s. He disagreed with the fact that although the architect designs the building, another person ultimately lives there. Furthermore, he found the formulaic approach to architecture and city planning unable to adapt to changing social needs. The confinement and anonymity of the individual in such designs inspired him to take a new approach to the need for housing vast numbers of people in an ever-growing society.

Informed by his occupation as a construction worker, which he undertook to support his studies, and drawing on his experiences in Hungary, where science had played an extremely important role in education, Friedman developed his architectural thinking in an interdisciplinary way.

Mathematics, sociology, biology, physics: everything is important, because you find models in the other fields. And the inverse is true, too—other fields find the model they are looking for in what you’re doing. This is why I have always been looking into science and sociology to find my methods.

“Peoples Architecture”, Arkitektforeningen, Copenhagen 2017. Photo by Aisling O'Carroll

These methods led Friedman to ideas of mobile and participatory architecture. In order to explain how he uses scientific thinking, Friedman uses illustrations to introduce ideas of regularity and irregularity.

You know mathematics deals with regularity. But irregularity produces character. Mathematics often escapes [irregularity] with the concept of statistics… [that] is, if you want a bureaucratic reality. However, the average man doesn't exist: there are only individuals. And the average represents the bureaucrats' imagination, abstracted from the reality. But the reality continues through improvisation, in an implausible way.

Friedman’s work and approach was not initially well received. His breakthrough came when, as an unknown architect, he was accepted in 1956 to present his ideas on a “mobile architecture” at CIAM (Congrés Internationale d’Architecture Moderne) in Dubrovnik. At this landmark conference, his criticisms of modernist architecture and urban planning and his efforts to humanize the practices failed to appeal to the CIAM’s leaders, but resonated with the youthful participants, including the recently formed Team 10. (3)

Following CIAM, Friedman further developed L'Architecture Mobile, a concept that is, by definition, ephemeral: its disposition, volumes, forms, and elements change according to changing contexts, and the architecture continuously adapts to the users’ needs. According to these views, architecture should only provide a framework in which the inhabitants might construct their homes according to their needs and ideas, free from any paternalism of a master builder. Friedman was convinced that the progressive automation of production and the resultant increase in leisure time would fundamentally change how people lived. The traditional structure of the city, according to Friedman, is not equipped for this new kind of society.

Friedman has always been more interested in the people living in their homes than in the form of the buildings. While the architect acts as an adviser for the structure of living, it is the inhabitant who actually produces the inside.

Architecture is the void and architects are, in general, sculptors of the void. This is a different approach where architecture can be changed easily because it is the inhabitants that decide, like furniture. If you look at a building complex whose units have identical floor plans, each apartment will still be used differently: each inhabitant uses his or her domain as he or she sees fit. All together, this produces a complexity. The architect provides the structure and the inhabitants fill it out.

“Peoples Architecture”, Arkitektforeningen, Copenhagen 2017. Photo by Aisling O'Carroll

Friedman spent many years designing buildings that would ultimately never be built. He continued to pursue his ideas in writing, drawings, and models. As an expansion of the ideas for his manifesto L’Architecture Mobile, Friedman proposed the Ville Spatiale in 1964.

The Ville Spatiale is analogous to a skeleton—a spatial city designed for superstructures above existing cities where inhabitants can construct their own dwellings. In the Ville Spatiale, Friedman combined many of his principles: an enhanced freedom of choice for the individual, the flexible multilayered use of city space, and the augmented agency of city dwellers to give meaning to their environment. The principles of Ville Spatiale dictate construction of temporary, lightweight structures raised above the ground. The structures could span across countryside areas, bodies of water, or existing cities. In effect, they make up a city above the city.

The idea is always the same, it must be inexpensive and fast, and the inhabitants have to make it themselves. It is not statistical—it is real.

Mobile, temporary, and lightweight structures replace the rigid, inflexible, and expensive means of traditional architecture. Friedman aimed to create an elevated city space where people could live and work in dwellings of their own design. Developing the concept of superstructures over existing cities, his vision sought to explain that it was not necessary to demolish older urban structures in order to fit new housing into the existing city. Building above the existing construction would make it possible to avoid expanding outwards and at the same time retain the existing built fabric of the city. In a sense, the Ville Spatiale offered a chronologically stratified approach to preserving and simultaneously expanding the city. The concept triples the density of dwellings in the urban setting.

The structures lack facades in order to allow inhabitants to take ownership and co-produce this new part of the city. Friedman strongly believes that the inhabitant should be able to change architecture according to need and individual preference. In his proposal, he sought to provide people with the knowledge and tools to determine their own living environment.

You see that Ville Spatiale was supposed to be invented by the inhabitants, and it was difficult to explain to architects that it would have no façade. Because at the start, yes, it is one way, but most likely later the people might change it. This is why I would say that within 3 months, [the structure] would have a different shape. A small space might be made large, for instance, because people need a space for a reception. With this structure they can do it, and then return it back to the daily use pattern. That is why I call it mobile architecture.

While as yet unbuilt, the mobile, flexible, expendable architecture of the Ville Spatiale was tremendously influential on architectural thinking, most clearly seen in emerging groups of the 1950s and 60s, including Archigram, Superstudio, and the Metabolists, as well as prominent individuals such as Buckminster Fuller and Reyner Banham. (4) As Peter Cook himself has declared, Freidman was the father of the megastructure—a concept widely embraced in these transformative decades and which has since informed subsequent architectural developments as well as humanist, social, and urban theories. (5) In this way, Friedman's work has produced a durable legacy for architecture and urban theory and practice.

Believing that a constantly changing society catalyzes improvisation also means that Friedman wants to test architecture, to learn about errors and to correct them to determine how buildings or structures might work better. Every element demands to be tested and improved all the time.

I look for techniques that the inhabitant can undertake […] It is a trial and error process. It is necessary that the inhabitants first make the error, in order that they can correct it. With classical architecture, the inhabitant explains a wish to the architect, and then the architect makes the error. This is terribly expensive. The principle of improvisation allows the inhabitants the flexibility and the agency to correct my errors, also.

Returning to the courtyard of the Arkitektforeningen, the hula-hoops have, in a few hours, grown to a large structure, proudly standing several metres tall. The group assembling the structure, though strangers a few hours earlier, are now working together, testing, discussing, and continuously building. It seems like they cannot stop creating together. 

Yona Friedman in front of “Peoples Architecture”, Arkitektforeningen, Copenhagen 2017. Photo by Aisling O'Carroll

According to Friedman, the time we are living in today, with large migrations, has great potential. For the first time in more than 100 years, we have the possibility that cities can grow in new interesting ways due to the recent, and ongoing, influx of new migrants. But this opportunity demands that architects, politicians, and city planners leave more of their work to the people instead of over-planning.

Friedman reminds us that Rome was built by refugees and the same goes for many of the big cities in the United States. Beyond simply building new city fabric, immigrants bring new perspectives and creativity. Based on the simple techniques demonstrated at the Arkitektforeningen workshop, Friedman is planning a refugee camp in Beirut.

At the moment the refugees live in tents. We will give them the frame of a modular structure that they have to finish themselves. Each individual receives six circle-shaped frames of steel. Each has a diameter of two metres and they can be put together to form a cube weighing 30 kg. You can move them around like furniture. This is a way to give [the refugees] the freedom of creating a home and, in the end, a better life.

In the refugee camp, the production costs are kept at 150 euros per module, making Friedman’s architecture financially accessible. The structures can be assembled without any specific tools or skills and the instructions are conveyed in a step-by-step, cartoon-style diagram. The inhabitants will create their own homes, “paving the way for trial and error.” The resilient modular framework can be used to create single units or can be combined to form larger structures. The structure, the process, and the price all embody Friedman's philosophy and practice.

In the Arkitektforeningen's courtyard Friedman says: “People call me and my ideas utopian, but look at this, what we built in a few hours with very little instruction. This is not utopia, this is reality.”


(1) Yona Friedman and Manuel Orazi, Yona Friedman. The Dilution of Architecture, eds. Nader Seraj and Cyril Veillon (Zürich: Park Books, 2015), 330.

(2) Ibid, 386.  

(3) Wim de Wit, “The Papers of Yona Friedman,” Getty Research Journal, no. 1 (2009): 191.

(4) Ibid, 191-192.

(5) Peter Cook, Experimental Architecture (London: Studio Vista, 1970), 104.

All direct quotations from Yona Friedman (italics in main text), and much of the supporting research, were collected through a series of conversations between Yona Friedman and the author, Christina Kousgaard, between 2016-2017, in Paris, France, and Copenhagen, Denmark.

Christina Kousgaard is a Danish architect. She received a Master of Fine Arts from Umeå University in 2013 and her work has been exhibited in USA, Japan, and Iceland. In 2015 she worked for the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in Berlin. She has launched her own architecture office in Copenhagen, and is currently practicing independently, and serving as co-editor of the architectural magazine PAPER (