SPEECH BY FEDERAL COUNCILLOR ALAIN BERSET AT THE CAE-UIA INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ARCHITECTURAL COMPETITIONS IN PARIS, 25.10.2019

FOR A QUALITY BUILDING CULTURE

Architecture is an integral part of the human heritage, in which it must be part and which it is sometimes called upon to restore. It evolves with our conception of the relationship to the world and nature, which cannot be fixed. It therefore continues to oscillate between two contradictory impulses: the spirit of conservation and the spirit of openness. And in the context of this day of reflection, it seems important to me to describe in more detail, from a political point of view, the mechanisms of these two antagonistic forces, namely the spirit of conservation and the spirit of openness, and how they find expression in the construction world.

The invitation I extended last year to the European Ministers of Culture to come to Davos, in Graubünden, to discuss how we conceive our living spaces, was in line with our high opinion of architecture. Being open-minded when haunted by a spirit of conservation necessarily means being able to show a spirit of rupture and this is not an easy task.

Here is what Le Corbusier wrote in 1923 in his manifesto "Towards an Architecture".
"The present man feels, on the one hand, a world that is being developed logically, clearly, that produces useful and usable things with purity and, on the other hand, he finds himself disconcerted, in an old hostile environment. This framework is his lodging; his city, his street, his house, his apartment stand up against him and, unusable, prevent him from pursuing in his rest the same spiritual path that he pursues in his work. (...) There is a great disagreement between a modern state of mind that is an injunction and a suffocating stock of age-old rubbish.

Le Corbusier, who thought he was denying the past, finally considered that, in order to adapt his habitat to his environment, man had a radical choice between "architecture or revolution".
If there is a particular moment when, in the field of building policy, the spirit of conservation and the spirit of openness are brought into conflict, it is certainly during architectural competitions. In architectural competitions, beyond the purely economic aspect linked to the cost to be borne by the community, many criteria are examined, sometimes relating to the spirit of conservation, sometimes to the spirit of openness. Compliance with the binding standards applicable to spatial planning, environmental law or sustainable development is essentially intended only to facilitate the integration of new buildings into the existing decor, whether natural or built. Ecological concerns and adaptation to a changing climate are at the heart of today's debates and require us to change the way we think about buildings.
In Le Corbusier's words, it is a question of distinguishing buildings that can be likened to "secular detritus", for example in terms of their healthiness, from heritage of cultural importance worthy of protection.

According to WTO agreements, the so-called "public procurement" procedures governing architectural competitions must respect free movement and competition. It is with this in mind that we must show a spirit of openness to the international market. A spirit of openness that will continue to manifest itself in the choice of techniques, processes or modern materials used. At the time of the auction, the confrontation of the spirit of conservation and the spirit of openness ends up generating political and even philosophical reflection, which can be even more subtle. The decisions to be taken may thus reflect a certain utilitarianism, take on a sense of compromise or result from a more general essay related to aesthetics and the idea of beauty. The discussion will be political when it comes to deciding how to adapt our habitat to who we are, which implies a choice of society - individualistic or rather communitarian - and can have repercussions on the way we design our buildings.

In 1928, at the first international congress of modern architecture held in La Sarraz, the theme of architecture and its relationship with the State was discussed and the radical declaration that followed ended in these terms:
"If States took the opposite of their current attitude, they would bring about a real architectural renaissance that would naturally be integrated into the general orientation of the country's economic and social development".

Politicians were then considered outdated, obsessed with the idea of the past and prisoners of an outdated conception of beauty, with the signatory architects swearing only by modernism. But things have changed, and the spirit of heritage conservation and preservation has gradually become part of our laws, thanks to which Le Corbusier's creations will certainly never be thrown into the bin of "secular detritus". Nowadays, it is a philosophy of "at the same time" that we would almost invariably be forced to marry. Be open and modern, but "at the same time", show a spirit of conservation by placing the heritage to be built in a setting that we must also preserve.

When I travel in Europe, I often ask myself this question: Where has our built culture gone? Of course, we still come across magnificent new buildings, beautiful squares, monuments and remarkably restored complexes. But more often than not, these are areas without culture.
I'm in politics, not architecture. And I'm not an expert. However, I sometimes wonder if people are not having difficulties with their daily living space. I am thinking of the commercial areas, industrial buildings and older residential houses that share the space. Entire districts where individual transport remains king, where everything is thought of in terms of technical development and not living urban planning. Villages have also suffered over the past twenty years. Everyone has built as they see fit, often without taking into account the public space. Even the details - quality, durable materiality, simple and solid systems - have been neglected. This observation prompts us to take action: it is high time to put the emphasis back on the quality of the building. And what are the prospects for the future? They're not that dark. Because little by little, resistance seems to be forming against the trivialization of the architectural landscape.


The Davos Declaration, adopted by the European Ministers of Culture, calls for the implementation of a quality built culture. It has thus made it possible to put the objective of a quality built environment on the political agenda. I am proud that Switzerland has launched this initiative and I am pleased to note that the Davos Declaration has generated reflection and momentum in many countries and organizations. Now called the Davos Process, this approach brings together a large number of countries, as well as UNESCO and the UIA. This broad interest also shows that the discussion is urgent and that we must rethink as soon as possible how we manage our architectural environment. But we face major challenges: climate change, energy transition, changing mobility and declining biodiversity. Challenges that have a major impact on our living space. To master them, we cannot rely solely on research and technology: we must also take into account the human being and his needs. We must also ensure that these developments do not further degrade our architectural values and cultural heritage.

These challenges require effort, strength and political will. The public and private sectors must set up new collaborations that place the culture of the built environment at the centre of their thinking. Human and cultural values, the concern for the common good, must return to the centre of the debate. And a new balance must be found between economic, technical and cultural aspects.
If building is about creating culture, it is also about creating meaning. A quality building culture is not only a solid architecture. Architects are beginning to reaffirm their social responsibility and mission within society. To claim loud and clear a culture of quality building. This demand is expected to grow. To become a movement for the culture of the built environment! A movement that requires a true global urban vision, instead of a two-dimensional spatial planning. Which protects and cultivates cultural heritage while claiming a contemporary architectural language that combines conservation and openness.


We must free ourselves from the quantity of technical standards imposed by real estate and industry, and consider building culture as a common good that stands up to the economic sector and interferes in politics. It is high time to put these demands on the table and start the debate, to roll up your sleeves for building culture. For me, a quality building culture is above all the result of a passionate debate, a vast reflection and a confrontation between what is and what should be. A discussion that focuses not only on the function, performance and needs of the market, but also on the materiality, beauty and atmosphere created.

To lead this debate, we need experts, but also enlightened laymen. Because if not everyone is able to build a house, evaluate a plan or a project, everyone is able to express their needs.
A quality building culture means well-designed and vibrant villages and cities that are able to respond to the new demands of society while preserving their historical particularities. A quality building culture reinforces the sense of identity. It allows a great diversity of people to live together. At the same time, it reflects the diversity of the people who live in this living space. A quality development encourages identification with the living space and strengthens the cohesion of the neighbourhood.
Quality is a strategic imperative. To pretend that quality and beauty are subjective is a somewhat simplistic shortcut. Because there are places, neighbourhoods, buildings where we feel good. It is something that can be measured. These can be very diverse spaces, old or new, with traditional or innovative architecture. But all must be measured by the well-being you feel there.
What would I want? That the quality of the building culture becomes a real objective in our society. That the latter be aware of its collective right to enjoy a quality living space and that it exercise this right.

You, the architects, are called upon to play a central role in this new situation. Do not hesitate to take on this role, to embark on this process and to impose yourself if necessary. But the culture of the built environment concerns us all. By living in it or shaping it, we act on our environment. And this in turn has an influence on us. We all have a responsibility to actively participate in shaping our living space.

A.B.