Design & Fashion

Yona Friedman. Architect, artist, visionary? “I’m a simple human animal”

Yona Friedman is a visionary and innovative architect and theorist. We met him during the inauguration of the installation he made in occasion of the Milan Design Week.

Yona Friedman, 95, is a Hungarian-French architect, city planner and theorist. We met him during the inauguration of his installation “Meubles Plus”, commissioned by Material Connexion Italia for CONAI, at the Smart City: Materials, Technology and People exhibition at Superstudiopiù in Milan, Italy.

Friedman became renowned in the late 1950’s for his visionary and strongly innovative theories: the Mobile Architecture Manifesto and the megastructure theory. Based on a strong social and political criticism of the capitalistic system, they theorise the creation of small-scale communities in order to autonomously realise housing projects that could be transformed over time according to changing needs and the development of cities. This means an autonomous planning of urban villages, instead of megalopolis.

Author of many books including the well-known “Feasible utopias” (1974), in the late 1970’s Friedman wrote about twenty architecture manuals (of great visual and academic simplicity) about self-building in developing countries, which has been successfully applied in India. Thanks to the United Nations, in fact, posters have been put up in villages in order to disseminate basic instructions to self-build houses and improve living conditions.

You’ve been considered a visionary architect. Do you believe your utopia is feasible today thanks to new technologies?
The difficulty of architecture is the technique. The idea of megastructures is transforming the house into a sort of mobile furniture that can be aggregated. In this way, everything can be composed as you want. For example, it would be logical that in the summer the configuration of the house should be different according to the weather.

In order to realise this kind of architecture a problem, which I already had in the 1950’s, arises: infrastructures. Infrastructures can be electricity networks, phone networks, water networks, or supply networks. And this is feasible thanks to technology. To have a phone network, there’s a satellite network working while you have your phone in the pocket. Likewise, we have solar energy lighting up our streets thanks to solar panels.

I call it “cloud infrastructure” or “immaterial infrastructure”. You have it for the phone, for electricity, for infrastructures.

The general idea of “city” is changing. The city is the condensation that allows me to work here, and with the use of technology I can work hundred miles from home. This condensation isn’t necessary, all the technological traffic jam, all the jamming, comes from the condensation. This allows people to be interconnected and to have social contact.

You’re an eclectic person: a theorist, an architect, a urban planner and an artist. What is the definition you prefer?
I consider myself as a normal human animal, all my activities come from fears related to art, architecture, and science. They’re artificial fears. Architecture means much more than simply building houses. I think of myself as a member of a species, equipped with a genetic capacity. Everything is linked and if you change a piece of the DNA this will have effects everywhere.

Is yours a humanistic point of view?
Yes, this is my animal side. It’s simply my sight of being a human. This is my characteristic. As you know, what we call civilization started when we began to invent great innovations and numerous technological invention – starting from a door that can be opened and closed, coming to a computer that is essentially a sequence of doors. The special thing about human species is the ability to imagine the various possibilities related to all the existing materials and that is very important.

Are there any projects you would have liked to do in your life but you didn’t have the chance?
The best expression for this is the everyday life, so my real project is to live tomorrow and I am repeating this project every day.

What’s the idea behind the Milan installation?
It’s a transformation of what I was calling “mobile architecture” in the 1950’s. This is a variation of it: converting the architecture into furniture. This means to make a room that you can move. I’ve been doing it for the past ten to twenty years, at a very low price, which means that people can replicate it with very simple techniques. And that’s the opportunity that the popular architects can develop. Design is an elitist idea, but popular design is what really matters, which means design you can do it yourself. I believe that it is a necessary way.

Then everybody can be an architect?
My answer is very simple. You can make pictures with your mobile phone, but photographers continue to exist as a specialized popular activity. Like music, many people can do it but that does’t mean that some aren’t considered artists. So even architects have the possibility to be specialists.

Yona Friedman, Tetti
Yona Friedman, Roofs. Architecture manual for developing, Quodlibet, 2017 © Domusweb

I suoi manuali di architettura si inseriscono nella grande tradizione occidentale dei trattati di architettura iniziata da Vitruvio, ma sono gli unici rivolti ai poveri, con disegni e parole essenziali, comprensibili da tutti. Qual è l’idea alla base?

What is the idea underlying your manuals, which have essential words and drawings that can be understood by everybody?
We’re visual animals, we think in images. We don’t think in reverse. So I draw them and the images I’m adding are easy to read. I’ve been using this system very largely in India. I was commissioned by the United Nations to use it and it works even now. Simplicity is important. Simplicity is the most complicated thing.


The interview was made in collaboration with the students of the Master’s programme MICRI  of IULM University, for the Design4Climate Action programme. Transcript and translation by Greta Caputo, Sabrina Mazzetti, Chiara Parma, Eleonora Pupa, Edoardo Rapezzi, Laura Serratosa and Marika Verdicchio.

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