Have You Ever Heard of Lucius Burckhardt?

Lucius Burckhardt (uni-weimar.de)By Renard Teipelke

Usually the length of a person’s English Wikipedia article indicates how far their global reach has been. In the case of the Swiss urban planning critic Lucius Burckhardt (1925-2003) I have to assume that his reach beyond German-speaking countries may be as limited as his two-line entry on Wikipedia. This is incredibly surprising in light of Burckhardt’s oeuvre of more than four decades of critical urban development analysis, covering both theory and practice, and a manifold of fields, including architecture, urban planning, transport engineering, welfare policies, economics, design, and environmental studies. Having read his various essays, I was stunned to see how advanced Burckhardt’s analysis and thinking was.

In the following article, I would like to summarize and translate some of Burckhardt’s wise and/or controversial arguments, based on publishing house Martin Schmitz’ comprehensive edition of his work (here). Jesko Fezer and Martin Schmitz put together more than 34 of Burckhardt’s articles and essays, organized along the conceptual triangle of politics – environment – people. Luckily, the two editors have already finished an English edition of Burckhardt’s texts on his theory of environmental design (here) and they seem to work on further editions to make these thought-provoking ideas available to a wider, English-speaking audience. Below is my selection of some of Burckhardt’s ideas as a teaser to spark your interest in reading more by the Swiss strollologist.

Since my translation may not be word-by-word, I highlight the quoted text in italics but without quotation marks. Reference for all adapted translated quotes (with page numbers in parentheses): Lucius Burckhardt. 2004. Wer plant die Planung?: Architektur, Politik und Mensch. Ed. Jesko Fezer and Martin Schmitz. Berlin (Martin Schmitz).

Lucius Burckhardt - Wer plant die Planung - Cover (Martin-Schmitz-Verlag.de)Instead of tackling problems through strategies, we address them through individual solutions. (26)

The city does not call for a sorting and separation of functions, but for overlay and multi-functional uses: polyvalence of public amenities. (27)

In every design process we shall only define to the extent that the next partner in the design process can also still have a say. (45)

Actually only at the very beginning there is a freedom of choice; however, such beginnings can usually not be found in reality, have passed without notice, or are deliberately hidden. (78)

The building (construction) decision is linguistically preprogrammed. (92)

An ethical attitude is strongly interlinked with responsibility. However, responsibility for results that others have to bear is an empty word. (102)

The differentiation into planners and concerned parties (stakeholders) is hypocritical; the planners themselves are indeed concerned, though they tend to flew from the concernedness. (…) Those who allocate benefits and deteriorations are, thus, part of the allocation system. Therefore (…): There cannot be a technical objectivity in planning’s decision making. (123)

The inner city has to be accessible by transport; however, it also has to be worth reaching the inner city. It has to be a destination. (134)

Only in those spaces where the city appears vivid and concrete the individual can perform an act of belonging. (138)

The clients fail in analyzing their problems and leave these to the architects; the end users are completely powerless – they must not and cannot change what does not belong to them. (159)

Planning based on the minimal prediction is one of small steps, making it a more effective planning for the people. Grand planning has been planning against the people. (176)

Satisfaction with a minimal set of basic services is not possible, since human demands are endless. We are all potential Louis XIV. (…) Thus, we are choosing between shortcomings. (186)

Invisible design. Today that means: conventional design that does not take note of its social function. However, it could also mean: a design of tomorrow, which is able to consciously consider invisible systems of objects and human relations. (199)

Nobody can live on the breadline. (203)

If one breaks up the interrelations of urban society, one divides the city into neighborhoods, thereby destroying the effect of tolerance and shifting the attitude of citizens towards others back onto the level of the small town or village. (248)

In the difficult and interdependent medium of urban planning, the citizens are not addressed as citizens. They are addressed as a particular stakeholder: car driver, tax payer, house owner etc. When addressed within these partial roles, the citizens will reply in absolute terms. (…) And such particular role-consciousness is strategically used by public and private interests. (275)

The income curve of a family – or even more characteristically – the income curve per family member usually increases with a delay over the spatial need curve. (306)

Under the conditions of zero growth, it is particularly the construction industry, dependent on growth rates, which will most strongly react. In order to sustain its business the destruction of the existing building assets is the most effective instrument. (313)

Another point is the reclamation of spaces, public spaces. One always says: “Nowadays the cities are so cramped, the spaces are missing.” Bu that is not true: The spaces are not cramped; the streets are actually far too wide. The spaces are not missing, but what is missing is the opportunity to use the spaces. (…) Conclusion: The spaces have to be reclaimed again. (341)

Small interventions, which also have symbolic character (…), achieve more impact (usability) than large construction activities. (346)

Annemarie & Lucius Burckhardt (baunetz.de)From Small Steps and Big Impacts (1978)

(…) I think about a situation in Zurich. The river Limmat flows through the city and along the river bank there are buildings. But in one spot there is a gap from where you can see the Limmat river bank from the sidewalk of the street. It is a west-facing position, so towards the sun. When you pass by during a warm spring evening, you can climb down to the Limmat or sit down on the stairs to enjoy the sun for a moment. Now, the city administration addressed the place and said: This is a nice place and it is wrong that the hectic traffic and the nice tranquility mix here. We have to build a securing barrier at the entrance. Since then, the stairs have only been occupied by hippies. They are a sign in themselves: We don’t work, we are idlers! And here is the signal: Here in this place one idles, one lays down in the sun. In this example role and signal only work for a specifically defined social position. But what’s with the businessman or the housewife who ran their errands and who are now on their way home; previously they passed here and were seduced by the sun to go down to the river bank for a moment. They were not in the role of idlers and they didn’t want to be. They didn’t fear anything more than an acquaintance passing by from the other side saying: Oh, you are just sitting here in the sun; don’t you have anything to do? They only wanted to go down ‘coincidentally’. If they would have seen an acquaintance, they would have probably climbed up right away, and the acquaintance would nearly not have noticed that they were sitting down there; or the acquaintance would have felt a little bit embarrassed to also climb down. Everything would have been resolved with a smile. Now when the same housewife or the homecoming employee enter through the gate, they are in the role of the idlers. When the other comes and looks over the gate, he laughs: Haha, you are sitting here in the sun, even though it is a work day. One can draw a lesson from that: The designed environment or the environment that we want to make comfortable needs to be designed in a way that enables socially acceptable roles. This is concurrently a critique of the many things that environment planners, park agencies or landscape architects are doing – it looks so beautiful, but it is nevertheless done wrong. (183-184)

Reference for all adapted translated quotes:

Lucius Burckhardt. 2004. Wer plant die Planung?: Architektur, Politik und Mensch. Ed. Jesko Fezer and Martin Schmitz. Berlin (Martin Schmitz).

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