What is participation? Looking at what the government of the Netherlands means with it (they call it ‘participatie-samenleving’, lit. participation society) it means doing it yourself. Everyone has to take his/her own responsibility, and the government does nothing. Mainly in care for sick and elderly people, social services, unemployed people – the weakest links in society – this leads to a non structured, chaotic situation.
In architecture participation has to do with different levels of influence people want to, or can, have at the look on the inside and outside of buildings, what leads to a slight line between chaos and structure. It comes with words as adaptable, flexible, integration, layers, bearing construction and loose elements, etc. How to turn stakeholders into shareholders. But actually, between the lines, people want to identify themselves in their surroundings, what was lost in modernity.
Participation becomes an issue in architecture in the 1950’s, when modernism gets old fashioned. Living, experiencing and seeing becomes more important than the pure functional and pragmatic modernism. The lost interaction between human and his surroundings, a consequence of modern housing and urban planning, must been restored. For example Constant (Situationist International, avant garde) made the project New Babylon, where he envisioned a “world wide city for the future”, where land is owned collectively, work is fully automated and the need to work replaced with a nomadic life of creative play. As Constant puts it himself:
“The project of New Babylon only intends to give the minimum conditions for a behavior that must remain as free as possible. Any restriction of the freedom of movement, any limitation with regard to the creation of mood and atmosphere, has to be avoided. Everything has to remain possible, all is to happen, the environment has to be created by the activity of life, and not inversely.”
Building on this statement, in the 1960’s architects mentioned the separation of ‘support’ or base building from ‘infill’ or interior fit-out in residential construction and design. With this they want to give inhabitants a meaningful participation role in the design process, making it possible to let people give their own identity to their house to make it feel like home.
Later on in time new concepts like IFD (industrial, flexible and demountable) modular building, division from fixed, semi fixed and detached elements and lately I read about a new concept of creating a generic space with the fixed elements, a sort of fixed frame which gives the user the freedom to fill in all other elements the way he wants to.
But, looking beyond this beautiful concepts, people are not waiting for moving their kitchen a few inches, or to place a wall every 30 cm. people want to make their houses into homes, give it their identity so they feel at home, feeling able to explain to someone how to reach their home. That last thing is sometimes not very easy. Living in the Netherlands some city’s have endless districts with all the same houses, no shops libraries or whatsoever. To create more identity you need to have some specials like shops, library’s, schools and other buildings to prevail in a redundant surrounding. It also helps when a designer puts more meaning in the design.