Veronika Valk-Siska. European Spatial Policies and State Architects

We do not merely need the spatial policy as a document but also the people to implement it.

Designing and developing the physical and social environment requires well-considered decisions and wise decision-makers whose intervention in the spatial policy and development processes would be meaningful and adept. Architectural policies employed in Europe guide to a greater or smaller extent the development of spatial reality around us. 

In cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and the Union of Estonian Architects, the Estonian Presidency conference on European architectural policies was held on September 21 in Tallinn providing an overview of the present state of spatial design and building culture in Europe. The speakers presented the latest trends in architectural policies as well as success stories of respective implementation1. But also various ways in which the architectural policies would allow us to weigh the spatial impact of the decisions made by the state and local governments. 

In the past 40 years, the majority of European countries have drawn up their own architectural policy with the first one adopted as the Architect’s Act in France in 1977 which came to form the basis for the cross-ministerial unit (MIQCP) responsible for the quality of public buildings in 1980s. It may be said that almost all European architectural policies stress the need for improving the coordination of ministerial activities and interinstitutional cooperation, as it is the case also in Estonia: although our architectural policy dates back to 2002, there are still constant laments on the divergent decisions concerning the built environment and the lack of common goals. The mere existence of the architectural policy as a document had been considered sufficient to make the development of the social and physical environment in Estonia more coherent. Unfortunately, in the past ten years, our chancellors of justice, professional associations as well as various ministries have pointed out that there is no comprehensiveness in the process of shaping the built environment in Estonia, as the parties are strictly stuck in their own goals and values. And as could be heard in the conference presentations, such a conclusion is no exception in Europe either.

The Common European Architectural Policy

The Director of Culture and Creativity of European Commission Michel Magnier steered the discussion to the possibilities of the common EU architectural policy. It would be a sound suggestion if the given policy did not give rise to further regulations, but shaped the current EU means and mechanisms for the benefit of the field of architecture. The given field could be improved with the present means without creating any further bureaucracy – by doing something that member states could not accomplish alone. It would be reasonable to consider also in Estonia what a member state of the size of Estonia could not do alone to improve its living environment and what could be the meaning of the Pan-European architectural policy. 

The common EU architectural policy would provide the opportunity to add a complementary Pan-European layer, a cross-border dimension, to the national architectural policy. It could be concerned, for instance, with the export of architectural services, international architecture competitions, regulations on architectural education, insurance coverage of architecture companies etc. One of Magnier’s resonating ideas was the suggestion to define the quality criteria of architecture in the use of EU structural funds. With the present framework being somewhat too declarative for the purpose, Magnier suggested six building blocks to establish a more coherent EU architectural policy: quality, mobility, education and skills, social inclusion, heritage and urban regeneration (with EV 100 “Good Public Space” serving as the Estonian analogue), and the export of architectural services. “A half of Pritzker prizes are taken by Europe,” said Magnier to assert that Europe has an excellent reputation and high potential for creating great architecture on the global stage.

The negotiations and preparation for the new EU programming period (from 2021) have already begun with various efficient support programmes for both the audiovisual and music sector. If architecture was attributed equal importance on the European level, it could also gain similar (budgetary) attention. The various regulations, measures and activities implemented on the EU level that influence the field of architecture need to be consolidated: cultural activities, the Services Directive, climate and energy packet etc. “My personal feeling is that we really need the common EU architectural policy. I’m very optimistic and hope we can develop it with the existing instruments and the energy of all those who want to cooperate at the European level. We have the opportunity to do something that national policies cannot. We need to use the existing instruments and legislation is not one of them. The aim of the European architectural policy is not to create further regulations,” Magnier stated. It seems that the establishment of the respective Open Method of Coordination (OMC) working group is in the air which would not aim at drawing up binding measures requiring the EU member states to amend or adopt their own legal acts. The interest of the members of the European Forum for Architectural Policies (EFAP) in establishing the common EU architectural policy provides a solid foundation for the OMC. 

To Each His Own

Holland adopted its architectural policy in 1991 giving birth to the national architectural fund, Berlage Institute and more than 30 local architectural centres throughout the country. Inspired by Holland, their respective architectural policies were established among others by Denmark (1994), Ireland (1996), Sweden and Finland (1998) etc. The latest additions include Portugal (2015), the Czech Republic (2015), Slovenia (2017) and Austria (2017). The focus of the policies varies from spatial design (Holland) and placemaking (United Kingdom – England, Scotland) to building culture (Germany, Austria) and architecture and landscape (Portugal). The recurrent keywords in European architectural policies include sustainability/resilience, spatial planning (at the background of urbanisation), architectural heritage, improving spatial intelligence, internationalisation of architecture – with all concepts usually explained by means of leading by example, pilot projects and best practices.

Let us consider, for instance, the Danish architectural policy “Putting People First” from 2014 presented by Birgitte Jahn. It regulates 64 different initiatives implemented on ministerial level (with most of them already completed by now). Some of the activities concentrate on raising the architectural awareness of the local residents and on various ways in which they could participate more forcefully in democratic processes. Others concentrate on how architecture promotes sustainability and the quality of life. There are also initiatives revolving around education and innovation in which architecture is regarded as a promising area of economic growth and the focus is on the improvement of the international breakthrough potential of Danish architecture. In comparison, the operational programme for the Irish architectural policy 2009-2015 included 45 different initiatives primarily concentrating on the promotion of creativity and innovation in architecture.

Among the new trends we should highlight the emergence of local architectural policies, by local governments beside the national policy, as it is evidenced in Denmark and Finland. In Denmark, altogether 40% of local governments already have their own architectural policy or strategy aimed at the inclusion of citizens in the improvement of built environment and promoting the construction of residential housing and urban design. The statistics has shown that the local governments with their own architectural policy attract more investments than those who do not have one. Local governments have come to use the architectural policy as an effective tool for steering the developers’ activities. In Denmark, it was the national architectural policy that encouraged local governments to establish location-specific policies and thus the role of the state policy on the improvement of the spatial competence of the local governments must not be underestimated.

Architectural Policy as an Instrument

The main reason for initiating architectural policies across Europe lies in the fact that architecture in its wider sense is an object of public interest that is difficult to address comprehensively – in shaping the living environment, we attempt to understand the overall context and thus come to talk simultaneously about spatial planning, construction, enterprise, citizens’ initiative, social cohesion, mobility, access of services etc. The core documents steering the spatial design in Estonia (The National Spatial Plan 2030+, county plans) include the goals, however, the cooperation between government institutions in achieving them is insufficient. Institutions concentrate on the specific interests of their particular field without considering the more general aims of spatial design. Similarly in Estonia, the decision-making process (e.g. designing state buildings, the rented accommodation measure, the school network reorganisation, infrastructure projects, land transactions by the state, its enterprises or local governments, the abolition of counties etc) does not often include the consideration of the cross-sectoral and wider spatial impacts, and the decisions are only too rarely based on the research studies of specific fields. However, we see from the European experience that architectural policies are efficient instruments allowing the (local) governments to assume responsibility for the high-quality development of the physical and social environment. It all comes down to creating favourable conditions for the emergence of good architecture. And to ensuring that the implemented ideas really enhance the increase of the quality of life. 

In Germany, for instance, there is no single architectural policy document, instead, they have the notion of Baukultur – building culture – with the implementation of its ideals nevertheless carefully followed. The German Baukultur was introduced by Lars-Christian Uhlig explaining how the implementation of the Baukultur principles is supervised by the respective foundation Bundesstiftung Baukultur. The foundation operates within the public sector in cooperation with numerous private partners in the building sector. Every two years, they publish a thematic analysis on the various facets of the building culture. So, the latest report of 2016/2017 was entitled “City and Village”, while the previous one in 2014/2015 focused on future living spaces. The reports analyse, for instance, the social impact of building culture (the residents’ perspective) with respective policy recommendations. The reports are meant for a wide audience: private owners learn how to increase the value of their property, while the public sector will have a better understanding on how to increase the quality of public space and to create the identity for the urban space (placemaking). Politicians and decision-makers learn from these materials about the residents’ satisfaction or dissatisfaction, the challenges of the development of the living environment, and the various ways of solving the problems and implementing the necessary changes constructively.

Architectural Policies Require Implementers

The Estonian architectural policy was provided an action plan for its implementation in 2004-2008 which by now has only been partially realised. A policy or an action plan as a document cannot achieve much on its own while we are in need of a rise in the spatial competence throughout the whole country. Thus, the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with the Government Office and partner organisations have come to establish the Spatial Design Expert Group whose responsibility is to provide the government with their recommendations based on expert analyses for planning and implementing improved spatial decisions. The expert group led by Jaak-Aadam Looveer2 has been assigned several specific tasks. For instance, it is to establish which legislative acts and strategic documents need to be established or amended and to envision how the organisation of the national spatial development could function. In addition, the expert group should also analyse the need for a permanent competence centre focussing on the national spatial planning and the architectural design of space – whether we name it the institution of the state architect, the spatial commissioner’s office or why not even the living environment innovation laboratory.

In his conference presentation, the Irish State Architect Ciaran O’Connor explained that he takes on the role of the state real estate developer whose responsibilities in addition to planning buildings include also the development and implementation of the architectural policy, overseeing the quality of architecture, promoting knowledge-based practices, enhancing the spatial competence in the society etc. The Flemish Government Architect bouwmeester Leo Van Broeck stressed that the state architect should not design anything himself, but take the role of an active advisor with the aim of improving the quality of the built environment. The Flemish bouwmeester as an institution may be compared to a task force consisting of three components: the state architect appointed for four years, a permanent 16-member team and a broader advisory expert group. One of their main tasks is to support the public authorities (both on the state and local level) so that they could commission good architecture. The second objective is to enhance visionary spatial thinking among politicians and decision-makers but also in the society at large. The bouwmeester works under the Prime Minister advising all ministries, if necessary, and he can make proposals to amend the legislation.

The Dutch system is similar to that in Flanders with the state architect supported by an advisory expert group including among others experts of infrastructure, landscape and cultural heritage, to ensure a more competent execution of cross-sectoral projects. Much like elsewhere, also the Dutch state architect is apolitical with no political affiliation, he is independent of politics in his decisions and provides advice on the basis of expert knowledge and experience. The state architect is not allowed to design any public buildings, to retain the credibility of the institution.

There is an impressive amount of tasks on the spatial design expert group’s desk, to be tackled by next autumn, but also a strong will to reach a state where our common living environment is shaped through comprehensive and careful consideration. The initial goal of the expert group is to define the recommendations concerning spatial policy by early 2019 and the architectural policy conference hopefully gave them plenty of food for thought. 

VERONIKA VALK-SISKA was awarded the Estonian Young Architect Award 2012 and she defended her doctoral thesis at RMIT University in Australia. She has worked as the architecture editor of the cultural weekly Sirp and since 2015 as the advisor on architecture and design at the Ministry of Culture.

HEADER photo by Tim Bow. Leo Van Broeck emphasised that urban design legislation should be more flexible, it should be target orientated, not method oriented. German timber merchant Jens Braun built the unusual giant furniture as a shelter for his horses. No permission was required for the giant furniture.

PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2018 winter edition (No 92).

1 Most Europearn architectural policies are available on ACE website

2 See also the interview with Jaak-Adam Looveer in Maja 3-2017.


Summer-fall 2022: Built Heritage and Modern Times