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The New European Bauhaus: Beauty & Privilege Win Again?

The New European Bauhaus (NEB) initiative invites us to rediscover our relationship with natural environments and sustainable living. With residential and non-residential buildings responsible for about 40% of the European Union’s (EU) total energy consumption and one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions, the project aims to build green housing that is affordable and accessible to all. That is what the European Commission has expressed in its official mission statement: however, in practice, how inclusive is the NEB? Will less-privileged citizens benefit? Does the project consider the social aspects of sustainability?

Juan Carlos Benito Sanchez

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On 16 September 2020, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the New European Bauhaus (NEB) initiative in her State of the Union address. What does this initiative consist of, and what core values does it convey? Will its setup and implementation allow for the NEB to deliver on its promises? 

Six months after its launch, the initial assessment is lukewarm.

While the NEB has undeniable potential, it has – thus far – failed to convince me of its inclusiveness, and its positive impact on the lives of those who need it the most.

What is the “New” European Bauhaus?

The NEB is a European Commission-led initiative focusing on our homes and living spaces. It aims to design building stocks, both in urban and rural areas, that are beautiful, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive (meaning affordable). This is an integral part of a just transition towards a clean and circular economy. The initiative aims to ‘match sustainability with style’ (President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen), using an ‘innovative framework to support, facilitate and accelerate the green transformation’ (Commissioner of Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel). 

Integrated within the Commissions’ Renovation Wave Strategy, the NEB will serve as an interdisciplinary incubator combining architecture, technology, science, design, art, culture and sociology. The objective is to harness the insights of different segments of society while involving a wide range of stakeholders in its making.

How does it relate to the European Green Deal (EGD)?

The EGD is the EU’s economy-focused plan to become the first climate-neutral (net-zero greenhouse gas emissions) continent by 2050. Quite comprehensive, the EGD includes manifold strategies and initiatives at different levels—from the adoption of a European Climate Law to a Biodiversity or a ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy. It is also backed by a Just Transition Mechanism to provide financial support and technical assistance to those affected by this paradigm shift. 

The NEB is thus part of the arsenal of tools to deliver the European Green Deal, connecting a broader plan to tackle climate change and environmental degradation to our homes and living spaces.

As previously mentioned, the NEB runs in tandem with the Renovation Wave Strategy, another element under the umbrella of the EGD, targeted at improving the energy performance of buildings, addressing energy poverty, and decarbonising heating and cooling. 

This strategy aims to double the renovation rates of existing housing in the next ten years, enhancing people’s quality of life and improving the reuse and recycling of materials, all the while creating new green jobs. It is anchored on the concepts of retrofit, repair, restoration and regeneration, promoting circular practices with net positive social and environmental outcomes.

The NEB is also interlinked with the Affordable Housing Initiative, a featured aspect of the Renovation Wave Strategy. Its aim is to revitalise 100 neighbourhoods across the EU in the coming years through a ‘smart neighbourhood’ approach, combining technologies such as digital and smart solutions, circular and modular renovation toolkits and eco-design. 

While this last initiative shares a common ground with the NEB, notably on its attention to quality-of-life improvement at both the building and district/neighborhood levels, the NEB nevertheless remains more geared towards the cultural, aesthetic and creative aspects of this transformation.

How does it work in practice?

Rooted in the idea that design and art are meaningful for society, the NEB integrates creativity and innovation as necessary means to developing sustainable and forward-thinking architectural and city designs. 

The NEB is structured in three phases: 

1. Design phase: running from October 2020 to summer 2021. 

2. Delivery phase: beginning in September 2021. 

3. Dissemination phase: from January 2023 onwards. 

The second and third phases run in parallel. The initiative is not set up with an end date in mind, but it is rather seen as open-ended, transformative and long-lasting.

The design (or co-design) phase – currently being developed – seeks to facilitate a broad participatory co-creation process, articulated around a digital collaborative platform, Sensemaker, that helps collect inputs from all participants. Any interested person, group or entity can submit ‘practical, creative or critical’ views and proposals and contribute to enriching the NEB. 

The inputs sought by the initiative include:  

Inspiring examples: existing spaces, structures, objects, materials, events, practices and habits.

Ideas and visions: proposals, conversations, narratives, dreams, sensations and memories.

Challenges and needs: which are key to making adjustments to ensure the NEBs stated objectives are met.

The design phase also encourages people to get conversations started across their networks or to contribute by sharing papers, essays, and studies. 

These inputs are then made available to the public via the same platform. 

This first design phase also includes a prize, launched in April 2021, to reward contemporary inspirational examples, as well as a call for proposals that will select five pilot projects to be implemented from 2022 in different EU countries. The call for proposals will strive to introduce new ideas to the market and will consider the themes most nourishing for the NEB: sustainability, art and culture.

The delivery phase will start with the setup and implementation of the five pilot projects, and the dissemination phase is centred on amplifying the ideas and actions that emerge in the previous phases so that a broader audience is reached in an effort to network and share knowledge. 

This initiative is about ‘identifying the best methods, solutions, and prototypes, and making them available for cities, localities, architects, and designers’, thus reinforcing urban institutional capacities.

Beyond its sustainability and style, where does it stand today on inclusion?

If the will is there, architecture, design and innovation can certainly fulfill the aims of social justice, and ultimately serve the people.

In fact, they can even help secure human rights by bringing equality and fairness back to the foundations of our societies, ensuring a life lived in dignity for all. 

With this in mind, beyond the NEB’s self-proclaimed participatory character and focus on accessibility, affordability and inclusion, I think it is worth exploring whether, in practice, the NEB is staying true to these objectives. 

Let me share with you what I see so far…

1. A complex vocabulary and not-entirely-inclusive procedure

As it currently stands, the NEB mobilises a vocabulary that is not in the everyday language and practice of most citizens. Notions like ‘engage, harvest and ideate’ relate more to the ivory tower terminology used in policymaking and consultancy than to the lived experiences1Personal knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement in everyday events rather than through representations constructed by other people. It may also refer to knowledge of people gained from direct face-to-face interaction rather than through a technological medium. From: Oxford Reference of those most in need of the NEB.  

Moreover, making the initiative more inclusive is not only a matter of language. It would require a proactive commitment backed by dedicated funding to reach Europe’s forgotten urban and rural areas, and to establish a direct dialogue with representatives of disadvantaged groups, including persons experiencing poverty and social exclusion. 

Along the same lines, there seems to be little explanation of how this initiative is specifically going to improve the lives of these groups. Are there any NEB financial streams or technical help programmes available to solve existing problems in such communities and to make these communities truly ‘beautiful, sustainable and inclusive’?

Ultimately, a genuine commitment to inclusion would also require an open stance and willingness to re-examine the NEB’s setup. 

Would disadvantaged groups and persons living in poverty agree with the choice of a prize and the five pilot projects process as the primary means of delivering this initiative?

Suggestion: We should mobilise the vocabulary of rights and social justice to appeal directly to citizens, framing the NEB in accessible terms and clarifying its value to those most in need. We should also allow citizens’ input on the defined means of delivery. 

2. An oversight of human rights and intersectionality

This lack of inclusion is also evident when looking at the NEB ‘partners’, who act as promoters, community managers, sounding boards and key interlocutors for the initiative. Organisations representing civil society, and notably disadvantaged groups, are still disproportionately underrepresented when compared to universities and creative institutes, professional bodies and large architectural studios.

This is also noticeable via the inputs already made available (despite the barriers to access this data). Issues of accessibility, affordability and inclusion seem to be far less present, with most contributions relating to aesthetics or sustainability.

One likely consequence of this imbalance is that the NEB-inspired design will centre upon a privileged and elite-dominated experience, and sideline the needs and lived experiences of disadvantaged or minority groups. This will be even more true for people who experience multiple inequalities.

By contrast, the NEB needs a human-rights based and intersectional approach, placing the right to housing, health, water and energy via a diversity-conscious and non-discriminatory approach at its core. Only then can we truly secure accessibility, affordability and inclusion.

Suggestion: We should reach out proactively to social actors (civil society organisations and NGOs) so that disadvantaged groups, including people experiencing poverty and social exclusion, are equally represented in this process. We should commit to a human-rights based and intersectional approach to the NEB.

3. A controversial name

Finally, naming this novel initiative the ‘New European Bauhaus’ has raised controversy, as ‘Bauhaus’ directly evokes the well-known architectural and artistic movement that originated in Germany in the 1930s. 

This movement aimed to unify the principles of mass production with an individual artistic vision, combining aesthetics with everyday function. Ultimately, it sought to mobilise design, art and architecture for the benefit of the working classes. However, as its influence spread across the world, the goals of the (old) Bauhaus movement subtly evolved into ‘a way to sell gift-shop-ready objects and promote cultural tourism instead of using design to improve the lives of working-class people’. 

Let us hope that this indictment does not foreshadow the NEB’s future: that a praiseworthy initiative to put art, design and architecture at the service of sustainability and inclusion does not end up being co-opted by elite-dominated interests. 

We should not decouple aesthetics and sustainability from human rights. This initiative should consider the needs of communities and groups most vulnerable to the effects of this change, and in desperate need for a fair and just NEB.

Suggestion: We should strive to find a name that appeals to all Europeans, that can reconcile diverse cultural backgrounds and sensitivities, and that clearly conveys that the NEB is about equality and social justice as much as beauty and sustainability. 

Who will win?

We live in a world where we see, very often, a privileged segment of the population reap most of the benefits in our societies. Will the NEB be another example of this? Or will the selected pilot projects also provide ‘beautiful, sustainable and inclusive’ spaces with decent living conditions to asylum seekers in Moria or the Canary Islands, Roma families living in segregated neighbourhoods across the continent, persons with disabilities confined in institutions, or poor workers struggling to make ends meet in a post-Covid crisis era?

What does “beauty” mean if it excludes, in practice, the realisation of human rights and the fight against discrimination, poverty and social exclusion?

We often say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” At the moment, the NEB’s beauty is being influenced by the eyes of the most privileged. Is that the definition of beauty we seek to uphold in our current society?

The NEB still has a long way to go. However, let us make the necessary adjustments now in our itinerary so that everyone can be a part of this potentially beautiful journey. 

We still have time.

Juan Carlos Benito Sanchez

Leaving a crisis-ridden Spain in my early twenties to pursue my doctoral education in Belgium, I have always been intrigued by how human rights are (accidentally?) protected across Europe, especially for the most disadvantaged groups in society. My work lies at the crossroads between the realisation of social rights, on the one hand, and equality and non-discrimination, on the other hand, including from a socio-economic and an intersectional perspective. Since nothing is more accidental than the characteristics and traits we are born with and the fundamental values and beliefs we choose to stand by, I fight for a Europe where these ‘accidents’ become immaterial for a life lived in dignity as equals in society.