BMW Guggenheim Lab: Confronting Comfort | Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman

ZUS: Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman
ZUS: Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman


ZUS [Zones Urbaines Sensibles] is an architecture firm in Rotterdam, Netherlands, founded by architects and urbanists Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman in 2001. Leading an international team of designers and planners, van Boxel and Koreman collaborate on designs and research studies in the fields of architecture, urbanism, and landscape design. Realized projects include a waterfront park along the Huangpu River for World Expo 2010 in Shanghai; the park Printemps à Grand Bigard in Brussels; and the Spiegelzee exhibition pavilion, a temporary structure designed to travel to various locations on the Dutch coast. Construction will soon begin on their plan for Almere Duin, a large multiuse coastal district in the Netherlands. In addition to their design work, van Boxel and Koreman have curated exhibitions and published widely, and both teach and lecture at universities and schools in the Netherlands and abroad.

Van Boxel and Koreman are part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s “Lab Team New York.” In each of the nine cities visited by the Lab, a new team convenes to develop ideas around the theme and help design a roster of public programming. For an overview of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, click here. –C.B.

It is the ultimate virtue for architecture in an urban context to create or activate the public domain.
Caitlin Blanchfield (Blanchfield):

Your work bridges the disciplines of architecture, urbanism, landscape design and curatorial work, often working to create public space and engage the people using that space. How do you see the mobile lab, as an architectural object, acting both as an urban design project and a public forum?

Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman (EBKK):

In a way it is the ultimate virtue for architecture in an urban context to create or activate the public domain. The Lab is literally an open structure that invites the public to come in or just walk through. Because the structure supports all the equipment in the top, the ground floor stays open for maximum flow. Whereas before the site at 1st Street was a closed-off plot in the midst of an urban block, it now becomes a part of the urban fabric, enhancing the park which, as small as it is, creates a comfortable place on crowded Houston Street.

The public will be drawn into the Lab through different performances and events. As a Lab Team we decided we shouldn’t present our ideas directly to the public, as usually happens in architecture shows, but rather offer tools and vocabulary to start discussing certain urban issues dealing with the theme “Confronting Comfort.” That’s how we came up with the game Urbanology, which represents the complexity of city making, the difficult choices which should be made and the active role every citizen could play. The game should trigger debate and awareness that making choices for private comfort has an effect on the comfort for all.

There will also be a range of programs — film screenings, debates, lectures, workshops, tours — that will engage locals, students, officials, visitors and tourists. The tours will allow us to explore the issues of citymaking in specific contexts throughout the city. We will visit waste treatment plants to consider their impact on life in the city and we’ll host a gentrification tour to see the impact of global capital on local communities. The programs will introduce different historical, cultural and theoretical components to the debate and involve a mix of people that will hopefully turn the project into the ultimate public forum.


You talk about how the Lab operates as a “platform to explore ‘segrification’ and its relationship to urban politics.” How do you define “segrification” and how do you plan to explore it? How does the design of the Lab and its programming work in tandem to explore these issues?


Coming from a different urban and political context like the Netherlands, the word “gentrification” has a whole different connotation than here in New York. It basically stands for a positive upgrade of a neighborhood from unlivable to livable, in which everybody benefits. We are aware that in the context of New York its meaning is not so innocent.

In a sense, we think that the word “gentrification” only describes the beneficial part — the upgrading — but doesn’t represent the repercussions. Also, in Europe, we see that current neoliberal politics are not capable of dealing with issues like segregation, and even in social-democratic contexts it seems hard to cope with the divide between rich and poor. To stress this fact we use the term “segrification,” pointing out the negative aspects of gaining private comfort for some and hence displacing others. We can no longer close our eyes to the health effects of waste plants in the Bronx, basically processing the shit of Manhattan. We have to be aware that the gap between communities that are connected and disconnected grows day by day.

As a Lab Team we identified different fields — decision-making, environment, public space and mobility — in which this schism occurs. We are fully aware that all these issues are highly contested and politically loaded, but the Lab offers a great space for discussion on many levels and among many different voices. We have arranged our weeks in the Lab in three blocks, Neo-localism, Beyond Segrification and Neo-globalism, in which we map, analyze and challenge different levels of urban agency. Because this all happens in the fully transparent and accessible Lab it will hopefully trigger serious debates. The biggest achievement would be if some of the ideas and solutions that are generated in the Lab will inspire urban policy in the City of New York.

Acupunctural “green” infrastructure is a good start, but the real challenge in this city is to equally distribute wealth and health within its territory.


You will also be leading a workshop on infrastructure as part of the Lab program series. What do you think are the best solutions to update our infrastructure to evolve with the changing city?


Infrastructure is understood as the systems that make the city work, ranging from water facilities to bureaucratic operating systems. We should take note that there have been infrastructural improvements in New York over the past decades; public spaces have been added, bike lanes inserted and green roofs are popping up all over the city. This acupunctural “green” infrastructure is a good start, but the real challenge in this city is to equally distribute wealth and health within its territory. This demands a political infrastructure in which global and local parties and institutions are equally represented. What this exactly means and how we could make a start we will investigate in the Lab for the coming months.


What are some of the ways the lab interrogates “comfort” globally, and what are some of the ways it addresses this theme in New York specifically?


After New York, the Lab will travel to Berlin and then to a city in Asia, conducting a global survey on comfort that will ultimately result in a comparison between those cities. So the Lab in New York will try to focus on the local context in order to best contribute to the broader discussion. Nevertheless, some of us on Lab Team New York are from different backgrounds — Nigeria, Canada and the Netherlands — and have limited knowledge of the specific context. Therefore, we are engaging with a lot of local partners, ranging from First Street Green to Columbia University, from spurse to NYU. We hope that with them we can explore comfort issues in depth, from measuring stress levels as people move along Houston to a workshop on the future of First Street.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.