Accelerations by and beyond Events: Tomorrow’s Museums and Cities

Filiberto Amati, MBA, and I interviewed Samir Bantal, Director AMO at Rem Koohlaas’ OMA, Rotterdam, and Curator of the Countryside. The Future 2020 research show at the Guggenheim, New York City, on the future of (business) events, cities, and museums from a viewpoint of Design Futures, Architecture, and multidisciplinary thought leadership. These are the highlights of our lively exchange.

Besides and before his academic and practice-based credentials, Samir Bantal has his research talent imprinted in his personal story. It is the story of a second generation immigrant from Morocco into The Netherlands, whose family’s hard work managed to enable all five children a successful higher education, and prestige positions in Dutch society, as they earned and deserved. Samir’s multicultural insights are however not shaped by the university classroom only, although he was already Associated Professor at Technical University Delft in his early 30’s. His multilingual practice, from fluent international English to Arab, to native Dutch, enables him to creatively connect to both the aristocrats, tycoons, and elite that often are the clients of contemporary architecture, as well as to street style influencers, underground movements, and the Mediterranean art of conviviality and informal exchange. With an architectural portfolio of major awards and successes in Milan, Miami, Seoul, the U.S.A., the Middle East, and more international locations, Samir complements his professional practice with deeper research and insightful reflections. In his interview as thought leader contribution to our extracurricular program on the future of events, with Amati & Associates, Warsaw, Samir touched upon the bigger picture where events take place, namely the culture, commerce, and cities, and their next evolutions or disruptions.

These will happen in a world where our understanding of society and economy will also be deeply impacted by the aftermath of Covid-19, namely a Western world where the market itself showed its limitations under the pressure of multiple pandemic waves, whereas the state in collectivist oriented countries and regions demonstrated its superior ability to control the situation in terms of public security, from healthcare to public order. It is a political world, where ideologies were challenged by simple everyday practices like wearing -or not- a mouth mask, leading to trigger an undercurrent challenge to the individualistic mindset of liberal-democratic Europe, and its allies. In particular, in early 2020, a number of social syndromes, from Asian hate to the desperate reframing of the emergency through ideological lenses, acted as acupuncture stimuli within our urban societies. Within this big picture, apparently managed with efficiency at country level but rather chaotic at continental level, the roles of cities, culture, museums might change the most, in order to provide the same values and the new value we, as citizens, seek in our leisure time.

As part of his massive analytical comment in the preparation of Countryside. The Future” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, during the lustrum between 2015 and 2020, Bantal and his AMO research team research scenarios on the impact of viral pandemics on our globalised societies. That segment of Samir’s investigations did not make to the final show, however the impact of viral pandemics has hit museums as both an eventful place and an enterprise led by what appears an appear business model, that of ticketing, sponsoring, and visiting (integrated by the obvious shopping before the exit), from national institutions like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, that since the late 2000's extended its equity to Schiphol Airport retail, to dynamic foundations and micro-institutions, that connect culture within society. In this view, the acceleration to digital lifestyles might not change our drive to meet and gather, socially and economically. However, the cultural sector and museums in particular, might be greatly impacted, at the very heart of their business model and function in society. In this context, perhaps surprisingly, lessons learnt in retail might be useful, where the first question Samir asked himself when starting his award winning project in Miami, was indeed the question of relevance of bricks and mortar retail, within today’s digital natives? Here, of course, retail has developed innovative ways to combine digital and physical interactions, including pop up stores and events, in order to achieve the commercial transactions required to ensure the continuity and survival of the enterprise. Demographics simply transform our everyday into a digital universe, with the shifting of shopping to online events and offering, that enables an immense stretching of the catchment areas, leaving the retail square meters challenged. However, events might come to help in the form of smaller, more focused, physical moments of socialisation and interaction. It was OMA, the architectural and urban planning “mother company” where AMO research practice is positioned, that innovated fashion retail concepts with their introduction in 2001 of the Greek theatre archetype within the New York Epicentre of the Prada luxury brand, opening the space to host cultural events, and creating a format that has been copied since, from retail to academic buildings at universities. Digitalization, “digital native” demographics and their media consumption habits, have been at the core of Samir’s award winning modular design for Off-White flagship, with Virgil Abloh. There, the relationship between commerce, in terms of transactions that might mostly migrate online, and culture, in terms of events designed to attract and appeal people (even at the cost of a ticket), revert their natural order and perspectives, with events generating cashflow through ticketing beyond the brand equity that translates in premium pricing (as it is traditionally done through sponsorship). Furthermore, in this reframing and rethinking of hierarchies, relationships, and dialogs between digital and physical events, a number of “digital first” fashion brands resorted to events in pop up stores in order to make their online experience, tangible in the real world, e.g. Marios in FuturDome, Milan, that went from “event” to co-cranded capsule collection with the Milanese cultural and real estate brand. Samir himself curated an Amsterdam show, where Markplaats.nl, the Dutch eBay, transformed individual items for sale on their website into a collection with coherent design themes, in a gallery space.

Both for retail as well as for museum and major events, cities are crucial as sites of power, both economic and political. However, at this moment, spatially, the radius of cities expands thanks to online, remote working, to the point of phenomena like “South Working”, where staff members might simply move to another region with better food and better weather at a lower cost (which in Italy might mostly mean moving from Milan or Turin to Southern beauties). This dynamic might offer the opportunity to boldly rethink city centres from the disneyfied, marketing-driven strategies of neoliberist governments, to a new role based on authenticity, as already advocated by Pine and Gilmore in their 2007’s follow up book to the groundbreaking “Experience Economy”. Cities like Milan or Amsterdam might experience a renaissance, where their own genius loci might be rediscovered through less standardised commerce, that we do not need any longer, and more cultural features. It is not a matter of radical change, more of identify formation and co-creation through a different metropolitan vibe. This means, in way of a pun, that in Amsterdam we might see less Nutella and more Gouda cheese, and in Milan, there might be less and less Amsterdam-branded French fries, and more Nutella. What might win in the future is the cultural specificity and the creative output of cities, whereby less immigration of knowledge workers might lead to a different texture in terms of local productions, both material and cultural. The challenge of social diversity and inclusion will remain on the horizon of both cities and citizens, both from the viewpoint of environmental impact as well as economic sustainment. On this point, from urban planning, Samir has been advocating since his 2015 contribution to the Nederland Wordt Anders (“The Netherlands become different”), an event program organized by the Dutch State Architect and with my curating contribution for a session with Samir and with Daniela Krautsack of Cities Next GmbH, Vienna, the repurposing of city centres back into production, with circularity in mind as a primary requirement.

Ultimately, the macro-imperative, from museum to cities, to event designers and managers and sponsors, to education and academia, is decolonization of our ideologies, policies, and strategies. Here, education might play a big role in re-addressing the focus of knowledge, from the current universal foundation of Western cutlure. A country like Singapore might show the way forward in terms of experimenting with identity, diversity, and the future. Tomorrow’s cities, museums, and events will have to be conceived, designed, and managed keeping these principles in mind. The outlook for the next three to five years might be summarized by the end of the “location fetish” that characterized our industrial and post-industrial societies, so far. From physical infrastructure to Google Maps and SEO key lines, from a nuclear vision of cities and their city centre, to industrial production and food production, reframing will be required. From the “location, location, location” mantra of the past, to new visions of the future, today, tomorrow’s events will play their role, be it radically new or culturally fitting with tradition.