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Yona Friedman, Kensington Gardens, London, 2016. Photo: ukartpics / Alamy.
Yona Friedman, Kensington Gardens, London, 2016. Photo: ukartpics / Alamy.

Yona Friedman (1923–2020)

The French architect and urban planner Yona Friedman—whose flexible, humanizing designs qualify him as one of the most influential minds of twentieth century architecture despite his relative obscurity outside the profession—has died at age ninety-six. Friedman’s legacy stems from “Mobile Architecture,” a system proposed in a 1958 manifesto of the same name that argued for a nimble, customizable infrastructure to replace the then-prevailing modernist style, which Friedman claimed was optimized for one ideal imaginary user rather than real people. In the early 1960s, Friedman conceptualized “La Ville Spatiale,” or spatial city—a stilted, palimpsestial megastructure of lodgings, voids, and public areas crafted from lightweight material. Though Friedman realized few buildings in his lifetime, his drawings and writings place him alongside nontraditional architectural thinkers such as Peter Cook, Reyner Banham, Buckminster Fuller, and Jane Jacobs, all of whom championed autonomy in urban planning. “An architect does not create a city, only an accumulation of objects,” he once said. “It is the inhabitant who ‘invents’ the city; an uninhabited city, even if new, is only a ‘ruin.’”

Born in Budapest in 1923 into a Jewish family, Friedman fled the Nazis and immigrated to Haifa, where he studied architecture at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, which rejected his thesis on mobile architecture. He eventually settled in Paris in 1957, a year after he presented his mobile architecture publicly for the first time, at the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne in Dubrovnik. (He gained French citizenship in 1966.) In 1958, Friedman founded the Groupe d'études de architecture mobile, which disbanded four years later. Beginning in the mid-’60s, Friedman taught at American universities including Columbia, Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, and in the 1970s assisted the United Nations and UNESCO. Friedman’s projects have often been called “utopian,” a label he did not rebuke so much as redefine; he considered utopia not as an impossible, futuristic fantasy, but something practical. “I have always tried, in architectural studies, to develop projects that were feasible,” he said. His theories inspired numerous avant-garde ateliers in Europe—Archigram and Superstudio among them—as well as Japanese architects including the Metabolist movement and Kenzo Tange. Moshe Safdie’s iconic housing complex Habitat 67, conceived as his master’s thesis project and built for the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair, took direct guidance from Friedman’s conception of the spatial city. In 1975, Friedman authored another pioneering treatise, Toward a Scientific Architecture, which called for a collaborative design in which the architect’s role would involve drafting a selection of housing options to a client, who would realize them through what Friedman termed a “flatwriter,” a computer program that enabled users to self-plan the layout and location of their “flats.”

Friedman continued drawing and writing into his final years—his last book was The Dilution of Architecture (Park, 2015)—and his sketches are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. “I feel younger than most other architects because I am very open,” he told an interviewer in 2016. “I keep telling young people—you can’t design something new, you have to continue. . .”