Jean Robert

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A Swiss architect who migrated to Mexico in 1972, I consider that my intellectual biography starts there and then. The contact with a culture in which so much can be achieved with so little radically questioned my professional certainties. The first person who helped me to put my culture shock into words was John Turner, met at Cuernavaca. He pitilessly dismissed my pretensions of understanding what was going on in so-called popular or "informal" settlements out of my professional perspective and my readiness to offer "services".

Then, with Ivan Illich's guidance, I started to examine traffic - a major shaping force of urban spaces in the industrial age - as the conjunction, or the SYNERGY between what people can best do BY themselves (walking or biking) and what can be done FOR them by servicing agencies (in that case: transportation). Following the mutual proportion of freedom to walk and means of transportation, that synergy will be positive or negative. As Illich had shown in Energy and Equity, the degree of negative synergy (or counterproductivity) of urban traffic can be directly associated with its energy-intensiveness, often manifested as speed. This insight still provides the best - and the less explored entry - into the causes of ongoing and coming social, ecological and climatic catastrophes. This understanding led me to explore the history of the energy concept since its invention at the time of the early railroads and the first photographs.

Speed dissolves the particularities of the "landscape" into fleeting images, apparently confirming the scientistic notion that all that exists simultaneously coexists in a universal background space, the coordinate space of mathematical physics. This new insight oriented my further research toward the history of space perceptions, a topic that will be the core of my interventions at the Oakland meetings.

During most of my adult life, I tried to walk on two different feet: one theoretical and "intellectual", the other, practical. I spent some time thinking of alternatives to the dominant technologies of industrial society. Thanks to gifted students and friends, I had the chance to introduce a workable dry toilet on the Mexican scenery. I believe that people should empower themselves with a firm control on the elements of the modern material civilization and that this empowerment is our time's major political endeavor.

Selected Bibliography

Jean Robert's Seminar

Sept 18-20 & Oct 4-5 2000: Historical Conceptions of Place

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