Łukasz, from Poland, patiently paints the wall with his roller. Underneath, almost invisible, are the last remaining traces of the many names of architects that used to be written on the wall with gray letters. “People pass by every half an hour and ask why I’m doing this, or if the names will come back. I tell them that I don’t know, [that] they just told me to paint it white. Actually, this is not white, but off-white,” he clarifies, standing on his scissor lift. Back in 2008, Łukasz worked on the renovation of BK: “Few weeks after [the fire], we started working on this building: it was summer, and it had to be done in October. We were outside, on the scaffold, for [painting] the windows: they were different colours, but then they changed all windows to just grey. We had around 17 different colours, it was a bit like rainbow,” he says, “I think it was [during] this time that this wall was painted. They put the names after that.” As a living bearer of changes, Łukasz has worked replacing what the fire took away, painting rainbows that somebody shaded later and now he erases a constellation of names that used to mean something to somebody. But what did they mean, exactly? And for whom?
“In 2019 there is no sense in having Brunelleschi on a wall. The bachelor students don’t even know who Brunelleschi is,” energetically says Amina Chouairi, a Landscape student who passes by the wall, “People they keep quoting on lectures aren’t there either.” She is also adamant about the lack of women and architects from the Global South: “They should balance it.” Apparently, this discontent is not new: rumours say that in the past some teachers and students tried to add their names or the ones of their retiring colleagues to the wall, either out of indignation or for fun. They also say it didn’t take long before the maintenance staff erased the apocryphal additions and restored things back to its original state. Before leaving, the student also tells that she heard of new names being printed in the model hall. After a few inquiries, it turns out to be just another rumour.
A look back to the names on the Wall puts in evidence a lack of balance. Out of 377 names, architects from the Netherlands accounted for 44% of the total, followed by the UK (11%) and USA (8%), France (6%) and Germany (5%); the rest of countries had less than a 5% participation, with 12 of them only having one architect on the wall. In total, only 29 countries were represented: 18 European, 4 Asian, 3 North American, 3 South American, 1 form Oceania and none from Africa. In terms of gender representation, 352 (94%) were men and only 18 (5%) women: of the latest, 13 were Dutch and only two (Zaha Hadid and Ray Eames) were born outside Europe. Yet, the greatest unbalance was the one between the Global North and South, with 96% and 2%, respectively.
Nevertheless, an intention to create a certain equality in the selection and display of names seems to have existed. Highly well-known architects such as Brunelleschi, Borromini, Viollet-Le-Duc, Le Corbusier or Dick van Gameren were put next to lesser known names as Mart van Schijndel, Tjakko Hazewinkel or Burle Marx. Moreover, all names had different dimensions and positions, none of which seemed to correspond to its degree of notoriety. Yet, a feeling of unquietness remains: how could a Faculty that prides itself in being inclusive and diverse come out with such a monument to White European Men? And how did it survive for a decade without changes?
Until the removal, the official position of the Faculty toward the wall seems to have been of implicit acceptance and little criticism, displaying it in institutional videos and publications. The only official document that explicitly mentions it and tries to explain its intention is a 2018 brochure of the Faculty that confusedly states the following: “The Wall of Names contains hundreds of national and international architects and urban designers (what determined size, location and height, will remain a secret).” Astonished by the vagueness of this answer, we searched for the heads behind the wall.
"It was subjective. I think that is, maybe, the secret about it. We worked on it and we had 3 or 4 sizes of text. It should have a certain mysteriousness to it: some architects’ names are bigger, and some are small. Why? We never intended to give the answer; it was more about raising the question” says Diederik Fokkema partner architect at Fokkema & Partners, the office in charge of the Faculty’s interior design in 2008. When asked about the process and intentions behind the wall, he starts by recalling how, back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, “the idea about the Faculty of architecture was the one of an egalitarian kind of university. So everyone is the same, is treated the same, gets the same education and is treated equally. In those years you were not looking for stardom.” Then, when the new millennium brought the starchitect paradigm with it “most students wanted to become Rem Koolhaas, that was their ambition. And I think that, as a kind of joke, this came up: not the Wall of Fame, because that would have been too simple, but the Wall of Names.” At that point, he and his colleagues at the office made the first draft of the list of names and sent it for approval to the dean at the time, Wytze Patijn.
While hospitalized, Patijn made suggestions and added some names together with some of his collaborators. For him, the intention of the wall was different: “The most important thing was to show that there were different currents in the architecture. Different styles and inspiration. […] And in second place, I like to emphasize that the Faculty of Architecture was a design faculty, and not only about processing or technical methods.” The later was of special importance, for there “was always kind of resistance against the identity of the Faculty as a design school, especially by the non-designers.” Additionally, when confronted to the numbers mentioned above, the former dean limits himself to say that “I discussed, in the hospital […] the idea to have more architects from other countries outside Europe. And it was too difficult, at that moment, to give names for it. So it would be a very good idea to add [them] now.”
“To be very honest, I think that the selection of those names also reflected the narrow mindedness of the Faculty as a whole, and society at that point. I mean, it was not challenging the bigger social questions of that level,” says Fokkema when asked about the contradiction between the alleged egalitarian principles and the lack of balance in the selection of the names, “We were amid the discussions of architects as star architects, and who they were. It was more that question.”
At this point, the reasons for scraping-off the names and the future of the wall are, perhaps, the only issues that remain obscure. Sitting in his meeting room with ten empty chairs and a map of Rome by Piranesi behind him, Dick van Gameren, Dean of the Faculty, sheds some light on them. The wall will be used for “exhibition of student work […] and also to show more of the collections that are still present in the library, of maps and prints that nobody knows,” together with “some space to show a bit more about our faculty, its history. Many students don’t know about what happened in the last 130 years.” On the reasons for erasing it, he explains that, “I never found [anybody] to say ‘wow, this is really great, this wall’ so I thought ‘okay, we can do something else with that’. Of course, we could also have said ‘ok, we keep the wall, we change it, add names’ or whatever, but that is always a difficult discussion.”
“I regret it […] The history is very important, and also the architects. Every architect stays on the shoulders of older architects,” replies Patijn when hearing about these plans. Fokkema coincides with him for different reasons: “[It] is so temporary. Next month there’s another exhibition, and another one later. And, of course, you can say that is also food for thought, but it doesn’t reflect the essence of the library. That’s my opinion” he says “It should be more provoking than it was at the time” he complements.
Is erasing the best way to deal with our past? By doing it, the Wall story became just another anecdote and the hard questions were avoided. We can all sleep peacefully by thinking that its unrepresentative nature was Fokkema’s and Patijn’s fault, accusing them of not paying enough attention to social issues and fights for equality. However, and despite some isolated actions of protest, if that monument was there for so long it was thanks to the complicity of most of us, and the ones who were part of the Faculty for the last decade. Then, things might become troubling: perhaps we privileged comfort and order over the important discussions that might have disrupted our smooth and creative environment of BK. Could it be that, deep down inside, we normalized inequality while hiding behind the rhetoric of diversity? If you, just as I used to, still think that the Wall of Names was just another normal monument, the answer is yes.