Per-Johan Dahl - September 2022
Per-Johan Dahl, member of the Urban Arena steering group and Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture and the Built Environment.
Photo: Fredrik Dahl
As a first question, it would be nice to know where you are from and what your path has been to get to where you are now?
Well, I am an architect. I have a Masters degree in Architecture from Lund University. At the end of my studies, I started working in a small architecture practice in Malmö, headed by Abelardo Gonzalez who also was my professor here at the department. I was at Abelardo’s office for about 10 years, working on quite experimental projects, mainly residential buildings and interiors. I enjoyed it a lot, but I also felt that something was missing. For me architecture has always been a process of resistance towards the status quo of the industry. I see architecture as a creative force, and a tool to evaluate and upgrade the concepts that materialize society. And to do that you need knowledge -- both to challenge the systems but also to become relevant in the societal processes. I therefore never dropped academia, which is the place were knowledge is created. I got involved in different aspects of teaching throughout the years working at Abelardo’s office, and I was getting more and more interested in pursuing research as a parallel track to practice. So, nurturing this interest, and also growing an urge for leaving Sweden, I worked myself into the opportunity to start a doctoral education at UCLA, with Dana Cuff as my supervisor. I moved to Los Angeles in January 2007, to start up my Ph.D. studies, which eventually led to my dissertation, which I defended in 2012. I stayed in L.A. for another year since I really like the city. But then I was offered a position at the City University of Hong Kong. At that point I had been living in a horizontal city for more than six years, and I was really curious about living in a vertical city, like Hong Kong. So, I brought my Ph.D. to Hong Kong and worked for three years with teaching and research at CityU. Then I was offered a Postdoc opportunity at Columbia University in New York City, and went back to the United States for a year, advancing some of the research directions I had developed at UCLA. From New York, I moved to Turin as a Visiting Professor at Politecnico di Torino. I really enjoyed living and working in Italy. After that I got the chance to work in Beirut. A beautiful city and a fantastic experience working at the Lebanese American University! I was never really interested in moving back to Sweden, but rather moving back to Europe – I guess I’ve always identified myself more with Europe than with Sweden. But I got a very interesting offer here at the department, and now I am back in Sweden since 2019 -- in Scania, which is the area in Sweden I enjoy the most. I like how the department has evolved since I left in 2007.
So your Department is Architecture and the Built Environment. How is it connected to the Urban Arena?
Urban Arena is about sustainable urban development -- about how to produce new knowledge for increasing sustainability in city building. Architecture is one of the disciplines that must be part of this. I mean architecture, by tradition, is orchestrated in the materialization of urban space. We BUILD the city. We need a lot of different knowledge in order to do that, thus the urgency of inter- and transdisciplinary milieus like Urban Arena. We, at Architecture and the Built Environment, are important in this pool of players that upgrade the way we design, plan, and construct environments, both cities and landscapes.
I know that you are very involved in the teaching and supervising, but you are a researcher as well. Which research projects are you working on right now?
My current research is rather practice based. My identity is in architecture, and I enjoy pursuing research in collaboration with, and quite close to, the industry and the public sector. Right now, I am working on a few research projects. In one project, I am collaborating with actors from the public sector and the creative and cultural sector. The project is called Play for Democracy, and it focuses on children and their rights to decision making in city building processes. I have also worked for quite a while on another research project called Plan Redux, which I pursue in collaboration with the City of Gothenburg and the Movium Think Tank at SLU, as well as with a number of international scholars. Our objective is to upgrade tools, protocols, and processes in urban planning -- to challenge the status quo in urban planning procedure, to increase the ability to work more site specific, to take more care about, and rethink, what cultural heritage is, or can be, in order to enhance innovation in the transformation of buildings and areas that are considered obsolete, or waiting for an upgrade.
You say that you are challenging the ways of developing urbanism, so where do you see your research agenda going in the future?
Well, these challenges are both qualitative and quantitative. For the qualitative, I think there are a lot of mindsets that need to be changed, which is very difficult. As well as the culture and the routines at planning departments. Since all agencies, or public entities, consist of people, there needs to be a common driving force to upgrade procedures that correlate with the aims of the individual actor. This is quite challenging. Then there are more quantitative aspects like planning regulations, processes that need to be overlooked and then worked with. I am very interested in regulations. I wrote my dissertation on creative architecture responses to planning regulations. Basically, I was looking at architects using architecture as a tool to challenge, upgrade, or evolve specific aspects in planning regulation. I am still very interested in that.
And so why are cities so interesting to you?
I love cities, I am a city guy. It is the most thrilling thing for me to visit big, cosmopolitan cities. The energy there, to be part of big cities is a way of life that I’ve always enjoyed. Then of course cities are, or have been for a long time, the main economic and cultural engines in society. Urbanism, as it interests me now, is about planetary urbanization – drawing on Neil Brenner’s approach, backed up by Rem Koolhaas and other scholars. We experience, in the contemporary, how that the entire globe is being urbanized, which dissolves the dichotomy between urban and rural. The urban and the city are not necessarily the same thing, but they are always overlapping and interacting with each other. Working with urban aspects today is super interesting, because we are on a completely different trajectory than we were just a decade ago.
Do you have a favorite city?
Yes! Los Angeles is a place I like to return to as much as possible. I love Turin. On my list is to visit Panama, I’ve never been there. Well, yes, I have a lot of favorite cities.
What is the Urban Arena for you, being also part of the steering group?
Urban Arena is, for me, a network and a platform. It is a network at Lund University, where we are able to activate, identify, and consolidate most of the different disciplines that are necessary in the work of upgrading the building of cities and societies. It is a body of knowledge that is unique. This network extends outside university, but it has its roots at Lund University. Just to connect the core knowledge here at the university is a big challenge, and a very important job to be done. Then Urban Arena is also a platform, where we activate research projects across disciplines, actors, and fields. Where we can implement the knowledge produced at this interdisciplinary network, and add knowledge to the actual processes of societal construction. I think these two conditions describes the core of what Urban Arena is to me.
Do you have some wishes about how the Urban Arena could develop or continue changing?
I think Urban Arena is right now in a process of evolving. To me it has strengthened itself in the last couple of years in a very interesting direction. It is becoming clearer what Urban Arena is doing. Right now, I cannot really say that I would like to see a different direction. Perhaps I will be able to see that in a year from now, then we can do another interview and maybe I can give you a different answer. But right now, it is more about doing what we’re doing -- amping it up and continue.
This would be the end of our short interview, but do you have any final thoughts?
Well, I guess one thought has to do with the condition of the contemporary. For my own discipline, architecture, I think things are a little shaky at the moment -- things are happening without a consolidated theory. At the same time, architecture here in Sweden is gaining new momentum through the architecture policy Designed Living Environment, which was implemented in 2018. Drawing on that policy, we are now using architecture to advocate for greater quality and relevance in the way we build society. Supplementing our Swedish policy, we have the New European Bauhaus, which since 2020 injects other aspects that may have the capacity to spearhead incentives to upgrade the built environment. Too much of our city building is problematic on different levels, specifically in Sweden. If we at Urban Arena can catalyze new knowledge, and team up with the objectives in different policies, then we’ll have great possibilities to actually make some change. And that’s what I’m really aiming at!
You can find Per-Johan Dahl’s work on his Research Portal profile at Lund University: