Osamu Okamura: A city is not just bricks and houses, but also people and relationships between them

Photo: Matěj Komínek
Monday 6 February 2023, 14:38 – Text: Milada Křížová Hronová

During the Culture, Art and Education II conference, which was organized by the Department of Art of the Faculty of Education on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Palacky University Art Centre, Osamu Okamura spoke in its Corpus Christi Chapel. As the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Architecture of the University of Technology in Liberec, he was speaking about liveability of cities, and spreading knowledge to public regarding the topic.

Born in Tokyo, Okamura moved to Prague in 1960s with his parents. He studied architecture at the Faculty of Architecture at ČVUT Prague, and intermedia production at Academy of Arts in Prague. In the course of his professional career, he worked in USA and Gemany, and gave lectures in number of other countries. He is also the author of “Město pro každého, a praised book nominated in two categories for Czech Grand Design award.

“When I was finishing my studies, a book called Česká architektura a její přísnost was published. It was yet another book by Rostislav Švácha, one my favourite teachers. I would summarize the content of the book as „the hundred and one shades of boredom,” stated Okamura during the introduction part of his speech, regarding the post Velvet revolution era in 1990s. It was the time when he was intrigued by options of how to deconstruct the architecture of that time.

The city cannot be saved by a bunch of plan makers.

The audience surely found plenty of interesting moments in Osamu Okamura’s lecture. One of them was possibly an argument, that a city by itself is not predestined for success, and that every time Okamura thinks about a city, he thinks about people, not buildings.

“A city is not just bricks and houses, but also people and relationships between them. Empty and dysfunctional buildings, for example the Jesuit Baroque College in Jičín, which locals call nothing but Russian barracks, only show the unhealed scars in our society. When I started working together with pupils from local grammar schools to rekindle the broken relations in the town, to create what today might be called a social statement, my professor at the time, Milan Knížák, commented laconically on my efforts: ‘It's no art, any good mayor could do it.’ He was right, of course.”

Osamu Okamura perceives that cities today are full of growing conflicts and tensions. That architecture and the city are often the site of a clash of completely opposing interests or world views, which are often impossible to reconcile. However, in his opinion, it is necessary to realise that the city as such cannot be saved by a bunch of plan makers. They will not save it from the growing problems of housing unaffordability, nor from the overwhelming car traffic, nor from the city's economy, which threatens it by sprawling into the countryside, nor from a host of other problems. What is essential, he said, is a cultivated discussion among the people who live in the city.

“The city cannot do without the active involvement of all its residents. Today more than ever we talk about the need to increase the liveability and resilience of our cities. We need to give architecture to the people,” Okamura said.

Not only architects are needed, but especially educators

Okamura gained experience in this field, i.e. the possibility of educating youth in urban planning, for example through comics, YouTube music videos, performances or field workshops, at the American Chicago Architecture Foundation, where he was on a Fulbright-Masaryk scholarship in 2018.

“Some architects think they are the only experts in the world. It is not so. The Chicago Foundation is the largest and most successful in the world, with about half a million people a year attending its programs, and only three of its eighty-five employees are architects. Preference is given to professional educators. People need to realise that we live in a world we ourselves constructed and that we can change it, ideally for the better,” added the Dean of the Faculty of Art and Architecture TUL.

In his lecture entitled A City for Everyone or Why is Architecture Important? Osamu Okamura briefly considered how to design a neighbourhood that everyone would want to live in. He thought about what a city needs to improve the quality of life in it. He talked about settlement patterns and their connection to poverty which is linked to crime. He also mentioned the city's preparedness for the phenomenon of ageing. He spoke about public space and the modern city, the so-called city of short distances. He briefly mentioned the 15-minute walking city, where a person can get all basic daily needs within a quarter of an hour's walk. He also thought aloud about who owns the city and what defines its functionality. He also talked about how urban planning works, what a master plan is, who the actors are, what a city can be in the future and what challenges await us with reference to climate change.

“Remember that it is not just urban planners, politicians and developers who plan the city, but also each and every one of us. For example, by the way we behave in the city every day, by the way we move around. It is all of us who decide every morning how we go out into the city. We have a choice. We get in the car and soon we're choking in endless traffic jams along with a lot of other mutually alienated people. Let's think about how many other problems we're going to create. Let's start walking and soon we can wake up to a safe city where we will be close to everywhere and everyone,” added Dean Osamu Okamura, who has had the opportunity to explore a number of cities. He further claims that successful cities are not those with an abundance of restrictions, but those that offer alternative solutions.


Ing. Arch. MgA. Osamu Okamura, Dean of the Faculty of Art and Architecture of the Technical University of Liberec, is a member of the Prague City Council Commission for Art in Public Space. He was the program director of reSITE, an international festival and conference on more liveable cities, and editor-in-chief of the professional architectural journal ERA21, and now serves as a member of its editorial board. Since 2008 he has been an official nominee of the European Union Mies van der Rohe Award for Contemporary Architecture. Among other things, he is the author of a series of animated films and the theatre performance Virtual Ritual. He collaborates with various media and institutions in the field of architecture and urbanism interpretation.

Osamu Okamura also collaborated with Czech Television on the documentary series on contemporary architecture ProStory (2011) and with the Moravian Gallery in Brno on a series of more than thirty Architectural Walks. He is the author of City for Everyone (Labyrint, Prague 2020), winner of the Bologna Ragazzi Award. He has lectured on the topic of cities for everyone at international forums in the USA, Japan, Thailand, Ukraine and Turkey. In 2014, he was named a “New Europe 100 Outstanding Challenger from Central and Eastern Europe,” as one of the 100 outstanding contributors to the spread of global innovation from Eastern Europe, an award given by Res Publica, Google and the Visegrad Fund, in collaboration with the Financial Times.

As a member of the Board of Directors of the Czech Architecture Foundation (2015-2020), he received a Fulbright-Masaryk schollarship in 2018 to study at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (now the Chicago Architecture Center), where he focused on educational programs for children and youth.


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