Reflections on Programming a Process
Interview with Oana Simionescu, Loredana Gaiță and Martina Muzi
The Bright Cityscapes programme is the result of a collaboration between Politehnica University Timișoara (UPT) and independent cultural centre FABER. In this interview general coordinators of the project, Loredana Gaiță (UPT) and Oana Simionescu (FABER), are joined by curator Martina Muzi. They reflect on how the conditions of the programme’s emergence—collaboration and a thirst for knowledge—determined its evolution and outcomes, which aim to expand the notion of design in Timișoara.
The creative and collaborative complexity of the Bright Cityscapes programme is not something that Timișoara has experienced before. How did this programme come about?
Loredana Gaiță: The Bright Cityscapes programme was conceived to develop a fresh perspective on the city. Equally, the realisation of the programme itself is the result of a different way of looking at the city.
One year before Timișoara became European Capital of Culture 2023, there was a noticeable absence of local entities capable of undertaking a large-scale programme such as Bright Cityscapes. The curators responsible for the Capital of Culture sought to bridge this gap by instigating a collaboration between the Politehnica University of Timișoara (UPT) and FABER. It has been an ideal solution to the challenge, as it brought together an institution capable of supporting such a programme, while also tapping into local expertise and creative energy essential for infusing the project with artistic excellence.
The collaboration worked not only because of institutional synergies. Bright Cityscapes was driven by a necessity to develop an understanding of contemporary Timișoara. Both myself and Oana are architects who have been involved in numerous civic and cultural initiatives in the city, which gave us a keen awareness of its development and its pressing needs. Based on this experience, we immediately understood that in order to foster a deeper understanding of the city, we needed to go beyond local myths and impressions. Developing scientific and statistical knowledge—through the research of Norbert Petrovici—became foundational, not only for bringing the audience closer to the project but also for enabling the meaningful academic collaborations that underpin many of the design projects.
It is striking to observe that collaboration and knowledge, which are core to the Bright Cityscapes programme, were founding principles for the initiative. Another core aspect of Bright Cityscapes is design. What was important about emphasising design as a discipline that goes beyond mere aesthetics or illustration?
Oana Simionescu: In our effort to construct a broader perspective on design, our primary objective was to highlight the potential of creativity to facilitate diverse potentials and perspectives. At FABER, we consistently grapple with a fundamental question: ‘Why are the creative endeavours we pursue relevant and essential, and how can we ensure their connection to the unique realities of our city?’ Driven by this question, we are constantly exploring how to generate products, programmes, and ideas that not only resonate within our specific local context but also extend their relevance beyond that. Bright Cityscapes sought to address this very question by establishing bridges, not only the institutional ones that Loredana has already mentioned, but also bridges connecting diverse practitioners, various perceptions of Timișoara, and a wide array of knowledge and methodologies.
Timișoara, being Romania’s second most industrially significant city, is predominantly inhabited by engineers. Consequently, the role of UPT holds significant importance within the city. Bright Cityscapes’ major aim was to establish connections with the academic realm and collaboratively bring to the forefront concepts and innovations originating from academic thought, experimentation, and research.
The challenge we faced was substantial. It involved the task of linking all this information and involving key stakeholders within a global and cultural context, while also conveying the intricacies of these collaborative efforts and research through a set of exhibitions. Linking this knowledge to the pragmatic and economically-driven industrial world needed to be done using a language that conveyed accessible and compelling stories, all of which were tied to global urgencies and concerns.
The exhibition Mirroring the Ecosystem was based on visiting and observing the insides of factories typically not accessible to an outside audience. It included artefacts from the production lines, photographic documentation, infographics, and unique exhibition furniture made from assembly line elements. How did this exhibition set the stage for the Bright Cityscapes programme?
Martina Muzi: For me, Mirroring the Ecosystem was approached as more of an intervention than an exhibition. It was required that we open the Bright Cityscapes programme with an exhibition, and based on our aspirations for the programme to be research driven, we could not start with a final exhibition. So instead, Mirroring the Ecosystem was built around establishing a statement of intent; sharing with the public what the programme wanted to consider, and its different layers and scales.
The project was based on quite literally opening the doors of the UPT laboratories and various factories. Together as a team, we visited these places, asking bold questions: What is design? What is happening here? What should we be looking at? They then lent us objects, components and materials from their assembly lines that we presented in the exhibition.
It was also an opportunity for us to start a conversation and establish relationships with these companies. Simultaneously, the initial research from the commissioned economic report came in, positioning Timișoara within a global import-export network, and this information was presented at the exhibition in the form of infographics. Effectively, the exhibition also opened the doors to reveal the process of the programme to the public.
OS: By presenting these artefacts in the curated context of an exhibition framed by photography, infographics, and other layers, it was not just those objects that were on display, but the narratives around the objects that came into focus—the people that make them, their constituent parts, and how they emerge from complex international networks.
By taking the time to herald this formative aspect of Timișoara, the exhibition also really opened doors throughout the subsequent process. For the factories and companies, it was quite a surprising result. I remember the employees visiting the exhibition and experiencing great joy at seeing their products in such a completely different context and format. There was also a lot of curiosity among local visitors because we were exhibiting what is made in Timișoara in closed, inaccessible factories, and thus remains otherwise unseen.
LG: After showing at FABER, this exhibition also travelled to UPT and created more interesting moments. On the one hand, the engineers, teachers and students at the university were introduced to a diverse range of components. On the other, in this new curated context, the familiar objects looked completely different. This raised numerous questions about the nature of these objects, and leading from there the impact of the companies on the local social fabric. Most importantly, a conversation was started regarding why these objects are not only something to sell, but also something through which to reflect on larger discussions regarding knowledge, work, and the city.
In an interview, Petrovici mentioned that he was struck by how responsive people were to his research as a way to see present-day Timișoara. Besides opening doors, the exhibition and economic report also played a role of ‘mirroring’ or showing Timișoara back to itself. This seems to be a significant motif across the programme development, research process, and curation?
OS: One of my hopes for the project was to gain a better understanding of the deep industrial nostalgia people in Timișoara have, and to encourage detaching ourselves from the past to focus more on the city’s present and future.
Various companies that no longer exist are often regarded with great sentimentality, and their architectural remnants revered. However, discussions rarely engage with the contemporary economic landscape and the major role that industry plays today. Both the Mirroring the Ecosystem exhibition, and the economic report by Petrovici and team, ‘Economy in Timișoara: Territorial Distribution of the Economy in the Timișoara Metropolitan Area’, did an excellent job in addressing this by looking at the present-day economy in a forward-thinking, positive manner. The entire programme was geared toward shifting our focus away from the past and toward the future, but this is an ongoing task.
LG: From the standpoint of the UPT, nowadays local companies are deeply intertwined with the university; they serve as long-term partners and a significant majority of our graduating students directly enter these local companies or even join them before graduation.
This connection is quite strong, but it can also pose certain challenges. Bright Cityscapes explored the evolution of the relationship with these companies. Through visiting various companies, we posed questions that they might not be accustomed to and might not necessarily want to answer.
Through this, we stepped outside of the typical collaboration between the university and the companies, where companies occasionally sponsor laboratories or social activities in exchange for the university promoting their company to attract students.
Instead, Bright Cityscapes introduced students and academics to a more reflexive perspective on what the companies do and where they fit into the local production ecosystem. By altering the perspective on these companies, not merely as employers but also as local actors with an impact on the city, for better or for worse, it also aimed to make both students and teachers more aware of the complex dynamics in different domains.
MM: From the perspective of the design discourse, industrial design often starts by understanding how industry functions, produces, and operates, not just locally but also in relation to other places.
It was surprising for me to see the vastness of the manufacturing sector in Timișoara and wonder where the designers fit into this equation. This emphasised the importance of reopening the conversation between different places, as industries vary in importance depending on the locality.
Many companies and industrial processes have their origins in the west of Europe but have manufacturing hubs in the east. This dialogue between places and skills is vital within the current design discourse, which is increasingly linked to concerns surrounding the environment, climate, social responsibility, and ethical work practices. While design in the west often becomes more theoretical, it’s crucial to reconnect it with the reality of production, especially when that reality is geopolitically distant.
The challenge of accessibility always comes up when talking about researching industrial systems and the impact of large companies. I found Timișoara to be a place that still offers accessibility to explore these complexities, because manufacturing still involves humans, materials and resources.
While the concept of manufacturing is something found in all countries, in Timișoara it is still accessible to designers, and this is an opportunity for design research to remain humble, and to understand how things function, even on the scale of a factory floor. This engagement was fundamental for Bright Cityscapes, not only for the knowledge it generated about Timișoara, but for the designers more broadly. This is an international opportunity that can be further developed into potential future iterations of this project.
The relationship between the international and local in the Bright Cityscapes programme has a particular quality. On the one hand, the programme is fiercely local, emergent from and developed for Timișoara, and employing various situated research and design approaches. On the other, creating connections with international designers, audiences and contexts has also been paramount. What was the thinking behind this strategy?
LG: As we stated from the beginning, we wanted to better understand how the city works. Only relying on local practitioners would not have given us a very objective result. Rather, drawing on a multiplicity of professionals and people working in all sorts of environments can expand our views and understanding.
MM: Exactly, it can be called ‘international’, but it was more about having people with different backgrounds, practices, and lenses, in order to ask: How does looking at the city of Timișoara, the research compiled about it, and the information it holds, reveal different things through different lenses?
By introducing designers and practitioners with a variety of origins and practices into the project, distances are created from which problems and questions can be understood differently. These distances can happen within and across different cities, institutions, networks and collaborators, and can open up new understandings and insights. These distances also start to build a design discourse, as they elevate the questions we have about Timișoara to be reflected on beyond a particular territoriality.
OS: Creating a connection between the local and the international is also a response to the themes of the programme and research—the globalisation of industry and the economy. Connecting the local reality with international realities through a design discourse seemed like a natural way to approach the programme, given our research objectives.
MM: Yes, in terms of building design discourse, it’s important that the questions we have about the city can be read beyond a particular territoriality. Although this can be difficult in just one round of a programme, it was fundamental for us to ask and explore how the project can be more impactful than just a performative action. As such, it became important to be very grounded within the local environment and networks, while also establishing exchanges across an international network.
These distances were traversed through numerous conversations and collaborations. Collaboration, as we have already discussed, gave birth to the programme, and became fundamental to it. How were the collaborations with designers structured and what has been their impact?
LG: The formalised collaborations between four UPT professors and four designers was one of the fundamental aspects of the programme. Through an open call in UPT, professors applied to be part of the process, and we had an individual discussion with each of them to explore the potential. Four were selected, and Martina matched them with designers.
From the university’s perspective, this was the most significant aspect of the programme, because it addressed a key concern: the lack of ways to communicate scientific processes, both with the public but also between people working within universities. As such, the researchers who participated gained greatly in terms of their professional work and teaching, and have reported having gained significant insights through the process.
For collaborations between designers and larger departments, it was not only professors but also colleagues and even students who have been exposed to a way of working and thinking that challenges their expected understanding of their profession and knowledge. Through these collaborations, as well as the exhibitions hosted, the academic community has expanded its understanding of design as a way of researching and understanding specific issues and global phenomena.
OS: This is true not only for UPT, but for everyone involved explicitly and implicitly in the project. Whereas previously design might have been understood as a quality that needs to be added to beautify or make playful, now design is understood as something that can facilitate insight into complex processes, and as something that can facilitate expansive collaborations across contexts and disciplines.
These collaborations stretched from factory floors to campus laboratories, and created a bridge between people and situations of multiple scales. We had designers working with teams of engineers or factory workers, others collaborating directly with international and local archives to access complex data. These people all have a different notion of design and its impact after this project.
I really enjoyed the feedback from some of the researchers who collaborated with designers. Versavia Ancușa said that her profession is really precise, looking at details and solving very specific problems. Working with information designer Cinzia Bongino really opened her perspective on the power of asking broader questions. This inspired her to rearrange and restructure information to look at the bigger picture, in order to get a better initial understanding. She has already incorporated this insight into how she teaches. This is one specific anecdote that speaks directly to this ability of design to tackle complexity, rearrange things, expand possibilities, and lead to diverse answers.
Please explain to us the thinking behind the exhibition Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard, and its title.
MM: The title is a bit of a play on words, but also indicates what is meant by design within the entire programme: exploring what we do and don’t know, and the process of exploring what we could potentially know.
The concept of signalling is used in many different sciences to explain how information is transferred between different systems. In the context of manufacturing and production, this concept can be used to describe how information between two parties is communicated and interpreted to facilitate understanding and collaboration.
When looking at the different design projects in the programme, as well as the economic report that was commissioned, a lot of questions came up about how to access information, how to collect information, what the meaning of data is, what the value of subjective and objective information is, and how to share information with other designers, researchers and collaborators.
The economic report in particular is very dense and dry. Design, on the other hand, is no stranger to embracing poetry and other means of engagement to make complex positions accessible. This is how we came to recognise that the idea of sending, receiving, and reinterpreting signals is important. Given that the manufacturing and automotive industries have such a strong presence in the programme and in Timișoara, a connection was drawn between the concept of signalling information and the indicators on automobiles with which one signals information about turning left or right.
Thus, the exhibition and its title reflect the idea of design as a discipline that doesn’t have one answer, but is instead a search for questions across different layers of reality. The multiplicity of the discipline is what is referred to by the subtitle, ‘design is not a dashboard’. The dashboard as an interface, but also as an electronic component and everyday object that presents itself as a solution. Design is still sometimes seen as an object or a solution, but the design explored in the Turn Signals exhibition, and the Bright Cityscapes programme as a whole, sought to expand the possibility of design beyond this definition.
OS: The exhibition represents how our commitment to design being the linchpin in our challenge—of generating knowledge, mediating collaboration, and speaking to the broader public of Timișoara—really paid off. We observed that visitors to the exhibition showed a genuine curiosity to delve deeper into the programme and the individual projects. They often inquired about a platform that would allow them to further explore and comprehend the rich tapestry of the exhibition’s narrative.
LG: Yes, we had a lot of enthusiastic visitors. Their deep engagement with the exhibition is also due in part to the mediation programme, which facilitated a real bridging between generations. There was a programme especially for children, and we had many classroom groups coming through the show. There was also a special mediation programme for company workers, and another one for elderly people. The mediation team really sought to tell the story of the projects and exhibitions in as many different ways as possible, to meet as many different types of audiences. It was also designed in such a way that the audiences’ responses became part of the content of the exhibition itself. Thus, while the designers showed Timișoara back to itself, the audience showed design back to us.
This complex and dynamic programme is no ordinary curatorial project. What was the thinking behind all of these different elements—original academic research, designer collaborations with academics, residencies for international designers, educational programme, and more—and how were they orchestrated to all come together?
MM: I consider curation as the art of designing a system for activating design. To me, curating is not merely about selection, but more importantly, it’s about fostering possibilities. To achieve this, one must first comprehend the very nature of those possibilities.
At the outset of this project I sensed a twofold challenge: making the outcomes accessible and understandable, while also ensuring that the programme and structure provoked discourse and innovation within the design community. Adding to this complexity was the fact that the European Cultural Capital bid book contained many words fundamental to design—words such as ‘technology’, ‘city’, and ‘community’.
However, in creating interesting projects we cannot simply accept these terms at face value. Thus, the curatorial approach to the project necessitated a way to question the essence and definition of these terms in the context of Timișoara.
What emerged was the development of a research-based programme that explored the manifold meanings of research, challenging conventional definitions and expert perspectives. It involved pushing beyond the comfort zones associated with factories, universities, and major institutions. Collaboration came to play a central role within the design processes, as well as in developing the programme itself.
This raised questions about how to facilitate collaborations between experts and designers; the formats in which designers could collaborate, such as residencies; and the vital school programme, which needed to develop formats to facilitate different tutors and institutions working together, while promoting collaboration among students.
In essence, the curatorial approach was to create a testing ground for various strategies. While a single strategy, such as a residency approach or institutional collaboration, might have simplified matters, the aim here was to design a system that allowed design to be explored, tested, and hopefully shared.
In my view, if we genuinely want designers to address the complex questions of our time, it’s impossible to do so solely from a single curatorial, organisational, or design perspective. We must create circumstances that enable us to work simultaneously within a specific context while drawing from different perspectives.
This approach is also reflected in this publication, which has been presented as open, unfinished, and non-final, serving as a way to trace the journey we undertook as a team—a constellation of collaborations and confrontations grounded in different moments and participating agents.
What was the importance of the education programme—which included not only the formal elements of the Atlas of Distances Workshop and Atlas of Distances exhibition, but also informal dimensions—within this testing ground for various strategies?
LG: There is an obvious emphasis on education in the programme, in the sense that the university is the main stakeholder. Consequently, education has been of utmost importance since the programme’s inception, when we began visiting the laboratories at the university. This continued through the open call for professors who sought to experiment with new forms of collaboration with designers, in order to present their work to the general public in novel ways.
Additionally, there was a more explicit educational intervention through the collaboration between the Faculty of Architecture at UPT (Romania), Studio Technogeographies from Design Academy Eindhoven (Netherlands), and Borders & Territories from TU Delft (Netherlands)—the Atlas of Distances workshop and exhibition. The fact that we brought together these three academic institutions with such diverse teaching methodologies, including collaborations between students from different backgrounds, was a significant step in advancing the programme’s goals. In particular, it created an exchange that increased the awareness of the programme’s international scope among all involved.
However, it’s worth noting that education is deeply ingrained in the very essence of the Bright Cityscapes programme, which is built on the foundation of asking questions and learning from them. The Mirroring the Ecosystem exhibition at UPT, for example, raised questions about the nature of exhibitions and the methods they can employ.
Throughout the programme, questions about Timișoara, its driving forces, its socioeconomic complexities, and other aspects have led to productive learning and outcomes. Another pivotal question at UPT has been about research and the roles of researchers. How does research shape the university? What does collaboration mean? What are the companies in Timișoara engaged in? How do they operate? These are just some of the questions posed, directly or indirectly, through Bright Cityscapes. While others may hold a different perspective, I believe that education is the central focus of this programme, rather than design.
MM: I think that is a very beautiful insight. Perhaps I see the lens of design first, only because design and education are deeply intertwined in my practice. Perhaps it is design’s role to play the initiator, and the result and communication are akin to education.
That said, I do think it’s important not to understate the significance of the formal education initiatives of the programme, because there are questions surrounding how to develop relevant education in design schools, the doors to knowledge that different educational strategies and collaborations can open, and the ability for students to learn to collaborate in the name of new insights. Asking these questions is an important practicality.
OS: I agree, and would emphasise one thing: that the final step of the formal educational programme, in which a select group of students who participated in the Atlas of Distances workshop were supported in the further development of their work for exhibition, was particularly impactful. For me, it was really beautiful to witness how the students transformed their work into a new form, and how they personally developed through the process of reformatting their project for a different context and audience.
Linking the educational component to the exhibition platform really gave students an opportunity to experience vital lessons, regarding growing from being a student to a young professional in a context with high expectations.
There’s the official ways that the programme lives on, but also the unofficial ways, which we have discussed in terms of how the project has impacted so many people and institutions in so many different ways, and will continue to impact more people and institutions through that. How has it impacted you and what are the future intentions for the programme?
OS: For us, FABER, it has had an immense impact as it is the first consistent programme that we have had. Before this, we only dreamt of doing something on such a scale. It has been a great achievement in all possible ways and I’m optimistic about developing the programme further. I think we can consolidate and build bridges around the topic of design, and continue to constellate a relevant context and discourse for professionals to contribute to.
LG: For UPT, it has also been a valuable programme, the first of its kind. In a national context in which student numbers are declining, as international universities can offer more than local ones, the need for competitive offers, new experiences, and novel types of learning has become essential.
This goes not only for students, but also for researchers and teachers. Moreover, in the climate of a general public scepticism of science that is not only local but global, the programme’s ability to reintroduce the role of science in all sorts of processes, and bring it to a human scale through a gentle and fun approach, is something that needs to grow and replicate in the future.
MM: As curator and educator it has been a dream to have the possibility to implement such complexity within a programme, and simultaneously give space to projects, events, and exhibitions that are accessible, entertaining, provocative, and forward thinking.
As far as I’m concerned, projects never finish regardless of how they are finalised for a specific circumstance. So far, Bright Cityscapes has been the result of exploring Timișoara in 2023, and comes from a peculiar set of collaborations and participation.
Given the nature of the project, the fact that it is presented as open knowledge, touches on urgent questions, and crosses places and design approaches, there are many possibilities for continuing it. This includes the possibilities of expanding the research towards places, people, and systems that have not yet been included.
We hope to keep the conversation going through the online platform and the printed publication.