Yona Friedman, the Hungarian-born French architect and urban planner whose 1956 manifesto Mobile Architecture argued that the built environment, above anything else, should empower its inhabitants to take charge of their own individual destinies, has died at the age of 96. News of his passing was shared on his Instagram account.
Born in Budapest in 1923 to a Jewish family, Friedman escaped persecution during World War II and resettled in Haifa, Israel. In 1957, Friedman emigrated to Paris at the invitation of Jean Prouvé, where he established the Groupe d’Études d’Architecture Mobile (GEAM) with Dutch architect Jan Trapman that same year. Friedman gained French citizenship nearly a decade later.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, an era when utopian visions were largely scoffed at or outright ignored by the greater architectural community, Friedman gained international prominence for his revolutionary-for-the-time meditations on architecture and social mobility. A proponent of self-sufficiency, Friedman rallied against rigidity and oppression within the built environment, arguing that a building’s users should be afforded freedom and flexibility that was unheard of at the time.
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After 96 years on this earth, Yona has moved up to build a Spatial City and install some Space Chains in the sky. The Fonds de Dotation Denise and Yona Friedman, which he founded last year, will continue his work. Après 96 ans sur cette terre Yona est monté construire une Ville Spatiale dans le ciel. Le Fonds de Dotation Denise et Yona Friedman qu’il avait créé l’année dernière continuera son travail. (Photo Paul Almasy, 1974).
Springing from his manifesto, Friedman’s visionary concept for Ville Spatiale, the Spatial City, perhaps remains his best-known contribution to urban planning and architectural theory. The Spatial City envisioned dense, compact urban centers in which outward growth was limited and new development spanned over existing buildings as part of a larger superstructure. Friedman’s numerous drawings and visualizations of the Spatial City garnered considerable attention for their playfulness and neo-futuristic approach. The influence of the Spatial City is vast and can be seen in the works of Archigram, Superstudio, and countless other artists, thinkers, and convention-pushing design collectives.
In the 1970s, the United Nations and UNESCO took note of Friedman’s humanistic approach and commissioned him to assist with disaster-relief housing campaigns in Africa and India.
Friedman’s work has shown at countless exhibitions including the Venice Biennale (2003, 2005, 2009) and Shanghai Biennale (2007), and his drawings are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and at Paris’s Centre Pompidou. He enjoyed a flurry of renewed interest in 1999 thanks to an exhibition held at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam that recreated his Paris living room, along with the release of an accompanying monograph, Yona Friedman. Structures Serving the Unpredictable. In 2019, a public sculpture designed by Friedman titled Space-Chain Phantasy-Miami 2019, was unveiled at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
Friedman received numerous accolades and awards for his contributions to architecture and urban planning including the Austrian Frederick Kiesler Prize in 2018. Early in his career, Friedman taught at a number of American universities including Harvard University, Columbia University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was also a prolific writer, publishing over 500 articles and several books over the course of his career, according to a biographic Dutch website that exhaustively documents Friedman’s life, art, and teachings. His final published book was Yona Friedman. The Dilution of Architecture (2015).
Friedman was married to French film editor Denise Charvein, whom he collaborated with closely over the course of his career. In the early 1960s, the duo collaborated on a series of animated films titled Stories of Africa that brought African folk tales to life. Charvein passed away in 2007.
In a 2018 interview conducted at Milan Design Week, Friedman was asked if there were any projects that he would have liked to take on but didn’t have the chance to. “The best expression for this is the everyday life, so my real project is to live tomorrow and I am repeating this project every day,” he responded.