Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Building resistance: the rebel architects

From floating cinemas to 14th-century disaster relief, Daniel Fitzpatrick explores how rebel architects are challenging the capital-intensive architecture of glass and steel

December 1, 2014
11 min read

Architects worldwide are building bolder, taller and more expensive structures – making headlines and galvanising the public’s imagination. The most prominent are ‘starchitects’ such as Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and Zaha Hadid. They build iconic, high-tech, capital-intensive structures, mainly lauded for their ‘wow factor’ and often more monumental than functional. But there are numerous other architects who work in a different way. Some are challenging the way cities get used as sites of capital accumulation. They are transforming the way people build so that cities are more environmentally responsible and socially just.

A new Al Jazeera series Rebel Architecture brings together a range of contemporary practitioners who are also activists, seeking to use architecture to challenge privilege and division in society. The six films in the series explore the work of some of these architects from across the world. They are challenging fundamental assumptions about how we build and live in cities, how we connect to the earth and depend on it. The films explore the work of these activist‑architects and also feature the communities and collectives that are implementing these forms of architecture.

Pedagogy of resistance

Santi Cirugeda, a Seville-based architect, has been supporting and developing the work of architecture collectives throughout Spain for a decade and a half. These have proliferated in the period following the 2008 crisis and austerity that left more than 500,000 new homes empty and at the same time tens of thousands of families affected by foreclosures. As Cirugeda explains, ‘In times of crisis, people come together to find collective solutions.’ Through his architecture practice Recetas Urbanas (Urban Recipes) he has refined the techniques of occupying empty land and self-building, coming into conflict with the police, press and local authorities, but being admired by activists, community groups and other architecture collectives.

rebelarc3La Floresta school, the work of one of Spain’s architecture collectives

Using cheap or recycled materials, and the support of a national network of collectives, Cirugeda has helped take over disused factories to convert them into autonomous social and cultural spaces, used disused land to build a temporary circus, designed impromptu balcony extensions on crowded apartments and helped build new schools in participatory ways. He has always worked in the grey area between the legal and illegal in planning and building controls. His activism challenges the lack of clarity in planning laws and the traditional and anachronistic way that cities are built. When building a new school extension he organised construction workshops for the pupils, so the practice of construction was turned into a pedagogical tool of resistance.

This pedagogy of resistance underpins Kunlé Adeyemi’s work in Nigeria. Adeyemi has developed a series of projects with the slum-dweller communities of Lagos and Port Harcourt. These have developed precariously along the cities’ waterfronts in conditions of regular flooding and overcrowding, usually on buildings built on stilts and boats – a form of development that Adeyemi describes as ‘maximum urbanisation with minimum resources’.

Makoko, in Lagos, is a 120-year-old floating fishing community made up of 250,000 people, most of whom are migrant workers from Togo, Benin and Ghana. The creek alleyways allow people to move around by boat and children attending schools on the water learn in English and French and speak various languages from across West Africa. The Nigerian government wants to destroy the settlement and allow developers access to this prime waterfront location. One of Adeyemi’s projects is a floating school – an easy-to-build, low-cost prototype constructed with wooden beams on a platform of barrels. The project has won plaudits from around the world, yet the local and federal governments consider it illegal.

In Chicoco, Port Harcourt, Adeyemi has been working with the local waterfront community to develop a floating cinema with a stage that rises and falls with the tide. In both Port Harcourt and Lagos, he has sought to design a response based on the collective resistance of communities to their forced evictions by municipal and federal authorities and their demands to be recognised by the government. Makoko already experienced a violent eviction in 2012, which left thousands of people homeless. The situation is similar in Chicoco, where a masterplan for the waterfront does not recognise or provide for the current inhabitants. In contrast, Adeyemi’s projects are designed for the communities who live in these settlements and want to work towards their own development solutions, not eviction.

The architect as activist

In Pakistan, the eminent architect Yasmeen Lari, who once built glass-encased skyscrapers, is now concerned with disaster relief. She has established the Heritage Foundation, focusing on areas such as Baluchistan, hit by heavy earthquakes in 2009, and the Sindh, which was ravaged by floods in 2010 and again in 2013. Lari has applied the mud-lime mortar techniques used in the construction of the 14th‑century monumental city of Makli to rebuild villages in disaster-affected areas. Rejecting the western and capitalist models of steel and concrete, she has devised flood-tolerant structures on bamboo stilts, some 36,000 of which have now been built across the Sindh.

In addition to the use of vernacular techniques and local materials, Lari has also been training architects together with local people, who are then able to share their new practical skills with others. At Moak Sharif, where the Heritage Foundation has been based since 2005, Lari and her team are able to experiment not only in designing buildings but in developing new structures of support, working on organic farming projects and biofertilisers, integrating the knowledge of building with a wider understanding of collective action.

Ricardo de Oliveira is a pedreiro, or mason, and also a favela architect. He lives in one of the biggest favelas (‘slum’ areas, often squatted) of South America, Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, and has built more than 100 houses in his community. But his vision goes beyond just buildings. His son has been ill due to the drains that run next to his house, the main source of illness in the favela, and de Oliveira has devised ways of tackling the inadequate sewage system by introducing a series of subsidiary pipes to relieve the main drain. He is convinced that ideas to change the way the neighbourhood works cannot just be imposed from above – as was the case with a cable car that the government prioritised rather than improving the sewage system or health facilities.

This view is echoed by Luis Carlos Toledo, one of the longest serving planners in the favela. Toledo developed a masterplan for the regeneration of Rocinha. His main idea was to introduce areas of open space around the favela’s four main roads, which have now become important public spaces allowing the favela to breathe. Through his time in Rocinha, Toledo has become aware that is not necessarily grand plans imposed from above that determine how people live. Instead, solutions have to evolve and the inhabitants’ own priorities must be voiced and acted upon.

rebelarc2A low cost house in Vietnam, by architect Vo Trong Nghia

A similar problem is found in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where only 2.5 per cent of the urban space is considered green and 90 per cent of children under five suffer from respiratory illnesses. The architect Vo Trong Nghia sees redesigning the city as both an aesthetic challenge – he says ‘the Vietnamese city has lost its tropical beauty’ – and a matter of justice. His vision is one of a greener city, with tree-lined avenues, grass roofs, vertical gardens and the use of natural ventilation systems.

rebelarc1The Wind and Water Bar in Vietnam – a music venue in the middle of a lake

But his proposals for building greener, healthier neighbourhoods are met with the scepticism of the developer. The authorities are intent on creating profitable, nondescript mass housing. Nghia, however, is able to prototype much cheaper housing solutions, which he trials in areas where marginalised rural pineapple farmers live on the edges of the city. Using simple concrete frame structures and local materials such as matting and bamboo for walls and roofs, he is able to develop a green architecture that helps people live harmoniously with nature. Nghia claims that ‘for a modern architect, the most important mission is to bring green spaces back to the earth’.

The last film in the series demonstrates, in the starkest terms, the architect as activist, not just a builder or designer. The Israeli architect-activist and academic Eyal Weizman has been developing a forensic form of architecture through the analysis of the way in which architecture is used to control the territory. He has been chronicling the forms of architecture used in Palestine and Israel that have effectively carved up the landscape, colonised the territory and controlled the land. His forensic work is a political tool to analyse the architecture of occupation, ultimately an architecture of violence, as it divides people through the building of settlements.

Weizman claims these settlements act as ‘suburban-scale optical devices’, or panopticons, located on the tops of hills surveying the surrounding valleys inhabited by Arabs. In addition, the walls, fences, checkpoints, communication infrastructure, roads, tunnels and viaducts are all dividing and reconfiguring the ways the land is inhabited and used. The role of the architect, according to Weizman, is ‘not only to build and contribute to the destruction of this place, but a way to interpret, protest and resist’.

An architecture of solidarity

It is through these practices of resistance that we can understand the rebel architect – the activist who is not only developing new ways of building, but using architecture as a tool for analysis and imagining new possibilities. A rebel architecture is critical, but it is also an architecture of solidarity and collective action. It emerges from the effort to overcome injustice, both social and environmental. All of these architects worked with the local environment and materials, in the process rediscovering traditional techniques and building knowledge.

rebelarc4La Carpa (the big top) is an arts space built on disused land

The Rebel Architecture series is in many ways a homage to the renegade architect Mike Reynolds, who invented the ‘Earthship’ style of building – a type of solar house that is made of both natural and recycled materials. Reynolds’ battle with the planning authorities of New Mexico to get his plan for an Earthship community accepted was chronicled in the 2007 film Garbage Warrior. It is a battle that is replayed with different authorities in the Rebel Architecture films. These, after all, are not just stories about using shipping containers to house refugees, or a humanitarian architecture that goes into a country and builds at market rate paid for by UN agencies. They are about alternative organisations finding new ways of working and addressing the increasing problems of a rapidly urbanised world.

These architects are working in and with communities; they use architecture to challenge the status quo. All of them are concerned with new forms of teaching. Yasmeen Lari explains how this undoes many of the assumptions informing modern architects. ‘When we are trained as architects we are taught that architecture is like God because you create things and the ego is inflated,’ she says.Rebel architecture, by contrast, is about empowering others. Lari’s Heritage Foundation brings young Pakistani architects into the field to carry out practical work, which many have never done before. These young architects involve villagers who are then able to teach other villagers. In other cases, such as in Spain, education is carried out through the architecture collectives, who share knowledge and materials, collaborating with each other whenever they can.

These practices transform the imagination of communities. Instead of being imposed upon or dictated to, they are able to explore and propose new solutions. The Spanish architect Cirugeda puts it succinctly: ‘What we’re doing here is not a quick-fix for the crisis – this is coming up with a new way of doing things.’

Daniel Fitzpatrick is researching collective models of housing at UCL and runs a small architecture practice

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going