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

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