Reflecting on Rebel Architecture

Conversation with the Portuguese architect, Paulo Moreira, for the Jornal Arquitectos, orignally published here

REBEL ARCHITECTURE

PAULO MOREIRA / ANA NAOMI DE SOUSA
 Eyal Weizman, The Architecture of Violence, directed by Ana Naomi de Sousa
Rebel Architecture is a series of six 25-minute television documentaries, produced by Al Jazeera TV. The films present “activist” and “rebel” practices undertaken in situations of environmental, economic or urban crisis. They accompany professionals who use architecture to intervene in their social and political context. One of the series’ directors and co-producers was the journalist Ana Naomi de Sousa, who answered some questions put to her by the J–A. What was the motivation for the series?

Rebel Architecture came about from a desire to create a documentary series that was about architecture but that reflected certain values. We wanted it to be about people, and we wanted to look at the sort of architecture that was practical, functional and appropriate, but also that responded to urgent global issues.

Because Al Jazeera is an international channel, and because we recognised that there are particular challenges in different regions, we set about trying to find “rebel architects” in as many different regional contexts as possible.  The philosophy of the series gradually began to take shape as we undertook our research into potential themes for each programme. We knew that it was not a series about “starchitecture” and that it was not about luxury houses; this, after all, was Al Jazeera, a channel dealing daily with events such as conflicts, natural disasters and poverty.

We gradually formed a concrete idea of what we considered to be “rebel architecture”. All of the architects work in the regions from which they originate. Although this was not a prior condition, it became one of the main features of the series. We felt uncomfortable with the top-down, north-south, west-east dynamics of humanitarian aid projects, especially the way in which some of them engage with the people who they are supposedly designing for. We were trying to show something different, something more empowering.

None of the architects that we showed works solely to make a profit, or simply for the sake of the beauty of their projects. They all believe that architecture can make a difference. They think outside the box about the way in which they use the tools of their trade. Our impression is that the series was very well received in the world of architecture. Why do you think this was?

Rebel Architecture was not made as a way of communicating between architects, but in order to be broadcast on a general TV channel with a broad range of non-specialist audiences. This is the power of these forms of architectural practice: because they deal with important social questions, they are immediately welcomed by society itself. Normally, architectural circles only become interested in them a posteriori. But it is clear that these action strategies have always given rise to great debate among those involved in architecture as a discipline. For example, Pedro Gadanho was genuinely surprised by the series, seeing it as an oasis in the apparently peaceful world of architecture: “European architecture seems to be a paradise bubbling over with new ideas and new trends. Even in times of crisis and faced with prospects of non-growth, there is still some rebelliousness to be found out there.” Talking about this rebelliousness, Justin McGuirk said that, “in an ideal world activist architects would not have to exist but, since the world is far from ideal, we need them badly.” I would add that it is not enough for there to be “rebel” architects, but that we also need critics, thinkers and filmmakers who are just as rebellious, to reflect upon them. Don’t you agree?

In a certain way, we can say that we – the Rebel Architecture team – are also rebels! This is not the way that architecture is normally shown in the mainstream media. In general, architecture in the media can be divided under a small number of categories: you have the architectural press (lots of websites and magazines focusing on luxury buildings and “starchitecture”); you have programmes that look at the history of architecture; and you have the “do-it-yourself” television programmes, like the makeover show “Grand Designs”. In most cases, there’s a presenter (normally a middle-aged white man), and there’s very rarely any mention of the word “community”, much less do we hear from the people affected by or using a given piece of architecture. So for “Rebel Architecture”, like many documentaries on Al Jazeera, we decided not to use Voice Over narration, and to let the architects and the people around them to tell us about their environments, their challenges, their thoughts.

***

Guerrilla Architect (directed by Ana Naomi de Sousa) looks at the Seville architect Santiago Cirugeda. This is the “rebel” who is geographically nearest to us, being active in various parts of Spain. His collaborative practice explores self-construction techniques that are dangerously close to being illegal. In the course of the film, Santi, as he is known by those closest to him, attempts to describe his works: “Sometimes people say that my architecture is ugly. They say ‘it’s interesting, but a little ugly’. I say: ‘OK, but who doesn’t have an ugly friend?’ Contemporary architecture is all about ‘What a beautiful building!’ or ‘what a beautiful design!’ – rubbish! Architecture is more than that, it’s something that is economical and functional, that can be used to create networks, and that’s what we’ve done here.” Santi visits projects designed for the occupation and use of “expectant spaces” in Seville; he accompanies the works for the re-activation of an abandoned factory close to the border with Portugal; he travels to Catalonia, where he is part of the team attempting to renovate an alternative school with only scant resources and without a building permit. These projects are executed through the Collective Architectures platform, in which groups from different regions pool resources, labour and know-how. In this process of sharing knowledge, the Internet has a fundamental role to play, “having an online system is a powerful public weapon for being in contact with other collectives.”

Traditional Future (directed by Faiza Ahmad Khan) presents us with a female “rebel”, the Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari. The film focuses on her dual mission to preserve the local built heritage and to respond to the natural catastrophes that have befallen Pakistan. She is direct and critical about the effects of the aid that international organisations provide after disasters: “The funding from foreign donors has dried up… and that’s a very good thing. It’s time for us to start doing things ourselves,” she says to a group of stunned architecture students, in the middle of a training activity. In another scene, she travels to a village that has recently recovered from flooding: next to the projects that she has helped to implement, she shows the ruins of a house built with blocks of cement, which were unable to hold back the water. Taking a completely opposite stance, Yasmeen provides a lesson on the use of age-old building techniques, such as water-resistant mud bricks and lime mortar, or the bamboo structures that make it possible to lift the buildings off the ground. These are intelligent solutions, because they are adapted to local conditions, capable of withstanding the climate, are economical, and can easily be implemented under a system of self-construction. Yasmeen assumes the role of a “facilitator” of solutions, instead of the architect made to feel “like God”.

The Architecture of Violence (directed by Ana Naomi de Sousa) is presented by the dissident Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. The film’s opening scene summarises his provocative and fearless posture: Eyal walks towards the watchtower of an Israeli military base, insisting on drawing closer to the soldier. Faced with his negative response, the architect withdraws and makes fun of that “ridiculous” character, standing in a “pipe house”, as if he were “the king of the hill”. And this becomes the overall tone of the film, which is about the intersection between architecture and violence. Presenting us with the Machiavellian characteristics of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, Eyal Weizman undertakes research designed to draw up operative proposals – he is the director of Forensic Architecture, at Goldsmiths College, University of London, which makes use of the tools of architecture to attempt to resolve political and legal conflicts. Eyal, who is now based in London, confesses that he would have preferred to practise architecture freely in his own country, but that he has realised that “being an architect is not just to build and contribute to the destruction of the place that you love the most.” He therefore prefers to use his profession “to interpret, protest and resist”.

Greening the City (directed by Nick Ahlmark) is the title of the documentary about the work of Vo Trong Nghia, a Vietnamese architect who works in Ho Chi Minh City. In a context of rapid and uncontrolled urban transformation, resulting from the region’s migratory movements and economic growth, Vo Trong invokes the need for a “deep-rooted” posture. He proposes an uncluttered, beautiful and ecological architecture, which responds to the city’s shortage of green spaces. His works take shape through the simple conjugation of low-cost materials. But it isn’t always easy to combine this ambition with the urban implications of the “property jungle”. In one of the scenes of the documentary, the architect seeks to convince a group of property developers about the advantages of a particular project. To which one of them answers: “Our job is to tell you what the needs of the market are; we can’t sell these houses. We all want to make as big a profit as possible.”

Working on Water (directed by Riaan Hendricks) accompanies the work of the Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi in the city of Lagos. The projects produced by his studio, NLÉ, are deeply rooted in the places in which it intervenes, working in close partnership with NGOs and residents. His most paradigmatic work is a floating structure in the community of Makoko, which, despite its enormous local and international impact, was built illegally. In a second project, developed in the Port Harcourt region, the local government was threatening to destroy a neighbourhood that was literally built on water, and the residents took the initiative of inviting Kunlé to design the premises for a community radio station that would act as the mouthpiece for the local population. The intervention displays a form of resistance to the segregating strategy of dislodging the population, and shows that it is possible to consolidate that place. These tactics led to the setting up of the People Live Here movement, through which the residents fight against the demolition of their community.

The Pedreiro and the Master Planner (directed by May Abdalla) has the virtue of giving equal prominence to an official town planner and an informal builder, or pedreiro. Both have contributed to the changing face of the favela of Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro. Luís Carlos Toledo is the architect responsible for the government’s plans for the redevelopment of that favela. Ricardo de Oliveira considers himself an architect, engineer and decorator. He has built several buildings, for example a supermarket with apartments, a car park, steps in a narrow sloping street and his sister’s house, etc. Alternating the testimonies of the two professionals, the film paints a realistic portrait of the way in which the favela has been thought about and built. It presents a city where the customary contrasts between “rich” and “poor” become blurred, enabling us to see that the precarious and spontaneous origins of Rocinha have matured and turned into a permanent reality, where even the decoration of the homes is identical to that of the houses in the “asphalt city” below. The documentary is able to point to a possible future for Rocinha, which depends both on the regenerative action of the government and on the residents themselves.

This text was published in J-A 252, Jan—Apr 2014, p. 574-577.

Rebel Architecture is a series of six 25-minute television documentaries, produced by Al Jazeera TV. The films present “activist” and “rebel” practices undertaken in situations of environmental, economic or urban crisis. They accompany professionals who use architecture to intervene in their social and political context. One of the series’ directors and co-producers was the journalist Ana Naomi de Sousa, who answered some questions put to her by the J–A. What was the motivation for the series?

Rebel Architecture came about from a desire to create a documentary series that was about architecture but that reflected certain values. We wanted it to be about people, and we wanted to look at the sort of architecture that was practical, functional and appropriate, but also that responded to urgent global issues.

Because Al Jazeera is an international channel, and because we recognised that there are particular challenges in different regions, we set about trying to find “rebel architects” in as many different regional contexts as possible.  The philosophy of the series gradually began to take shape as we undertook our research into potential themes for each programme. We knew that it was not a series about “starchitecture” and that it was not about luxury houses; this, after all, was Al Jazeera, a channel dealing daily with events such as conflicts, natural disasters and poverty.

We gradually formed a concrete idea of what we considered to be “rebel architecture”. All of the architects work in the regions from which they originate. Although this was not a prior condition, it became one of the main features of the series. We felt uncomfortable with the top-down, north-south, west-east dynamics of humanitarian aid projects, especially the way in which some of them engage with the people who they are supposedly designing for. We were trying to show something different, something more empowering.

None of the architects that we showed works solely to make a profit, or simply for the sake of the beauty of their projects. They all believe that architecture can make a difference. They think outside the box about the way in which they use the tools of their trade. Our impression is that the series was very well received in the world of architecture. Why do you think this was?

Rebel Architecture was not made as a way of communicating between architects, but in order to be broadcast on a general TV channel with a broad range of non-specialist audiences. This is the power of these forms of architectural practice: because they deal with important social questions, they are immediately welcomed by society itself. Normally, architectural circles only become interested in them a posteriori. But it is clear that these action strategies have always given rise to great debate among those involved in architecture as a discipline. For example, Pedro Gadanho was genuinely surprised by the series, seeing it as an oasis in the apparently peaceful world of architecture: “European architecture seems to be a paradise bubbling over with new ideas and new trends. Even in times of crisis and faced with prospects of non-growth, there is still some rebelliousness to be found out there.” Talking about this rebelliousness, Justin McGuirk said that, “in an ideal world activist architects would not have to exist but, since the world is far from ideal, we need them badly.” I would add that it is not enough for there to be “rebel” architects, but that we also need critics, thinkers and filmmakers who are just as rebellious, to reflect upon them. Don’t you agree?

In a certain way, we can say that we – the Rebel Architecture team – are also rebels! This is not the way that architecture is normally shown in the mainstream media. In general, architecture in the media can be divided under a small number of categories: you have the architectural press (lots of websites and magazines focusing on luxury buildings and “starchitecture”); you have programmes that look at the history of architecture; and you have the “do-it-yourself” television programmes, like the makeover show “Grand Designs”. In most cases, there’s a presenter (normally a middle-aged white man), and there’s very rarely any mention of the word “community”, much less do we hear from the people affected by or using a given piece of architecture. So for “Rebel Architecture”, like many documentaries on Al Jazeera, we decided not to use Voice Over narration, and to let the architects and the people around them to tell us about their environments, their challenges, their thoughts.

***

Guerrilla Architect (directed by Ana Naomi de Sousa) looks at the Seville architect Santiago Cirugeda. This is the “rebel” who is geographically nearest to us, being active in various parts of Spain. His collaborative practice explores self-construction techniques that are dangerously close to being illegal. In the course of the film, Santi, as he is known by those closest to him, attempts to describe his works: “Sometimes people say that my architecture is ugly. They say ‘it’s interesting, but a little ugly’. I say: ‘OK, but who doesn’t have an ugly friend?’ Contemporary architecture is all about ‘What a beautiful building!’ or ‘what a beautiful design!’ – rubbish! Architecture is more than that, it’s something that is economical and functional, that can be used to create networks, and that’s what we’ve done here.” Santi visits projects designed for the occupation and use of “expectant spaces” in Seville; he accompanies the works for the re-activation of an abandoned factory close to the border with Portugal; he travels to Catalonia, where he is part of the team attempting to renovate an alternative school with only scant resources and without a building permit. These projects are executed through the Collective Architectures platform, in which groups from different regions pool resources, labour and know-how. In this process of sharing knowledge, the Internet has a fundamental role to play, “having an online system is a powerful public weapon for being in contact with other collectives.”

Traditional Future (directed by Faiza Ahmad Khan) presents us with a female “rebel”, the Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari. The film focuses on her dual mission to preserve the local built heritage and to respond to the natural catastrophes that have befallen Pakistan. She is direct and critical about the effects of the aid that international organisations provide after disasters: “The funding from foreign donors has dried up… and that’s a very good thing. It’s time for us to start doing things ourselves,” she says to a group of stunned architecture students, in the middle of a training activity. In another scene, she travels to a village that has recently recovered from flooding: next to the projects that she has helped to implement, she shows the ruins of a house built with blocks of cement, which were unable to hold back the water. Taking a completely opposite stance, Yasmeen provides a lesson on the use of age-old building techniques, such as water-resistant mud bricks and lime mortar, or the bamboo structures that make it possible to lift the buildings off the ground. These are intelligent solutions, because they are adapted to local conditions, capable of withstanding the climate, are economical, and can easily be implemented under a system of self-construction. Yasmeen assumes the role of a “facilitator” of solutions, instead of the architect made to feel “like God”.

The Architecture of Violence (directed by Ana Naomi de Sousa) is presented by the dissident Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. The film’s opening scene summarises his provocative and fearless posture: Eyal walks towards the watchtower of an Israeli military base, insisting on drawing closer to the soldier. Faced with his negative response, the architect withdraws and makes fun of that “ridiculous” character, standing in a “pipe house”, as if he were “the king of the hill”. And this becomes the overall tone of the film, which is about the intersection between architecture and violence. Presenting us with the Machiavellian characteristics of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, Eyal Weizman undertakes research designed to draw up operative proposals – he is the director of Forensic Architecture, at Goldsmiths College, University of London, which makes use of the tools of architecture to attempt to resolve political and legal conflicts. Eyal, who is now based in London, confesses that he would have preferred to practise architecture freely in his own country, but that he has realised that “being an architect is not just to build and contribute to the destruction of the place that you love the most.” He therefore prefers to use his profession “to interpret, protest and resist”.

Greening the City (directed by Nick Ahlmark) is the title of the documentary about the work of Vo Trong Nghia, a Vietnamese architect who works in Ho Chi Minh City. In a context of rapid and uncontrolled urban transformation, resulting from the region’s migratory movements and economic growth, Vo Trong invokes the need for a “deep-rooted” posture. He proposes an uncluttered, beautiful and ecological architecture, which responds to the city’s shortage of green spaces. His works take shape through the simple conjugation of low-cost materials. But it isn’t always easy to combine this ambition with the urban implications of the “property jungle”. In one of the scenes of the documentary, the architect seeks to convince a group of property developers about the advantages of a particular project. To which one of them answers: “Our job is to tell you what the needs of the market are; we can’t sell these houses. We all want to make as big a profit as possible.”

Working on Water (directed by Riaan Hendricks) accompanies the work of the Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi in the city of Lagos. The projects produced by his studio, NLÉ, are deeply rooted in the places in which it intervenes, working in close partnership with NGOs and residents. His most paradigmatic work is a floating structure in the community of Makoko, which, despite its enormous local and international impact, was built illegally. In a second project, developed in the Port Harcourt region, the local government was threatening to destroy a neighbourhood that was literally built on water, and the residents took the initiative of inviting Kunlé to design the premises for a community radio station that would act as the mouthpiece for the local population. The intervention displays a form of resistance to the segregating strategy of dislodging the population, and shows that it is possible to consolidate that place. These tactics led to the setting up of the People Live Here movement, through which the residents fight against the demolition of their community.

The Pedreiro and the Master Planner (directed by May Abdalla) has the virtue of giving equal prominence to an official town planner and an informal builder, or pedreiro. Both have contributed to the changing face of the favela of Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro. Luís Carlos Toledo is the architect responsible for the government’s plans for the redevelopment of that favela. Ricardo de Oliveira considers himself an architect, engineer and decorator. He has built several buildings, for example a supermarket with apartments, a car park, steps in a narrow sloping street and his sister’s house, etc. Alternating the testimonies of the two professionals, the film paints a realistic portrait of the way in which the favela has been thought about and built. It presents a city where the customary contrasts between “rich” and “poor” become blurred, enabling us to see that the precarious and spontaneous origins of Rocinha have matured and turned into a permanent reality, where even the decoration of the homes is identical to that of the houses in the “asphalt city” below. The documentary is able to point to a possible future for Rocinha, which depends both on the regenerative action of the government and on the residents themselves.

This text was published in J-A 252, Jan—Apr 2014, p. 574-577.

 

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