Architects, almost by definition, change the world around them. Whether it be through function or form, action or aesthetics, they directly affect the lives of the those who interact with their work, potentially hundreds of thousands of people.
When you think about it, that’s a lot of power to confer on someone. A lot of influence…
While the possibilities for using architecture and design to affect social change are reasonably clear, when it’s employed in the right way, it can also be a means to address political inaction, from governmental paralysis over climate change to economic inequality.
Essentially, architecture can become a form of activism.
In recent years, a handful of architects and designers have made that leap, using their skills and passion to generate outcomes in areas where traditional political endeavour has failed. And while the results can sometimes be mixed, there’s no denying that those results can be achieved.
Based in Seville, Santiago Cirugeda has made it his mission to give the man on the street the tools and the know-how to improve his lot in life. Often referred to as a guerrilla architect, Cirugeda subverts the system from within, finding and exploiting loopholes in planning laws to create what he calls “urban reserves”. Since founding his studio, Recetas Urbanas, in 2003, he has taken a stand against Spanish austerity policies that have placed the needs of the people at the bottom of the list of priorities.
For the most part, Cirugeda focuses on sites left abandoned after demolition, spaces that are deemed useless by the powers that be. To him, these represent opportunities for ordinary people to appropriate neglected resources, and he uses his insider knowledge of the rules and how to bend them in order to get projects off the ground. One of his most notable endeavours was the building of a classroom extension in La Floresta, enlisting the aid of teachers and pupils to construct the facility despite a minuscule budget and no planning permission. If they’d played by the rules, the class would still be a pile of materials awaiting government sign-off.
“I get a kick out of the confrontations with technocrats and politicians,” Cirugeda told The Guardian. “In Seville, the crisis affects us all, we are in a desperate situation and there’s a lot of injustice in the way things are being done. What about all these empty houses and unused land? There are lots of situations that interest me — as an architect and as a citizen.”
Of course, not all architectural activism requires gaming the system. Simple but significant humanitarian projects are just as effective at making a difference to the downtrodden when the rules let them down, or simply misinterpret their needs.
Yasmeen Lari – Pakistan’s first female architect – has dedicated herself to effective responses to natural disasters. “I often tell my colleagues, ‘Let us not treat disaster affected households as destitute, needing handouts’,” she told news agency Al Jazeera in 2014. “Rather let us give them due respect and treat them as we would a corporate-sector client.”
From the design of resilient bamboo shelters in the wake of Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake, to responding to the floods of 2010 with elevated shelters that can cope with up to seven feet of rising water, Lari has been responsible for more than 45,000 homes. Much of that impressive number is due to her insistence that those affected by such disasters are given the means and training to build their own responses. “There’s no need for the tents and the handouts,” she told The New Strait Times in 2016. “The people can learn to do this (build their houses) themselves, and they have.”
A prime example of Lari’s ethos can be found in South America, where Ricardo de Oliveira has been responsible for the construction of more than 100 homes, without any formal training and often without even the proper tools.
Essentially, de Oliveria is a bricklayer (pedreiro), but has still been responsible for everything from apartments to supermarkets to car parks in the Rio de Janiero favela of Rocinha. With 180,000 people packed into less than a square kilometre, the rundown neighbourhood suffers from inadequate housing, poor sanitation and a general lack of the resources that make urban living viable. Worse, the favela has been largely ignored by politicians, or even treated with disdain – when the government finally accepted a US$720 million project to rejuvenate the area, it promptly allocated half the money to building a cable car network. Pleas from residents to set up a proper sanitation network and build a hospital were ignored.
Given the lack of direction and support from the authorities to improve Rocinha, it has fallen to the likes of de Oliveira to take matters into their own hands. He and a group of similar builders have taken it upon themselves to direct the regeneration of the neighbourhood, using traditional methods and whatever materials can be sourced locally. It’s a hands-on approach that targets everything from producing better housing, to dreams of improving the sewer system, and de Oliveira has become the go-to guy for locals looking to improve their lot.
De Oliviera, Cirugeda and Lari, are clear examples of individuals bringing about positive results in spite of governments rather than with their blessing, creating built environments that raise the standard of living for all who use them. But such projects don’t have to be individual – take the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, where the artists Banksy, Sami Musa and Dominique Petrin have come together to create a boutique art hotel that doubles as a political statement. Boasting what it dubs “the worst view in the world” – that of the wall that has separated the Palestinians and the Israelis since 2002 – the entire structure is an indictment of the Israeli occupation, offering accommodation while also offering an up-close glimpse of the continuing conflict.
All it really takes to engage in this kind of grassroots activism is a consideration of your skill set, the influence you wield and how you can use it to improve lives outside of your regular sphere (coupled, of course, with the drive to do some good). It may be that there are facets to your work that lend themselves to this kind of project – and if you look around you, chances are you’ll find the opportunities are right there, waiting to be seized.