Architecture Without Buildings


Image by Peter Guenzel

A new generation of architects is demonstrating that we should stop and think before trying to solve a problem with a building.

They feel much more effective writing, researching, campaigning, occupying and performing than they do at the drawing board. They don’t wait to be approached by clients; they see the potential to make a difference and they seize it. That might take the form of an installation, a book, a fireworks display or squatting for days in a condemned building.Working in places such as Caracas, Tijuana, Zagreb and even Rome, Berlin and London, they operate at the limits of what we call “architecture”. Yet in some way they can be seen as the conscience of their profession.

This year’s Venice architecture biennale, whose theme is “Architecture Beyond Building”, ought to have been a showcase for such work. But, aside from a couple of pavilions, the biggest architecture exhibition in the world missed its chance. The practices profiled on the following pages offer a more socially engaged interpretation of that theme. They are still in a tiny minority, perceived to be working in the margins, but they would argue that the architectural system is inherently limited, with little potential to include or empower the people architecture is made for. Emerging in the same decade in which starchitects have become global brands, these more strategic studios have decided not to rely on the patronage of the wealthy but to find their own funding and do their own thing.

Some are trying to address problems that the politicians are failing to. In the dense barrios of Caracas, Venezuelan office Urban Think Tank has spent more than ten years trying to provide basic infrastructure such as sewage, transport and recreational areas, and has achieved a great deal. Its latest project is to provide a cable-car through the barrio. The first form of public transport for this area, it is the product of years of campaigning, finally receiving backing from the central government last year. Meanwhile, Urban Think Tank has a fellow traveller in San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz, who is trying to help impoverished Mexicans in the border city of Tijuana standardise their self-built homes to make them safe. Both Urban Think Tank and Teddy Cruz are providing services in areas where people have had to improvise their own architecture.

Often it is research – the architecture before building – that practices concern themselves with. In Croatia, Platforma 9.81 was moved to map what remained of the built landscape of Zagreb after the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s. They drew a vast diagram of abandoned factories, offices and scraps of land, which they suggested could be used for cultural events. Another group, the Rome-based collective Stalker, researched migrant Roma communities in Italy in an effort to learn from their low-waste, low-cost way of life.

Some of these practices are trying to provoke people to interact with their environment in new or different ways. This is where architecture and public art start to cross over. Berlin- and Stockholm-based duo International Festival wants to create architecture through performance and spectacle. The ambassadors of architectural fun, they like to occupy public squares with events that the public can take part in. Others, like Vienna-based Feld72, prefer more guerrilla-style interventions, such as when it stickered car parks in São Paulo with statements like “Buy! This place will be expensive soon”. These provocateur-studios want to shake people into seeing their cities afresh.

Although architects have been engaged in these kinds of activities since the 1970s, they seem to have discovered a critical mass. Last year, AnArkitektur, a Berlin-based magazine publishing much of the writing connected to this work, organised a weekend workshop called the Camp for Oppositional Architecture, which was attended by more than 200 practices.

It seems to be in the nature of this kind of work that the language tied up with it is often vague and pretentious. The discourse is riddled with buzzwords such as “participation” and “critical practice”, which are treated as solutions in themselves. The result is that what should be a popular form of architecture is also perhaps the least understood. Indeed, many of these offices are run by part-time academics who have another more commercial office that makes the money to fund their interventions.

The work of these organisations is difficult to categorise neatly. What follows is a collection of a handful of key players, and not a coherent grouping. At their extremes, the practices portrayed here are as different from each other as all of them are from conventional architects, but they all have an essential spirit in common. At its simplest, they care more about people than they do design.