From Occupy to occupation | Kathryn Firth AoU

A movement of design practices has emerged across Europe (at the time of writing we can still include the UK in this group) in the last decade that are deeply motivated by the political and economic contexts in which they are working. This trend intensified after the 2008 financial crisis, which prompted some to question who indeed they are working for. Kathryn Firth AoU spoke to a number of these practices to find out what motivates them to find a different way.

Many young architects participated in the international Occupy Movement, expressing their desire for change in the economic and political systems that govern our cities. While they and the practices to which they belong each take a somewhat different approach to effecting the built environment, what they share is a direct relationship with public authorities and the drive to combine education and research with actual projects towards the creation of buildings and places that are not consumer and profit-driven.

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the ideas on which the European Union was founded are tainted by populism, nationalism – not to be confused with the civic – and globalisation. London, in particular, is suffering from prioritising growth and a high GDP over urban quality and inclusive place-making.

In short, as is so often the case, a crisis acts as a catalyst to pose some critical questions: how is it possible to act locally and have an impact at the global level? More specifically to the practice of architecture, how can architects answer people’s often very basic needs without getting bogged down in complex forms and other bureaucratic hoops, and still set useful precedents?

Common to these practices that are attempting to counter the polarisation of wealth, and focus on buildings and spaces that are not places of consumption, is what can best be described as ‘engagement’. The crisis – the loss of the civic and the collective – has been a powerful incubator for provoking change and developing new attitudes toward the disciplines of architecture and urbanism and finding diverse ways to bring many voices to urban issues.

While there is a history of engagement – so often confused with consultation in places such as the UK – that might lead to cynicism, there is a renewed impetus to connect the practice of architecture and urbanism with social, political and economic conditions.

The act of doing things yourself is political.

(Anthony Engi Meacock, Assemble, London: October 5th, 2016)

A culture of independence – if you want something to happen, make it happen – encouraged many architecture students to opt for radical trajectories disrupting normative career paths. The perceived need for immediate action at the local level and the strong desire to initiate projects by themselves catalysed students to start conversations and collaborations on an informal level. The collective prevailed over the individual ego, as did the desire to intervene rather than be a spectator, provoking the emergence of self-sustained projects. There is a realisation that the tools of architecture and urbanism can be mobilised to provoke societal change. This is not the first time in history that architects have operated as a collective, nor politically in a bottom-up manner. For most of the young architects motivated towards community engagement this is novel and new territory – they are not oblivious to history, but have a sincere belief that they can do things differently, more effectively.

Advocating for collective agency, these practices forge relationships between traditional authority and people in their particular locales. As these practices place themselves at the core of the production of common benefit it becomes critical to interrogate the architect’s roles and responsibilities.

The London-based practice We Made That states on their website: “All our work is public, and we aim to make imaginative and considered contributions to the built environment through socially engaged design processes. The relationship between local communities, development and creative practice is a particular focus of our work and we believe that – handled correctly – it can lead to enriched, exciting and engaging places.

While this statement might appear on promotional material of many ‘traditional’ practices, We Made That, like the other young practices referred to in this article, is not just paying lip service to the concept of socially-engaged processes. There is a rigour in the engagement that extends beyond merely holding a consultation event. Indeed, in some cases they stay involved far beyond the realisation of the project informing its potential evolution. For example, at Blackhorse Lane in the London Borough of Waltham Forest they held free training in production skills within the workshop they designed.

Projects respond to their context and ask a simple question: how can we collectively improve the lives of the people inhabiting a particular place? Often there is no clear methodology or theoretical basis operating within these practices nor a fixation on style. However, across most of the practices, research is a critical aspect of the work. This is not merely a desktop review of data but includes in-depth observation of a place, spending time on the streets, talking to locals about how a place is used and inhabited. Practice becomes a question of attitude as these designers interpret, even exploit, the role of the architect to act directly on behalf of a particular community.

This ultimately sees the architect or urban designer taking on a multiplicity of roles, including project initiator, researcher, teacher, facilitator, project manager, convener, negotiator and, oh yes, designer…

Ateliermob took on all of these roles working with residents of an illegal settlement in Costa da Caparica, Portugal. 500 people live here without proper water infrastructure. Through a participatory process, the people agreed that a community kitchen, with running water and electricity, was a priority to improve their living conditions. Through the persistence of Ateliermob, originally supported by the Architecture, City and Territory Studies Centre of Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Municipality of Almada finally recognised the rights of the community. They formed a Neighbourhood Commission and the kitchen was realised. This was both a political and social coup.

Assemble worked in residence with local activist group Pathfinders for nine months to inform public realm improvements at New Addington, Central Parade in Croydon. The project started with a three-month collaborative research process with local residents, businesses and community groups. Assemble built 1:1 models of their proposals on site, testing them by hosting a week-long festival of events in the public square for the whole town to share.

‘City School 2015-2016: The Library from Militari’ was co-ordinated by studioBASAR and financed through the Mobilizing Excellency Program, created by Porsche Romania and developed together with Bucharest Community Foundation. Closed for more than five years, hidden in the back of a food market, the Gheorghe Lazăr library occupied the ground floor of an apartment block. The library became the studio of a multidisciplinary team of students and architecture, urbanism and sociology graduates for six months. The City School team took the library out of hibernation and it became a living room for conversations and workshops with neighbours, the library users and librarians from other branches to inform how the library should be reinstated. The experience resulted in the first edition of the City School Activation Guide, which provides lessons learned, inspiring similar projects in other branches.

Young practices understand the power of virtual communication – social media – and how it can catalyse action that, in turn, can have an immediate local and global impact. Tiago Mota Saraiva of Ateliermob has influenced municipal decisions via Twitter – indeed, he was able to report police violence in the community on Twitter, resulting in immediate outrage; and StudioBASAR has found that it can organise informal meetings in just a few minutes using social media. The call to action that has a built environment agenda ultimately operates the same way we see the call to other forms of political mobilisation today.

On top of the many roles these ‘bottom-up’ architects play they also fund or subsidise projects. Most of these practices are far from economically viable. While they aim to find alternative forms of income, finances remains a major issue as they struggle to make personal and their practice’s ends meet. It is no great surprise that most of these practices depend on public subsidies: from local, regional, national or European funds. Most of them are aware that public money is a volatile source. The survival of these practices is often only possible due to the scale of their projects. They tend not to require vast funds to be developed or to run. However, while size isn’t everything it can matter – if these types of practices want to keep their independence and realise larger scale projects they encounter serious financial challenges.

Funding is derived from multiple sources. StudioBASAR, for example, received €10,000 from EUCSR (European Union Corporate Responsibility Fund) for the library project. Assemble’s clients are local authorities, institutions and trusts. Project funding is often supplemented by sources such as the National Lottery Fund, BIDs (Central Parade, Croydon) or by the Mayor of London’s Outer London Fund (Blackhorse Lane workshops). Meanwhile, Rorot Deconstruction was involved in the demolition of BNP Paris Headquarters in Brussels and is selling its stock, furniture and fittings, on the internet.

Creativity extends to the birth of alternative business models. Some practices are opting for parallel economic activities by generating revenue through diverse services such as renting out excess office space or teaching. Others have developed architecture cooperatives that act as public service organisations or NGOs that are exempt from VAT, while others are exploring the mechanisms of real-estate development to propose new ways of conceiving and financing projects. Ateliermob is now becoming an NGO in order to avoid paying tax.

Is it that these practices reject the traditional client – the private developer – or that organisations whose primary objective is purely financial gain would never commission architects with such extreme ‘ground up’ approaches to a design project? Over the past decade there has been an improvement in the quality of the public realm and buildings – both functionally and aesthetically – however, how much of this is due to enlightened regulation?

Whether in rural areas, city centres or the suburbs, these practices are able to re-establish or create centralities. This does not mean a transport hub, retail centre or cultural district. These are centralities that emerge from the collective intelligence and from the existing context and communities already present in a locality. These projects are able to grasp commonalities, allowing people to live together, be productive together, form links that transcend difference. By acting at a granular local level these young practices are recreating, at a very small scale, the essence of the ‘Esprit Européen’: the ideal of diversity and equality – the anti-thesis to one-size fits all urbanism.

There are still many questions around this process of the democratisation of architecture and urbanism. The number of practices devoted to this endeavour is still a very small percentage of the profession. However, it is inspiring that across a growing diversity of practices there is a drive to become more aligned with current political, social and economic discussions and debates. In a time when being an ‘expert’ is frowned upon by a large part of the population these approaches have the potential to form a bridge between diverse constituencies.

Kathryn Firth AoU is a partner at FPdesign and a director of The Academy of Urbanism.

This article has been supplemented by discussions with Flavien Menu, who curated and chaired “The Bedford Tapes”: a day of debate at the Architectural Association including the practices cited

aaschool.ac.uk/VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=3505

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