Yesterday saw the start of the new six-part television documentary “Rebel Architecture” on Al Jazeera English. Spanning the globe from Spain to Vietnam, Nigeria to Pakistan and Rio de Janeiro to the Israeli-Palestinian border, each of the fascinating half-hour episodes follows an architect pushing the boundaries of the profession, working at the edges of legality and possibility to directly improve living conditions and effect change. uncube will be featuring each week’s episode as it is released, and this week to mark Episode One: Guerilla Architect, Florian Heilmeyer interviewed the series’ executive producer, British broadcast journalist Daniel Davies.
Who came up with the idea for “Rebel Architecture”, and how did the concept develop?
The idea came about because I was surprised that architecture seemed totally estranged from the huge challenges humanity faces today – from floods and the explosion of urban populations to inequality and displacement through conflict. It seemed bizarre that the mainstream and architectural press mostly celebrates the aesthetics of huge iconic projects, marvelling at insanely complicated ways to fold giant sheets of metal, instead of dealing with these challenges.
Ana Naomi de Sousa, who directed two of the videos, joined the project early on and helped to develop the idea further. With “Rebel Architecture” we wanted to look beyond the discussion of the aesthetics of starchitecture and see what architects do outside the mainstream. We were looking for “good design” in the sense of design that mitigates environmental threats, requires less energy, and maybe even reduces social ills and wealth imbalances.
In the six episodes you portray very different people from all over the globe dealing with widely varying circumstances – from Vo Trong Nghia, who builds “green buildings” in Ho Chi Minh City, to Eyal Weizman explaining architecture as a tool of violence on the Israeli-Palestinian borders, to Yasmeen Lari who helps people in Pakistan to learn how to build houses by themselves. What makes all these people “rebel architects”?
What connects them is shockingly simple – they use architecture to fulfil a real social need. One question that gets lost behind the aesthetics debate is “why is this building needed?” Just take a look at the list of the RIBA Stirling Prize, given for the best building of the year – how many of these buildings were actually necessary and for whom? Who decided to build the “Cheese Grater”, or the “Walkie Talkie” office towers in London instead of hundreds of thousands of social (as opposed to “affordable”) housing units which would have been really useful in a city like London? Yet these iconic towers seem so much easier to put up – and to award.
In short, rebel architects refuse to see their work as something apart from society, and they also refuse to place people and environment above aesthetics and profit. Unfortunately this often means they must be willing to work outside of the traditional structures, and take risks with their own careers and lives. Why is building to meet social needs so outside the mainstream? Of those we covered, only the Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia works with a developer, and the scene where he’s trying to convince that developer about the benefits of his green “farming city” is extremely revealing about the difficulties of getting private capital to work for the wider benefit of society.
The first of your episodes follows Spanish architect Santiago Cirugeda, who’s working to revitalise disused buildings and places following the financial crisis. How does this video set the stage for the whole series? Does Cirugeda’s particular approach in the Spanish context represent the broader reality of architecture around the world today?
As Eyal Weizman says, “Architecture is the materialisation of politics. By looking at the interaction between the natural and built environment we can see the political forces at play”. The impact of the banking crisis in 2008 is all around us – in Spain and in the practice of architecture in general. After the USA bailed out the banks, it became a sovereign debt crisis: now the eviscerated public sector struggles to provide enough social buildings, while the private sector can’t build enough iconic masterpieces to absorb and provide a return on its surplus capital.
The video on Cirugeda begins with an expression of this dichotomy, and yes, he is really a kind of “ur-rebel”, pushing boundaries on all fronts. He’s radical in terms of his design, the materials he uses, his politics and his working methods. Most of the others push one or two of the boundaries that he does, be it materials or working practices, but possibly only Eyal Weizman is so self-consciously a rebel on every level.
Do you think that there a fundamental paradigm shift happening in the world of architecture right now, or is it just the same old story of architecture basically serving the rich and powerful, with a few exceptional people working to directly improve living conditions – some of them architects?
Looking back at the broad sweep of history, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that architecture was and is an elite affair, concerned with projecting power – castles, prisons, walls and checkpoints – and glory – pyramids, churches, lavish villas and iconic office buildings – interrupted only by a brief spell in the twentieth century when it attempted, with mixed results, to address the wider concerns of humanity.
I do think there has been a paradigm shift in the last 30 years where architecture returned to its traditional “functions” of power and glory. After all, building is expensive and it is understandable that most architects do what they can to attract money. There is a lot of “noise” around “change”, but, as we discovered, much of it ends up serving big capital.
Having said that, there are genuinely radical projects to be found. Like the Spanish National Architects' Collective that Santiago Cirugeda is part of – a group of architects who come together to help source materials and realise each other’s buildings. But that is as much a part of Spain’s political culture and reaction to austerity as it is a part of architecture. It’s interesting, some people have tried to see these architects through the lens of the latest fad of “resilient cities”, but these guys aren’t into being resilient. They’re rebelling against it all!
A common thread in all six episodes is a harsh critique of formal and governmental planning, which always seems to go wrong, whether in Spain, Vietnam, or Brazil. The message is that top-down or official strategies are necessarily failures; is this indeed one of your conclusions? Why aren’t there more “official” perspectives included to defend those strategies?
The programmes come from the observational tradition of documentary film making where we build a story by following a character. We wanted these architects to speak for themselves and tell their own stories, rather than be mediated by a narrator. So the six episodes of Rebel Architecture are very much the personal stories of these characters, rather than exhaustive examinations of these issues. Official positions are mentioned to the extent in which they affect the story – any criticism of official and government planning in the series comes from the architect’s perspective, and isn’t the purpose of the series at all. It’s absurd to say government is always right, or always wrong. The point should always be what are they doing, how well are they doing it and, crucially, in whose interests are they doing it?
So in our episode from Rio de Janeiro, for instance, we see the government video produced to promote their Rocinha development, which contrasts starkly with how both main characters, the builder Ricardo de Oliveira and master planner Luis Carlos Toledo, see it. Part of the decision not to include more came from the fact that a lot of what we need to know is contained in that governmental video – this is their best sales pitch for what they’re doing. It is our job to take this and hold it against reality. The other part is that the “official” side – in all the videos – is already prevalent across the media, so these videos aim to give other people a voice.
You’re referring to the last episode, dedicated to Ricardo de Oliveira, who has built 100 houses in a favela in Rio de Janeiro with no formal training and very basic tools – while the government is trying to “improve” living conditions by introducing a very expensive cable car system. Is this movie intended as a conclusion for your series?
That’s funny, because it certainly wasn’t intended as a conclusion, but I guess you could read it that way. Ricardo is the only untrained practitioner in the series, but he is the also the quintessential “rebel architect”. We looked at many projects led by professional architects and NGOs aimed at helping, improving and regenerating Latin America’s favelas, but it only made us realise that, whatever their many shortcomings, the favelas themselves are the most profound examples of a rebel architecture. It is people like Ricardo and his forefathers who built with no land, no training, few materials and basic tools what are now small cities within huge cities. He’s there to really say, “don’t patronise the people, they don’t need babying, look what they’ve done with no help from government or private capital”.
So in order to establish an “alternative model” to the worldwide building industries and their profit-oriented ways, it is back to DIY all the way?
Well, at least it didn’t go unnoticed to us that, while we were selecting which projects and architects to portray, very few of these architects are operating at a large scale – Yasmeen Lari notwithstanding. To return to the banking crisis: it had the effect of exacerbating the existing global tendency towards inequality, and whereas in previous decades governments attempted to improve the conditions of their poorest, now under austerity – or whatever excuse local elites are using – the most vulnerable are treated with indifference, or even contempt. So when the public sphere is not operating in people’s interests, we have to look for our own alternatives with whatever we have at hand, in architecture as in life.
Will you continue the series?
We would love to – but that is a network decision!
– Dan Davies trained as a broadcast journalist. He has worked for various BBC and commercial radio stations before moving into TV at Associated Press Television News. He joined Al Jazeera English at its launch in 2006 and after a sabbatical in Bosnia in 2009, returned to work with Al Jazeera freelance. Dan is also a playwright, with work performed at the National Theatre Studio, The Tristan Bates Theatre and on BBC Radio 4.
– Interview by Florian Heilmeyer
Al Jazeera airs one episode each Monday at 23.30 (CET) from 18 August - 22 September 2014. For details please visit Rebel Architecture or subscribe to the uncube newsletter, as we will feature each week’s episode here.
This week, Episode 1: Guerrilla Architect, directed by Ana Naomi De Sousa: