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Interview: what makes a rebel architect?

The AJ interviews Dan Davies, series producer of Rebel Architecture, on what makes a rebel architect and the social and economic challenges they face

What inspired the series, Rebel Architecture?
‘We couldn’t help noticing that despite all the problems afflicting humanity, many of which architecture uniquely has the ability to assist and even solve, most of the mainstream and architectural press celebrates the aesthetics of huge iconic projects, marvelling at insanely complicated ways to fold giant sheets of metal.

‘As we face issues from floods and natural disasters to an explosion of urban populations, soaring inequality and displacement through conflict, architecture seems wholly absent. So we wanted to look beyond the discussion of the aesthetics of ‘starchitecture’ and see what architects outside the mainsteam where doing.’

What makes a ‘rebel architect’?
‘Spanish architect Santiago Cirugeda was one of the first that we found, and in many ways became our template because he pushes the boundaries in terms of his design, the materials he uses, his politics and his working methods. Working on the edge of the law, he occupies unused municipal land to construct radical self-build structures with local activist groups for use by the wider community.’ 

Santiago Cirugeda. Film still from 'Guerilla Architect' by Al Jazeera. Image: Al Jazeera.

Santiago Cirugeda. Film still from ‘Guerilla Architect’ by Al Jazeera. Image: Al Jazeera.

‘So rebel architects have to push boundaries. But they must also look beyond their own buildings. They start by looking at the wider context in which they live - be it Spain hit by the financial crisis, or Pakistan ravaged by floods - and work out how they can change the status quo with architecture. Their buildings become a physical solution to the problems they identity.

Rebel architects look beyond their own buildings

‘For Cirugeda, that is forming independent cultural spaces for people to flourish in a country where, as he says, ‘the state has withdrawn’ due to the banking crisis of 2008, while for Yasmeen Lari in Pakistan it involves helping people build their own flood-resistant homes and shelters.’

Yasmeen Lari. Film still from 'A Traditional Future' by Al Jazeera. Image: Al Jazeera.

Yasmeen Lari. Film still from ‘A Traditional Future’ by Al Jazeera. Image: Al Jazeera.

What are the rebel architects doing in their communities that is so different?
‘The main thing the rebel architects do is shockingly simple – they use architecture to fulfil a real social need. Something that gets lost in the aesthetics debate is the question: ‘Why is this building needed?’ How many of the buildings on the Stirling Prize shortlist were actually needed? Did London ‘need’ the Cheesegrater, or the Walkie Talkie? Not in the way that London needs hundreds of thousands of social – as opposed to ‘affordable’ – housing units, and yet these iconic towers seem so much easier to put up.

Did London ‘need’ the Cheesegrater, or the Walkie Talkie?

‘But this seems to mean that the rebel architects have to work outside the normal relationships with developers and governments, which undoubtedly makes their jobs harder.’

Film still from 'Greening the City', part of Rebel Architecture series. Image: Al Jazeera.

Film still from ‘Greening the City’, part of Rebel Architecture series. Image: Al Jazeera.

Has the economic crisis made their work even more important?
‘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’, and the impact of the banking crisis in 2008 is all around us in architecture.

‘After the states bailed out the banks, it became a sovereign debt crisis.

‘And it’s become very explicit how an eviscerated public sector struggles to provide social buildings, while the private sector can’t build enough iconic masterpieces to absorb and provide a return on their surplus capital.

‘The banking crisis also exacerbated the increase in global inequality and the combination of these two factors means that while governments previously attempted to improve the conditions of their poorest, in many places the most vulnerable are treated with indifference or even contempt.

‘In fact, we see the same forces of gentrification operating in Rio [Brazil] and Port Harcourt [Nigeria], as we do in Hackney and Lewisham. But it is these factors that have opened up the space for the rebels to operate in.’

Rebel Architecture will begin on Monday 18 August.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • What makes an architect rebel would clearly be the better title, as we are so much part of the establishment, especially the ARB registered RIBA member type, that Governments look up to us to deliver value for money and buildings that last. However, there is hardly a building type nor lasting style that owes it's design to an Architect worldwide, Georgian housing being the most obvious English example to the contrary.

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