Towards a rebel and transformative architecture from the ideal of empowerment

In the 1960s, architect Bernard Rudofsky wrote Architecture Without Architects[1] from an endogenous and rudimentary vision. But favelas, marginal settlements, and popular communities – omnipresent in our current cities – also express exactly that from an alternative perspective: The construction of urban space based on popular needs, where professional knowledge is completely absent.

Nowadays most of our cities are replete with so-called “slums”, but despite this situation, few architects are connected to projects as public places, cultural buildings, or social housing, and many less care about community projects: a communal house, a small park, a sports court, or simply a torrent, a staircase, a street, a sidewalk, or other service facilities.

It is completely absurd that architects keep thinking in the profession like a sumptuary object, rejecting reality cases where great opportunities to re-signify the discipline in society exist.

Contrarily, it is indeed necessary to assume a different leadership to be front-facing to projects, located next to the characters who live in these emerging contexts. Architects must act as an influential politician actor, being able to create as a technician in design, but also to work as a citizen in social relationships, or as an interlocutor between the state institutions. Only following this condition where architecture is a backing tool, it is possible that architects eventually become true agents of social transformation, towards rethink urban strategies and ways of building society.

Karina Dominguez and Marcos Coronel -PICO Colectivo team-, in a recognition of the Barrio Las Luces guided by neighborhood promoters. Caracas 2016

Our reality indeed creates a conflictive scenery where polarized positions exist. Popular empowerment means an alternative focus, very different from institutional discourse and traditional society point of view about collective life. Parallel to assistentialist and representative models, another system based on cooperative participation and protagonist making decisions over commons problems, is growing up. These associative forces act as hegemonic counter-powers who constantly struggle against the cultural pact of the dominant society, and eventually, it’s able to foster new ideologies.

At the beginning of the politically convulsive 21st century in Venezuela, amid several political shocks, a new legal framework was created that would allow the appearance of social movements, collectives, and different popular organizations, seeking to promote a rebel and transformative social participation.

In this context, precisely we had a growing interest in politics, – not in a proselytizing or partisan way – but social politics related to citizen power, and collaborative relationships within a different urban paradigm model.

While we considered how architecture could take part in these actions, we decided to develop a non-individual figure, – located outside of the establishment’s logics – to get in a sort of practical laboratory, closer to common problems and territory, to access the transformations foreseen by this new and overwhelming legal support.

But, one of the things we have been asking ourselves in recent years is ¿How to speak clearly about empowerment in a sphere where this idea is exploited dangerously superficially?.

Empowerment consists of understanding how the territory is managed with autonomy, how economic self-sufficiency is achieved, how a collective environment is mapped, where are located and who organizes the talents and intelligence of popular knowledge to operate in the territory, who are the spokespersons and natural leaders to direct these processes and what are their functions, how work is organized, what areas should be prioritized, as well as how to define a participatory budget and how to make correct decisions.

We like to propose the example of one of our most significant projects -Community Equipment System- where we practically spent five months living in the neighborhood. If every workday starts at 7 am and ends at 5 pm, immediately, the community establishes an assembly at 6 pm that can last up to long hours at night, to discuss the progress and to verify very strictly the compliment of the work schedule, the functions of the technicians and the effectiveness of the workers’ groups, or anticipate the cultural actions that each of the interventions could generate.

It’s the situation of an architecture that has to focus on the construction of challenging structures but also to work on the processes that lead to the achievement of these spaces, thinking about the potential of the buildings to program an intense agenda of activities that guarantee the use-value. These topics are where the true gene of empowerment is found.

In empowerment and collaborative processes, it is recurrent to build exchange networks that allow one project to be reached through another. It is impressive how, over time, very positive relationships have been built up through ”problems”.

During 2014 we transformed a degraded residence into a cultural and sports community center located at the top of Petare -one of the densest favelas in Latin America, located in Caracas, Venezuela-. In this project, we work alongside great partners, including Alfredo Pineda, an urban anthropologist who was designing a national cultural program, articulating with multiple urban groups across the country. This exchange allowed us to endow a recording studio and offer technical training workshops for equipment management. It was the first recording studio and musical rehearsal room self-managed and drove directly by young people inside a Caracas barrio.

From this moment, we come across the team of the Cultural Production Zone, who already had a successful accumulated work. The next step was to strengthen the rescue of a vandalized space, fostering a debate process and definitions to implement the plan with the validation of the whole community and the public entities’ support. It is a story precedes more than three years of very strong alliances before project materialization.

In this case, the population of immediate context is constituted in an instance of a social organization called ”Territorial Basic Cell” that groups a set of people and families living in a concurrent sector to establish the agreements of coexistence, urban variables and even the property regime, customized by local own criteria. What we did precisely was to add us the popular mobilization to support the occupation and recover the building among all, not as spectators but from an act of joint power. This is the kind of action protocols allowed us to democratize the possession of the building, but also duties and rights over its new use.

Cultural Production Zone is not only a building for a cultural group, but it also radiates on the whole community, managed by artists and urban creatives. The project beginning to issue programs that are conceived with other organizations inside and outside the country. These groups also develop graphic, musical and audiovisual productions, at the same time that square, basketball court, and skatepark are used regularly by local crews, just as polyvalent room receives periodic neighbors meetings, conferences, cinema forums, and public conversations.

(Containers used was a pre-established condition. The approach is to articulate the old building structure with new devices taking advantage of the shipping containers chartered to acquire the tools for units endowment, but also the drums of anticorrosive background to fabricate window visors or the corporeal acronym we took abandoned in a courtyard of General Motor Company, installing it on one of the cans to identify the cultural collective, among many pieces and components with minimal imperfections we obtained by registering materials dumps of other works.)

It’s a common situation where underused buildings and plots abound in Latin American city centers due to urban land speculation. At the same time, many families cannot access their own home or young simply do not have a meeting space, while mechanical workshops, car washes, parking lots, and abandoned buildings often exist inside any block.

But an architecture that is capable of redefining the way in which the city is constituted, will promote new and more determining contexts where the discipline will demonstrate a paradigm shift, emphasizing social problems from different approaches.

An architecture guided by practices that bet on endogenous experiences, connected to projects that include cultural processes, resource efficiency, nature, energy, as well as relevant social and territorial environments, within challenging structures, must be the foundations that lead us towards a rebel and transformative architecture.

Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. 1964 [1]

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