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Modern Cities Breed Alienation. Insurgent Urbanists Are Pushing Back.

Insurgent architect collectives are reclaiming public spaces for community building using unconventional means.

El Campo De Cebada, Madrid hosts a play on a stage build by architecture collectives. The space was built by architecture collectives in a vacant lot in Madrid’s La Latina neighborhood.

From a young age, consumerist settings are normalized to pair as social spaces. For millennial children, malls were the place to gather and cause trouble with friends. As people grow older the allure of the mall may wane, but many still socialize in spaces of consumption such as bars, cafes and clothing stores. It can be difficult to find imaginative, urban spaces designed to facilitate connections with others at no cost.

Urban design that fails to promote community building is one of the many factors that contribute to Americans’ feelings of loneliness. A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Economist found 2 out of 10 Americans often or always feel lonely, and another study revealed an even higher rate.

“If we had deliberately aimed to make cities that create loneliness we could hardly have been more successful,” Suzanne Lennard, an architect and the director of the International Making Cities Livable movement, told Vice.

But cities are not designed accidentally; urban planning is driven by private and political interests. Political power “often seeks to reorganize urban infrastructures and urban life with an eye to control restive populations,” City University of New York geography professor David Harvey wrote in his book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

Governments can control the movement of impoverished, homeless populations with “hostile” architecture, such as the installation of lights under bridges and spikes on public surfaces. Politicians alter symbolic, social spaces to signify new political eras. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who is effectively a dictator — is pushing for the real estate development of Taksim Square, reminiscent of the secular and progressive Turkish Republic, into a space that glorifies Turkey’s Ottoman roots. After a highly contested failed attempt to develop the square with a shopping mall, Erdoğan demolished an opera house and replaced it with a mosque. In Athens, Greece, the new center-right government is evicting squatting anarchists and refugees in an attempt to “clean up” and develop the neighborhood of Exarcheia, a site of relative autonomy with a rich history of political struggle and organizing.

While people in the Global South have been “self-buildingout of necessity for decades, the trend has only recently surfaced in the Global North on a larger scale in recent years. Do-it-yourself (DIY) and “insurgent” architect collectives aim to push back against this type of top-down urban design by assisting citizens in the reclaiming of public spaces through unconventional means.

DIY Architect Collectives Emerge in Spain

Western countries tend to be highly bureaucratized, surveilled and privatized — making common space, rather than shelter, more of a commodity. Earlier this year, Belgian researcher in urban sociology, Louis Volont, explored the ways several Spanish architect collectives create common spaces. Volont writes, “… DIY interventions, directly or indirectly, produce urban commons. DIY urbanism alters city space for collective use: Even when one DIYer modifies the outlook or functionality of the city, the result can be shared, experienced, or used in common. DIY urbanists, alone or during participatory projects, tend to avoid top-down, corporate, or privately led place making,” and, therefore, generate what some call “open-source” urbanism.

Recetas Urbanas (Urban Collectives), is one such insurgent architect collective Volont studied. The de facto leader of the “insurgent” architecture movement, Santiago Cirugeda, founded the collective in 2003, but began experimenting with architectural projects in the streets around 1997. One blogger and friend of Cirugeda’s describes him as an unconventional architect, writing, “… he does not kiss political ass, unlike most architects. In fact, he works hard at doing quite the opposite: being a royal pain in the ass to politicians.”

In Spain, the DIY architectural movement ballooned as a necessary social safety net during the 2007/2008 real estate crisis. Half-a-million unfinished properties were abandoned, while hundreds of thousands of Spaniards were unable to afford their mortgages and were evicted. The financing for state-run projects ran dry, and new vacant spaces and empty buildings appeared as opportunities for neighbors to take matters into their own hands. “There’s huge unemployment and a government unable to help … so people are doing things their own way,” Cirugeda told Al Jazeera for its film series, Rebel Architecture.

In a new piece for Roca Gallery, Cirugeda writes about the three types of urbanist “intervention strategies”: “alegal,” illegal and legal.

Recetas Urbanas is perhaps most highly acclaimed for the first method, “alegal” architecture. Cirugeda and the others masterfully exploit legal loopholes in order to develop subversive projects that are both functional and political. In 1997, Cirugeda graffitied a wall and sued himself in order to get a scaffolding permit on the street. With the permit, he built a shelter-structure that could house people without interference from the authorities for several months.

Likewise, Cirugeda exploited a Seville law that mandates a permit to store an open-topped waste container (or “skip”) in public space. With the permit from the city in hand, Cirugeda constructed a skip with a see-saw on top to supplement the city’s lack of playgrounds for kids. It was popular with children, but some neighbors complained about the odd structure. When Cirugeda was called to the police station, the authorities were forced to admit that he did not break any laws: The skip was permitted, labelled as a skip, and did not obstruct traffic or pedestrians. Cirugeda moved the structure around to other parts of Seville and expanded it to include swings and a children’s theatre.

Santiago Cirugeda ‘alegally’ constructs a playground out of a dumpster in 1997 in Seville, Spain.
Santiago Cirugeda ‘alegally’ constructs a playground out of a dumpster in 1997 in Seville, Spain.

Illegal acts, Cirugeda, writes, are “less elegant, but more efficient.” Recetas Urbanas’s website features examples and instructions for implementing “subversive strategies” such as DIY bike lanes, fences of vegetable gardens and benches on hills. Illegal acts, according to Cirugeda, may be considered “civil disobedience or simply an emergency solution in the face of a need which cannot wait for the pace of the authorities or of legal changes.…”

The third type of intervention strategy — the legal route — is not, of course, always available. But permitted DIY projects tend to last longer than their illegal or alegal counterparts, and oftentimes require less sacrifice. Recetas Urbanas applies for some construction grants and, if they win the bid, their communal ideology guides the work. In 2018, the collective was awarded with 195,780.2 euros (or about US$229,063) to build a Centro Sociocomunitario (Social Center) in Cañada Real Galiana, Madrid. The project was part of a larger initiative to improve the town, spearheaded by the Government Area of Territorial Coordination and Public-Social Cooperation and several Municipal Board politicians.

Cañada Real Galiana, Europe’s largest “shanty town,” was described as a “strip of economic and social misery” and a “slum of shame” by the Independent in 2011. Around 30,000 people — largely immigrants — reside in difficult conditions, without pavements, schools, or even sewage systems. “The project, which will begin to be built in the coming weeks, will be a common space to hold meetings, workshops and develop cultural activities, among others,” the city council wrote in a press release. “It will consist of 3 multipurpose rooms and three offices, as well as an assembly hall and residential spaces.”

Recetas Urbanas set up workshops near the town to initiate a self-building process encompassing 1,200 people, including Cañada Real residents and incarcerated people at the Madrid V Penitentiary Center of Soto del Real and the Madrid III Valdemoro Prison Center. The construction was paired with other types of social, artistic and cultural activities, such as music, theater and meals. Its success is a result of “the studio’s efforts and experience having worked directly with marginalized groups for over 15 years,” according to Cirugeda. The Centro Sociocomunitario was completed in April 2019, five months after the bid was granted.

Built out of recycled materials (as with many projects Recetas Urbanas undertakes), the social center is a strange sight to some. “Contemporary architecture is all about ‘what a beautiful building’ … ‘what a pretty project’ …. But architecture is more than that; it should be functional, cheap. It should be a reason to come together — and that’s what we’ve done,” Cirugeda told Al Jazeera in relation to another project.

Recetas Urbanas and community members sit on the curb near Centro Sociocomunitario (Social Center) in Cañada Real Galiana, Madrid in 2019.
Recetas Urbanas and community members sit on the curb near Centro Sociocomunitario (Social Center) in Cañada Real Galiana, Madrid in 2019.

The social center was removeable and mobile in case the context of its use changed within the neighborhood, a feature in line with Zuloark’s ideology, another award-winning Spanish architect collective. “The project should be like a thermometer, affected by the environment with the capacity to adapt to new circumstances,” co-founder of Zuloark, Manuel Domínguez, told Truthout. “It should look like how the people want it to look.”

Communities Come Together Over DIY Projects

Community holds an assembly with structures created by architecture collectives in El Campo De Cebada, Madrid.
Community holds an assembly with structures created by architecture collectives in El Campo De Cebada, Madrid.

Like Recetas Urbanas, Zuloark promotes participatory democratic urban planning. One of Zuloark’s most notable collaborations, El Campo De Cebada, was inspired by a vacant lot in Madrid’s La Latina neighborhood. In 2009, the government bulldozed a recreational center in La Latina to replace it with a more modern structure. After the global recession hit, however, funds for the project dried up. This left an unsightly, useless pit in the center of the city. But then the space was transformed into a “rain forest” during White Night, a common cultural festival with activities on the streets and squares throughout the evening. From this, the neighbors were able to envision the potential of the space under community control.

Neighbors, alongside activists and architects of all ages, came together to strategize how they could make use of the space until a new recreational center was built. They could have started building and holding events without permission of the authorities, but fearing repression, Domínguez and others took the legal route.

The group went to city hall to propose collective neighborhood management of the space. The authorities gave them the green light, under the condition that the space closes by nightfall and that the neighbors lock the gates each night.

The organizers held a small crowdsourcing campaign and kickoff party, and the DIY project “El Campo de Cebada,” was born.

Zuloark’s role at El Campo de Cebada was infrastructural. When people expressed an interest in gardening, they built plant beds. For theater nights, they built a stage. They constructed chairs and tables, and held furniture workshops so others could build pieces as they wished. “Everything [in the city] is usually so planned and overregulated. You can’t do anything,” Domínguez said. “But El Campo de Cebada was an oasis.”

People gather at El Campo De Cebada, Madrid.
People gather at El Campo De Cebada, Madrid.

It was home to wrestling events, plays, university lectures, summer night cinema, community gardens, basketball games and community assemblies. The neighborhood was invigorated. “If someone had something to express or show to the people, they could do it. They just had to go to the space, ask for a date and the space was theirs for an event,” Domínguez said. “It was a very energetic way of living in the city. There was always something to do, always something to propose.”

The space, not adhering to any kind of specific aesthetic, acted as a “melting pot” by facilitating interactions between different communities. Zuloark calls this phenomenon “the loudspeaker tool.” El Campo de Cebada was like a “small village,” Domínguez said, where people could “speak out their problems and take actions together to solve them.”

El Campo De Cebada, Madrid hosts a nighttime event with a large audience.
El Campo de Cebada, Madrid hosts a nighttime event with a large audience.

For Harvey, this kind of collective problem solving is crucial for urban class struggles: “Alternative democratic vehicles (other than the existing democracy of money power) such as popular assemblies need to be constructed if urban life is to be revitalized and reconstructed outside of dominant class relations,” he wrote.

In this vein, Cirugeda co-founded Arquitecturas Colectivas (Collective Architectures) in 2007, an international network of people and groups interested in the participatory construction of the urban environment. Today, the network is composed of 117 collectives across the world, including activists, artists, hackers and more. The network holds annual conferences, shares resources and knowledge, and collaborates on projects. One of the 117 collectives, knitknot architecture, is based in the United States.

A Burgeoning Movement in the United States?

While the Unites States has a “Tactical Urbanist” movement, the scale — especially in relation to architect involvement — appears to be much smaller, more professionalized, and less focused on improving material needs for marginalized residents compared to movements across Europe and South America.

However, guerilla groups do exist in the U.S.: In 2011, without permission, some neighbors and activists transformed a privately owned empty lot, formerly strewn with hypodermic needles and trash, into a green oasis called Bushwick City Farm in New York City. Neighbors have BBQs, kids play on the playground and teenagers get together for dominos games, according to Laurel Leckert, who is closely involved in the space. Bushwick City Farm also provides space for fundraisers and birthday parties. Like El Campo de Cebada, anyone is welcome into the space when the gates are open.

Litter covers the lot that becomes Bushwick city Farm.
Litter covers the lot that becomes Bushwick City Farm.

“Anyone is welcome to grow food here and everyone is also welcome to harvest any of the food here,” Leckert told Truthout. “We’re producing organic produce and eggs for the neighborhood, unlike other community gardens where individuals have a planter box which is theirs to grow and harvest what they want. At [Bushwick City Farm], there’s no ownership of the growing or consuming.”

Community gathers near vegetable beds at Bushwick City Farm in 2015.
Community gathers near vegetable beds at Bushwick City Farm in 2015.

Several years ago, the owner of the lot asked them to leave. But Bushwick City Farm, a beloved space to the community, mobilized local politicians and sympathetic media coverage and held neighborhood marches in defense of the space. The landowner, seemingly swayed or guilty, left them alone.

A supporter makes a sign that says “Don’t gentrify the last green space in this neighborhood” to support Bushwick City Farm in 2017.
A supporter makes a sign that says “Don’t gentrify the last green space in this neighborhood” to support Bushwick City Farm in 2017.

Bushwick City Farm was created with the intention of providing fresh foods and green space in a food desert. The project is not actively intending to “revitalize” Bushwick. However, in Detroit, a city known for its crumbling infrastructure and racial tensions, some DIY actions are simply reproducing neoliberalism, argues Theodore Pride in a Ph.D. dissertation. Agency does not “inherently equate resistance or radical change,” Pride writes. Some scholars have praised the boarding up of buildings and building of fences around vacant lots in Detroit as a form of citizens solving their neighborhood’s own problems. But these residents are engaged in acts which “fundamentally work to protect private property, which is central to the logics of capitalism,” according to Pride. One neighborhood-driven organization, “Neighbors Building Brightmore,” hopes to use urban agriculture as a way to attract residents back to the neighborhood and improve the real estate market.

Since the beliefs in private property and capitalist logic are so strong in the United States, DIY projects are highly susceptible to recuperation, which will only serve to perpetuate gentrification, displacement and loneliness. Anti-capitalists based in the United States should be vigilant of this recuperation. Alienating and profit-driven urban planning perpetuates poverty, gentrification and antisocial behavior, while bottom-up DIY tactics that actively challenge the status quo — like those at Cañada Real Galiana and El Campo de Cebada — generate incalculable social, political and cultural gains.

Our cities may be designed to accommodate loneliness and isolation currently, but thankfully, people with some tools, imagination and an anti-capitalist ideology have the power to change that.

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