Review | Magazine | Domus 962: Long Live the Crisis!

The new issue of Domus no962 interrogates architecture at its very turning point: in the wake of financial crisis, architectural practices are changing. Indeed, the economic crisis appears to encourage architecture to redefine its 'function', methodologically, intellectually, politically, economically, professionally, ethically and, not to mention, aesthetically. As is implicit in this 962th issue of Domus, architecture attempts to adopt a critical posture to cope with the question in creative ways.

Domus 962

It seems to me that this issue is the connection between some projects displayed in the 13th edition of the International Architecture Biennale, like, to quote a few, Spontaneous Interventions, the theme of the US Pavilion, — which explores an architecture "acting on [its] own initiative to solve problematic urban situations, creating new opportunities and amenities for the public." — and Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2013. In particular these questions chief curator Beatrice Galilée,  and curators José EsparzaLiam Young and Mariana Pestana raise: "What is Architecture in the Time of Crisis?" and "For Whom Do We Design, and Why?" (many are coming).
What is at stake, as we will see, is this new issue brings to light an illustration of new approaches, or else, new purposes of design that raise a set of problems interconnected with financial crisis. Put the issue simply: architecture is in crisis.

On this topic
Jeremy Till | Scarcity contra Austerity || Design Observer

Architecture attempts to articulate the collective systems — ecology, economics, technologies, and society — to individual and collective experiences to redefine itself and adapt to changing situations. This 962th issue gathers essays to spotlight this redefinition of architecture unveiling how architecture tries to adapt to these changing issues. It attempts to describe the changing context for architects in personal experiences, trips, and analysis of architecture.

It seems to me that these essays and photoessays demand major revisions in how architecture conceives of life, building, individual and collective relations, environment, and economics. About the evidence: we are still not seeing the end of this long tunnel. Consequently, given reducing funding sources and projects, architecture must do more with less, with the existing, the déjà-là.

On this topic
Peter Buchanan | The Big Rethink || Architectural Review

But first off, a surprise: Jean-Philippe Vassal of Lacaton-Vassal. Vassal has spent for five years (1980 to 1985) in Niger as an architect and urban planner. He presents a photo-essays that documents his daily life in Africa. Jean-Philippe Vassal has worked as an architect and urban planner in Niger.

Take Jean-Philippe Vassal's neighbour, the hat maker for example. A hat maker, announced to be Vassal's neighbor, has built a precarious shelter made of
three tree branches and a piece of fabric, arranged behind a bush.
Or Market for construction materials to find materials to build huts,
These included tree branches about three metres long that could be used for frames; panels of sekko (millet stalks braided together) for walls (the braiding was sufficiently loose to let the wind through); rolls of rice straw to unroll on the roof that are sufficiently dense to protect against the rain; front doors made of timber frames and sealed with steel sheets and padlocks; 200-litre barrels for carrying water help pack and strengthen the sand floor (also used beforehand as a pedestal for a man to stand on to connect the tree branches of the frame at the top of the hut); palm-leaf rope used to connect each member and hold the entire structure in place; and beds made of crisscrossed tree branches, with reed mats to place over the frame.

Vassal's House on the dunes of Niamey, a house built "on the sand dunes formed on the bank by fresh air currents that roll off the axis of the [R]iver [Niger]." As Vassal notes:
The site was therefore particularly well ventilated. The house consisted of three elements: a straw ht to retreat to, an open yet enclosed space, and a "hangar" to receive guests and enjoy the view. Given that the house faced Niamey, the lights of the city at night sufficed to guide your way. It took six months to find the right site and two days for the villagers to build the house. And it took the wind two years to take it away again.
This photoessay announces the tone of this issue: DIY, temporary, scalable, mutable, flexibility, resistance, adaptation, anticipation, contingency… 

Followed by a set of essays and experiences on architecture in the time of crisis with Something Fantastic who tell their daily practices;  essays of: Jeannette Kunsmann on Kéré Architecture going back home to "share with his people the ideas that he learns elsewhere"; Nathalie Janson on Power House Productions and Project Row Houses demonstrating "how integrating the community in renewal projects can be an effective road to intelligent and sustainable urban renewal"; Susanne Schindler on Phipps-Rose-Dattner-Grimshaw, Jonathan Kirschenfeld, Peter Gluck and Partners, and SHoP Architects who envision a redefinition of the ins and outs of social housing in the heartland of capitalism; Jeannette Kunsmann, again, on Berlin-based Zanderroth Architekten who "adhere to the Baugruppe way of building, where homeowners make residential buildings without the intervention of a developer." Rainer Hehl went to Rio de Janeiro to photograph Cidade de Deus which has become an actual city inside its mother metropolis. This favelas is an "exemplary mix" of "spatial and social hybridisation"; Julia van Mende compares the Hartz IV programme, an open-source DIY, with the Bauhaus's criticism of industrial production models; How guns became musical instruments in a country gangrened by crime, José Esparza writes. 

He interrogates artist Pedro Reyes' transformation of guns into musical instruments to imagine a new life for the people of Mexico… as well as countries that daily struggle with urban violence. Finally from Dom-ino to Polykatoika. Pier Vittorio Aureli, Maria Giudici, Platon Issaias of the Berlage Institute look back at the concept of infill architecture, Le Corbusier's Dom-ino construction system to compare with the Greek polykatoikia multi-storey apartment building. The idea behind this is to reveal how it is possible to shift from static, inert architecture to vivid, stimulating collective and shared spaces.

How would we redefine the purpose of design?
This can be another question that this issue raises. And Self-sufficiency, self-organization, adaptation, anticipation can be first responses. In an essay, Scarcity Contra Austerity, posted on Design Observer, Jeremy Till writes,

We live in an age of austerity; or, rather, we are told that we live in an age of austerity. In the United States and throughout Europe, austerity is presented as a necessary stricture, and the mantra "cuts now, growth later" is repeated so steadily that it seems an inevitability, with consequences ranging from the personal (shortened shopping lists), to the public (cutbacks in major civic projects). As a discipline that spans the private-public spectrum, architecture inevitably is bound to this new regime, and so it is not surprising that the machinations of economic austerity are being played out in the mainstream of contemporary building.
So, yes, 99% of architects can feel a certain shift of the profession into an uncertain, precarious status. In fact, it is becoming not surprising to hear architects admitting that design work scarce which force a large percentage of them to combine architecture practice with teaching, lecturing, entering competitions. In a way, extravagant, signature buildings seem to be over… Stararchitecture's golden age seems to be the past…Large scale development projects seem to be over (…for a moment). 

If for most of architects' this period does not look bright, for some of them, in particular young beginners, this period, however, can be as critical and creative tool. For Berlin-based Something Fantastic, for instance, crisis should be understood as a positive strategy to rethinking architecture. For them creativity arises from crisis. Still, crisis becomes their driving force

The architect now intervenes on localized systems with the aim of changing cities and improving inhabitants' quality of life. The architect combines global with local to respond to glocal contexts. Diébédo Francis Kéré is back home, in Burkina Faso, to share ideas and tactics he learnt elsewhere. Kéré travelled to Germany where he studied architecture at Berlin's Technical University. He now shares knowledge with his fellow countrymen. 

Trajectories, tactics
Today's architects integrate other skills for a better control over the entire process, as Susanne Schindler says. Adaptation, anticipation, manière de faire… to do with the existing conditions of the site, the déjà-là. Certainly accentuated with crisis, architects investigate more and more off-site construction on irregular sites. Oh wait! Don't see this shift as a constraint: off-site construction "requires costless and efficiency." They will answer. 

As complex these sites are, architects, however, attempt to make the complex and negative conditions of irregular sites into positive and innovative solutions. This is the case of Jonathan KirschenfeldPhipps-Rose-Dattner-GrimshawPeter Gluck and PartnersSHoP Architects  and Zanderroth Architekten. "The architects deliberately chose the difficult position of the plot; they transformed the disadvantage of the northeast corner into the advantage of a new square (…)." Sascha Zander of Zanderroth Architekten says about the Baugruppe projects completed in 2008. By adapting to local constraints, the architect aims at taking profit from the site to provide all the characteristics a 'regular' site would have provided. Anticipation and adaption are also resistance. If concepts like participation, adaptation, resilience are becoming central, architects are more interested in "producing a better architectural result".

Doing with the existed, le déjà-là, with the goal of turning into innovative solutions, is a good way to revisit the city and the history of its architecture… but also to generate a new language… in particularly when funding sources lack. Pier Vittorio Aureli, Maria Giudici and Platon Issaias, are investigating the link between Le Corbusier's Dom-ino construction system, namely infill architecture, and Greek Polykatoikia apartment system. The aim, here, is to how by revisiting these ideas it is possible to regenerate "collective and shared space." 

This idea of re-interrogating Le Corbusier's infill architecture finds its pertinence in comparison with informal. Like informal, infill architecture here is envisioned as "a way to give space to inhabitants' creativity." Informal, we cannot deny, has stimulated participation of inhabitants by implicating them in building their own environment. So is infill architecture, the authors say taking the example of Polykatoikia. Both infill and informal are generic, adaptive, scalable, flexible, 

[F]lexibility is not only a positive quality, but also a fundamental apparatus of social engineering that controls the economy development of supposedly spontaneous settlements from the Brazilian favelas to the Turkish gecekondu.
The authors write. This is the case with Polykatoikia, "originally conceived in the 1930s as a multi-storey apartment building for the Athenian bourgeoisie (…) [promoting] local construction knowledge towards a coherent and yet flexible system of building techniques, materials, details and structural schemes." The Berlage Institute where the three authors work proposes to re-stimulate Polykatoikia with a "catalogue of architectural actions that aim to connect the fragmented dwellings into coherent and formally finite collective urban forms. These forms are the courtyard, the block, the street, and the most collective layer of the city: the ground floor."

These forms are the courtyard, the block, the street, and the most collective layer of the city: the ground floor. The flexibility and openness of the polykatoikia is thus manipulated towards the opposite scenario for which it was developed. While the Dom-ino approach encourages the individual house owner to become an independent entrepreneur who fills in, organises and manipulates his part of the skeleton, the forms we propose all imply a form of collective will and collaboration. The courtyard, the block, the street, and the ground floor become figures that can be rescued from the polykatoikia carpet. Our proposal radicalises there figures into distinct architectural archetypes.
Or a way of revealing Athens' qualities… "hidden under the chaos of an apparently informal development that is actually one of the most violent bio-political projects of the past century." 

Another text in the line of transforming negativity into positivity is José Esparza's essay named "Gun Politics" in which he discusses with artist Pedro Reyes how violence — guns — are turned into musical instruments. The idea behind Pedro Reyes's project titled Imagine is political. Pedro Reyes reveals how one of the most dangerous cities can reinvent itself for a better life for its inhabitants.

On Pedro Reyes:
Pedro Reyes in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist | Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews Volume II | Charta, 2010. Similar to this project is a project conceived in 2008 named Palas por Pistolas (Shovels for guns):
"One example is the Palas Por Pistolas project. It started with a series of TV spots, where the general public was invited to give up a gun, leaving the weapon with representatives of the army or the police. We collected 1,527 arms, which were made into 1,527 shovels used to plant 1,527 trees. Nearly four thousand people participated in this project, and yet very few of them thought of it as an art project. This is something that interests me quite a bit: how to make an artwork that is meaningful in a general context of culture — one that has currency beyond the small bubble of contemporary art. (…) The idea was to turn an agent of death into an agent of life. A kind of social alchemy. The arms were taken to a military zone where they were crushed by a steamroller. The metal was melted down then made into shovels. I want to a believe that by taking more than fifteen hundred arms out of circulation we might have saved a few lives, but the real purpose of the artwork is to add a story to the world, so in other cities they will say, 'In Culiacan they did this project…" [Pedro Reyes to Hans Ulrich Obrist, pp.792-793]

Probably one of the most impressive essays from this 962th issue. 
I wanted to liberate these objects from their demons rather than perpetuating their association to death. When the instruments are played, it is as if some sort of exorcism is performed on them, and the negativity they inherently posses turns into something positive.
Pedro Reyes confides to José Esparza. A good conclusion as it summarizes what is at stake in today's architecture: an architecture that tries to liberate itself, let's say it, from its demon to provide a better architecture for the people. 

Architecture is pushed in a critical position, necessitating new methods, new tools, and new problematic. 
Allow me for concluding with a claim I found on Close, Closer (Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2013): Crisis means change! says a certain J. S.…

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