Builder Ricardo de Oliveira in Rio de Janeiro
Rebel Architecture, a television series that examines the work of architects who work outside the mainstream of their profession to tackle social injustice, premiered last night on Al Jazeera. We spoke to its creator, Daniel Davies
ICON: What do the “rebel architects” you feature in the series have in common?
DAN DAVIES: They are all doing architecture that, in some way, fulfils a real human need. Often our discussion of architecture gets caught up in aesthetics and people seem to forget to ask whether a building is really needed. For instance, does London need the Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie or even most projects on the Stirling prize shortlist? We wanted to put back into the debate the question of, is this something that actually needs to be build and, if not, what does.
Another thread that runs through the series is that these architects all look beyond the building itself – they can’t help seeing their work as part of wider society. I don’t think Yasmeen Lari, who features in the programme about floods in Pakistan, woke up one morning and said, “wow, a house on stilts would be great”. She analysed the problem and realised that houses on stilts would mean whole villages could stay in situ during a flood.
If the series has an overall message, it’s to try and reclaim architecture from a debate that’s become almost purely about aesthetics.
In making the series, did you come to feel that the wider architecture profession is lacking a social purpose?
It seems that there’s less emphasis on building things for social need and more on profit. London agonises over the shortfall in housing like it’s an intractable problem and, meanwhile, giant office buildings are shooting up all over the place.
What’s interesting about the architects we feature is that they’ve risked their careers to work outside of the traditional professional structures.
Tell us about some of the stories you feature.
The first film is about Santiago Cirugeda in Spain, who works on reclaimed or squatted municipal land, building structures that go up very quickly and, to many, look temporary.
Whenever he can, he insists that the client takes part in the construction and design. In the film you see him build a schoolhouse and he has to simplify the design so 10-year-olds can take part. It’s not so much because he thinks you could, say, put up the Shard as a self-build, but he’s looking to empower people and show that they can intervene in political situations.
He rebels in terms of the materials he uses, the way he works, his politics. He refuses to accept the current situation, saying, “no we do need public space and we’re going to take it from the municipality if they won’t help us”.
Lari, in the Pakistan film, is incredible. When I heard that she built 36,000 houses, I thought that must be wrong. But, by using her cascading method of training, she has been responsible for that many houses. She teaches people in her training centre, who then go back to their village and build homes. In the film, she tells one guy, “we’ve helped you build your houses; now you have to help this village build theirs”.
Eyal Weizman, a dissident Israeli architect, had to leave Israel to work because he’s so outspoken. He’s not actually building anything in the series, but he uses his understanding of architecture to analyse how it’s being used in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Of course, we had no idea there was going to be another war in Gaza when we made it, but it’s amazing when you see the film and realise that everything he says has just happened again.
The last film is set around Ricardo de Oliveira in Rio de Janeiro, who is the guy you go to if you need a house or extension built in a favela. People like him create what is now a feature of every city in Latin America, building major urban forms without land, tool, knowledge or materials. Ricardo is not a trained architect, but has no less ambition and rebellion for it.
Were you left with a sense of optimism about the role of these rebel architects?
One of things that becomes obvious it that this is a really hard path to go down. Some succeed, some fail and all struggle. But I think it’s optimistic that they’re out there doing this. In the programme about Spain, you see that there is a network of architects from all over the country who come together to break the back of such projects, bringing along materials or reusing ones from other schemes. That kind of self-organising is a cause for optimism.
There’s a lot of talk about “resilient” cities at the moment. Santiago would probably stick two fingers up at that buzzword and say, “we’re not resilient – we’re rebellious”.