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Santiago Cirugeda & the Spanish network of collaborative architects

La Fabrika de Toda la vida _ credits Recetas Urbanas

This feature is taken from our CHANGE (printed edition)

Words: Constance Desenfant

Santiago Cirugeda cuts straight to the chase with a clear warning when introducing the work of his practice. Put simply, it’s not for those who insist positive change is achieved within the confines of rules, regulations, or indeed laws. 

“This isn’t a space for boring people. The development and evaluation of any of the urban prescriptions listed here went through complex processes and were born from rich interrelationships. We continue interchanging political negotiations with urban illegality,” he explains. “And, of course, constructing together the network of collective architecture that offers the information and protocols to the collectives and individuals who want to assume responsibilities.”

Born in Seville in 1971, Cirugeda created the Urban Recipes architectural studio in 2003 as a response to the Spanish government’s oppression of and control over architects, which prevented them from building ‘outside the box’, forcing business to be prioritised over people. Still based in the city, the studio’s activity mainly consists of reclaiming abandoned urban locations and turning them into public spaces for everyone to use, despite the fact self-building and urban takeovers are illegal.

Santiago Cirugeda, founder of Recetas Urbanas. Photo  ©Recetas Urbanas
Santiago Cirugeda, founder of Recetas Urbanas. Photo ©Recetas Urbanas

Their structures are often fast-build, mobile, and made from recycled materials. All serve social interests.

Urban Recipes has also been a war-horse in the battle against the construction crisis which hit Spain and the rest of Europe in 2008. Added to the existing Spanish legislation, the crisis has left many architects without a job and clients without projects for more than ten years. Public projects simply stopped halfway through completion as purses emptied, preventing architects from providing services and being able to practise their profession, resulting in many leaving the country altogether.   

Cirugeda did not join the exodus. Instead, he has remained in Spain, fighting for his profession, for his territory, and for the people living there. Critical about his country, or rather the approach authorities have taken to this issue, he is clearly outraged at the current situation— from the perspective of both architects and citizens— but still sees hope, believing the power of solidarity can overcome what has been a long-lasting economic catastrophe.

“Spain is a total disaster because of the crisis, the people have been abandoned by the state,” he says. “The government is unable to help or even guarantee basic rights so the people are doing things their own way. The most important thing is to keep our spirits up, which they usually are when we are building together.”

The impact of the financial crisis on Spanish cities cannot be understated, leaving gaping holes in their hearts. At the time of writing, more than 500,000 new homes stood unfinished across the country— urban skeletons craving investment and crying out for occupants.

Urban skeletons
Urban skeletons

Even cities like Barcelona, appealing to foreigners and their money, have suffered, with thousands evicted from their homes for falling behind on mortgage payments. Ada Colau, Barcelona’s first female mayor and former activist, shares most of Cirugeda’s views on the current situation.

“The economic crisis in Spain is closely linked to real estate and the mortgage market,” she says. “Instead of rescuing people the state rescued the banks, which had cheated people with abusive mortgages and interest rates”.

Colau used to lead protests where human chains were formed around properties to prevent the city authorities from evicting homeowners. She is now trying to adapt to life as an elected politician, but faces many challenges. Promising to control the tourism industry by different measures such as limiting the number of visitors, banning licences to build new hotels and increasing taxes on vacation rentals, the task of reclaiming the city for its residents quickly became a headache, as tourism accounts for around 14% of the local economy.

This suggests that joining institutions of power might not be the most efficient way to have a real impact on things. Perhaps it may be easier to change policies from the outside, when people mobilise to fight back with civil disobedience.

In the previous issue of Design Exchange we looked at the Tower of David in Caracas, another example wherein the state failed its people, who then found solutions themselves. A large community, unable to afford average rents in Venezuela’s largest city at the time, occupied an unfinished skyscraper, turning it into a home.

Cirugeda is aligned with this approach, and his work in Spain can be compared to the work of think tanks in Latin America, performing research and advocacy on topics such as social policy, political strategy, and culture. He does not consider himself the ultimate artist, whose gracious gestures on a piece of tracing paper decide the future face of a city. Instead, he’s usually in the thick of things, on-site, working with communities and people, rather than specific clients. 

In many parts of the world, pop up spaces and urban interventions by collectives are becoming more common. These attempts to provide key services and liveable places compensate for the dead facades and desolate areas delivered by developers once intended to ‘regenerate’ cities, which eventually came close to killing them off. 

The impact of these redevelopment projects on communities can be hugely damaging, and the phenomenon is evident across Europe. In London for example, where land value comes at a premium and the property market is notoriously inflated, despite the crisis not hitting construction as hard as Spain local planning authorities and developers who work on shaping the new skyline of the UK capital seem to live on another planet. Many places they design could never be affordable to most of the city’s residents, even though they may have lived in the area for years, long before big money investment arrived.

As is addressed in this issue’s feature on Public Works [page 34], the question of public/private ownership and urban policy seems to be central to cities like London. Yet in Spain, the debate is much more complex. Through his work Cirugeda questions state decisions, the responsibility of the government and the way public money is invested and used. Shouldn’t local authorities draw lessons from the expensive projects that initially claim to be capable of breathing new life into an area, but in reality drive communities from their homes, ‘affordable rents’ proving to be anything but?

Cirugeda’s strategies when working on similar situations are very often subversive. But at the same time it is difficult to consider him a criminal when most projects use sustainable techniques such as self-building and the recycling of materials, while also promoting education and creativity.

Taking advantage of a loophole in Spanish law, he manages to build projects for the benefit of a community. He calls himself a social architect, which is appropriate considering after 17 years working he owns nothing. Cirugeda lives in a rented house that used to be a brothel and drives a second-hand van. Anything he makes from projects goes towards wages, or is invested in the vision he has for a more social architecture.

La Escuela Crece (‘The School Grows’, self-build school project), Madrid, 2015 ©Recetas Urbanas
La Escuela Crece (‘The School Grows’, self-build school project), Madrid, 2015 ©Recetas Urbanas
La Escuela Crece (‘The School Grows’, self-build school project), Madrid, 2015 ©Juan Gabriel Pelegrina
La Escuela Crece (‘The School Grows’, self-build school project), Madrid, 2015 ©Juan Gabriel Pelegrina

One of his alternative school projects, technically erected unlawfully, saw the team invent a self-building workshop to justify their position— not a construction site, but a hands-on educational institution. Legal advice afforded the team enough confidence to develop the project while it was in legal limbo. Eventually it had to be dismantled, but the experience proved worthwhile for everyone involved, from architects to families.

Their first project followed the same approach and was born out of the will to decentralise cultural venues and events, rejecting traditional city centre locations in favour of suburbs to help in situations where local authorities had failed their communities, leaving them without appropriate infrastructure. The result was a sociocultural and artistic centre, self-managed and independent from public funding, which was used as a collaborative space for artists to store materials as well as entertain people. 

La Carpa - Espacio Artístico (The Tent – Artistic Space  head office of Varuma Teatro and future Andalusia School of Circus Arts) Seville, 2011 ©Recetas Urbanas
La Carpa – Espacio Artístico (The Tent – Artistic Space head office of Varuma Teatro and future Andalusia School of Circus Arts) Seville, 2011 ©Recetas Urbanas

The spider system, self-built with recycled materials, presented a very fast way to occupy a space, and it was re-used in different places where a building prosthesis or extensions were needed. These structures could have different functions and their main advantage is that they can be put up in a single day, by just two people. Taking up no floor space, leaving the ground beneath free for people to use, this can be seen as another trick to avoid the need to apply for planning permission.

More than circumventing the law in order to deliver a project to a community, Cirugeda has also managed to change urban and social policy through his architectural interventions. This is the case with his Mediation Room in Dos Hermanas, just south of Seville, where his intervention urged the local council to sponsor a project they first rejected, authorising self-building for the first time in the city, albeit only within this specific context.

The project was born from a small group of mothers calling for a lunchroom for the public nursery and primary school, Europa, in Montequinto. For eight years, the pupils had to eat in the library during lunch shifts or in the playground, which compromised the use of the library and raised questions over the conditions in which the kids were growing up.

A platform was created to raise the issue, seek support, and generate awareness of the project within the educational community. This is when Urban Recipes stepped in to help build a collaborative and self-building project in which the whole community could get involved, and the students could learn some fundamental values needed to become future-committed citizens; teamwork, and the importance of public services being just two examples. The project was finished with the support of the council, which finally managed to allocate funds and legalise the process.

Urban Recipes can be seen as a lifestyle, rather than simply an organisation people work for and with. It is not only focused on promoting what critics might label ‘hippy ideals’; the architects involved also raise important fundamental questions about architectural and social situations.

La Carpa - Espacio Artístico (The Tent – Artistic Space  head office of Varuma Teatro and future Andalusia School of Circus Arts) Seville, 2011 ©Recetas Urbanas
La Carpa – Espacio Artístico (The Tent – Artistic Space head office of Varuma Teatro and future Andalusia School of Circus Arts) Seville, 2011 ©Recetas Urbanas

The urban development of the Spanish coastline has been one of the most significant in the country over the last 50 years, and yet it is not considered successful. For Cirugeda, the architects, developers and planning authorities who took part in this state-scale project clearly lacked a sense of taste, not to mention respect, when they proposed and then realised their vision of massive concrete blocks on Mediterranean shores. What outrages him the most is the fact these resorts and promenades were mostly built for tourists or foreigners who would use the facilities less than six months per year.

Questioning territorial principles and ‘right to soil’, he raises a compelling point: shouldn’t people give some sort of land-use justification before developing with potentially disastrous implications for the landscape? Why do planning authorities grant permission for such builds when they are not supportive of the alternative, for example social projects that could benefit the local population? 

The answer obviously relates to profit, but it shouldn’t. In many countries, this is one of the major problems regarding urban policy— the focus should be on improving the lives of permanent residents, rather than creating benefits that can only be measured in currency.

Cirugeda is not an easy person to get hold of. We met him several years ago when he presented his approach to architecture in London and it has been hard to track him down since. Frustrating for a journalist, nevertheless it says plenty about who he is; less interested in promoting work, fame, and column inches, more a field practitioner committed to realising positive outcomes and aims.

While publicity may not always work in his favour (there’s a risk he could be kept under even tighter surveillance by the government), we thought it was important to discuss what he has achieved, and what he hopes to accomplish going forward. Strategies and projects that seem to provide far more in terms of social impact on communities than most that are endorsed by authorities, it’s proof, perhaps, that architecture needs to be reformed, with its role and responsibilities re-thought.

 “Our projects are portrayed as the solution to the financial crisis, but we have to be clear on our position, this isn’t just a quick fix for the crisis, but an alternative model,” says Cirugeda, who now has designs on creating an alternative university to teach new principles and processes to future generations of architects.

He is not the first to voice concerns about the limitations of conventional architectural practice and education, with both primarily serving the world’s most privileged. Cirugeda and the Spanish network of collaborative architects are interested in extending the boundaries of both practice and education. The role of architects in addressing the emergence and growth of informal settlements is yet to be redefined with the urban poor in mind, which would help empower communities.

Values, knowledge, and skills are needed in order to understand the challenges facing the profession, and the resulting implications for education should also be looked at. All of this calls for a transformation of the balance of power between architects and their clients in the design process, as well as a change in the relationship between tutors and students, to promote a reflective educational practice and encourage community members to collectively act for themselves.

Cirugeda tries to prove that moving to more buoyant cities like Barcelona, Madrid, or elsewhere in Europe, is not the only choice for people living in the shadow of a crisis that has left them without work and trapped in lifeless territories. Instead, there is an opportunity to fix the places that have been decimated by economic decline. Portable homes, alternative schools, illegal social centres, or takeovers of factory warehouses, Urban Recipes does not appear to be running out of ideas, just as Spain’s economic problems remain far from resolved, pointing to a busy, if potentially volatile future for the studio-cum-movement.

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