ECObox. Mobile devices and urban tactics

Partecipation as a means to transform a vancant site in La Chapelle district in Paris. Design by Constantin Petcou and Doina Petrescu–aaa (atelier d’architecture autogérée). Text by Ruth Morrow. Photos by aaa.

The aaa (atelier d’architecture autogérée / studio of self-managed architecture), founded in Paris in 2001, describes itself as an interdisciplinary nonprofit organisation of artists, architects, urban planners, landscape designers, sociologists, students and residents. However, at the heart of this multidisciplinary and loose organisation sit two Petrescu. They rarely identify themselves or indeed the “architecture” of their work. Yet their creative skills are central to the aaa’s activity. They choose to be invisible because their work grows out of being “just another concerned citizen”, sharing the responsibly for their local environment and public space with their neighbours. In doing so they hope that the neighbourhood community obtains what it needs and, more importantly, what it can sustain.

The aaa’s chief criticism of mainstream architectural practice is the “hit and run” approach that only superficially engages, if at all, social issues and concerns about sustainability. They are equally critical of the sort of participatory practice that becomes formulaic and hence institutionalised, in the end simply offering a thin disguise for the predetermined decisions of external power structures. Their work bears similarities to the social ethos and ad hoc materiality of Rural Studio (USA) and to the temporary, light-touch design solutions of muf (UK). The difference lies in their commitment to “taking direct responsibility for the place where one lives”. In other words, they also work where they live. Their motivations and politics more closely mirror the urban activists of the 1980s. Yet when one looks closely at what they are trying to achieve, it is architecture at its most meaningful level. Their work acts as a critique of mainstream architectural practice, but in so doing it also reveals how such skilled and “invisible” architects bring myriad qualities to the process. Look into the images of their work – not what they show but what they mean. Here is a garden (one element of the ECObox project) made by a culturally diverse, low-income, and politically under-represented inner-city community. They have planted a temporary garden on prime real estate that occupies “the ground level of the city” – the level usually dominated by commerce and institutions. They have made holes in the perimeter walls, determining for themselves what aspect of their “gardening” is visible to outsiders. Controlling the view increases their ownership of the space. Recycled wooden pallets form the garden’s basic module, providing a working/walking/communal surface while framing holes that individuals adopt and fill with earth in order to cultivate. In framing a plot, communal space is simultaneously created. The aaa sees this as a physical manifestation of the democratic functioning of ECObox, but it is also a subtle design response to the fact that personal gain often provides the only motivation for collective involvement. As people’s enthusiasm and ideas grow, so too do their needs for tools, and tools evolve into furniture and space.

The process is fluid, and the products (garden, kitchen, library, tool bank, radio station) are mobile; both solidify and come to rest when and where they need to. This is an architectural design process at its most sustainable; the minimum of recycled materials used to create tight-fit “spatial tools” that are specific to time and function. It is a DIY “haute couture” for the underclasses. Look again at the images of ECObox. How would such a project manifest itself without the presence of an architect? The aaa brings coherence and style to the process. Even in small amounts, their tincture of design suffuses the process and products with quality. As ECObox has developed, Petrescu and Petcou have subtly shifted and morphed in their roles as cajolers, part-time siblings, designers, technicians, networkers and critics, etc. They have evolved a professionally structured, familial relationship, enriched by its tensions, disappointments, separations and reunions. As experienced teachers, they understand that the pace and depth to which residents engage with ECObox is as architectural as their experience of its spaces. In this way, the aaa works with both density and intensity. The degree to which they make themselves visible as architects is framed and guided by an informed theoretical stance. They implicitly understand that only as quiet observers can their theory be informed by their practice.
© aaa, Nishat Awan, Claudia Amico
© aaa, Nishat Awan, Claudia Amico

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