Back to the Streets: The Rise of Performance Architecture

Amid the recent global manifestations, architects also need to heed the call to take to the streets to find tools for expression and survival.

Picking up things we shouldn't read
It looks like the end of history, as you know
It's just the end of the world
Back to the street where we began

—"Back to the Streets," by Panic! At the Disco

A year ago, a striking image of our times featured a symbolic, even if inaccurate birthplace of European democracy. By the walls of the Acropolis, a crowd held a gigantic banner with the instigation 'Peoples of Europe Rise Up!' Photographed and filmed from afar, this was a message destined to be mediated worldwide. Six months later, North Africans, rather than the still-too-comfortable Europeans, rose massively to the challenge. The motivation was similar: to defeat the despotism of regressive austerities ignited by growing inequality and corruption, state inefficiency and wide-reaching financial greed. Europeans nonetheless stayed on the streets. Street protests persisted in Athens, Madrid, Brussels and London. Too orderly to take to the streets, the Dutch intelligentsia occupied a museum courtyard in a claim against culture budget cuts. In Lisbon, 300.000 people gathered in the streets and, in a seldom-connected chain of events, the government resigned two weeks later.

Meanwhile, the last time I visited Palais Tokyo's bookshop in Paris I was stricken by the climax of an escalating trend. Street art had finally taken over. Everywhere on sight books on graffiti, intervention art, skateboarding and urban hacking had crept over the main displays, leaving little space for other artistic expressions. Check it out at any self-respecting centre of cultural dissemination. Simultaneously, Banksy succeeded in broadcasting his subversive irony throughout cinemas across Europe. In the world of architecture, ever-savvy Bjarke Engels embraced parkour to publicize one of his buildings. And in the forthcoming Urban Maps,[1] researchers Richard Brook and Nick Dunn maintain that architects should be tracking down an entirely renovated cartography of influence in evolving street practices.

This ambiance leads me to claim that architects must indeed go swiftly back to the streets. And I don't mean being sacked or suckling back onto Jane Jacobs' idyllic promise of street life. Jacobs rightly reasserted the streets as the source of an essential diversity[2]—but Sharon Zukin later saw them more incisively as the "means of reproducing" both difference and exclusion.[3] D'aprés 1968, the streets have become far more complicated than Jacobs once described them. After the beach was violently rediscovered under the paving stones that Haussmann had laid out, the streets were to be again marked by other social frictions. They became again the stage for spontaneous political revindication. Hence generations of artists followed to remove themselves from institutional settings and intervene directly in the street arena.

When driving around in African or South American megalopolises you are advised to shield behind a bulletproof glass. Just as you take refuge in your private condo, you armor yourself from the streets, thus guarding a psychological distance from a reality that became unbearable. When architects remain in the relative security of their offices or their client's corporate headquarters–or, for that matter, the ivory towers of academia–they too endure in similar denial. But as architecture is part of the economic avant-garde, and those situations represent the darker shade of a probable future, many architects, especially the younger ones, will soon find themselves in the streets. In such likely scenario, they better adapt. And they do already, either by engaging in global humanitarian action or, more locally and in less acknowledged fashion, by acting up through what I call performance architecture.[4]

Jane Jacobs exhorted us to return to the streets with "the least design regimentation and the greatest economy of means and tactics."[5] As governments abandon the streets and other infrastructures,[6] as contemporary architecture sells out to consumption, it is about time architects move forward in their ever-incestuous bond with art, and explore–as some do already–the critical legacy of performance art. Long before public art's monuments were subsumed by the surfacing of street art, performance art was, in many ways, the first avant-garde to scrutinize the political dimension of the street. And its lessons–from Wodiczko's homeless vehicles to Matta-Clarke trespassed structures, from Lucy Orta's body habitacles to Trisha Brown's city occupations–are inspiring to a generation who believes in transient, community-oriented urban actions, rather than in enduring monuments to the powers at be.

Think of the early work of Stalker and Diller & Scofidio. Think of the practices of Didier Fiuza Faustino, Santiago Cirugeda, A77, Raumlabor, Exyst, Coloco, Office for Subversive Architecture, just to name a few, and you will understand what I'm referring to. To the deeds of mushrooming "collectives" add recent developments in critical theory, open-source culture, intervention art or hacktivism, and you have a framework for architecture to again acquire political meaning outside the increasingly regulated boundaries of traditional building. In an atmosphere of social guerrilla practice, architects will take to the streets to achieve more with less than ever. What was once a formal mantra for modernism will now simply be a radical survival tool. As against minimalism's demise and the conception of a frictionless society,[7] form will follow not only fiction, but also friction. As such, architects must not only turn into multifaceted cultural producers and everyday programmers of the city.[8] They must also become truly streetwise.

Pedro Gadanho is an architect and writer based in Lisbon, Portugal.

[1] See Richard Brooks and Nick Dunn, Urban Maps, Instruments of Narrative and Interpretation in the City, Ashgate, London: 2011.
[2] See Jane Jacobs, (1961), The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Penguin, London: 1994.
[3] See Sharon Zukin, The Cultures of Cities, Blackwell, Oxford:1995, p. 247.
[4] See Pedro Gadanho, Architecture as Performance, in Dédalo #02, March, Porto: 2007. English version available at See also the article "Bordering on the illegal - The performance architecture of Didier Fiuza Faustino" to be printed in the catalogue of the forthcoming Salons d'IFA exhibition on Faustino, at La Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimonie, Paris.
[5] See Jane Jacobs, idem, p 403.
[6] For a related scenario, see Bruce Sterling's cautionary tale "White Fungus" in Pedro Gadanho (ed.), Beyond #01, Scenarios and Speculations, Sun Architecture, Amsterdam: 2009.
[7] See Marteen Hajer, "Zero-Friction Society," in Urban Design Quarterly, 71, pp. 29-34, Rudi, Oxford: 1999.
[8] See Sanford Kwinter, "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Architecture (Long Live Architecture)" in Requiem For the City at the End of The Millenium, Actar, Barcelona/New York: 2010. To reassert the role of architects as cultural producers is also the goal of an ideas competition to be launched on the theme of performance architecture within the programme of the 2012 European Capital of Culture, in the Portuguese city of Guimarães. The aim is, in that instance, not only to kick-start meaningful architectural performances to be executed in urban context, but also to instigate architects to gather resources and multidisciplinary collaborations so as to boost their initial concepts.

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