Fighting for the relational city

The crisis in Spain can be used as a lens through which to consider the future of architecture in the country: capitalism, as we know it, is not an option anymore, when the exploration of the everyday and the understanding of the relational city is what we need.

"The city has no connection with the countryside because it contains in itself everything that pleases its inhabitants. It is certainly the most beautiful city in the world, because all its inhabitants, at every moment of their existence, move towards the single goal of possessing the most beautiful house." Reading this quote, it's easy to imagine that it was written in Spain by a real estate agent, ten years ago. But no: this is the "City of Splendid Houses", the eleventh of Superstudio's 1971 Twelve Ideal Cities.

The pervasive downturn in Spanish economy has many reasons, being as complex as the capitalist approach of modern society is. But the real estate bubble is undoubtedly one of these reasons, and obviously, it directly affects today's practice of architecture. Spain was living a long boom after joining the euro zone, with several economic activities clustered around the construction business. In this context, one frequently is drawn to think about the relationship between architecture, politics and economy. With the banking system bailouts, bad government responses to the slowdown of the economy after the bubble, and the loss of confidence in the democratic sphere, architects are almost forced to rethink their practice, in order to give response to a new and ever-changing situation. Meanwhile, we should be aware that architecture has played an important role in the shaping and production of this situation, where the unemployment rate increases from one day to the next. Let's not forget that not so long ago in 2006, Spain was promoted and perceived as an example of economic development, becoming a recognized epicenter of cutting-edge architectural practice. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art's On Site: New Architecture in Spain exhibition was proudly shown by the Government and private corporations, and we can't deny that almost every architect based in Spain would have loved to be part of it. But everything changed in 2008 for Spanish architects. However, the current tough situation has been a fertile ground for emergent proposals in the ground of activism, public space, economy and — let's not forget — architecture. Far removed from trends such as "green" and "eco", these proposals speak of long-term action.

In recent years, architectural practice has had to adapt to new scenarios where architects need to find new ways to respond, as Constant Nieuwenhuys did with his idea for the New Babylon: "another city for another life". If politicians and economist fail to regard urban space as the space to create relationships, a place to play and enjoy, but also to care about people, architects should go further. In Spain, one of the most traumatic effects of the crisis have been evictions — affecting directly the work of architects, in a complex situation that in many cases involves speculation from the financial sector. The Barcelona branch of Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) estimates that around 200 families each day are thrown out of their homes. In this context, what underlies angst and frustration can be a strong catalyst for change. But the line between pessimism and optimism is very fragile, and sometimes it's difficult to react when your neighbors are waiting for the arrival of the police — who are coming to evict them from their home —, or when the government has announced that it is going to put locks on garbage bins around the city to stop people from searching for food in them.

Somehow, such as happens in Portugal, Spanish Government institutions and private corporations simply ignore the conflict that has emerged in the field of architecture. At the 13th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, we've seen a national pavilion commissioned to "represent Spanish architecture" with an incredible lack of response to this crucial reflection about the country's current situation. This institutionalized attitude is a clear motivation for architects to resist against the difficult financial situation; but as Lebbeus Woods wrote, "there is no such thing as a universal architecture of resistance. It is always particular, responding to the specifics of a place and time." The particular act of resistance in Spain can be found through different proposals, which are simultaneously a critique as well as call for action. Small collectives and groups started developing projects at different scales, most of them based on the concepts of "unsolicited architecture", going from the philosophy of DIY (Do it yourself) to the DIWO (Do it with others). Simultaneously, the citizen movements such as #15M or #SpanishRevolution have facilitated the process of interaction between various disciplines, enriching the experience of every participant. According to these examples, we can say that the crisis in Spain can be used as a lens through which to consider the future of architecture.

In the past five years the primary motor of human history has radically changed. Capitalism, as we know it, is not an option anymore, when the exploration of the everyday (la vie quotiddiene proposed by Henri Lefebvre) and the understanding of the relational city is what we need. The increasing presence of media technology and digital tools is one of the key points to understand how rapidly communication and organization are now creating new arenas for self-organization. The city, then, is no longer a static object but part of the global village where digital and physical are part of the same urban system. Instead of thinking on the same terms of the past, which was mostly based in economic growth, the new decision-making process allows citizens to work closely with architects to find urban and shelter solutions. Tiago Mota Saraiva stated that "architects will have to stand where they are needed": I believe that in Spain, some architects have started to understand where they are needed and the first attempts to create another kind of architecture are emerging. With the vast number of abandoned urban developments that can be found in the Spanish territory, urban voids in the middle of the cities and forgotten public spaces, several groups of young architects are working together with geographers, sociologists and people from a wide range of disciplines. They are seeking a renewed form of involvement, claiming a space for opinion and dealing with issues of politics, economy, unemployment, and the urban space.

Today, the meanings of the word "building" are diverse and multiple. A feasible understanding of all the possibilities that lie behind this word can be a powerful driving force for new urban behaviors. Instead of searching for the most beautiful house, it's time to take action and keep fighting for the most relational city. Ethel Baraona Pohl (@ethel_baraona)

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