Nigerian architect Kunle Adeyemi has created an innovative floating school to address the impact of climate change and the need for safer, more livable buildings in Lagos.


Six gutsy architects revisited

Who would be a rebel architect, you might well wonder. As it happens, there are several of them out there. Based on a recent series of videos produced by Al Jazeera, six daring architects from diverse parts of the globe are producing work that challenges the norms and makes a great difference to the context in which it exists. DAMN° offers an overview of these individuals and their respective projects, dividing them into two groups and linking the types of practice with the effects that are generated.

Léopold Lambert February 2016
In 2014, Al Jazeera released six 25-minute documentaries forming a series entitled Rebel Architecture. These short films introduce six architects from around the world (Spain, Pakistan, Palestine, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Brazil) who practice their discipline with the acute understanding of its political impact. The differences between sensitivities is palpable and also varies significantly depending on the context in which they operate; yet all share a certain idea of an interventionist attitude through architecture. What they also have in common is a critical reading of state policies and their architectural manifestation (or lack of architectural manifestation), against which they orient their own practices. We can, however, sensibly categorise these six architects into two groups: one that intervenes in lieu of the State, where there is a crucial need for architecture, while the other, through its practice, triggers a more or less explicit antagonism towards the State.

In the first group, we find Yasmeen Lari (Pakistan) – regrettably, the only woman amongst the six architects, Vo Trong Nghia (Vietnam), and Kunle Adeyemi (Nigeria). The three have profitable businesses, designing architectural projects for the favoured economic classes of their respective countries with varying degrees of creative freedom (Nghia’s work is notable for its qualitative consistency). They then use the profits generated by this part of their practice to dedicate time and effort to designing architecture for populations in a situation of economic precariousness. Lari partakes in
the reconstruction of villages after severe flooding or destruction by earthquakes. Since 2010, she has participated in the construction of 36,000 houses, using vernacular building techniques and materials rather than importing mass-produced architecture. Nghia also uses the success of his sustainability- oriented practice in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City to experiment with low-cost and qualitative forms of dwelling for inhabitants of the Mekong Delta. The 3,800 houses that his office designs are built thanks to prefabricated elements transported by boat, which can reach areas inaccessible over land. As for Adeyemi, his project for a floating school to provide education to the population of Makoko in the Lagos lagoon obtained him international recognition. The video also shows his project for the Chicoco Radio in Port Harcourt (Nigeria), another audacious building that involved the local community in its design.
Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari taps into local building techniques to reconstruct villages in the flood- stricken Sindh region.
The second group, composed of Ricardo de Olivera (Brazil), Santiago Cirugeda (Spain), and Eyal Weizman (Palestine), emits the real sense of rebellion suggested in the title of the series. de Olivera has the particularity to be a self-taught architect from Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela. He designs and builds dwellings for himself and for others in this informal settlement, as an alternative to the prohibitive prices of the Brazilian city. The precision and care he demonstrates in the film demystifies the usual imagery associated with the favelas that depicts them as chaotic and dirty aggregations of shanty houses. Cirugeda’s office, Recetas Urbanas, is based in Seville, where he has been designing several small buildings that often negotiate their (sometimes temporary) existence through ambiguities in the law. His architectural contributions always encourage and promote a sense of community in the public space. As the film shows, Recetas Urbanas shares the economic uncertainty of the communities with which it works, and sometimes invents new forms of labour and economy in order to make its projects happen. Weizman might be the most influential of all, since he has redefined an entire branch of the discipline by way of his writings and the Forensic Architecture research project that he created and directs at Goldsmiths College in London. The film introduces these two dimensions, beginning with an exposé of the violence of architecture employed by the Israeli government and army to implement the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and then presents the work carried out by Forensic Architecture. The latter intends to produce a scientific-legal discourse on architecture that would allow spatial experts to intervene in geopolitical trials.

Not everyone might separate these architects into two groups as done here, but doing so underlines how architecture can be understood as a political instrument. The strategy that consist of dedicating most of one’s efforts to a profitable practice of architecture while finding time for philanthropic projects, is not morally condemnable as such. It might be argued that the former is the condition of the latter, a paying-the-rent tactic that many of us understand all too well.
Eyal Weizman explains architecture's key role in the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the evolution of urban warfare.
Although ethical considerations can intervene depending on how these projects are understood, i.e. are they generously offering expertise to people who might or might not need it, or are they involved in a holistic challenge of the political status quo that creates drastic social discrepancies and transmits a sense of urgency to these architectures? The works presented in the second group certainly belong to the latter scenario, which is what gives them a political dimension. Whether they challenge the segregationist association of law and capital in Rio de Janeiro, a hermetic public space in a country violently experiencing an economic depression, like Spain, or a five-decade long military occupation of a territory and its inhabitants, we can see that these works use architecture as a political weapon. Beyond its technical and cinematographic quality, the Al Jazeera series allows us to reflect on what such a practice of architecture might mean.
This article appeared in DAM54. Order your personal copy.
Over 100 houses in the community of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, the city's largest favela, have been built by Ricardo de Oliveira, an untrained yet highly regarded and accomplished architect.
The ‘post-nuclear spider’ structure at the heart of La Carpa, Seville’s first self-built arts space, by maverick Spanish architect Santiago Cirugeda
Vo Trong Nghia attempts to return greenery to Vietnam's choking cities and design affordable homes for poor communities. This is the framework of a low-cost house.

View Profile

Léopold Lambert

Léopold Lambert is an architect, writer, and editor of The Funambulist Magazine and Archipelago podcast that both examines the politics of the built environment in relation to bodies. He is the author of Weaponized Architecture (dpr-barcelona, 2012), as well as Topie Impitoyable: The Corporeal Politics of the Cloth, the Wall and the Street (punctum books, forthcoming 2015), and La politique du bulldozer (B2, forthcoming 2015).

Related Posts