Recipes for urban subversion

Santiago Cirugeda is not the kind of architect to sit around and wait for commissions. Is this the future of architecture in austerity-hit Europe?

Santiago Cirugeda is every city bureaucrat’s nightmare. The activist architect knows Spain’s city planning laws so well, he finds multiple wily ways around them to occupy disused land or to build structures where he is not supposed to. But that’s not all­; with each intervention, the subversive architect releases his “how-to”: a step-by-step recipe for replicating his project.

Cirugeda, whose Recetas Urbanas practice is based in Seville, Spain, will speak about his self-build philosophy at Design Indaba Conference 2015. His work signals a fervently do-it-yourself engagement with city-making at a time when Europe’s financial austerity is confronting architects with dwindling commissions and jobs.

As such, he is a leading voice in the movement towards a new kind of self-built architecture. Talking about his concept of “urban reserves” – public spaces created for leisure and recreation in the city – he says: “What we can certainly say, is that this personal and intimate action takes place outside everything politicians and professionals may plan. It follows ways that are labelled by difference, by independence, and it makes obvious that the citizen plays a very important role in the development and construction of the environment he lives in.”

These four projects by Cirugeda represent different points of entry into the urban fabric:

Kuva SC, Seville, 1999

Cirugeda’s office applied for a permit to install a skip on this site in Seville. And while the object certainly resembles a skip in shape, it is anything but a dumping ground. Here it serves as a platform for a children’s see-saw. More than that, though, it is a playful and subversive statement about the need for more playgrounds and public meeting places for local citizens.
Recetas Urbanas released a set of instructions titled “Taking the Street” to accompany the project. It comes with the proviso: “You should preferably build it [the skip] yourself, as in this way you wiIl avoid any possible misunderstandings with the firm contracted.” Cirugeda advises the use of a KUVA SC. 670-794409 skip, which can be loaned to people wanting to create “reserves of urban land”. It is in the interpretation of what constitutes an urban reserve that his creativity comes in: “children’s playground, information point, reading room, exhibition space, flamenco venue, giant flowerpot, etc.”

Institutional Prosthesis, Castellon, 2005

For this project, Cirugeda worked in close collaboration with the Espai d'art contemporani de Castelló (EACC). Curated by Juan de Nieves, it was built as a physical reflection on the uses and availability of the art centre to its surrounding community. It was part of a wider project that Cirugeda did with the EACC, that gained visibility at the end of 2005. “It set Castellon for the first time in the epicentre of a reflection around the construction of the public space, citizen participation, organization strategies and new alternatives that are slipped into the urban scenario from the artistic practice.”
The project comprises two cells of 50 sqm that project outwards from the façade towards the square in front. A corridor joining the two rooms runs parallel to the façade, stopping at the terrace adjacent to the building’s offices. Access to the “prosthesis” is completely separate from the centre. The two rooms – which locals call Laurel and Hardy because one is small, the other large – are covered by a skin of black plastic components that are normally used as concrete modules, each pierced by four metallic sticks. The front of these habitable cells is made entirely of glass, making them public or semi-public depending on the occupants’ desire. Cirugeda’s prosthesis has become an iconic image for the centre and a powerful comment on the role of public institutions in the city fabric and, more particularly, the (ab)use of high-tech elements in much of today’s architecture.

Trenches, Malaga Fine Arts Faculty, Malaga, 2006

Cirugeda was invited by the new Malaga Dean of Fine Arts to design the building that would house the art classes themselves. The design was intended to reflect the school’s approach to teaching, which conceives of contemporary art as “something contaminated by other disciplines”. Ditching plans to locate the classrooms in the building’s basement, Cirugeda instead looked to create a structure on its roof. The project was made possible by the students’ enthusiastic mass-participation. They helped construct two trench classrooms and 600 sqm of conditioned floor but, more importantly, says Cirugeda, they created “an experience of self-management through which they take responsibility for enlivening these new spaces with uses that they find important during their stay at the university”.

Arachnid at La Carpa, Seville, 2010

La Carpa (“the big top”) in downtown Seville was the city’s first self-built independent arts space and the home of the Varuma theatre group. It occupied an unused piece of public land and, although a popular site among city residents, it was forced to close in June 2014. The complex consisted of two second-hand circus tents, a two-storey building made from shipping containers, a skate ramp and the iconic araña – a container sitting on bent metal legs like a giant spider. All have since been taken down.
Faced with a lack of support for the arts from the city’s public administration, Cirugeda and theatre director Jorge “Bifu” Barroso created the space as “a reference for the Andalusian independent cultural world”. Barroso lived for a year on site in the Arachnid structure without electricity or water in order to secure their claim to the land. The occupation was the only way they could get preliminary approval to use the land from authorities. La Carpa subsequently mushroomed into multiple structures, most made of recycled materials. Over the four years it was open, thousands of people attended concerts, theatrical performances and workshops there.

Book for Design Indaba Conference 2015, which takes place from 25 to 27 February 2015.

Watch the Trailer with Santiago Cirugeda