Power to the People

[originally published in Mark Magazine #29]

The office of Andrés Jaque Arquitectos

Still on the shy side of 40, Andrés Jaque is a leading member of a new generation of Spanish architects that is emerging onto the international scene, a generation that distinguishes itself more by its way of working – networking, to be more precise – than by any singly identifiable architectural style. Indeed, this generation is seemingly more interested in process than in product, quite unlike the previous generation, whose trademark minimalism of the 1980s and ’90s has become a kind of official dogma in Spain. What these generations have in common, nevertheless, is political activism, albeit approached from different positions. Members of the elder generation of architects took on positions of power in new governmental institutions, both municipal and regional, that had to be ‘built’ during the post-Franco transition to democracy, while those of the new generation more often work for NGOs, collaborate with neighbourhood associations and stage media events as acts of protest. The latter are more anti-Establishment. To their way of thinking, the perfectly detailed building is no longer as important as a design process that invites public participation and interaction by using digital platforms and Web 2.0 networks. In short, these architects are more ‘artist-activists’ than ‘professional experts’. Knowing that Andrés Jacque is one of their most outspoken exponents, I eagerly make my way to Madrid on the first high-speed train out of Barcelona one summer morning.

Hidden away in the heart of Malasaña, a lively barrio in Madrid, Andrés Jaque’s small office is on a street so obscure that people from neighbouring streets haven’t even heard of it. Only the news vendor at the nearby Plaza del 2 de Mayo is able to direct me to Calle de la Galería de Roble. Entering the calle, I spot a sign the size of a business card on a storefront: Andrés Jaque Arquitectos. I knock on the door and am greeted instantly by the man himself – no secretary, no receptionist – and shown inside. The interior is minuscule but high, with a small mezzanine overlooking a double-height space. It’s the kind of shop that was probably once occupied by a neighbourhood shoemaker or locksmith.
The size of his office is the first thing I mention to Andrés. ‘We are actually two offices here,’ he says, ‘an architecture firm and the Oficina de Inovación Política (Office for Political Innovation or OPI).’ Oh, like OMA and AMO, but smaller? ‘Not exactly, because in this case one of the offices is not a business but a not-for-profit think-tank.’ Reminder to self: pick up on this topic again soon.
He introduces me to two colleagues: a young architect from Bogotá, Colombia, and a young sociologist from Lanzarote, Canary Islands. Wait a minute: a sociologist? Hmm. Just what does the ‘Office for Political Innovation’ actually do, I ponder aloud, and what, if anything, does it have to do with Jaque’s architecture practice?
‘Field work’ is his answer. ‘You know: research.’ He goes on: ‘Ever since I was a student, I’ve been more interested in the complexity of the life that occurs in architecture than in the complexity [and contradiction?] of architecture itself. I’ve wondered why it is that buildings are designed so that people are inevitably obliged to adapt to the architecture rather than the other way round. I decided to make it my mission to dismantle the widely held notion of architecture as a fait accompli. I believe architecture must adapt to reality.’ I find myself nodding in agreement: Jacque is very persuasive and enthusiastic. He would probably make a good motivational speaker, I think to myself.
‘Reality is extremely complex, so we need descriptions of it that are equally complex. The Office for Political Innovation is interested in qualitative sociology, in detailed descriptions of current ways of living and of social interaction that can inform the design process of buildings. This is why we engage in field work.’
How did Andrés go from having a student interest in field work to engaging in it professionally? ‘It all came about gradually. We were a bunch of friends and colleagues who one day decided to articulate and make public a political agenda. We would look for the “architectural dimension” of everything that was happening around us, especially news items of public concern: the environment, gender inequality, poverty, et cetera. We soon realized that to address these public concerns seriously and legitimately we needed to join people from other fields who were already directly involved in such issues. I’m tired of hearing architects say that we are like film directors, that we ‘direct’ others. No, we architects are a part of something bigger. In a complex urban reality, we don’t want just one person pulling all the strings. We need a multiplicity of agents. We live in a democracy, not a technocracy!’
Jaque is on a roll now. He is speaking in Spanish, and if there’s one thing Spaniards have it’s the gift of gab. This man is especially gifted: I can hardly get a word in edgeways.
‘In the end, what we are interested in is urbanism as a qualitative endeavour. Too often there is a fascination with the quantitative: numbers that generate “datascapes” and “mappings” as if these were ends in themselves. The question of urbanism is ultimately a qualitative one: what kind of social interaction do we want in cities? Koolhaas’s research into the “culture of congestion” and studies by the Multiplicity group are interesting examples of qualitative studies of the city.’
I point to dozens of pieces of coloured paper filled with notations arranged in rows on the wall, and ask if these are part of a field-work project.
‘Yes. One of our research projects involves a qualitative survey of the way people live. It’s called “Current Ways of Living”. We are interviewing hundreds of people in their homes to find out what sort of arrangement they live in – traditional family, single-parent family, gay couple, flatmates, roommates – and what kinds of problems and preoccupations this raises. One of the things we have learned first-hand is that there is no such thing as a traditional family any more. We strive for an urbanism that can accommodate ways of living that are as diverse as possible, not the unifying, pacifying urbanism we have now. Confrontation is more constructive than a fictitious consensus.’
I am reminded of something I read recently: that one of the primary motives behind the construction of spectacular public buildings by celebrity architects over the last decade has been to build consensus among citizens – that the Bilbao Effect is a pacification strategy. By bringing residential architecture into the urban political debate, Jaque is challenging this enshrined model. He is championing an urbanism of the ordinary and the everyday rather than an urbanism of the extraordinary and the holiday.
‘When you think about it, the domestic interior is much more of a politicized space than the innocent and sacred “home sweet home” it’s made out to be. John Lennon and Yoko Ono knew this when they bedded-in for peace. If we look beyond the traditional family at other kinds of cohabitation, such as apartments shared by Erasmus students, we find that the home is where we encounter “the other” and where all sorts of forms of collectivity are negotiated. Internet has also made the home much more public. Some homes are veritable television studios these days: look at the ongoing fascination with reality shows that occur in domestic spaces.’
Residential architecture is indeed what constitutes the bulk of the built environment; there’s little question that it has not been given the architectural attention it deserves, especially in Spain. But I’m still wondering how Andrés transforms field work into design. How are his theories manifested in his built work? Or are both these offices completely separate spheres of activity?
‘Each office has its own business model, priorities and levels of risk. One is an office that delivers a service to paying clients. This office has to deliver on time and on budget; it can’t afford to take too many risks. It has a responsibility to the public and to the client. The other is a not-for-profit organization. I couldn’t ask sociologists to collaborate on a research project if there was a profit motive. The motive has to be a common research interest and a common political goal – nothing else. We’ve received some research commissions, and sometimes an architectural commission has come out of a research project we’ve initiated. So while there is a transfer of knowledge between the two offices, their organizational and economic structures are different.’
I ask if this research finds its way to the real powers that be: politicians, planners and developers. ‘The OPI disseminates its findings by means of exhibitions and publications in places like the University of Alicante’s architecture school and La Casa Encendida Cultural Centre in Madrid. Through these institutions, I hope the information reaches politicians, planners and developers, because the diversity of living arrangements that exists out there is not reflected at all in the built environment. All we seem to find are three-bedroom homes for traditional families, which almost don’t exist any more. As architects, we have to enter into more of a dialogue with developers, who are a lot more willing to innovate their product if it can deliver an advantage for them. The problem is that the property and housing market is not very transparent. It has been driven entirely by speculation, which explains the repetition of three-bedroom units. Look at how developers’ advertisements all seem to look and sound the same when compared with the way people describe their own homes in ads that tend to be much more nuanced and detailed. We do field work in order to go into detail, not to generalize. Details help us understand better just how complex reality is. At the Venice Biennale this year, I participated in a round table discussion with a few architects who have very large practices, and they were complaining that architecture is no longer possible because the only design freedom left to architects is in the façade. To this I responded: reduce the size of your practice, collaborate within a multidisciplinary network and refuse to work for big clients. Of course, the remuneration won’t be the same, but the satisfaction and the respect you’ll receive will be much greater.’

As the train pulls out of Atocha Station for the two-and-a-half-hour journey to Barcelona, block after block of soulless new housing blocks filled with three-bedroom dwellings pass by the window. Their formulaic monotony is perfectly revealed as the train accelerates. I come to a realization: this is not so much an architectural problem as it is a political one, and political problems do indeed require political innovation. 



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  1. (quoting Hani Asfour)Great article. My favorite part–because it is currently pertinent to our work right now–is the line:The problem is that the property and housing market is not very transparent. It has been driven entirely by speculation, which explains the repetition of three-bedroom units. Look at how developers' advertisements all seem to look and sound the same when compared with the way people describe their own homes in ads that tend to be much more nuanced and detailed.That said, here's my take:1. I wish the article showed us Jaque’s design work, as I still believe that would be much more effective. I understand he is reacting to the minimalism and formalism of his compatriots, but his political work would be much more potent if he spends more time designing. I had a teacher at GSD, Jim Williamson, who saw me enthralled with the political analysis of Rem and others at the time, and he advised me: if it is not beautiful, the political goes by the wayside. True, comparing Rem's work and that of his mentor, O M Ungers, they sound exactly the same in their discourse. But who has heard of Ungers today, or his designs, even though he remains one of the greatest theoretical influencers of our time, but with no architectural prowess?2. The notion that the architect is powerless and is relegated to designing facades is a thought uttered by Rem in 1978 in Delirious New York–expressed visually in the City of the Captive Globe (very much a product of O M Ungers' thought, to bring it full circle). Jaque says:… I participated in a round table discussion with a few architects who have very large practices, and they were complaining that architecture is no longer possible because the only design freedom left to architects is in the façade. To this I responded: reduce the size of your practice, collaborate within a multidisciplinary network and refuse to work for big clients.Rem's power derives from this early and realist acceptance of powerlessness in order to empower architecture and transform it into a cultural product. Hence his attraction to work with the main companies and power structures, and the 'bigness', and his fascination with infrastructure. (Our main difference in GSD was his astonishment at my insistence that architecture can still provide solutions, but that's another story). So when this same remark is made at the end of the article, my sense, is ho-hum, I have seen this before, nothing new here. It might be the bias of the author (see 3), but the question that is not being addressed here, is then, how do you translate this miserable condition into a viable and beautiful–yes beautiful–architectural practice? And more importantly, like 1 above, what would this architecture look like? I am not sure 'collaboration' with a 'multidisciplinary network' or rejecting 'big clients' is the ticket. Jaque is missing something here. Design, and engaging power structures head-on.3. The author describes Jaque's position as classic Walter Benjamin–that architecture is for the masses by the masses. This theoretical bent of the article glosses over the standard aesthetic debate between Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, who believes that art (or architecture) is an esoteric, cultured practice, and if given to the masses they will ruin it. In other words, I will ask Jaque what Adorno laments about Benjamin: are you giving too much credit to the masses? Put differently, I'd rather he be designing to show us the way forward.Food for thought.Hani

  2. Thanks Hani The first thing i did after reading the article is access Jaque's website (which is actually a blog) in search for the visible edge in the design or at least design process that this setup is creating.. i have to say i was far from impressed, whether the projects (most look unbuilt if not made to be built..) or the totally user un-friendly website itself. so a bit of disappointment there!What i picked up from this article is this idea of consciously engaging in talking to people; it reminded me of this TED talk by Johanna Blakely that talks about how social media is changing the way the mass media and speculators think abt classifying people from the classical demographics (age groups, income, ethnic..) into 'taste communities'. People are expressing in new ways and tools things that they didn't express before, and large scale speculative businesses have access to this info. So and interesting thought would be from one side, the option of engaging power-structures, developers, and large-scale media and from the other side a grassroots exchange of influence between designers and taste communities.. Ideally, having a full network of influence is promising and maybe inevitable? My take on Jaque's practice is its isolation in some 'local' region (localisolation :)) which is far from being grassroot. If it were a node in a series of similar connected practices, it would be much more interesting!! Like, for example, Architecture for Humanity, and their idea of open-source architecture. In this specific case of post-natural disasters or impoverished communities, where building is as urgent and important as coming up with a good, integrated design, this model seems to be working fine. Of course, a strong political agenda drives it, which brings me to the next point..

  3. (continuation of the comment above- seems that the blog structure only supports a limited amount of characters) at the end of the article, i read 'this problem is political, not architectural..' i have 2 problems with this statement.1. that this problem is one problem and that it's a problem to start with. I would feel better thinking about it as a reality. This way, architecture is one way of dealing with it, rather than solving it, not through solution-driven practices, rather by open-ended processes that can generate new realities (of different scales) and bring new consciousnesses. Direct and integrative engagement with communities produces a flux. That alone is such a great potential to build on. One of the most interesting discussions of Rem's Seattle Library that i've read describes it as a logo (as opposed to an icon- which is how Eisenmann describes it) that 'produces a new form of collective that didn't know it existed before'2. that by being political, it is not architectural..or that architectural means not political. This is what Jacque expresses too, whether willingly or not by not combining the research and arch practice. Although, for me, combining arch and politics is the most interesting point he raises up, so it feels like he's missing the point (how Jacque avoids answering the relation between the 2 offices frustrates me..) A few months ago, there was an article about the responsibilities and the roles that architects hold in building (or refusing to build) settlements in israel. By refusing to be political (whether in the narrow or wide sense of the word) architects are limiting their audience (the people willing to listen and learn if they feel listened to and learned from), creating a ridge between rich theoretical work and practice, and reinforcing certain speculation-driven realities by simply choosing not to deal with them. On the other hand, architects opening up to politics can increase their engagement in well the production of architecture…..because i heard Cameron Sinclair (Arch for humanity) say that more than 90% of architecture in the world is being produced without architects (and that Arch for humanity wants to take up another 10% in the area of designing post-crisis arch), so the giving too much power to the people question is really detached from reality. Sure, this 10 percent architecture by architects (out of which only part is good esoteric, cultured art) can go on being esoteric and cultured art. Right now what i feel interested is how we can take up another 10 percent to produce beautiful, cultured, politically smart and engaging architecture. perhaps not so esoteric. that's all.. 😀

  4. (quoting Hani again)I enjoyed Rafael's lucid reading and enthusiasm. I think he misunderstood my question, by fusing two thoughts. (Thought 1, on esoteric architecture. Thought 2, on the way forward). That is, I didn't mean to imply that esoteric cultured architecture show should the way forward. I meant to say that without applying architecture, we lose its power as a cultural force for change, unless you are Superstudio, of course. Ideally it should communicate and resonate with the audience–the masses (Benjamin), and not remain in its hermetic circle (Adorno)–reminding me of Fuksas' keen critique of Moneo's souks when I walked with him through it, actually; 'it's too academic'. So in short, architecture, as a field, should be accessible, but should be practiced, to be effective. And that's what I am hoping Jaque does, to show us the way forward, through (more) making.

  5. Thank you Rafael for the great example (the city of culture of galicia)Wow! It sure hits the nail on the head regarding this state of disjunction..I can't help but take it personally. i never understood why in architecture school, it always seems to me that we were encouraged to separate 'esoteric theory' from 'implementation,' albeit indirectly. critical reading and conceptualizing were greatly encouraged and yet, not the connection with practice. As if the conceptualizing is a detached layer above the plans sections, and perspectives not integrated, coming alive. Now i see that fusing the 2 is simply not common.. and i feel lucky to have the choice of where i wanna be, and once again, find Jaque's words empowering..

  6. Hani makes an interesting comment on the Frankfurt School debate between Adorno and Benjamin. He is quite right: there is a Benjaminian bias. But I would like to ask him: does esoteric, cultured architecture really “show the way forward”? For whom does it show the way forward, exactly? For society? For builders? No, it only shows the way forward for a few museum directors, ministers of culture, and for young and ambitious architecture students; meaning architecture inevitably stays in a hermetic circle. It certainly doesn't show the way forward for private housing developers, who steer clear of anything to do with esoteric, cultured architecture.With regard to your comment, Lina, that “by being political, it is not architectural..or that architectural means not political.” All architecture is political, of course (“Spain is no different”). But it is made political by politicians; relatively rarely by architects themselves. Most designers of esoteric, cultured architecture would like to see it as an autonomous discipline, untainted by politics, business, reality. In order not to get enmeshed in political debates, they talk about their work in esoteric language that consciously and conveniently leaves out anything whatsoever to do with politics, business, reality. Here's an example: for Manuel Fraga, The City of Culture of Galicia is a political act: by building it, he wants to be remembered as the greatest politician ever. For Eisenman, The City of Culture of Galicia is an architectural act: by designing it, he wants to be remembered as the greatest architect ever. They are two very distinct “taste communities”, if you want to put it that way. Eisenman doesn't care in the least about Fraga's politics as long as he's got the political savvy and money to get the city built. Fraga doesn't care in the least about Eisenman's architecture as long as the outcome will generate media.

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