Al Jazeera is currently airing a series of architectural documentaries in six parts titled “Rebel Architects“, the first of which is titled “Guerrilla Architect” and focusses on Seville’s Santiago Cirugeda and his office Recetas Urbanas (Urban Recipes). The documentary is un-narrated, as is typical for documentaries nowadays, following its protagonist around in his routines and letting him do most of the talking.
Knowing Santi reasonably well (yes, this is a disclosure), I can say that this documentary paints a fairly accurate portrait of this unconventional architect. We barely see him in his office, curiously, but mostly out and about with clients, having drinks (one of his favorite pastimes), flirting with attractive young women (another favorite pastime of his), and operating power tools. We also see him critically pointing at some recent buildings by other architects as symbols of the waste, corruption, and misery that the real estate boom and its subsequent bust has inflicted upon Spanish society.
Cirugeda is unconventional as far as architects go for several reasons. For one thing, he does not kiss political ass, unlike most architects. In fact, he works hard at doing quite the opposite: being a royal pain in the ass to politicians. He does this mainly by working directly with collective groups and neighborhood associations, helping marginalized citizens empower themselves through “bottom-up” (I hate this overused term) political initiatives, some his own. For example, one of Cirugeda’s earliest built works, a children’s playground, came about as a result of learning that local council members were ignoring repeated citizen requests for a children’s playground to be installed in the neighborhood. Working with a lawyer to find loopholes in the local code, he decided to apply for a permit to park some dumpsters (“skips” in British English) in the street of the neighborhood. These garbage (“rubbish”) receptacles were then rented (“hired”) and duly outfitted to perform as playground equipment by Cirugeda together with a crew of citizens doing the work themselves. The city council, embarrassed, could do nothing, since all the necessary permits were in place. His intervention not only answered a local urban-architectural need, but also served to amplify and lend visibility to legitimate grievances. In this way, Cirugeda’s work also functions as political activism, and shows how architecture can become a powerful political weapon, in this case without even looking like one.
Through a DIY process, typically resulting in “bad” detailing and a creative reuse of recycled materials, projects like these also make quite a mockery out of so-called “avant-garde architecture” by revealing the separation of labor and the complicity with wealth and power that is required to make architecture that is innovative, well-detailed and slick enough for publication in a glossy magazine. Cirugeda’s favorite publication medium is the newspaper article more than the professional magazine or the academic journal. And not the Sunday arts section either, but rather the “local news” section, where, through the controversies he likes to provoke, he appears quite regularly. Another way he is unlike his avant-garde peers is his unpretentious and unintellectual “salt-of-the-earth” personality. He may wear black, but we’re talking ratty black Jack Daniels t-shirts and not black sports jackets over black dress shirts. He is also unusual as far as architects go for joking a lot and not taking himself too seriously. Indeed, the majority of his many friends are non-architects, if this is any indication of his social habitus, and if they are architects, then ones that are, like him, antisistema.
The question that many people ask, and which this documentary unfortunately doesn’t answer is: “so how does Santi pay his bills?” Do citizen collectives in Spain have money to pay architectural honoraria these days? To be sure, he leads quite a low-cost lifestyle, wearing the same clothes for days on end, driving a beater, and living and working in one of the more run-down parts of the city (although the area around Seville’s Alameda de Hércules is becoming quite hip and, after a recent regeneration project, is likely to undergo gentrification when the economy recovers). In this regard, he is like any other architect who tries to work outside of the mainstream, making a bare-bones living by teaching, giving talks, penning articles, or exhibiting in galleries and museums. Without being independently wealthy, it’s impossible to work completely outside of the system, alas.