Do Not Take Me as the Norm

I have always been convinced that knowing the legal basis which regulates urban activities and defines citizen’s rights and obligations is essential in order to assess and develop urban interventions. The biggest challenge is how to manage the enormous number of existing laws and ordinances, which are continuously being updated. The citizen’s limited and even non-existent awareness of law – and that includes a majority of architectural professionals – together with the lack of visibility of legal sources, is what has brought me to intensively use mass media, so as to clearly set out some of these laws, therefore drumming up interest in re-drafting the law.” 1

It’s been years now since the cold winter night of 1996 when fourteen neighbors from the San Bernardo district in Seville went into the streets carrying fluorescent lamps as backpacks. As they walked close to one another, a luminous line surged into view. The mysterious line painted four singular choreographies in the darkness of the night. The first reproduced the main alignments of the San Bernardo Master Plan, a new regulation that was silently being developed beckoning real estate investors to the area. The next choreographies painted the contours of interesting alternative proposals designed by three neighbors. The first was a park that incorporated neglected archeological findings, located on a site which was left unanswered by the plan; the second a state-subsidized condominium with a green area at the ground-floor, placed on a plot intended for a compact apartment block. After a while, the sensory procession arrived at the old artillery factory, a vacant industrial building of great potential. The lights radiated through its large windows, putting the impressive building on display.

Orchestrated by a neighbor this urban intervention was part of a broader strategy to raise awareness about the gentrification process that was threatening the local population. Once they were gathered around the light-painters, the status of the master plan was explained, hundreds of signatures were collected, and follow-up meetings were planned. People examined the plan, discussed its consequences and proposed changes. In droves, they attended local government assemblies, made their voice heard and were made promises. Ironically, this initial success and the general festive climate of the intervention resulted in a relaxed mood and in the absence of significant pushback the master plan was still approved with only minor changes. The gentrification process initiated by this regulation would continue up until 2007. Shortly before, a group of families headed by the ‘San Bernardo Grandmas’ occupied a building so as to denounce the passivity of both politicians and residents. A vacant old school was also occupied and transformed into a cooperative socio-cultural center. The intervention had a great impact in the neighborhood, promoting a new attitude towards the law, the rights and the authority. Rooted in civil disobedience and cooperation, the focus in attitude as a precondition for change echoes Lefebvre’s influential maxim: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”

In spite of being Santiago Cirugeda’s first urban intervention, the light choreography described (Planimetrias Fotosensibles), sums up his social commitment and focus on subverting the law that has characterized his work since his student days in the late 90s. It was after fighting this battle at San Bernardo that he intensified his research on legal conditions and agreements so that local actors could convene with authorities and property owners to gain rights over the design, use, and transformation of defined territorial fragments. In order to rupture the capitalist logic that informs laws of city development, this thorough work took into account regulations that shape building categorization and specific urban conditions, as well as the intents that subtly informed the design and fashion of such regulations and their final form.

Alegal games, designing tension

Two years following the San Bernardo enterprise, Cirugeda had established himself as a provocative artist who stubbornly challenged local authorities and laws. In parallel with the making of legal complaints and reports against irregular and illegal activities committed by local institutions and governments, he developed a wide range of temporary structures without foundations; a technicality that situated them in a legal limbo.2 In connection to this, he designed cheeky and tricky strategies to transfer rights concerning the use of these conquered territorial fragments. His objective was to offer a wide range of not yet considered applications of regulations and policies, originally designed for other means. Take for instance the scaffolding-based construction he set up in the entrance of the headquarters of a local architecture institution (La Moda del Parásito, 1998). He convinced his hosts that he, as ‘an architect’, should be the person signing the legal liability insurance contract of what he had installed as guest artist. This empowered him to periodically and legally transfer rights to various citizens and collectives concerning the piece, much to the institution’s dismay. Other witty twisted strategies consisted of designing fake projects for the local newsprint, like his Scaffolding Capsule (1998) raised over a passable street. Although described as an extension of Cirugeda’s own apartment it was, in fact, a false piece resting against the façade of a public school theater. Such ‘architectural games’ – this was the first brand for Cirugeda’s practice – were conceived not as models but as public demonstrations of the limitations and contradictions of specific regulations, and furthermore, of the feasibility of its social restructuring. On the other hand, the exploitation of diffuse media channels to his own favor was a recurrent strategy that he carefully systematized: every project included calling press conferences and a double-edged engagement with the law. He even went so far as to denounce himself after building an illegal apartment on a rooftop, so as to demonstrate the impunity of civil disobedience and to encourage it. Inspired by the local common illegal practice of extending one’s house by building a room in the rooftop, this apartment is real and still in use (La Casa Pepe, 2000).

By the late 2000s – a decade after his light-paintings, and with the building bubble about to burst – Cirugeda’s heightened profile gave him the opportunity to develop his architectural games at a larger scale. Winning the commission for an extension to the Espai D’Art Contemporani of Castellón (2004-2008), he carefully designed – upon the building’s completion – a media campaign to celebrate it as an architectural icon, immediately followed by a campaign to discredit it based on the illegality of the construction. Once the building was threatened with demolition, a committee of art experts asserted it as ‘a work of art’. As a result, Espai escaped demolition, while mocking the Spanish trend of exploiting architecture as a tourism beacon and political propaganda. In the end, the building accommodated resident artists who created an autonomous working landscape, open to visitors and colleagues. Developed in the context of the real estate bubble, these projects are wrapped in the term ‘alegality’, a concept Cirugeda came up with to define techniques that are neither regulated nor prohibited.3 It is quite remarkable the courage – in the plenitude of the financial bubble – to break out of the logic of the real estate market. According to Cirugeda, “to produce tensions must be part of the plan”.4

Induced legality, cooperation rules

Just before the financial crisis erupted, Cirugeda turned a corner, going back to the cooperative work of his early project Planimetrias Fotosensibles. Developed as building workshops, he worked with students to erect two new classroom-huts on the flat roofs of the universities of Málaga (2006) and Granada (2007). Thanks to the affective bond that emerged from cooperation, students got involved not only in the process of designing and constructing, but also programming, repairing, and maintaining the alegal classrooms. These engagements were radicalized in Camiones, Contenedores, Colectivos (2007-2013): the orchestration of the distribution of labor, material, and financial resources while crafting a collaborative network of direct-action activists.5 As constructivist architects had envisioned at the beginning of the twentieth century,6 building and learning together would prove to be a powerful combination. On the one hand, it promotes productive co-operation among individuals so as to counter the relation between rights, habitat, and private property, fixed by modernity at the dawn of capitalism; on the other hand it helps form the critical mass of people needed to influence the authority’s top-down decisions, thus changing specific laws. If Cirugeda described his early solo experiments as alegal strategies, he considers his later cooperative orchestrations as processes of induced legality. Cooperation can effectively inform the normative with not yet considered perspectives, thus making room for non-standardized modes of existence – modes that cannot be understood in isolation from legal aspects.

In this sense, it is worth mentioning that Cirugeda’s ‘Urban Prescriptions’ are targeted towards citizens, not architects. Written as real stories, Cirugeda’s name is omitted in most prescriptions. Instead, the protagonist is a student, a neighbor, a citizen, a local artist – sometimes an architect – whose experience is offered as a guide, as practical instruments for life. This unequivocally relates to Abby Hoffman’s mythical counter-culture book from the sixties, Steal this Book, a manual to survive without money or residence, and to fight the government, corporations, and laws in any way possible.7 What cuts across both guides, is the fact they are both manifestos, distinguished by their commitment to detournement,8 their vision rooted in the constructivist movements that have shaped cultural resistance for over a century. Everyday tricks and small fragmentary changes are stressed by the desire of a major structural transformation: the liberation of the dependence on capitalist ownership of private property and on money to enjoy life. Cooperation and experimentation with unconventional modes of existence is encouraged by showing off the author’s own successful activity as political and social activist. In the same way as Hoffman, Cirugeda’s ultimate ambition is to raise awareness about the plasticity of the relation between life, money, law, and built environment.

Recalling the constructivist-situationist imaginary of scaffold and crane-like structures, as well as the aesthetic of informal construction – though adopting middle-class means – Cirugeda frequently alludes to the idea of architecture as an ordinary practice carried out by local actors, who would build and dismantle temporary installations over the existing city fabric, making room here and there for their daily life, desires, and cravings. However, and not by chance, vital activity often overwhelms and contradicts Cirugeda’s habitable niches. His projects are designed to give individuals instruments that stress their relation with the built environment, so as to foresee a certain degree of liberty. Hence, his prescriptions are conditioned: without the raising of public awareness about the possibility of subverting laws, the urban prescriptions would prove obsolete. Without any demonstration that there are real chances of influencing and even changing on-going top-down regulations, they would become useless. Communicating –­ not building habitats – was the core politics that remains under-clarified, in a work which is misunderstood when cast as pragmatic, rather than utopian.

Selling out the rupture: non-architecture as the rule

When Cirugeda used media to simultaneously endorse and insult his own design in Castellón he was not only playing with rights and authority; he was also performing a public demonstration against architecture’s symbiotic relationship with existing power structures by boldly rupturing his links with architecture practice. Withdrawing from traditional political agencies of architecture suggests a way of evading the contradictions of working with institutions at a moment when the political potential of design was believed to be overwhelmed by economic realities. In recalibrating his own agenda, Cirugeda assumed that architecture itself could not achieve his goals, thus displacing his appreciation for it. No matter how fine his work, ’denying architecture’ was a self-imposed limitation difficult to take back. Far from being performative and sensorial constructivist assemblages, like Hannes Meyer’s complex co-op works, ‘Urban Prescriptions’ are rather questionable as architectural outcomes. They appear more valuable indeed when proposed not as solutions but as tools for redrawing the framework in which we would like our lives and practices to occur, as tools for re-assembling architectural cosmograms, borrowing Latour’s term.9 The problem comes when systems of broadcasting (including cultural transmitters) transform temporary political statements – like those of Cirugeda – into exemplary solutions, cultural commodities, bona fide models for future practitioners, in other words, as the norm. As Cirugeda succeeded in manipulating mass-media and institutions to his own advantage, his prominence in these outlets seems to have rechanneled his practice into the system he attempted to question.

In trying to clarify whether the critical function of architectural activism has a chance to overcome post-capitalist rules, I think the encounter between the concepts of ‘heterogeneity’ and ‘assemblage’10 is certainly useful. Of particular interest here is the term new assemblages used by Saskia Sassen to designate systems that temporarily re-organize fragments of territory under new logics of authority, rights, and laws.11 New assemblages can be interpreted as one of the ecologies that form part of the city: they take shape and operate inside other assemblages. As long as they are capable of incorporating many pre-existing components (components of the reality that is intended to be changed) they should be able to promote a radical change: in other words, a new organizational logic for the pre-existing.12 This concept insists on heterogeneity as a precondition for engagement with the built environment’s complex nature. But if heterogeneity has defied architectural practice since it was theorized in the 1960s, what new assemblages suggest is that in order to gain opportunities for legal change, the heterogeneous materials and tools that have become part of architectural critical practices has to be reassembled with traditional architectural knowledge. The key point is that this concept interprets ‘continuity’ as a form of ‘disruption’, thus countering the relations between resistance and capitalism; between rights and law; between common resources and private ownership; and between built environment and inhabitant, as dialectical oppositions or interactions. The confrontation between architecture and non-architecture (building and art) is also deactivated.

Architectural activism, as a critical task, could be thought today not as the spreading and sharing of possible ruptures, but as the more subtle cooperative labor of re-assembling the heterogeneous loads which have been dramatically withdrawn around the real estate bubble – from legal reconsiderations to architectural and environmental quality. As well as potentially challenging regulations, non-architecture can simplify or limit rights when it is not capable of encompassing the wealth, richness, multifariousness and versatility of the modes of existence potentially inscribed in specific fragments of territory.

  1. Santiago Cirugeda, ‘Prólogo’. Situaciones Urbanas. (Tenov, 2007).

  2. These prostheses have their precedent in the habitable sculptures he developed as a student in Seville.

  3. Alegal outcomes take advantage of the areas where regulation is blurry or even non-existent. Alegality does not go against the law; rather it takes it a step further. Cirugeda Santiago et al. ‘Glossary’. In Collective Architectures. (Vibok Works, 2010).

  4.  On ‘the constructive use’ as critical task: Manfredo Tafuri, ‘The Task of criticism’. In Theories and History of Architecture. (Harpers & Row, 1980).


  5. Santiago Cirugeda, ‘Architectural Games’. In MRGNT Exhibition catalogue. Curated by Felix de la Iglesia and Jose Ramon Moreno. (Caja San Fernando, Seville, 2001).

  6. Meyer believed that co-operation “merged the authorial action of the architect into a more egalitarian and collective process. In this way, the architect himself turns into an organizer and becomes a specialist by eliminating the paradoxical separation of the artist from other kinds of workers, thereby articulating architecture’s melding of art and life”. From Bernardina Borra in San Rocco 6, 2012.

  7. Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book, (Da Capo Press, 2002).

  8. Situationists applied the word ‘use’ when they defined the term ‘detournement’ in 1958: “there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of these means”. Use defines situationist as cultural resistance, attitude and mode of existence rather than a practice.

  9. Unlike matter of facts, cosmograms are designed constructions: strong political statements which policies the world in which we wish to live. See Bruno Latour, ‘Atmosphere, Atmosphere’. In Olafur Eliasson. The Weather Project. Tate Publishing, 2003.

  10. Familiar to constructivist architects in the 1920s, and assimilated to collage by visual culture, the term assemblage was later recovered and conceptualized by Deleuze in the 1960s, inspiring contemporary thinkers.

  11. Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, (Princeton University Press, 2006).

  12. Saskia Sassen, ‘Urban practices as political projects’. Collective Architectures. (Vibok Works, 2010).

The Writings on the Wall