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ADS7 Ecologies of Existence: The Architecture of Collective Equipment

Godofredo Pereira, Platon Issaias and David Burns

ADS7 proposes an alternative way of thinking and designing architecture as a collective political practice. The studio encourages students to think simultaneously in multiple scales, proposing architectural models and strategies for a wide array of collectives that they will have to select by themselves. As in the previous year, ADS7’s main research question is what kind of architecture could emerge when we think about and define ecology, subjectivity and living, as indispensable political and architectural categories.

On Collective Equipments & Popular Culture

In 2017 we will focus on a key object of architectural experimentation: collective equipment.

Collective equipments have a long history in architecture, traditionally understood as instruments of religious and military powers, as tools deployed by the modern nation-state or, increasingly today, by private entities. However, we argue that they are also part of a very important tradition of emancipatory and transformative politics. We are referring here not only to their importance during post-colonial nation-building projects, but also to more precarious experiments: we can identify multiple moments where these have emerged from movements of social and political organization and solidarity, as essential elements of struggle and products of conflict, from popular theatres and social clubs to healthcare centres or schools. Although their history is most famously associated with that of the state, it is also that of multiple forms of social organisation.

Collective equipments are not just buildings that host public programs. Water distribution systems, land-use regulations or transport infrastructures are equally capable of constituting a collective around them. The focus here is not on the relation between infrastructure and a social group, or between a particular space and its ‘users’, but on the ways in which these are one and the same. We should underline the importance of an array of protocols that define all forms of social infrastructures: from the organization and distribution of labour, to all the juridical, political, technical, religious and habitual mechanisms of collective life. Collective equipments always have associated rituals, bodily and/or sexual conduct, proceedings and daily rhythms that make them unique.

Aqueduct system at Quinta da Malagueira by Álvaro Siza. Évora, Portugal, 1973.
Aqueduct system at Quinta da Malagueira by Álvaro Siza. Évora, Portugal, 1973.

As such, collective equipments are key devices in the formalization of popular culture. They are accompanied by a mixed-semiotics of icons, flags, symbols, letterheads, stamps, each with a colour-palette, sometimes even uniforms or dress codes. And yet, popular culture should not be confused with ‘pop culture’. ‘Pop culture’ feeds constantly from popular culture in the sense that the image of the Virgin in Madonna’s video-clips feeds from the Holy Virgin iconography of Italian-American neighbourhoods. Conversely, popular culture also feeds from ‘pop culture’. A good example of this is dinosaurs becoming central to Indigenous autonomy in the housing Project of Alto Comedero, Argentina. Sometimes the circuit feeds endlessly back and forth, with Timberland work boots being appropriated by gang culture, later brought back to pop culture by mainstream hip-hop. Popular and pop culture feed from each other but they are not the same. Whereas ‘pop’ corresponds to a production of subjectivity that is characteristic to capitalist modes of production – it is deterritorialized by nature – popular culture is profoundly territorial, ingrained in habits, economies of production, social practices and modes of living. The semiotics of popular culture is part and parcel to the formation of collective subjectivity and collective political projects.

www.fatimashop. Luminous statues of Our Lady of Fàtima. Joana Vasconcelos, 2002.
"www.fatimashop". Luminous statues of Our Lady of Fàtima. Joana Vasconcelos, 2002.

Forms of representation and communication are a key component of power and subjectivity. Let’s think for a moment a series of semiotics of everyday life that we are constantly confronting: the colour of police uniforms, of public transport inspectors, the dress code of employees and employers, the colour and signs of sports clubs and associations, t-shirts of our favourite bands, the various sexualized objects, the various symbols and devices of gender or racial domination and oppression, the signs of left or right wing politics we could identify. In many cases these are the result of identity politics, as mechanisms that assign positions in society or that help enforcing certain hegemonic positions.

And yet, not all semiotics are those of control or consumption. In looking at popular culture we are searching for the signs, sounds and materials, which are deployed in the production of the most diverse existential territories. We aim to bring this extremely rich world of signs, colours, materials, symbols, emblems of collective practices and conduct into the foreground of architectural experimentation. We are looking for expressions of daily life, of collective endeavours and of the possibility of alternative modes of living, producing and imagining architecture and the city.

From this perspective, collective equipments should be seen as archives of forces, of desires and of subjectivities, which they both express and reformulate. They are as much an intervention into the city and its living conditions, into people's’ lives and protocols, as they are a way of giving form and material presence of all kinds of projects and aspirations. What kind of architecture could emerge from such understanding?

Reclaiming Collective Equipments

Three key problems lie at the heart of collective equipments, each with its own sets of dangers:

  1. problems of provision relating to a service that is lacking, but raising disputes over who provides, what is provided and how;
  2. problems of identity that focus on the importance of a collective equipment for promoting the formation of a collective, but that risk over-determining the collective through the crystallization of power structures and hierarchies;
  3. and problems of organization, related to the setting-up of protocols, structures, schedules, distributions of power-relations, with all that this implies in terms of re-inventing the collective itself.

Due to their location at the intersection of multiple interests and constituencies, in the 1960s collective equipments were object of important cross-disciplinary experimentation by the likes of Foucault and Guattari and the CERFI in France. Their purpose was to speculate on the transformation of equipments that were previously sites of governance by envisioning new alliances between institutions, spaces and practices. In ADS7 we want to recover this research. We see collective equipments as sites of radical institutional and architectural experimentation. This brief is all the more urgent in an epoch where all around the globe institutions are in urgent need of re-invention so they can address new forms of political and social organization.

Architecture and Ecology

ADS7 has an ongoing concern defining an alternative approach to ecology that could inform a different way of thinking and problematizing space, architecture and the territory. As we have argued before, in order to achieve this, we should think of ‘ecologies of living’, a category that brings together material, environmental, technical, social and mental domains. In our point of view, to think ecologically is not so much a matter of protecting existing ecologies, but more importantly, a matter of generating conditions for different ones to emerge and affirm themselves. Only on these terms can a properly ecological project take place.

In our proposal, architecture is understood as a practice that has the ability to give consistency, or even to formalize, certain modes of living. An architecture of collective equipment would do precisely that: give form, project, represent, trace, and of course challenge ways, protocols and conditions of social organization. Students will be asked to identify multiple aspects of living from emerging modes of production, to types of social organization, of inhabitation or relations to nature, that do not conform to the ossification of social structures, familial relations and psychological imaginaries inherent to neoliberal forms of urban development.

The studio aims to investigate the possible role that architecture can play in giving both material and social consistency to these processes, sometimes by providing spaces for events to happen, other times by formalizing a specific program, and others even by giving visibility to certain communities and their particular ways of life. In our view architecture gains its political relevance precisely when it is able to think space and its configurations in terms of living. And it is in this sense that we argue that architecture is a significant category of ecological struggle.

The mixed-semiotics and spatial configurations of collective equipments call for a particular focus on modes of living and ecologies of existence that are most commonly ignored by the canonical teaching of architecture and other spatial practices. Often within the discipline, these are left on the margins of our discussions and concerns, or, even worse, package as ‘alternative’, ‘underground’, and in any case, too stubborn and undisciplined to become part of a proper architectural brief. In ADS7, we want to focus precisely on these peculiar yet emblematic forms of alternative ecologies: from religious, outlaw, and retreat communities, or more ‘traditional’ neighbourhood associations, to sex workers organizations, adult recreational collectives, fetish clubs or even urban gangs, underground music and bikers groups, all of the above produce not only their own subjects but, equally important for us, their spaces of action.

However, we aim to do so not from the paradigms of exodus that dominated the 1960s and 1970s discussions, such as self-excluded hippie communities in the US, or European community-based architectural experiments that often at the ‘local’ level replicated the existing power structures of enclosure and even a certain level of depolitization. In our view the idea of community or local scale as an alternative to capitalism is misguiding, by reducing the problem to a matter of local vs. global. Instead, to think ecologically implies to understanding that each collective constitutes its own scale, or its own perspective of the world. By collectives we mean both small and large groups, living together or at a distance, dozens or millions, alive or dead.

What ADS7 ultimately aims to explore is how these collectives can become constituent political and spatial actors of the city by affirming through architecture their radical difference. In our view, it is through architecture, that modes of living and the production of subjectivity can be best foregrounded as the essential political questions of today. 

Taught by Godofredo Pereira, Platon Issaias and David Burns