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The Architectural Guerrilla

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Este artículo, cuyo titulo original es el que leen ustedes “ The Architectural Guerrilla”, fue originalmente escrito para WANT Magazine, publicación digital con la que Maria Granados y un servidor colaboran. Se publica aquí dado que fue escrito hace algun tiempo y el paso de los meses va mellando su actualidad hasta el peligroso limite entre lo interesante y lo “so last season” y porque leídos los debates que se han originado en otras paginas (Aquí, aquí y aquí) parece el momento mas indicado de mostrarlo y quizá recrearlo después en una versión 2.0 a partir del debate que genere, que espero sea mucho y efervescente.

Esta en ingles (WANT se publica en la lengua de Chaucer), lo que les vendrá muy bien para practicar. Tómenselo, sino como otra cosa, como un cuadernillo Santillana de su niñez.

This article was edited and shaped thanks to the great work and wisdom of Ken Grobe, editor extraordinaire, to whom I am so thankful for all his help and encouraging. Read, enjoy and comment.


 Survival In The Times Of Spectacle Architecture.

 “Make Me a Guggenheim”

In1997,a new headquarters for the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao turned a tired grey small town in the north of Spain into a global destination. A titanium-covered and (at the time) almost impossible-to-build extravaganza, the Guggenheim Bilbao set a precedent for the use of spectacle in architecture.

Ever since, the main objective requested to architects has been to duplicate the so-called “Guggenheim Effect:” to design something that looks jaw-dropping on the tourist brochures. Its watchwords: Do it. Do not even dream of considering if it is logical, technically admissible or even affordable…Just do it. Spectacle became king.

Architecture became a product for show, despite the cost or the almost unbearable technical difficulties–just so long as it looked cool. Inevitably, a generation of architects evolved closer to moody show-biz gurus than to technical experts, ready to develop their magic trademarked and signed icon buildings at skyrocketing prices.

To those in our business, these spectacle gurus are called starchitects. For almost a decade, they have been the raising stars and guides of architecture. For them creativity meant absolute freedom; like a Ferrari with no brakes.

The Flowers In The Rocks

The “starchitectural” system left little, air for any other professionals to breathe. If you weren’t part of the “big mythical surname” club, it seemed impossible to withstand political pressure, tampered competitions and biased press. But within these dire conditions is where the most beautiful flowers grow (or so say the industrious Chinese). A small number of practices–coming mostly from the geographical and architectural periphery–have stepped up to fight the battle against spectacle architecture. If the starchitects and their huge offices are the armies of icon, these committed brave little studios are Architecture Guerrillas (AGs).

Managing creativity, guerrilla style.

The military comparison is not casual, but you don’t need to be Sun Tzu to get the idea.When fighting a much larger opponent, a range of wise and unexpected strategies are required to level the conflict. One must take advantage of every opportunity (And every single one of said rival’s weaknesses). To wit:

Harsh Terrain

Those firms dedicated to iconic architecture are enormous organizations that require a huge infrastructure to react. Their size involves too much energy to embrace small projects, and their chronic tendency to over-budget makes it impossible to scale down. If they can’t shine at the usual fee, they lose interest.

It is in the harsh territories of small and medium projects that our AGs can actively develop their work. Small sports pavilions and health centers, like those developed by ELAP Architects in south Spain, the committed suburban dwellings developed by Laura Alvarez in Groningen (Holland), the budget-concerned and amazingly spatial houses by Brijuni Architects in Jaen, a true example of real sustainability free from clichés and phoney archi-blabbing, the Sport Enhancenment Center By J.M. Sanchez… all are excellent, dynamic projects. Each of them came from small commissions or competitions not tampered by the presence of the usual “Guest star” ready to greedily take the lot.


It is not difficult to nail a target with a cannon, and the big budget and long schedules given to starchitects make for a lot of chances. Admittedly, while the results achieved by the starchitect firms are often impressive, the means by which they arrived there are at often questionable. But with an average 300%-over-budget-excess as a common issue, icon architects represent too much firepower for any public budget. Their usual 20% fee (On projects usually over 100K€) is a hard pill to swallow as well. For a profession that is supposed to involve some degree of control, The starchitect is even at his/her best, expensive and unpredictable.

An AG, lacking a famous surname to hide budget chaos and schedule-lag, is forced to nail it every single time–on-budget, on-schedule. Accuracy supplants brute force. Even more important, they have to do it for far less money, and be precise as an English archer running late for tea. AGs realized long ago that when your profession involves developing a single, expensive prototype (i.e. a building), some level of certainty is appreciated.

Moreover, hiring a starchitect (even at those prices) doesn’t guarantee that the person behind the name is going to be personally involved in the process—no more than buying a Lagerfeld T-Shirt guarantees that Karl himself is going to fit it for you. AGs are always ready, always there, always ensuring that a great deal of the work comes from listening and understanding your client. Personally.

Teaming up

Behemoth-like firms are notoriously jealous of the sanctity of their ongoing projects and procedures, reluctant to share any kind of data or information–or even to collaborate–lest they lose their “fashion firm exclusiveness” status. They are eager to accuse each other of piracy for the slightest resemblance. In 2006 a dispute between two of the biggest architectural firms in the world was raised over a design based on the use of the “grid plan” or Hippodamian plan, created by Hippodamus of Miletus circa 549 BC. Classy.

Architecture Guerrillas are willing to share experiences and research. They take full advantage of a 21st century support net run with terabytes of information and social networking. If their size is manageable (i.e. small), they are able to overcome it by establishing a free, open-source knowledge database–accessible to everyone willing to contribute–and in which creativity and even full projects are common ground to experiment and develop new solutions. It is Creative Commons architecture. It means crowdsourcing. I means collectives, those whose work I may sometimes not agree at all with while acknowledging that their basis as a new way of confronting architecture is so interesting.

Joining the Cause

A Guerrilla is usually (often quite romantically) associated to a cause—and a person who fights for a cause is much more dangerous than one who fights just for money. While the huge goliaths of architecture devote their enormous capabilities to spectacle and icons, AG’s  have made a commitment to recover a cause architects should never have lost from sight: Architecture involves a huge social compromise.

Buildings can make a great photo-op, but after the inauguration party is over, they have to be used, maintained, repaired, and taken care of. For starchitects, once the ribbon is cut, their focus tends to move on to media coverage. For the AG, there is follow-up: are people using their work? Are people being helped by it at any possible level?

This is the basic principle of this social contract: building for society, not for show. It is a humble, conscious step back to a balance between creativity, design and social responsibility. It represents creation for the people, not for the press. It means having a conscience about the impact and presence of architecture in our cities, our lives and our environment. It’s an admission of the fact that, merely because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should.

For the AG, this responsibility comes first.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

While starchitects enjoyed their unprecedented success, in 2008, the global financial crisis brought everything crumbling down. In the blink of an eye, icon architecture died. The brakeless Ferrari found an abrupt stop on Wall Street.

The trade media reacted by creating a new pre-cooked recipe for mass consumption: The classic Mies Van Der Rohe line “Less is more” was bastardized into the more fashionable “More with less.”

Predictably, that aphorism has been embraced by the (former) starchitects with the fanaticism of the newly converted—at least, on the surface. Their change of attitude smacks of a shallow attempt to modify their tune, simply in order to keep playing. If Mies was to know that his line was going to become such a nice alibi cliché, he would have kept it to himself.

Those architects who remember that our main responsibility is serving society (not becoming rock stars) will find AG and its methods to be a more promising path to the future. It’s a path set to regain architecture for an involved society by running and managing creativity in a responsible, checked and socially committed environment, allowing technique and reason to intervene and balance its free uncontrolled power.

It’s a path worth following, and fighting for.

To the barricades!!!

Written by Jose María Echarte

julio 13, 2011 a 10:12

7 respuestas

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  1. Sacto. ¿Donde hay que firmar?

    Fernando Ramos Muñoz

    julio 13, 2011 at 11:23

  2. Muy bueno, y seguramente no sólo muchos arquitectos, sino muchos ciudadanos se sumarían a la AG. Más que las barricadas me gustan las cargas, pero ya sabemos lo que suele pasar. Enviadles el artículo a los pobres arquitectos de Chipre, a ver si se animan, y de paso, que sepais que se ve que el CAE-ACE …pues eso, que vamos, que sí, que a los abusos gordos gordísimos pero gordos del copón sí que es sensible y lobbiyea:
    Cyprus Architects Fight Unfair Criteria in Museum Design Contest (http://www.ace-cae.eu/public/contents/index/category_id/11/language/en)

    The Cyprus Architects Association (CAA), the ACE member organisation from Cyprus, is up in arms over the competition requirements for the design of the new Cyprus Museum, which are so strict that most local and European architects will not be able to take part in the competition. The President of the Cyprus Technical Chamber (ETEK), Constantinos Constanti (also President of the CAA), says that the organisers have chosen the wrong procedures with strict conditions. Two of the main criteria are that any competitors must have already built a museum worth €20m and a project of “similar nature” worth €40m. In addition, it is estimated that the cost of preparing an entry that complies with the requirements of the brief will cost in the region of €50,000-€70,000. It is an example of the type of procedures that restrict access to architectural projects and against which the ACE is lobbying in its work on the revision of the Directives on Public Procurement.

    Y para no quefdarme corta sugiriendo, pasadles luego un manual de inglés a nuestras excelsas y varias autoridades comunes y representantes vuestros, que igual lo que les pasa es que confunden Chaucer con chopped.


    julio 13, 2011 at 17:28

  3. muy bueno !Y gente interesante!


    julio 14, 2011 at 11:50

  4. Desgraciadamente, el rodillo «starsystem» sigue funcionando a pleno rendimiento, a pesar de que está herido de muerte.
    Ayuntamiento tieso + convenio suculento + promotora de bolsillo + arquitecto dócil emblemático + silencio del gremio – patrimonio – necesidades reales de la ciudad = mole emblemática y cara + publicación segura + aplauso de palmeros
    Será entre divertido y patético ver, dentro de 10 años, a los mismos críticos y palmeros-web que ahora apoyan al «clan L’oreal» o «Pritzker trade mark», renegar de estas intervenciones «emblemáticas», hechas en contra de la opinión ciudadana, y a coste de varios riñones. Entonces será cuando se apunten (como si lo hubieran inventado y defendido ellos) a escuchar al ciudadano, a las intervenciones en función de necesidades reales, y no en función del mercado de arquitectura-consumo.
    Como ejemplo, podéis intentar comentar algo en contra del starsystem en scalae.net, por ejemplo, a ver si tenéis suerte y os lo publican. Yo hice un comentario sobre la Biblioteca de Sevilla de Hadid (el mismo que puse aquí, aprox), y llevo esperando 13 días a que lo pongan.

    Fernando Ramos Muñoz

    julio 14, 2011 at 12:02

  5. Per cómo te van a publicar algo así en Scalae? ¿Tú has visto quiénes están detrás?


    julio 17, 2011 at 1:21

  6. Euh….

    Scalae? Esto era para WANT Magazine, no para Scalae.


    julio 17, 2011 at 20:18

  7. Jose María, creo que cascorronet se refería a mi entrada, sobre el comentario que envié a scalae, en su noticia de la Zahateca de Sevilla. A diferencia de vuestro blog, en scalae no se ha publicado, no les ha parecido oportuno, supongo, 17 días hace ya que lo envié.
    Por cierto, no sé si habéis leído esta entrevista a D. Rafael en elfarodevigo. No tiene pérdida.
    En especial:
    Su trabajo en Vigo coincide con la paralización de la reforma de la zona centro del Puerto. ¿Es una buena receta el recurrir a primeras figuras en busca de obras emblemáticas?
    –A mi edad, he comprendido que no hay que tener fe ciega en la condición taumatúrgica de los arquitectos. Conozco muy bien cómo proceden mis colegas y sé que el nombre de un arquitecto prestigioso no es garantía de un buen proyecto. No creo que haya que dar carta blanca a un arquitecto. He visto fracasos realmente colosales de profesionales de muchísimo prestigio.
    –¿Es entonces fruto de la moda o mera tendencia el reunir a varios Premios Pritzker para diseñar el futuro de una ciudad?
    –En este caso quiero resaltar que tanto Nouvel como Mayne y yo somos muy distintos. No emitiré juicios sobre nadie, pero encuentro mi trabajo muy diverso al de mis colegas y también nuestros intereses son distintos. Yo no hago trabajos por tener activo mi estudio o para añadir una obra a mi catálogo. Quiero que lo que haga esté bien, sea querido y dé servicio. Las ciudades deberían disponer de arquitectos de confianza para resolver sus problemas y plantear las grandes obras. La figura del arquitecto itinerante no siempre funciona.

    Por la boca muere el arquitecto.

    Fernando Ramos Muñoz

    julio 18, 2011 at 8:39

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