Spatial Activism

Profiling a New Wave of European Architecture Collectives and Their Spatial Manifestos

Hannah Sloan Wood
10 min readOct 25, 2017
La Rivoluzione delle Seppie

While there exists an extensive volume of politically engaged architecture projects and countless architects who, particularly in their youth, practiced with explicit agendas, architecture offices have in the main been formed around a signature typology or aesthetic. Consider Zaha Hadid’s cultural icons, Christopher Wren’s churches or Santiago Calatrava’s sculptural engineering: such designers branded their careers upon a signature feature, their trademark image subsequently produced and reproduced in design journals. However, a contingent of young European architects have begun to challenge this custom to instead orient their practice around what might be referred to as the ‘political object’. These spatial activists operate from the sidelines as facilitators, utilising design not as an end in itself but as a means to pursue a specific objective.

Aravena’s surprise Pritzker win in 2016 epitomised the resurgence of the ‘social architect’ figure both in school and studio conversation. The concept of the architect as an influential change-maker, despite its idealism, has now also filtered into the public imaginary with shows such as Al Jazeera’s Rebel Architecture (2016) being widely followed and discussed by many unfamiliar to the profession. The climate is ripe for architects who wish to exhibit a social agenda through their design process and built work. This is not to overlook offices which have pushed for social change since the 1960s (Spatial Agency has documented an extensive list here), yet the number of architects working explicitly with a political agenda appears to be increasing and, it can be argued, have now gained enough visibility to begin to influence the mainstream profession.

Whether their site is the frontline of the migration crisis or the inequity of the real estate market, young collectives such as InBetween Economies, New South and La Rivoluzione Delle Seppie, to name but a few, are adopting alternative and entrepreneurial working methods that set them apart from established practice. These studios are responsive to and innovate with developments in digital technology and connectivity to offer themselves a degree of freedom from conventional work structures. This also enables them to initiate nomadic or spontaneous projects, sometimes only loosely connected to the built environment and often without prior commission. While the motivations of these studios may vary substantially, they remain connected by their focus upon a distinct social or political cause. This motivation defines and drives their method of work, the projects they undertake and, interestingly, it may shift their output into domains traditionally beyond the remit of architecture or design.

“Our generation doesn’t have the luxury to be naive about (economics and politics). They matter and we have to understand and use them, as much as we use space, colour and light in our buildings.” InBetween Economies

It should not be overlooked that the majority of these young studios were initiated in an age of austerity in Europe, with many new graduates struggling to secure stable employment as experienced practitioners were first in line for re-employment after the 2008 financial crisis. However, the upsurge of offices pursuing a social agenda form a marked ideological shift from a recent fashion to compete to supply global icons for the twenty-first century city only a decade ago. Overall, the sensitivity of these new collectives to the socio-political context in which they work — rather than novelty or media attention — differentiates their approaches from the onset.

InBetween Economies, a research and debate platform based in Copenhagen, cite the current political climate as the main driver of their research and production. “[We] have grown up with a sense of openness and optimism,” they suggest. “One of the problems with architecture at the moment is that it tells itself it’s socially agnostic in order to justify the economic principles it has come to represent. Our generation doesn’t have the luxury to be naive about [economics and politics]. They matter and we have to understand and use them, as much as we use space, colour and light in our buildings.”

Remade in Bangladesh Project by New South. © Meriem Chabani

The issues these collectives select to address are often global in scale, complex and interconnected. While at first the obstacles in the way of intervening into concerns such as climate change, structural racism or economic inequality may seem insurmountable, designers are electing to act at a local level. Members of La Rivoluzione Delle Seppie adopt this approach in the Calabria region of Southern Italy, as the specific geographical location enables them to highlight and bridge the clash between African and European culture exacerbated by a recent increase in migration to the area. Their goal is simply to locate methods that instigate conversation, which have up to this point included puppet cinema and communal cooking. Echoing other spatial activists, Seppie see the architect as a mediating figure in this process, a facilitator of strategies, convening with other actors and, perhaps most importantly, linking marginalised communities to those in positions of power.

“You’d be amazed by who is willing to listen if you use technology to reach out — a lot of borders are broken down almost immediately.” InBetween Economies

A focus on the architect’s duty to ‘facilitate conversation’ is also shared by InBetween Economies. They collaborate with respected names in design research, such as Keller Easterling, to instigate productive debate on the built environment and reach as broad an audience as possible — ideally those outside the profession. This visibility has become a catalyst for their events, and they express the ease at which such action can be initiated online. “You’d be amazed by who is willing to listen if you use technology to reach out,” they suggest, “a lot of borders are broken down almost immediately. […] Our ideal result is one where people from all backgrounds collectively discuss the future of their cities with the same fervour as a recent episode of Game of Thrones or Eurovision.”

Internet connectivity appears to be pivotal to both how these architecture collectives are conceived and how they engage with their cause. They utilise social media platforms to promote themselves online, gathering huge volumes of followers and therefore the capability to rally people around events. Collectives brand themselves online and navigate the emerging open-source culture to appropriate free programs and tools. “Outwardly, we use graphic design, social media, and something resembling a marketing campaign to build interest in our events,” say InBetween Economies. Recent developments in personal computing have also increased the speed at which data can be transferred, enabling their members to ‘co-work’ on projects that span multiple geographical locations. New South, a design office formed to instigate the The New South exhibition in Paris, which aimed to address neo- and post-colonial issues in architecture, commend the internet as the best means to share information and connect with project collaborators across continents.

Black Friday. © Forensic Architecture

Indy Johar, of the UK-based practice Architecture00, highlights the importance of internet-enabled collaborations and connections as a key driving factor for a new generation of architects. “Internet tools have enabled online citizens to map, mobilise and co-produce,” he writes. Seppie agrees, “without this mentioned connectivity, we would not be able to create all the links with professionals, academics, locals and refugees.” The ease of online publishing is also changing the visibility of the design process, as working sketches and discussions are now being published in real-time online. InBetween Economies suggest that the use of these technologies is second nature to recently graduated architects. “You can think in public, recognise your humility, and work on a problem as a group,” they offer. This approach is notably different from the more recognised method of building up experience and knowledge to the point where you are credible enough to be presented to the public — a cornerstone of the profession to date — which, perhaps, has in the past generated a distinct, object-based approach to the built environment.

“Internet tools have enabled online citizens to map, mobilise and co-produce.” Indy Johar, Architecture00

But are these collectives generating architecture? Or would they have a greater impact if they were to be producing buildings in a more recognised sense? Perhaps. However, one of the most interesting aspects of this shift in professional practice is that there is often no commissioning client, or limited economic resources to instigate the project in its initial phase. Therefore, that which is challenged is instead signature ways of doing: methods of mapping, of designing and of building. The research agency Forensic Architecture, operating from Goldsmiths in London, are an example of a studio challenging recognised methods of architectural representation. They suggest the temporal dimension itself holds political power. Therefore, they act to democratise cities under conflict through providing understandable information as events unfold. This work is not at first glance propositional in an architectural sense, yet they argue could possess the potential to stimulate change.

While some young practices see their work as remaining within the realms of architecture theory or discussion (“our representation techniques are not typically architectural, yet they still form a project, we are more focused on public organisation and dialogue than drawings, models or spatial interventions,” say InBetween Economies), others are realising their ideas in the form of workshops or built prototypes. The design workshop, once conducted within the architecture studio, appears to increasingly be used as an active on-site process to spontaneously generate ‘ground projects’ or, as a tool to forge contacts with local actors, industries and institutions to enact a ‘participatory design process’. An unexpected consequence is that some collectives are beginning to bypass the traditional procurement process, essentially ‘feeling’ where they should intervene — the concept behind the arms of the Seppie squid. Stories are collected with tactility, and experimentation might generate impromptu interventions that can bypass conventional planning systems.

New South exemplify a studio that has bridged thinking into doing in order to address their aims by means of physical construction. They stress the need for attention to detail and quality of architectural intervention, perhaps in reaction to the signature aesthetic developing from this wave of ‘social architecture’. These include — perhaps inevitably due to volatile financing mechanisms — low-budget, minimal resource and, at worst, exhibit poor-quality craftsmanship, or a DIY aesthetic. “What do we believe we deserve?” they ask, “when mediocre to poor is the status quo, the search for quality becomes a political endeavour.” New South are aware of the challenges building in geographically distant contexts may bring. For their experimental pavilion in Adis Addaba, they had to adapt their work method to account for illiteracy and a crossover in languages, developing a vocabulary of non-verbal techniques, including comic books, kits of parts and model patterns. Everything was “designed on site, with hand drawn sketches and on site experimentation serving as guidelines.”

“What do we believe we deserve? When mediocre to poor is the status quo, the search for quality becomes a political endeavour.” New South

Map poster from IBE#1 Pamphlet. ©InBetween Economies / Studio Atlant

The unspoken question so far might be: why does the process of social change need to be adopted by architects? Can we not just get back to what we do best — that is, designing buildings — and leave social activism for policy-makers or academics? Justin McGurk puts forward a sceptical case when he suggests that architects are stepping in where “the state has abdicated its responsibility and the market sees too little profit”. That is to say, the current condition is necessitated by a political climate that pushes architects to “operate [on] the extremes of the social spectrum”, to either serve capital or aid those disenfranchised by it. A number of critics also query the idealism and questionable criticality of many of the young collectives, suggesting their output is not designed enough to be effective architecture and not radical enough to be effective activism — and is therefore damned to exert negligible impact on the status quo. Perhaps, suggest InBetween Economies, this is the exact post-political atmosphere that requires “new ways of representing, publicising, and talking about architecture.” More optimistically, perhaps what such spatial activists might hope to attain could become a sort of ‘micropolitics’, where small, local interventions are enacted with a hope to result in a kind of meta-intervention, which in turn might then hold potential to generate a cultural shift.

This movement of engaged collectives most likely presents only a partial picture of a current state of affairs. Architecture, as with other professions, is diversifying as the age of connectivity blurs its former institutional and professional boundaries. Perhaps, then, spatial activism is a confluence of ‘architectural design’ and ‘the political project’, with many further potential instances of interdisciplinary overlap. Yet, if this activism is understood as the mobilisation of that which is thought into a process of doing, it could be argued that the work of the architect is in itself inherently political, however disengaged their initial aims may have been. Acting upon an identifiable yet fluid set of cultural ideologies, the designer collaboratively develops projects that appropriate their values and solidify their decision making within material space. The impact is therefore twofold: such interventions generate a built environment of objects that, in themselves, modify a former state of affairs, so can likewise be understood to possess political agency. Perhaps the architectural process is then invariably an act of activism in a broad sense, whether or not a practice adopts a political cause as its primary objective. When asked what skill the collectives saw as essential for an architecture studio to possess the near future, New South replied “we consider that it will be key to have a point of view”.