Rebel Architecture

Guerrilla architect

Can Spanish self-build legend Santiago Cirugeda turn an abandoned factory into a vibrant cultural centre?

Santiago Cirugeda is a subversive architect from Seville who has dedicated his career to reclaiming urban spaces for the public.

In austerity-hit Spain where the state has retreated and around 500,000 new buildings lie empty, “people are doing things their own way,” says Cirugeda. “In times of crisis, people come together to find collective solutions.”
With his expert knowledge of urban planning legislation, Santiago is not afraid to “occupy”, or squat, abandoned space and to use his knowledge of the law to enable community building.
“Self-building hasn’t been legalised in Spain, so any architect taking on this problem has to take on civil and criminal liability,” he says, referring to the logistical issues he faces whilst working on the edges of the law.
“Sometimes we do things that are illegal, but we’re not doing anyone any harm. On the contrary, we’re doing it to benefit more people. The decision to work illegally means a different approach.”

His buildings are often fast-build, mobile structures made from recycled materials. Design for Cirugeda is about matching available materials with the skills of those keen to build it. The key is that they serve a social function, which Santiago thinks contemporary architecture has lost sight of in its obsession with the aesthetic.

We follow him as he takes on his biggest task yet, saving a huge abandoned cement factory, and negotiating with the authorities to let his National Architects’ Collective turn it into a vibrant cultural centre.

Filmmaker’s view

By Ana Naomi de Sousa

The Metropol Parasol in Seville claims to be the world’s largest wooden structure [AP]

Standing atop of the Metropol Parasol, overlooking the rooftops of old Seville, at sundown, it is hard not be impressed. This is the architecture of a bonafide “starchitect”, Jurgen Mayer.

It took over six years to build and cost local taxpayers almost $130m – at the height of the Spanish economic crisis. It is less functional than it is monumental, and the way it mushrooms around Encarnacion Square has earned it the derisible nickname Las Setas.

Ten minutes later and two blocks away, we were back filming with a very different architect. Santiago Cirugeda grew up and has spent his whole life working in Seville. But he has never set foot on the Setas.

“I’ve never been there and I never want to,” he says, looking out from his own rooftop towards it, “it represents … a performance architecture, where money seems to be so important … Architects don’t care, they want to make their works of art, their enormous piles of **** – that’s all,” he says.

Cirugeda is undoubtedly a very different breed of architect. Even before he had qualified from architecture school, his work in Seville was earning him the unwanted attention of police and press. But it also won him the admiration of activists, rebels and social groups.

Cirugeda is a hero of occupy and self-build architecture. He is using his credentials as an architect to test and exploit planning laws, gain access to land and get projects approved for groups who could never normally afford an architect – much less convince one to help them. But if ever there was a rebel with a cause, it is Santi.

Key to his work and his architectural practice, Recetas Urbanas (Urban Recipes), is the collective process of self-building and bringing people together to work towards a common aim.

From a design point of view, the most important element is function. His constructions are highly practical responses to urgent need and he says aesthetics are not at all important: “People say my buildings are ugly. They say they’re interesting but ugly. But I say, who doesn’t have an ugly friend? Everyone has an ugly friend!”

Ugly or not, they certainly look interesting – none more so than the arana, the spider-shaped structure that marked the site of the self-built circus and arts space La Carpa. But their irregularities are partly a consequence of the way in which they have been constructed, using cheap or entirely free materials that are both durable and easy for anyone to build with.

Many of these materials come through a nationwide network of “collective architects” working all over the country. This was undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of this story, discovering that there are in fact dozens, if not hundreds, of architects across Spain who come together to help a variety of collectives and groups to realise their dreams, all at a time when Spain is in a profound political and economic crisis.

But according to Diego Peris, a fellow architect from Madrid who runs the Todo por la Praxis Studio, they are not trying to find a way out for the government: “What we’re doing here is not a quick-fix for the crisis – this is coming up with a new way of doing things.”