Anarchitecture

Lebbeus Woods, Quake City, 1995

This month, I’ve started a new 2-year research project exploring self-built structures of all kinds. Like the architect and theorist Lebbeus Woods, I’m calling this ‘anarchitecture’ – a meld of architecture and anarchism – meaning autonomous building broadly conceived, with or without an explicit political agenda. Here’s a brief outline of the project:

Squatter’s camp on the camp on the abandoned Petite Ceinture train tracks in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. The camp was demolished in 2016.

According to the UN Urban Observatory, by 2020, up to 50% of the total population living in cities across the world will be housed in informal settlements – self-built cities of breeze-blocks, crude brick, straw, mud, recycled plastic, and scrap wood. The overwhelming majority of these shanty cities will be in the developing Global South; yet, as already demonstrated in the Calais ‘Jungle’ and a more recent squatter camp that existed for a time in the 18th arrondissement in Paris, informal settlements are also being built in Western cities, as migrants are increasingly marginalised and forced to build homes for themselves. Even as they reveal the collapse of state provision in the age of neoliberal capitalism, informal communities directly challenge the idea that cities should be built according to rules and regulations stipulated by planners and architects; instead they show how cities can be constructed from the bottom up – an architecture without architects: an anarchitecture.  

Clarence Schmidt’s ‘House of Mirrors’ in Woodstock, New York, which was destroyed by fire in 1968
Joseph Pujiula i Vila’s ‘Wild Village’ in Argelaguer, Spain

My research will explore how urban design might be enriched through an engagement with a wide variety of self-built structures in both speculative visions and real-life practices. As far as resources and time allow, I will visit and document these structures, building an online visual database of projects which will lead to a related book and exhibition. The intention is to cover five principal themes – speculation, expression, ecology, liberty, and politics. Respective examples from each theme will include: the floating architectures imagined in China Miéville’s novel The Scar and salvage-based constructions in Lebbeus Woods’ drawings (speculation); Clarence Schmidt’s ‘House of Mirrors’ in Woodstock, New York and Joseph Pujiula i Vila’s ‘Wild Village’ in Argelaguer, Spain (expression); eco-communities such as Grow Heathrow, Lammas and Landmatters (ecology); temporary structures built for the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada and small-scale-builds such as treehouses and sheds (liberty); and radical practices of urban occupation, such as squatting communities in Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and the art of Thomas Hirschhorn and Theaster Gates (politics).

One of the many self-built homes on the Grow Heathrow site, which was first occupied in 2010
The Piano Raft, built by Ben Cummins and nominated as ‘Shed of the Year’ in 2018

The project will explore how informal architecture, broadly conceived in these ways as anarchitecture, might be brought to bear on current modes of planning and building in cities, ones that are, at least in the West, top-down practices dominated by a panoply of constrictions. Although the project cannot hope to be encyclopaedic in its coverage, it will nevertheless bring together a wide range of projects and practices – imagined and real, libertarian and collective, aesthetic and banal, and privileged and disadvantaged. I want to foster connections between starkly differing modes of autonomous building in order to enlarge the idea of ‘self-build’, so that its full variety might be brought to bear on current building practices in cities. In a world dominated by ever-dire threats to urban life, whether climate change, overpopulation, environmental degradation or increasing social division, anarchitecture can promote richer forms of expression in building, more sustainable ways of making, more meaningful and direct forms of participation, and more socially-just ways of living in cities. Anarchitecture makes us all responsible for the creation of the built environment, a move that can only be enriching for our buildings and cities of the future.  

Self-built homes in Christiania, an autonomous district of Copenhagen since 1971
Thomas Hirschhorn’s participatory artwork ‘The Gramsci Monument’, New York, 2013

I’m going to be spending the next couple of years visiting as many projects as I can as well as contacting anarchitects themselves, to ask for their own stories of self-building. Please do get in touch with me if you’re involved in a self-building project or if you know someone who is. I’d be most grateful!

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