Photo by Cati Bestard.
Architect and co-founder of the MAIO architecture firm, she is a member of the Habitar research group at UPC Barcelona’s Higher Technical School of Architecture. Her doctoral research was focussed on kitchen-less apartments in New York, and it was this subject that won her Harvard’s prestigious Wheelwright Prize in 2016. She was part of the management team at the journal Quaderns and her work has been published in a number of journals, winning several awards.
Your work is based on the conviction that architecture has the power to effect social transformation. Do you think we are achieving that goal at a global level?
Anna Puigjaner: It’s a constant challenge. It’s important to continue reiterating this theme so that we never rest on our laurels. There must always be critics, thinkers who remind us of the social role of the architect so as not to lose momentum, as it’s something that needs fuelling. It’s all about constant transformation which is even more necessary in a period of crisis. It’s true, however, that there have been periods when society has not been at the centre of architectural discourse, but now I think everybody agrees it is absolutely central which, of course, is where it should be. I’m convinced that these days there is more awareness, which doesn’t necessarily mean there is an immediate impact in practical terms, but at least they are issues continuously up for discussion and that are important to people. Later on, transforming reality is more complicated because changes need more time. Without theorising, however, nothing will ever get put into practice.
You have said repeatedly that social needs change at an incredible pace. Apart from problems related with access to housing, what do you see as the most pressing needs or requirements in relation to housing?
A.P.: I think we need to work on producing a change in mentality and begin to appreciate that the quality of housing is not so much related to its size in square metres but rather to the services it offers. When a property is for sale, people always talk about its surface area but virtually never about the things that could improve everyday life such as the proximity of a school or market. We must start thinking about housing from this perspective which means placing value on the property’s ability to meet our everyday needs and that furthermore adapts to our changing lifestyle requirements. This means that I might need a bigger place to live in at one stage of life and a smaller one during another period. Therefore, how come these structures don’t have the capacity to be made smaller when we find ourselves with too much space? This brings in many other topics ranging from sustainability (housing must consume the energy it requires and no more) through to living standards.
Other concepts that I believe are important for your system of working are: deregulation and joint responsibility. Why?
A.P.: It’s true that decades ago we spoke about citizen engagement with projects, especially urban ones, and in the running of the city itself, but now we have to go a little further. It’s all about designing both urban and domestic infrastructures in which citizens are permanently involved. And not just in the process of the project but rather by finding some way of taking responsibility for that equipping, not confining ourselves to the limits of our home, the property, but instead reaching out to the street and the city. I often use an example from the life experience of my grandmother. She used to sweep the street while I call the city council to come and clean it if it’s very dirty. I’m not suggesting that we all get together to sweep the streets! What I am saying is that somehow there should be a better appropriation of our closest surroundings. A few years ago, at MAIO, we designed a square in the neighbourhood of Vallcarca in Barcelona which was looking for precisely that. Once we finished it became a very controversial space in that, to an extent, it was a new vision of urban planning. Instead of delivering a finished space we designed an unfinished one in which what we were looking for was active citizen participation to continue defining what the square should be. The participations also implied being aware of the cost of things: How much does a bench cost? What kind are they? This awareness of what lies behind each choice implies a broader appropriation of the space. After a while, the square began functioning without us. The City Council add features as and when the neighbours ask for them and there is a budget for them. We believe this to be a more active form of participation. In any case, these processes are never intended to deny the importance of the technician. The most important thing is to fulfil our collective constructive abilities with regard to public spaces.
Your thesis indicates that you are interested in reflecting on the topic of housing…
A.P.: It all started when I read a book by Xavier Monteys and Pedro Fuertes at the end of my degree course called Casa Collage. I had been taught to understand housing in a very different way, as a composition of volumes or the good layout of a floor plan; but suddenly here they were talking about the use it is put to and mixing in concepts about the city. That’s when I understood that home and city are not two different environments, and that classifications into categories appropriate for the 20th were not so clear. With 21st century frontiers being so much more diffuse, I found that to be a much more interesting way for me to approach housing, and that’s why I began working in this area, to explore its capacity for transforming the city.
At that time, you first looked back to analyse the North American model of apartment blocks with communal domestic services in New York at the end of the 19th century. What attracted you to those examples?
A.P.: Those American buildings had a great many similarities with types of dwellings in the Soviet era. I was very attracted to seeing how such similar layouts could be produced by such different political systems. Surprisingly, collective domestic spaces such as kitchens and bathrooms had always been more associated with socialists or communists. But they also existed in societies that were clearly capitalist. I found this to be fascinating and thought it interesting to give more visibility to this period of history to make us realise that collectivity in a domestic setting is a sociocultural construction and, as such, can appear under different ideological umbrellas.
And so here we get to the concept you developed for your award-winning work at Harvard, the kitchen-less home. Why do they say that it’s a provocative idea full of symbolism?
A.P.: One of the rooms that, in general, nobody wants to forego is the kitchen, largely because there are some emotional values attached to it. I use the kitchen as a provocative element because I’m interested in questioning society as a whole and not just architects. Social changes are never achieved for just one reason or through the actions of a sole discipline or economic power but rather they are always the sum of a number of different elements. No matter how hard architects attempt to change types of dwellings, unless there is a greater change in society then there is no real transformation. That’s why I used the kitchen as a provocative element so that people would read about these topics. And it works! People get angry, read and ponder. It is a provocative designed to start a dialogue, and just beginning one is already a way of raising awareness that may end up with a communal kitchen or whatever other option, but at least it is a driving force for change.
In any case, it is a concept facing huge obstacles, because these days the kitchen is a much revalued space with TV programmes, books, social networks, etc.
A.P.: We now think that cooking for ourselves is healthier than eating out in that we control the ingredients. Conversely, in the 19th century it was considered much healthier to be cooked for by a professional chef, as they were trained to be better than you at choosing the best ingredients. What interests me is to understand how our values change with respect to housing, in the knowledge that the social and economic context also changes these values. They change our values and therefore also change our homes, not from a physical but from a conceptual point of view. It’s more the change in mentality than in the physical shapes that surround us.
The peculiarities of each country or each society can play a crucial role in these changes. How do they influence the situation in Spain?
A.P.: Changes are always progressive and never happen from one day to the next. On the subject of collectivisation, what we are or are not willing to share has always been closely connected to our needs. We accept sharing that which improves our everyday lives. Apart from the political cliché of associating collectivism with socialist or communist systems, there is also an economic cliché: those without money don’t mind sharing. That is totally untrue. I always give the example of car-sharing. It would be unthinkable for my parents to share a car, while I can’t stand the thought of owning one for many reasons that go well beyond economic ones. Our values keep changing and the same thing happens with the issue of the kitchen. Some typologies on the rise in Switzerland, for example, are based on the type of cooperativism where you can find both an individual and a collective kitchen. This indicates that collectivity should not negate individuality. It is a progressive change in mentality that I believe in.
And what does Harvard expect from your work over these two years?
A.P.: I have worked for several years covering these issues as part of the Habitar research group of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. It would be very simplistic to say that I only do research into collective kitchens. In general, I see the home as a system comprising a series of pieces that is also variable and which depends not only on the space but also on a series of intangible factors that lend it value. The collective kitchen could be one of those services. And this way of understanding the home also enables me to understand the city and ends up defining an architectural method: systemic, without being closed, that facilitates change as years go by and that enables it to be adapted according to my needs. And that could be applied in the same way to a home as to a hospital, for example. It isn’t necessary to construct new buildings to demonstrate the validity of these new concepts; we can apply them to pre-existing ones. Architecture goes much further than the purely physical. It is simply an organisational system that affects space but also ideas. Now, the award from Harvard enables me to travel to visit similar models worldwide.
Where will you go to find the most interesting models of the collectivization of services in housing?
A.P.: Switzerland is exemplary because participative systems are very well established, as is the concept of the home as an aggregation and disaggregation of pieces. Japan is very interesting because it is faced with a very pronounced aging population and they are trying to alleviate the situation with collective elements in housing. What’s curious is that the model is proving successful for both older and younger people alike. At a city level there are programmes in Canada, introduced two decades ago, to consolidate the model of collective kitchens for the neighbourhood. There are also more recent programmes such as in Mexico City, aimed at the middle class, which is now the one most affected by the economic crisis. This group should be included in housing policies as it represents a very large segment of the population for which the crisis has had a serious impact.
And what role should technology play in all this reformulation of housing?
A.P.: It’s very important, because everything that is collective in terms of the home is made much easier by the internet. Suddenly, we don’t throw things away, but rather sell them or give them away via the internet. Reusing domestic objects has become an everyday habit and there may be many more habits like that with a direct repercussion on the way we live in our homes and that could be successful thanks to the ease of connecting to the internet. And I’m not talking so much about automated domestic appliances used in the home, but rather how we can use automation and other digital systems to improve collective efficiency.
Up until now, have architects been sufficiently concerned about the use of the spaces they create?
A.P.: There’s no doubt that the focus of architecture has always been on the user. What has happened is that there have been periods during which the social factor has been given more importance than in others.
Are you currently working on any projects where the concepts we’ve been talking about are being applied?
A.P.: We completed a residential block in the Ensanche area of Barcelona that was a finalist for the FAD Awards to Architecture. We are especially satisfied because in some way it represents putting our research into practice. It’s a housing block made up of pretty much regularly shaped rooms, any of which can be used for any purpose whatsoever. That means that the shape of the room doesn’t dictate whether it should be a lounge or a bedroom; even the kitchen could be placed in any of the rooms! The great benefit of the system is that these rooms can interconnect with each other so that homes can grow or reduce in size according to the needs of its inhabitants. For the moment it is split into 22 homes but it could have many more or many fewer, which also implies flexibility in rental formats, for example. Just by having the potential to make these changes and to have this flexibility is an added value that not all housing has. It offers great versatility within the same building, enabling a better adaptation to different social realities. We have gone through a period in which most housing was defined by a hierarchical structure corresponding to a typical family comprising a father, mother and children: a large sitting room, the biggest bedroom for the parents and the smallest ones for the children and so on. Conversely, the social percentage that fits this family model is no longer in the majority. We must start to take a broader view of housing, although it is we ourselves who are the first people that need to change.