Architects Ibon Bilbao and Josep Bohigas are the main catalysts behind the project ‘Arquitectes de Capçalera’ (Headline Architects) which emerged at the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture (ETSAB) of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. As associate professors at the School’s Department of Architectural Projects with a long track record in projects associated with improving life in urban habitats, Bilbao and Bohigas are enthusiastic advocates of an architectural model that puts a bigger emphasis on people.
Arquitectes de Capçalera emerged as an academic project with the aim of solving problems related to collective living, focusing on the needs of local residents in the same way as general practitioners look after our health. How did the idea of creating Arquitectes de Capçalera come about?
Josep Bohigas: Initially, Arquitectes de Capçalera was an educational project that started in June 2013 at a momentous time at the School when students were taking the initiative to demand a different type of syllabus that more closely addressed a time of profound crisis in the sector. With the course subject “Habitatge i Ciutat” (Housing and the City) we decided to address these demands and get involved in developing a curricular proposal that would put our future architects in closer contact with the general public. Thus at the end of the academic year we created what we call ‘disruptive teaching’ whereby teachers and students voluntarily united to come up with a curriculum that would address the students’ demands.
Ibon Bilbao: As teachers, we were already working on issues related to collective housing and we believed that our disruptive teaching proposal should include this factor; consequently, Arquitectes de Capçalera started off by working on every aspect of the whole relationship between the city and its housing, from the public through to the domestic, from the streets to the bedroom… always using the building as a complex study feature as it is the ultimate exponent of collective living.
So bearing in mind that Arquitectes de Capçalera emerged during a third-year course, might we say that this project filled a gap in the curriculum?
J.B.: Arquitectes de Capçalera arose as a result of a triple gap: without question, a gap in the curriculum, but also to address a gap in society itself in relation to housing, and a professional gap at a time of profound crisis in the practice of architecture as a profession. Based on this triple circumstance, our project tries to place the student, the teacher and the professional in a different scenario in order to re-examine the housing emergency we are currently experiencing.
Your initiative won the Architecture and Urban Planning category of the City of Barcelona Awards 2015 for your action in the Raval neighbourhood. Are deprived areas your primary area of action?
I.B.: Our concern is the people who live in cities. At the Pilot Apartment exhibition, which was intended to stimulate a debate on housing and social needs, we saw that people not only have a right to decent housing but also to a decent city. And a city has a large number of social strata and a lot of problematic issues, which Arquitectes de Capçalera can find a solution for. We started working in the Raval neighbourhood, where we corroborated the existence of more tenuous and disadvantaged social fabrics that call for immediate solutions, where we undertook the role of mediators in the problems of housing and squatters’ buildings.
J.B.: Arquitectes de Capçalera put out an open call to collectives who were experiencing problems to help people understand that, amongst other things, architects are capable of finding a solution to these emergencies. It seems that people don’t realise that architects are trained technically, conceptually and politically to tackle these kinds of problems, and making people aware of this was one of the first basic conditions for our project to work. We wanted to help the people, but we also needed the people to help us to reposition ourselves within the impoverished professional panorama we have been experiencing in recent years.
In the three years that your initiative has been in operation, what is the general response from your students?
I.B.: The students have realised that the issue of collective housing is something they needed to understand. Indeed, so far their level of involvement has been very high, as the way that Arquitectes de Capçalera works is very much on a voluntary basis, founded purely on interest in the project, and I honestly believe that we have found a more direct and rigorous way of identifying the needs of collective living around the city. We believe that with this initiative we are adding parameters that architects were not taking into account previously, which means that our students are working with a much broader spectrum of possibilities and have more information on which to base their decisions.
J.B.: The central focus of the actions of Arquitectes de Capçalera is knowing who to put at the centre of our operations, and in our case it is unarguable that the main protagonist is the end user, which means that the housing project is a project that grows from the basis of close knowledge of local residents. From that starting point, we ascertain what conditions that particular individual uses to build their idea of a neighbourhood and, in the final instance, their idea of a city. In other words, we are developing a process that is the reverse of the usual one, which entailed first imagining the city, its streets, squares, buildings and apartments, and finally the accommodation. At Arquitectes de Capçalera we do it the other way around. We get to know the people and talk to them, on the understanding that their home is built precisely on the basis of that intimacy. An intimacy that enables us to recognise what kind of associations end up building a model of a city. A model that is devised from the inside out.
And how have people responded to the fact that Arquitectes de Capçalera has taken action in their habitat, their intimacy?
I.B.: There have been different responses because we’ve dealt with some very different cases. For example, there is the case of Can Seixanta, a factory/house in which 12 entities were generating a local economy and sociocultural actions for the Raval neighbourhood, which a vulture fund had bought up to build luxury apartments, threatening the disappearance of these entities. We worked with them to publicise their situation, highlight their activities and champion their permanency. We managed to turn the situation around and get the licenses to develop the 38 factory-houses in the Raval district overturned, getting Barcelona City Council to buy Can Seixanta to prevent the disappearance of these businesses. This action was not about an object or a building, but about maintaining and rehabilitating the actions of people.
J.B.: Another thing is intangible assets. As far as I’m concerned, this is amazing material to work with. At the moment you identify, recognise and highlight the activity or most intangible condition of these collectives, what you’re also doing at the end of the day is protecting the building. But from the more personal perspective of their inhabitants, the residents.
I.B.: Another very different example is the squatters’ building on Calle Lancaster, where we have been carrying out a series of micro-projects to offer them a road map to help them take charge of things like the building’s waterproofing, replacement of downpipes, recovery of spaces, ventilation, and so on. Or the case of the senior citizens who live in the Raval district and don’t have any financial problems per se but do have mobility issues and can’t get down to the street because there is no elevator. They are prisoners in their own homes, so what we do is offer solutions for sharing their habitat and improving their accessibility to make their lives easier… each patient has a different disorder, and what we do, with our methodology, is try to treat them with the most appropriate instruments in each case.
J.B.: This is one of the most exciting things about our project. When Arquitectes de Capçalera embarks on an action, a project, a workshop or a course, and when we explain it to our students, we don’t know how it’s going to pan out because every project has its own rationale, its own process. What we do have is a generic methodology that we know how to apply in each case, and we can rely on the goodwill of the students themselves, as our belief is that there can be nobody better than an architectural student to open up doors and generate fellow feeling with the neighbours. This power is what guides the students, authorised by the School’s teachers, and is what ensures that no one project is the same as another.
We’re living in a time when citizen empowerment has started to come into its own, even reaching the corridors of power in cities such as Madrid and Barcelona. Does this scenario facilitate the existence of projects like Arquitectes de Capçalera?
I.B.: Yes, of course. Things are influenced by a great many factors and the convergence of a lot of different circumstances. And it’s obvious that the current circumstances are very propitious for these kinds of projects.
J.B.: (laughs) The fact that BBConstrumat is interviewing us is pretty significant in itself, and is a sign of the times. In this respect, I’m referring to the fact that the current scenario is a reality that had been hidden. For example, the Barcelona, posa’t guapa campaign (Barcelona, make yourself beautiful), what did it achieve? It built visible things, cleaned up façades and designed some of the most sugar-coated public spaces in the world. But what went on behind those façades? Arquitectes de Capçalera wants to put that hidden reality on show as an essential element of the project.
I.B.: And with our new way of doing things, you start realising exactly what is going on at the moment in the city of Barcelona. And one of them is that, witnessing what is going on behind these façades and those windows, you find out who is inhabiting the streets and the neighbourhoods. And we’re finding how the gentrification of districts like Poblenou is quite staggering, and growing at the most incredible rate. And the people who inhabit the streets are the ones who occupy the public space. In this respect, paying attention to who is living at home signifies defining the public space.
J.B.: Because, what is your home? The four walls you’re paying a mortgage for? I would say that your home is something more. It’s also the landing on the stairwell, the entrance lobby, the little square outside, the Metro station. All of that forms part of your home. That’s why we say that everything is housing. For example, the ‘super-block’ project in Barcelona is a massive housing project, as it has upgraded spaces for residents in such a way that it has enlarged their living space, because that public space should be in a direct ratio to their home.
Given your training and experience as architects and as the brains behind Arquitectes de Capçalera, can you tell us how you envisage the city of the future? And what about social housing?
J.B.: The city of the future will be precisely that. What we don’t know is what the future of our citizens will be. This is the big difference: where do you place the emphasis? On the physical part of the city? Will the city change? I don’t think so. What we need to do is change the way we use it. In terms of social housing, I don’t think we need more expansive neighbourhoods. What we do need to do is rethink districts like La Mina and Bellvitge to give them another emphasis, and to do so we need to work with the people who live behind those façades. With this, and by understanding that associations are the most powerful driving force for transformation that we have, you can appreciate that it is the citizens themselves who can demand, participate in and collaboratively produce a different city.
I.B.: Segmentation and ghettoes make absolutely no sense. In cities, you get a balance because there is such a huge mix of situations or housing types, for example. A balance between public and private housing, in harmony, to prevent gentrification. This mix, this balance involving a multitude of agents and ways of living in the same environment, is the solution.
And the future of architects? Of those future architects who are currently your students?
I.B.: With this experience, we are discovering that the field of the architect has grown hugely and in this respect we are proud to say that Arquitectes de Capçalera is a method that facilitates the preparation of projects. Because the right mapping of situations can elicit a demand, a programme that determines the needs of a neighbourhood, of a series of homes, of a community or a public facility. Consequently, pre-planning is a field of work opening up to architects. I believe that architects should be involved at the preliminary phase of a project, as well as during the project itself, as is customary, and during the post-project phase as well, monitoring what has been done to learn more and improve their actions.
J.B.: Talking in professional terms, this pre-planning is the School of Architecture, the place where future professionals are trained. In the 1980s they used to say – which I think was exaggerated – that the Barcelona Higher Technical School of Architecture was the best in the world because it had a very direct relationship with a very specific reality: the reconstruction of Barcelona through the preliminary project for the 1992 Olympic Games and the Games themselves, which gave rise to a very harmonious bond between the School and the actual situation. Nowadays, I think that professors and students are ready to get back on the streets, having abandoned them for a time.
In this respect, what perception do you think your professional colleagues and students have of the methodology used by Arquitectes de Capçalera?
J.B.: In all honesty, I think that what we’re doing is unarguably obvious. We’re not the first people to want to create architecture more closely geared towards our citizens. There have been many architects who have done so long before us. We might have turned things round and put a particular emphasis on it, yes, but along the same lines that have been put forward by many other professionals.
I.B.: At Arquitectes de Capçalera we have the tools to get things going, but the result is unpredictable. We’re taking it step by step. At every turn, we take decisions that determine the next step. Consequently, we and our students are training ourselves to take decisions based on certain information and determining what is a priority and what is secondary. We have a series of conditioning factors such as resources and time, but above all the factor of the individual who is waiting for someone to provide a solution. And this is very important.
Finally, in May 2017 the twentieth edition of Barcelona Building Construmat will be held. What are your views of Fira de Barcelona’s International Building Exhibition?
I.B.: In this sector, all of us have had something to do with the show in one way or another. I think the direction it is heading in now is absolutely the right one, and for us it is a great opportunity to show the professional world what we’re doing, as we will be taking part with some presentations.
J.B.: I’m a loyal follower of the show and it even got to the stage when I was a passionate advocate of it… In 2005, with the APTM project at Construmat (the controversial 30 square metre mini-flats), we were already forewarning people about the crisis, about the lack of rental housing available, the limited types of accommodation, and about obsolete construction systems… We were able to put that discourse on the table thanks to BBConstrumat. And the truth is that at that time the show could not ignore the toughest aspect of the construction industry but also had to generate debate and new paradigms. This is something it mustn’t lose. The show needs to demonstrate to a sector which is desperate to build better habitats that this can often be achieved without the need to actually build.
Eduard Pérez Moya
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