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Global Architecture Platform

Complicity and Contradictions
(in Architecture)

by Fabrizio Gallanti

The 24 of April 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed due a structural failure, killing 1,134 workers.
The 14 June 2017, a fire erupted in the Grenfell Tower, a residential block in North Kensington, London, UK, resulting in 72 deaths, 70 other persons injured and 223 homeless.
The 14 of August 2018, 210 meters of the highway bridge Morandi in Genova, Italy, crumpled, killing 43 people and injuring 9.
The 4 August 2020, the ignition of 2,700 ton of ammonium nitrate, stored in a warehouse in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, caused an explosion that has damaged half of the city, leaving 300,000 persons homeless, with 220 confirmed fatalities and 5,000 persons injured.

These disasters have caught the attention of the international public opinion for their magnitude, but also for a conspicuous degree of spectacle, often vehiculated via infinite streams of digital media. They are just some of a continuous sequence of occurrences where it can be said that the buildings and infrastructures have provoked destruction. With the exception of the blast in Beirut, where the main cause was the careless storage of highly explosive material, in the cases of Dhaka, London and Genova, it was the condition itself of the construction and its decay to become fatal. If we were to shy away from these damning milestones, and instead devote our time to register minor occurrences, where citizens are maimed or seriously hurt because of failures in buildings and infrastructure, we would have to establish a dark and almost unbearable record of quotidian incidents. Minor earthquakes or landslides that in some places are easily resisted, become mortal in other contexts were seismic regulations or hazard zoning are either weak or not properly enforced. The effects of heavy rains, storms, and tornadoes are exacerbated by the fragility of the buildings that are hit or the inadequacy of the measures taken against them, such as the levees in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina in 2005. Unsanitary conditions of dwellings and places of work are the primary sources of chronic diseases.

The collapse of ageing residential compounds has become a frequent feature, as it happened the 5th of November 2018 in Marseille, where two old blocks were reduced to dust in a few seconds, leaving 8 persons dead. Only in that city, in a wealthy country that is a proud founder of the G8, it is calculated that 100,000 citizens inhabit dwellings below standard, and in the days following the disaster, 4500 were evacuated from 578 buildings in the adjacent areas all of a sudden declared as “dangerous”.

Adding to that already grim set of data, the uncessant toll of workers who die or are seriously injured on the construction sites across the world, day after day after day, further corroborates a disconcerting impression: architecture kills.

Of course, historically, it has never been one of the objectives of architects to generate damage, all the contrary, the ethics that has been since centuries imbued within education and practice proposes exactly the opposite that architecture aims to provide shelter and protection for humans. We can also let ourselves slip into interminable games of semantics, exploring the chasm of architecture as a discipline or a practice, differences between architecture and building, the objective fact that the collapse of a singular building cannot be elevated as a generalization. We can identify responsibilities that need to be properly attributed to a multiplicity of culprits, not just designers, but also developers, engineers, administrators and landlords, consultants, and numerous public bodies that failed in their regulatory roles and oversight. But we cannot avoid to notice a quite general blanket of silence around such matters, a silence, even if pierced by occasional and singular voices, that makes architects, either as individuals or as organized collective bodies, complicit with that same system that allows such events to happen over and over (1).

What I hope for architects to become in the future are two things. The first is to develop a wider awareness of our function within the current capitalist system, regaining the deeper conscience that was much more frequent in the heydays of Modernism. The second, because of a heightened knowledge, to act from much more political positions, seeking to what degree it is possible to oppose resistance. How could we again become “militant architects”? And also, what should we be militating for? It is it crucial to understand whether and how it might become possible to conceive collective actions: when Giancarlo De Carlo was addressed by general categorization regarding “architects”, he was quick to dismiss such assumptions, explaining how there was not such a thing as a cohesive cohort of “architects”. There were right-wing bourgeois designers far from his own anarchist ideological positions. There were architects in it just for the money and prestige and others seeking equality and access to basic rights, such as housing.

Since 1989, the fall of state communism and the definitive affirmation of neoliberal deregulations have caused the drying of public resources and the concomitant surge of the private sector

The indifference within architectural discourse about the conditions of life of billions of people that become manifest when the incidents mentioned above occur, can be read as a comfortable retreat where architects have slowly found themselves cornered, not completely innocent. Since 1989, the fall of state communism in Eastern Europe and the definitive affirmation of neoliberal deregulations implemented by the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, have caused the drying of public resources and the concomitant surge of the private sector. Architects, either as civil servants in public administrations or as private practitioners, have seen the pool of their work change drastically: gone are the vast social housing complexes, public schools and hospitals, or spacious libraries and civic centres, that various welfare-state structures across the world demanded from them during decades. Instead a new palette of commissions has acquired prominence: museums and galleries, subsumed to either the logics of commerce and tax-abatement philanthropy when private, or inscribed within “urban marketing” when unfrequently public; stations and airports to accompany the accelerated cosmopolitan circulation of capital; and a novel roster of residential opportunities, closely determined in accordance with real estate developers constitute the majority of the working opportunities. It is normal now to have designers flock a real fair such as the MIPIM in Cannes, a prospect that would have horrified any respectable architect only twenty years ago.

It is worth to briefly dwell on the selection that media, whether architectural magazines or online, currently favour: oddly, the vast majority is composed of single-family houses, fabulous renovations in the city or beautiful second homes against luscious landscapes. Sometimes, as if the editors were hit by a backlash of conscience, a bottom-up DIY initiative in a favela in South America or a tiny and inevitably austere school in Africa land on the same pages where one can find homes for the 1%, offered to the readers as the only possible locus of architectural experimentation.

Architecture is experiencing a major set of contradictions where generic good intentions are often uttered and even visually represented (sustainability, resilience, social justice, equality are terms to be often found in schools, competition entries and sales-pitches), while, instead the profound structures of power and oppression are still in place, and we just provide them a lovely coating of style.

If we cultivate any illusion about where the majority of us stand or aspire to be, let’s just remember the scoff with which the late Zaha Hadid liquidated the concept that she should have been responsible for the well-being of construction workers in Qatar or the uneasy grin on the face of Bjarke Ingels when photographed with Jair Bolsonaro, a meeting that he probably might have preferred not to be revealed.

Yet, the current pandemic has made many aware of the collective exposure of all of us to the violence of capital: we can all be left to be killed by the virus if that is what economists tell is a risk worth taking for the sake of finance. The revelation of the substantial impossibility for advanced capitalism and democracy, if not just life, to coexist is what the disasters here mentioned had not achieved: we won’t go back to any “normality” that was horrible anyway.

I am optimist that a novel generation of architects will assess what role the discipline can play for society. Architects to which the well-being of many, the safety of everyone and the provision of fundamental services will be non-negotiable conditions for their practice

I am optimist that a novel generation of architects will glide far away from the models of the Hadid or the Ingels of the past. Architects who will read Sergio Ferro’s essays about how architects cooperate in the oppression of workers, will be exposed during their education to economics and political history and sociology to assess what role the discipline has played and can play for society. There will be architects that revive the same sense of urgency and desire for implementation of the lives of the masses of early modernists such as Ernst May or Hannes Meyer. Architects curious to truly learn from others like Lina Bo Bardi. Architects to which the well-being of many, the safety of everyone and the provision of fundamental services will be non-negotiable conditions for their practice. Architects capable of moving within collective entities and therefore having a far wider capacity of political pressure, rather than being caught in permanent competition against each other, looking for instance at the Syndicat d’Architecture, founded in France in 1976. Architects that will collaborate to trans-disciplinary actions at the service of citizens, as it happened with the SAAL brigades in Portugal, just after the return to democracy. Architects not at the service of corrupted elites, crony oligarchs, authoritarian regimes, financial bros, and rapacious corporations. Architects who will raise their voices and be heard when the next Grenfell will happen. Architects who will say no to certain professional prospects, whether an eco-sustainable resort in the middle of a national park or the fancy renovation that would play into processes of gentrification.

Architects that will declare themselves communists or socialists or anarchists or social democrats. Architects that will act as communists, socialists, anarchists, or social democrats.

Hopefully there will be revolution, and architects will be part of it.


Anna Heringer’s installation at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, Biennale di Venezia in 2018, tangentially addressed the Dhaka tragedy. Forensic Architecture was involved in the early phases of the investigation around the Greenfell Tower fire. Since, the fire, the RIBA has been monitoring the upgrading of the regulations for building in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, besides the occasional op-ed published on some newspapers, there seem to be very scarce actions taken with regards to similar events.

17.Sep.2020 2817 views
Fabrizio Gallanti Fabrizio Gallanti

Fabrizio Gallanti is a curator and architect with experience in architectural design, education, publications and exhibitions. He is the director of arc en rêve – centre d’architecture, in Bordeaux. He holds a PhD in architectural design from the Politecnico di Torino (2001) and a M.Arch from the University of Genoa (1995). He was the first Senior Mellon Fellow at Princeton University in 2014. Since 2014 he is a visiting professor at the Architectural Association, London within the Master in History and Critical Thinking. In 2003, together with Francisca Insulza, Gallanti founded the Montréal-based architectural research studio FIG Projects (2003-present), which curated international exhibitions, such as “The World in our Eyes” for the 2016 Lisbon Architecture Triennale and edited journals such as Harvard Design Magazine “No Sweat’ in 2018.

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

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