Impressions of Archipelago: Architectures for the Multiverse
A selection of new ideas to build differently
Renewing architecture and its paradigms for a future full of unknowns, in a multiple and archipelagic world, subject to the depletion of resources and the challenge of climate change; such was the ambition of Archipelago, an event jointly organised by HEAD – Genève and HEPIA. Dozens of international practitioners and theoreticians took part in meetings that were broadcast in livestream from the HEAD Cube auditorium, transformed into a television studio for the occasion. This article looks back at a selection of scenarios evoking a radical change of the discipline of architecture, including that of ceasing to build.
I. After Archipelago – a Reflection
The Archipelago broadcast sought to expose and connect urgent topics embedded in the disciplines of architecture, landscape, and interior architecture and discuss their resonances within the urban context of Geneva and within global narratives. We began with a conversation that set the table for the days to come by examining the processes of institution-building, pedagogy, and public engagement. Then, we continued with a charge to challenge and rewrite hegemonic narratives and by doing so, find new disciplinary centerpoints. The program concluded with paths forward: we received insights on how architects, landscape architects, and interior architects might reimagine a collective practice. Alongside the broadcast, Archipelago was further enriched by in-person and virtual workshops, which allowed participants in Geneva and all over the world to partake in a parallel exploration of themes that were central to the event.
Throughout these conversations, we heard repeatedly the need to embrace a multitude of viewpoints in order to begin addressing the complex issues of the present. This involves an examination of the voices with our fields that have traditionally dominated practice and to some degree, our collective imagination. This examination also encompasses our dominant modes of practice and asks us to enable a more generous understanding of what creative citizenship could be. We saw possibilities presented through work that takes the form of activism, platform-making, writing, exhibiting, sharing (from work spaces to microbes), repairing and so much more. We also began to understand the frictions that become apparent when we pursue these alternatives.
Such discussions affirm the political impact of our disciplines and our institutions. From the beginning, Archipelago was imagined as a space to allow questions asked in the moment to develop into more expansive, sustained inquiries. Part of this means curricular change at HEAD and HEPIA. We continue to push Archipelago as an intellectual basis for a new set of priorities and debates to arise within each school.
At another level, we hope that Archipelago could fulfill its mandate to connect practitioners at disciplinary margins, each working within drastically different contexts, for a generative, albeit brief, exchange that can continue beyond the event.
The archipelago is a geography with many centers. All along, we’ve used this as a metaphor, an image to guide our thinking, as inspiration for our small cluster of islands on set. As with the scenography, composed of raw materials ‘borrowed’ for the broadcast and now embedded somewhere else in Geneva, the intellectual discoveries of this event will go beyond their temporary home on the HEAD campus. We are excited to see where they end up.
Our broadcast concluded on May 8th. Since then, with enough time to revisit and reflect upon the myriad insights shared over three days of conversation, we have been busy at work to continue the Archipelago project.
Whatever form it takes – a transcript, a book, a program of studio visits, maybe other workshops – this next step would not be possible without the 83 people who participated during the event, the 40 students who shared their exciting work as part of our Open Call, our many advisors, our invisible audience watching from home, the production crew and support staff who realized the event, the scenography team, the students and staff from HEPIA and HEAD whose enthusiasm and dedication guided this project from the very beginning – an immense thank-you to you all.
Edward Wang, Vera Sacchetti and The Archipelago Team
II. Problems After No Construction1
The generation split was a problem. Almost everyone alive had grown up in a world that believed new things were better. Some people even enjoyed opening boxes and removing packaging, and many more people enjoyed watching them. These were real pleasures. Who were we to say that they were wrong? They didn’t believe us when we said sorry, we can’t build anymore. For them, this meant that we had failed.
It would take at least one generation to disgrace shipping boxes and plastic wrap, pallets of plywood and bags of cement that sacrificed people and land to be produced. So now we were reluctantly in the horror-production business, and we organized many school trips to the wastelands. We began rehabilitating the wreckers, scavengers, and rag pickers—raising up to the status of Masters those who made a living stealing copper pipe—while international delegations sailed to global centers for reclamation, a nice word for picking through rich people’s trash.
Lev Bratishenko: I’d started a text imagining what new problems might emerge if we stopped building, and then I heard about your program, so here we are. Thank you for talking with me. How did you get started on Stop Building2?
Charlotte Malterre-Barthes: I think the idea of a moratorium on construction is in the zeitgeist, and Lacaton & Vassal’s Pritzker Prize points to that. I’ve been working on bridging the gap between design decisions and their material consequences, and how to confront the racial, social, and environmental damage that comes intrinsically with using resources. Building is a choice of destruction, basically.
But, to me, it remains a bit of a boutique conversation. It has reached academia—it has reached us—but it hasn’t reached the office where the dudes say, “You are only an architect if you build.” So, it is also about deconstructing figures. I feel like it’s time to face our responsibilities. The idea of the moratorium is also coming from Bruno Latour’s text3 published in March of last year: Latour argued it was a good time to stop and look. But what actually never stopped were the construction sites.
L.B.: If the moratorium kills something in architecture practice, it makes us ask: what if this is something that needed to die? But, personally, one of the most interesting things to think through was that if a moratorium did happen, it shouldn’t happen the same way everywhere. Let’s say in the global North—an imprecise term—suddenly all the architects can no longer build anything new and must shift to a renovation or maintenance practice, and in the South, because of its much lower carbon debt, traditional building continues for a while—what shifts in the global discourse?
C.M.B.: I think this is a very important question. What and where should construction stop? In Egypt, for example, there is already a moratorium on construction, on everything, except in the new capital—possibly the last thing that is necessary to build. The so-called “informal” that Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker (CLUSTER) research in Cairo, is built out of housing need. In the desert, villas bought by wealthy classes are and will remain vacant because they are used as securities as there is little trust in financial institutions. This interrogates the myth of housing shortages. There is an existing stock which is not totally occupied. One aspect is vacancy, and the other is justice: so many new housing units do not go to the people who actually need them. So, I think there are gradients even within this assumption that all countries need to construct more.
Three hundred million construction workers in the world were now needed as teachers. Maintenance became a priority, and in many situations it was ‘the’ priority. Careful, surgical demolition work shot up in prestige (“Beautiful hole, Jimmy.”) as overqualified engineers applied en masse for new positions. Suddenly, Disassembly Architects were everywhere and many of them were fraudulent, but with raw materials now at impossible prices, even a badly-demolished building was extremely valuable for its parts. Rotor won the next Pritzker and many people complained. The prize came with the right to remove twenty five percent of the Brussels Hilton and that made Rotor very rich.
Once the shock wore off and people stopped panicking, we realized that the pace of change had shifted. Almost every building was enmeshed in claims, sneakily perforated by material miners, and still supporting inhabitants who had to keep the peace through constant negotiation. Ownership would have been a big problem if we had left the records intact.
C.M.B.: In Jane Mah Hutton’s book4, there is a chapter on the High Line where she discusses the use of Ipe woods for the benches, which Diller Scofidio + Renfro specified for the first phase. An NGO pointed out that this wood is not sustainable—actually no wood is sustainable—so for the second phase they used boardwalk planks from piers in New York that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. And I want to ask: ‘Well, why didn’t we as designers come up with that in the first place?’
L.B.: It’s clientelism, right? A question of avoiding responsibility. There are these situations where conditions are clearly external and then somehow, because of pressure, it becomes possible to think in another way. But what I think is powerful about the moratorium provocation is the idea of imposing conditions that maybe seem arbitrary, as arbitrary as a hurricane, but we choose them because we believe in them.
Construction did not end everywhere in the same way or at the same time. Like decarbonization, the restrictions were determined by local levels of excess. Inequalities inside countries had to be taken into account. The calculations were very complex and many mistakes were made, and then everything had to percolate from the smallest units of polity all the way up to the international level. Endless debates. A total mess, obviously. But what had come before was also a mess and the new mess had better morals, so we stuck with it.
L.B.: I admire Lacaton & Vassal’s work and I agree with you that their Pritzker is a sign of the times. But they have a very clean aesthetic, and you could see it as an intermediate step towards new values of limited intervention or non-intervention. But if you didn’t know anything about their practice and you just looked at Grand Parc, you might think it’s an ordinary new building.
C.M.B.: It’s not trash, you mean? I want to provoke you a little bit, because I think that there is an assumption that architecture that is positioned in a humanist or, let’s say, politicized side of the spectrum, is necessarily ugly, right? There is an attitude that those designers who do that kind of work are not the best designers. And on the other side you have Peter Märkli and Zumthor, these boutique architects that do beautiful things, happily pouring concrete. With Lacaton & Vassal, I don’t know how things are going to look like in twenty years, let’s be fair, but Tour Bois-le-Prêtre is very beautiful. The materials that they use, even if they are affordable and familiar and so forth, still look good. So maybe there is an in-between aesthetic.
L.B.: Exactly, you could say they are exemplary because they are not upsetting the conventional sensibility that humanist work can seem ugly. They’re gently leading the way. It makes me wonder if we need a more obvious aesthetic of repair and reuse.
C.M.B.: I think you’re touching on what’s at the core of the moratorium discussion—it works as a discursive Trojan horse that provokes questions around newness versus maintenance. These topics displace the conversation onto the terrain of political systems. It is more valuable for a politician in a functioning or semi-functioning democracy to announce something new: a new pyramid, a new airport, the wall. They’re one-off, spectacular projects. You can’t announce, ‘From now on we’re going to maintain all the toilets in the city; we won’t replace them in the next fifty years,’ and expect the people to clap.
So, it is about questioning the functions within our democracies that allow us to wrongly celebrate newness. How do we shift that value system, right?
L.B.: David Graeber, in his book5 about debt, writes about how Babylonian kings would announce a debt jubilee when they took power. They wiped the slates clean. And how this was ambiguously both a responsibility of the king and a way to get public support and build a legacy.
But talking about newness, I think there is an emotional aspect to shifting values. Coming from the Soviet Union as a child, and having my grandparents very close my whole life, has meant being in contact with a generation that has a very different attitude to buying new things. It’s meant using objects like a camera that my grandfather’s been fixing since he was fifteen years old, or little things around the house that we’ve been fixing together for decades. And you have a different relationship to these kinds of objects. They take on an emotional charge through your repair of them. Perversely, I think that the closest thing we have to that today is the note slipped into the box in the factory saying ‘I’m a prisoner here, please help me.’
And I think there’s a parallel to the material implications of design decisions that you talked about at the beginning. Our material relationships are completely obfuscated by capitalist processes. We need to recover our relations to the sacrificial landscapes and sacrificial people behind newness, and to feel sadness and horror.
C.M.B.: Yeah, that’s one kind of terrible violence that this topic brings to the fore. It is also present in another form, in the disdain towards care work that sustains our entire system. If you can’t build new, you better take care of what you already have. And I think there has been a shift of attention recently, or maybe just a temporary spotlight, on the care workers that were out there when everyone was at home, those that are the least paid and the most devalued.
L.B.: Here, the negativity of your provocation appeals to me. Because we’re seeing care appear in so many projects, as a title word in many exhibitions and things like that. And it’s great—it’s reflecting a questioning of values. But it’s mostly presented as additive, as simply something that we need to do more of. Really, in order to care you have to give up some other things.
C.M.B.: That’s the problem of ‘care’: it’s too nice. That’s why we have to stop doing what we do now before care can be re-centered. Schools could be much more radical by not teaching students only how to build, something I think is already happening in many ways. But then the architecture office remains the lackey of the real estate industry which is basically destroying everything. I think power has to be shifted to allow for things such as designing maintenance protocols—which of course, may sound very unexciting. But this doesn’t have to be: if the project is about reinventing how to live in a house if it’s about putting double the amount of people in one house—that is already a serious design test.
On top of that, how do you design for the durability of human relations plus the durability of spaces, or even the cohabitation with other organisms? I think these questions are in the air and I wouldn’t claim any kind of originality. But for me, it is urgent and I guess your text comes to the same conclusion.
Let’s say it’s about negating powerlessness.
The new scarcity was compounded by our hypersensitivity to energy use, for obvious reasons, but retrofitting and disassembly were energy-intensive. People calling themselves Ants and specializing in disassembly needed power tools to do their work, though the more experienced ones could do a lot by hand. And even the most efficient industrial disassembly systems required heavy machinery, heat, solvents, and exotic applications of physics to liquify buildings into raw materials. These advanced techniques were debated. Many people saw them as counter-productive, and so they became illegal in most countries. Except in Russia and the U.S., where they would persist for generations, sustaining cadaverous vestiges of the old world.
Decentralized and limited electricity was a hidden blessing: it made dominating others harder. It meant that most of the work had to the done by hand, slowly, in shifts, by people who came to know one another closely. We were like insects contentedly eating away at a wall and at the myth of the “self-made” person. And eventually we would be able to build again—once we figured out how to do so without harm.
III. Archipelago’s scenography: Borrowers
The scenography—the Archipelago broadcast’s physical home—began as a series of interdisciplinary studios for students at HEAD and HEPIA that straddled the borders between interior design, landscape, and architectural installation. Back then, in late 2019, Archipelago was still imagined as an in-person event, with its conversations framed by a series of constructions dotting Geneva’s waterfront. All designs for the scenography germinated as student work: one studio began by identifying sites in Geneva that could best engage the public and amplify the thematic of each conversation; another explored raw materials and wondered how Archipelago’s parts could be reused or recycled after the fact. This was a fundamental and shared aspect of Fuller, Legros, and Proux’s teaching methodology within each studio: that students dive headfirst into making at full scale as early as possible, that hands-on approaches sit with equal weight alongside theoretical and conceptual explorations.
The arrival of the pandemic shifted the scope of the project and refocused it on the development of an interior set that could host blended conversations between in-person and virtual participants. Although the full realization of a physical archipelago became impossible, much of the conceptual groundwork done by students and faculty is visible within the final product. For instance, the notion of reusability is still central. In the last iteration of the studio, students reflected upon the excessive waste that such events could generate and decided that the short duration of the Archipelago broadcast needed to be expressed in its approach to presentation and staging. Only local materials were considered: the logs, rocks, and pallets that comprise the scenography were geographically bounded and came either directly from sources in Geneva city or from places further along the shore of Lake Geneva.
The combined effect was a landscape that seemed to be still coming into existence. Upon entering the Cube, one saw a loose assembly of large boulders, piles of stone, and stacks of wood arranged in brutally straightforward fashion. There were no easy or obvious marks—participants were momentarily destabilized, finding their place by moving through the set rather than being led to a particular configuration.
That the rawness of the materials remained intact was essential. As the designers describe, the idea was to purposely refrain from modifying or ‘de-naturing’ the materials of the scenography in an effort to preserve their usefulness after the activity of the broadcast. In this way, the scenographic concept could be thought of as a kind of borrowing—temporarily removing these materials from their ‘normal’ cycles, repurposing them for Archipelago, and returning them gently once the event finishes. Indeed, most of the construction budget went to the labour of moving these materials into the Cube rather than acquiring the materials themselves. It feels appropriate that the pieces of the Archipelago set are eventually absorbed back within the built fabric of Geneva—the three days of the Archipelago broadcast was, after all, only one moment within their existences.
The design of the scenography was also a deeply collaborative project involving many actors and methods of working. Students had the opportunity to visit the quarry where the gravel is mined, to see the lot where timber is dried and stored, among other forays. Brought back into HEAD, these materials triggered questions of physics—using scale models and 1:1 mock-ups, students considered the practical effects of arrangement. How to distribute the weight of the gravel evenly across the floor? The design of the scenography involved many such pragmatic details; or as Legros puts it, many confrontations between media and material that gave students a glimpse of the frictions arising from the transcription of material from a virtual plan to a real site.
Ultimately, Fuller, Legros, and Proux agree that the greatest learning moments for students were the discussions with the owners and workers at each material’s site of origin. The instructors wanted to emphasize that these people cannot be disassociated from their work. It was critical that students understood the human dimension behind the production and procurement of all components of the set. From these intentions, the results of the scenography project could be imagined as a more generous form of storage: one that goes beyond the collection of material to also accumulate the close relationships between students, suppliers, artisans, transporters, architects, and the many other characters involved in the bringing together of the Archipelago scenography.
Scenography Studio Instructors: Emma-Julia Fuller, Romain Legros
Assistants: Alice Proux, Viviane Mentha, Sophie Coia, Sophie Herzog
IV. Video excerpts from the Archipelago broadcast
“What Should We Build?”, an introductory discussion with Sepake Angiama, Marina Otero, Catherine Ince, Natacha Guillaumont, Nicolas Pham, Matevz Celik, Lev Bratishenko, Anton Below, Javier Fernandez Contreras
- An edited conversation between Charlotte Malterre-Barthes and Lev Bratishenko, with notes for a short story.
- 23.04.2021, Stop Building? A Global Moratorium on New Construction, Harvard GSD
- 29.03.2020, “What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?”, AOC
- Reciprocal Landscapes: Stories of Material Movements, Routledge, 2019.
- Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House, 2012.