Inhabiting the Earth in Symbiosis with the Environment

OMER KANIPAK

Aixopluc takes on the challenge to find new modes of inhabitation in symbiosis with planet earth, as human beings fast become the agent of destruction while seeking longer and better lives

Aixopluc takes on the challenge to find new modes of inhabitation in symbiosis with planet earth, as human beings fast become the agent of destruction while seeking longer and better lives. Omer Kanipak talks to David Tapias Monne about the office’s practices that focus on collaboration, problem solving, education, and innovation—not only in terms of architecture, but also of life itself.

Omer Kanipak: You’ve based your practice on the word “shelter” or “dwelling”. Even your office name is based on this. In today’s architectural practice, how do you see the role of architects under the pressure of global neo-liberal tendencies? Do you think that the buildings which make up most of our built environment are built for dwelling; or just to feed the economy?

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David Tapias Monne: I’ll try to answer your questions in a direct and precise way. ‘Aixopluc’ and ‘aixoplucs’ liter-ally mean ‘shelter’ and ‘shelters’ in Catalan. As [it is] in English, it is both a verb and a noun. It is a place and a feeling. It contains most of the questions we’re searching for. What it gives is more important than how it is. It’s not necessarily a built thing, it can be a tree. It can be a thousand years old—but it is temporary.

Sheltering or giving shelter is different from dwelling. Dwelling, for us, is one of the four main themes that architects work on—the other three are technique, resources and learning. We understand the act of dwelling in the way that Ivan Illich presented it in his lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects in July, 1984. In it, he places dwelling in opposite to re-siding. He states that ‘architects can do nothing but build,” and that “vernacular dwellers gen-erate the axioms of the spaces they inhabit’. This for us is really challenging. On one hand, building is architect’s know-how, although it’s even more important to know when to build or when not to build. We build with and for other people, for life; not for our own selfish inter-ests, or for someone else’s greed. Can we help others to dwell? Can we establish a true col-laboration with someone, so we can actually improve how they dwell in the world? This might sound childish, but for us it is in the core of what we do in our ‘aixopluc’ practice.

On the other hand, Illich seems to relate dwelling to a lost experience, to some [period of] time that’s long gone, at least in our society. We don’t agree with that. We think it has to do with all the conditions in which [this] construction is materialized, either in a small village in Ghana or in the heart of Manhattan. So what we are searching for is these specific conditions in our everyday practice. The act of dwelling doesn’t have any moral implications in itself; it is just the result and the cause of a way of living. So although the relation between the act of dwelling and architects might seem obvious, for us it is the contrary. We are not saying that every human being is obliged to build his or her own habitat, but the opposite situation is even more absurd. In countries like Spain, building your own home is literally illegal. You need to hire an architect.

The 2007 financial ‘crisis’ meant for us the end of the neo-liberal project as a credible way to live in the world. Even before that, the industrial project, the idea of progress and economic growth, were dead for many years—both economically and ecologically. What we have now is a metastasis of that speculative economy cancer, a fast expansion of a system in decay, which is currently wasting more energy, more matter, and more life, than ever before. If dur-ing the 20th century, architects were one of the main agents of these two economic ideologies, I understand that there is [now] an interesting shift happening in the second decade of our century, in which some architects—more or less adapted to a perpetual uncertainty, both a leftover and surplus, a marginal by-product from that previous period—are paradoxically be-coming active agents in helping individuals and communities to dwell. And I’m not talking here about the ‘co-‘ fashion, or the way media is cannibalizing some honest, and some tricky, built works in so-called developing countries; a fact that is obvious in the present Venice Ar-chitecture Biennale.

OK: Can you explain, more in detail, your ideas about the differences between De-growing and Un-growing?
DTM: Degrowth is a concept that was spread by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Serge Latouche, among others. It is kind of the honest, radical, critical alternative to what is known as sustain-ability. But they are both founded on the idea of production, of development, and of consumption of the resources. For us, these ideas also have become useless tools in thinking and making reality. That’s why we’d rather work with the idea of ungrowing. Degrowing is about consuming less. Ungrowing is about not consuming at all. It is understanding that the Earth is not a resource, but a commons; an extremely complex living organism that we are a part of. We don’t own it. We can’t even share it because we’re not outside of it. It is the ultimate paradox: our intelligence and ability to transform the earth according to our needs has become the biggest menace to our existence as a species. So how can we, as architects, achieve habitats that are totally closed cycles; [habitats] that produce no waste in their entire life cycle?

OK: Richard Sennett discusses consequences of the compartmentalization of practices and knowledge in his book “The Corrosion of Character.” Your office seems to take on this issue by putting emphasis on the open systems for DIY building practices. Do you think that current architectural education should change to overcome the over-specialization of architectural knowledge and building technologies?
DTM: The issue of specialization is two-fold. On one hand, there is the fact that most people expect the architect to be the expert on how they should live. It is a total misunderstanding of what architects are for. It is caused by [undergoing] education on how we could live with the world. It’s a wider and bigger problem than a few thousand architectural schools. The architect and the dwellers form a unique team, a true collaboration. That’s the key to a successful process. As a doctor [would] to a patient, the architect needs to do a precise diagnosis and prognosis. But architects don’t work for patients, for clients—but with places, people or communities, with their relative idiosyncrasies, prejudices, stories etc. The answer to why people hire an architect is very diverse, but it is seldom because they can build a better habitat together, better for their lives and for the whole “Life”.

On the other hand, there is specialization [that is] on the architect’s side. I think it is not a problem per se, but something that should be nourished, specially our technical skills. But of course, at the same time, allowing free spirits to grow and nurturing over-comprehension. I don’t see the dichotomy between specialized and comprehensive knowledge. The architect’s training allows us to constantly travel between these two differentiated abilities. A specialist is not necessarily a short-sighted, narrow-minded person. Some architects’ capacity of organ-izing a wide range of diverse questions into extremely complex equations, and at the same time being able to develop specific technical solutions, is a useful and fragile ability that we need to keep nurturing. Our disciplinary knowledge can be shared; we can give our technical training and experience to others so that they can use it to build their own habitat in an easier, lasting, cheaper and life-enhancing way. That’s why we have a specific department, ‘aixoplucs’, devoted to developing and sharing these open systems. It takes much more expe-rience, knowledge of craft, and inventive and innovative capacity, to develop open construc-tion systems than closed ones.

OK: You have a pedagogical effort with your office’s “little maps” program. What is wrong with the current architectural education, according to you?
DTM: Architectural education begins when we are in our mother’s womb. It continues when we start touching, playing with others, making, even drawing. That’s when the foundation as builders happens—in our childhood. Of course somebody can become a builder in their 80s. So the knowledge and attitude spread around at architecture schools is only a small part of architec-tural education. I suppose you refer here to higher education. To continue answering your previous question, from my own experience in both sides of architecture schools, many young learners start their first day at the university with so many prejudices and misconceptions that you can’t blame it all on the institutions. It is a much wider question. So what I think we need to change in architectural education is basically the same things that we need to radically im-prove in our learning experiences from the time we are born. Has there been a real evolution in education since the times of Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner? That was a century ago. Today, at best, we find uncritical commentaries or amnesiac revivals of these ideas—as [it is] in so many other fields. Their ideas were pretty simple: to allow each person to discover the world within and without by themselves, by sharing meaningful experiences and giving [them] the tools for constant learning. Listening to their own potentialities, their talents and also their fears. Helping them to live free as part of their community, and respecting others. Little maps is a pedagogical search on how these ideas can be applied to learning to make architecture from when we are born, until the day we die. Also opening doors for young learners to specific, disciplinary knowledge. But above all, it is a search on how we can learn today, and specifically, how we can learn to make architecture here, now. This pedagogical adventure was born from our own experience as architects and learners.

To answer your question more precisely, we see two main problems.

The first one is that many higher education institutions are very far away from questioning how they can really help young learners to become better, and more useful, to their environ-ment, and to life. And the ones that care are too often disconnected from their close reality, which makes it extremely difficult for both young learners, the students; and older learners, the teachers, to engage in meaningful experiences to which they can relate to, and actually start the learning process in their bodies. The complexity of matters which architecture deals with, and the process of transforming them, is so complex that they get lost, most of the time, because they don’t know where to start from. It’s hard to care for something that doesn’t make any sense to you. That’s why we keep developing cartography—a mapology, not a methodology—so that all architecture learners can use it to find their own way. We don’t give definitive answers, but rather help each one to formulate pertinent questions and transform them into inhabitable energy.

The second one has to do with the pedagogical approach. There is an eternal, global discussion between the ‘learning by doing’ fans, and the ‘learning by thinking’ hooligans. Most of the time though, it is just a cheap excuse by which Professor A can go against Professor B. It is sad to see this when it happens. From day one, I have felt that what is really interesting about making architecture is that actually both ways need to work in synergy, don’t they?

OK: Your research practice about building shelters in nature (Campboards) is a manifestation of building without disturbing. What do you think about the ongoing madness on the cele-bration of ecological/sustainable/green buildings in contemporary architectural culture?
DTM: This ‘fashion’ is the cause, and simultaneously, the consequence of a shameful, cynical atti-tude and a change of paradigm. Every generation finds their new way to the end the world. Ours is Climate Change. It is a true, real menace to man’s survival, and we must not use it to ‘sell’, to get more commissions. There is a growing conscience [reflecting] that we need to radically change the way we live, and it seems that this time we need to change a pretty basic human gift and curse: we have always consumed, transformed resources so they were not available anymore. We have basically become waste makers. But now we are way too many, and our tools way too powerful, and destructive, to keep doing that.

The ‘campboards’ is our first manifestation of this new paradigm that is slowly permeating in ‘aixopluc’ and ‘aixoplucs’, where outside requirements and availabilities are much more complex. How do we build without consuming, without contaminating, without increasing entropy? What we understand as the construction industry has more to do with destruction. How can we build in symbiosis with our environment? This is a question that leads to innova-tion, not to the nostalgia of an ideal, vernacular, primitive world. Many traditional building techniques are very inspiring for their apparent simplicity, making the most of available mate-rials and energy, generating minimum waste. But they are not the only alternative, we need to innovate.

For example, this research project, as pastoral and idyllic as it may seem, is a huge challenge to our practice: how can we inhabit a territory, not only by not destroying it, but by improving life in its whole ecosystem. This is, for us, one of the biggest challenges on which architects must start working right now. Man has always transformed its environment to his own ad-vantage, in order to live longer and better. That’s what the technique was until now. As hu-man population grew and we developed more powerful tools, we became an agent of destruc-tion, more harmful than hurricanes or earthquakes. In our practice, we are searching for an inverse approach to technique, in which we use our intelligence to live in symbiosis with the biosphere. We build our camps in leftover rural areas, which had been intensely anthropized for many centuries, and then abandoned, so a new wilderness is already emerging in them. In each of these camps, we build three shelters: the first one is totally made off-site, the second one in collaboration with local craftsmen, using local materials, and the third one using only leftover organic matter found on site. This third one is, unfortunately, the most difficult for architects.

OK: Can you elaborate more on your axiom “architecture is a verb, not a noun”?
DTM: We understand architecture as some animal action of making the earth inhabitable. Therefore it is not the material consequence of the process; it is the action itself. Even the most touching, extraordinary buildings are ultimately a manifestation of man’s struggle to inhabit the earth, sometimes by dwelling, others by residing or by camping.

OK: How would you define tectonics and materiality to a person who is not an architect?
DTM: I would tell her or him that tectonics is a very precise concept that is often misused when talk-ing about ways of making architecture. It refers to all construction techniques based on joining and assembling different materials and forms into a whole built structure. It is usually related to lightness. Its complementary word is stereotomy. I would recommend him to read Gottfried Semper’s The Four Elements of Architecture for a direct source on these ideas.

Materiality is an extremely vague, inclusive word. For us it is all matter and energy trans-formed through the entire process of planning and constructing a habitat, or any other object. The material transformed for the building is just a part of that.

OK: As we noticed while browsing on your unconventional web site, you put emphasis on the technique of building or the process [of it] rather than the finished product. How do you relate the notion of time to architecture as a profession?
We understand there is never a finished product in architecture. It is always in a state of trans-formation, allowing humble or violent changes. Architects, however, are only present in a limited period of time in the life cycle of most constructions. So their task is to fore-live, fore-see and fore-build according to how this construction will adapt to its inhabitants’ changing needs; and at the same time, accept change and crisis. We test our projects with worst case scenarios during the whole planning process. Not only the built body, but the mental process itself, must be flexible and adaptable enough to survive all kinds of unforeseen accidents. It is a very complex equation, but once it is well formed, its resolution is relatively simple.

At the same time, we are also very critical of the misuse of the importance of the process in recent years. What is really important is what we provoke. How we do it is something that can be of some interest to some of our colleagues, hopefully by generating some knowledge we can share. The result is always open, but the goal must be clear, otherwise we fail in our task.

We are very interested in the notion of atmospheric time: climate, weather and seasons. It is not an external time, it strongly defines how we feel, how we live. We are currently working in some projects that delve on the diversity of outdoors conditions in its immensely rich realm: porches, shades, patios, gardens, forests and trees, and the sky.

Finally, to answer your question more precisely, architects’ time is always moving among a circular and pendular rhythm of getting closer and then moving away, a prognosis of a long and tiring action called building. It is condensing in your body an awfully wide, rich and complex set of movements, feelings, waves, refractions, rust, condensations, bugs, defor-mations, tissues, soil, transportations, raindrops, ventilations and moonlight; and transforming them into inhabitable energy, and then being able to produce the documents that clearly ex-plain to others these components and steps. It is giving sense to your present by traveling to the future in order to make it easier. Sometimes it’s a weird experience, isn’t it?

OK: Mainstream architectural and design media is more interested on the products rather than the process. How is your relationship with the architectural media? Where do you place yourself in the global architectural community?
DTM: Architects basically work with our brain. Making architecture is an intellectual—with a small i—question and a bodily effort. At the same time we generate a physical experience—a place—and knowledge. Ideas need to be communicated, to be shared. That’s why we devote quite a lot of time to our websites. They allow us to explain and reflect on our ideas, directly, with no middlemen; to share these ideas through our own words, drawings, pictures and vide-os with people that will never have the chance to physically live in that place. They present a chance to both synthesize and document the complexities involved in each of our practices’ projects. They are, and [they] contain the books that we’ll never publish, and they allow us a continuous editing, an almost daily critical revision of each project: we keep improving each published document through the years. So mostly, the task of communicating our own pro-jects is done in-house.

We also see this format as a really useful complementary experience to actually being in a building. That’s also one of the reasons why we prefer presenting videos rather than photo-graphs. The next step is including sound. Your distant experience of each habitat we are col-laborating with becomes its most remote physical extension. The fact that each of our websites asks a little more time from you than the average is in itself a statement on how we need to communicate what we do. Either you have the curiosity or you don’t.

We don’t feel like being part of any architectural scene. These endeavors consume time and energy. We’d rather devote it working on details, on improving the climatic performance of a roof… It’s our natural disposition. We have this curiosity of what would happen to our prac-tice if we disappeared completely from online and printed media. Maybe someday we will start on this path. And focus on other invisible, engaging, more direct ways to communicate. There is a weird fear today about being invisible.

OK: On your sister website, you sell simple furniture and shed building design outlines and in-structions for only 1-2 Euros. Why selling for such small amounts instead of sharing for free?
DTM: We calculate the cost of designing each one of these furniture and shelters. Once we get the return of this cost, we give it away for free. So we don’t see it as a business. Our motivations are somewhere between Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, and my mother’s handwritten cooking recipes. We are working hard to share for free many recipes to build your own living habitat within a few months.

OK: If you had a chance to collaborate for a big project with Zumthor or Herzog& de Meuron, who would you prefer to work with? Why?
DTM: Probably none of them would be really interested in collaborating with us. Instead, I really would have liked to participate for a few months in the construction of Hagia Sofia—longer than that would have probably killed me… [Or] work as a construction worker in Chicago with Adolf Loos… Attend some of Hannes Meyers’s classes at the Bauhaus… Help build Ocatillo and Taliesin West during its early years… And work at the Ateliers Jean Prouvé, in Nancy, particularly during the Maxéville years, the peak, and the death of a high-quality, inventive industrial architecture. How and where would the equivalent of a post-industrial architecture be?

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