R-Lab: looking forward

superstudio supersurface 1

image: Superstudio, Supersurface, film still 1971.

R-Lab examines architecture as a relational practice, responsive to the built environment, and the geo-political forces that shape it. Individual research projects should lead to the development of novel forms of creative practice, whereby certain observed phenomena inspire new critical approaches and new strategies for engagement.

While architects often consider themselves best prepared to deal with problems arising from within the civic realm, there is much about their education that falls short of the task. Architects are more inclined to plan spectacular buildings then to build everyday communities, or to rely on the latest technology rather than rely on the value of human resources.  Architecture has left a troubled legacy of bankrupt clients, underserved citizens, fortified enclaves and decimated landscapes. Big capital has for too long commandeered the building process leaving cities and infrastructure in the hands of elite private interests.  Not that any of these criticisms are new, Bruce Haggart, from the British counter-culture group Street Farmer wrote in the early seventies:

Architecture has never been a popular art.  Its clients have always been the rich. Its legacy is one of palaces, fortifications, office blocks, commemorations to those with power and wealth.  It is an old role that architects play. Paradoxically they try to rationalize the old role in a world of new circumstances and consciousness.

But what makes Haggart’s observation most poignant is that he doesn’t leave it at that… Haggart advises the architect to think about doing something else instead:

 Better to become entertainers, jesters, clowns, trapeze artists, alchemists singing songs of the new age…Bruce Haggart, “Italian Trips”,  ( In  Stephen E. Hunt, the Revolutionary Urbanism of Street Farmer: Eco-Anarchism, Architecture and the Alternative Technology in the 1970s. Bristol, Tangent Books,  2014. 110)

If architects should remake themselves, they also have to be conscious of how to remake the institutions that are vital to achieving broader societal transformations. If on one hand the architect – urbanist, designer, or lets say player-activist needs to operate first on him or herself,  it follows that he or she needs to channel these creative actions through hospitable institutions, something not exactly available in today’s field of operations.

Teddy Cruz is a San Diego based architect and urban critic working extensively on the impoverished communities living around the border between Tijuana and San Diego. Cruz thinks its not enough to be deeply committed to documenting these extreme topographies, but it is also necessary to actively partake in their solutions. Where Cruz sees a major weak-point is precisely in the disconnection between concerned activists and the support institutions themselves.

In fact, one primary site of artistic intervention today is the gap itself that has been produced between cultural institutions and the public, is to getting a new civic imagination and collective political will. It is not enough only to give art the task of metaphorically revealing the very socio-economic histories and injustices that have produced these crises, but it is essential that it also becomes an instrument to construct specific procedures to transcend them. The formation of new platforms of engagement in our creative fields can only be made possible with the sense of urgency, pushing us to rethink our very procedures the need for expanded modes of artistic practice, alternative sites of research and pedagogy, new conceptions of cultural and economic production, and the re-organisation of social relations seems more urgent than ever. (Teddy Cruz, “Rethinking Housing, Citizenship and Property,” in Andrea Phillips and Fulya Erdemci, ed.s, Actors Agents and Attendants Social Housing the Social; Art, Property and Spatial Justice, Berlin, Sternberg Press, SKRO, 2012. pages 11-12.)

This is why R-Lab has over the last 3 years emphasized the necessity of developing both a critically based activist practice based on field research, while also at the same time developing relationships with respected institutions to forge partnerships that can transcend currents impediments to social and environmental change.  To become relevant in today’s hyper saturated globalized society, it is necessary to develop novel methods adequate to today’s tasks—and that might have little to do with those we studied even a decade ago.  There are therefore two basic goals to be achieved, one to translate what’s out there now into a practice that can be made relevant today, and two, to establish working relationships with the emerging generation of public institutions, who are vastly more nimble and capable then ever before to engage their communities and build mutual forms of cooperation.

R-Lab works like a creative think-tank, bringing diverse sources of knowledge, critical thinking, and methods in field observation together with novel means of production: the key is communication, participation and engagement by a wide array of tactics: performance, installations, multi-media productions, comic books, 3D models, and social media are the tools of today’s revolution. This coming year, R-lab will continue this dual focus on personal research and institutional exchanges, using the urban context as the primary terrain for individual field studies in architecture, cities and material culture—, while we conduct a collective project together with Färgfabriken on the cities of the Baltic and the Balkan. This larger workshop based project will permit exchanges with communities in Stockholm and in Mostar, and encourage new ways of examining the city. And it is this aspect of the project that brings up the question of Utopia, a subject whose existence should never have been put to doubt in the first place. Utopia is all the time in the making…

images from Mostar: (Johanna Bratel for Fargfabriken)