Gotti / Spatial practices for empowerment

Spatial practices for empowerment

Author: Francesca Gotti, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Francesco Careri, Roma Tre University; Francesca Lanz, Northumbria University; University of Lincoln

Research stage: PhD intermediate stage

Category: Extended abstract

Several studies carried out locally and internationally have highlighted the emergence of the problem of so-called “urban inequalities”. These inequalities concern how economic and spatial resources are distributed in cities, and this is reflected, in particular, in a scarcity of services and in a low quality of collective spaces in areas mainly inhabited by low-income families, including ethnic minorities and immigrants of first and second generation (Dangschat, 2009; Galster, 2017; Hamnett, 2019; van Ham 2021). Inequalities are not produced by a state of crisis or emergency, despite the fact that in mass media the word ‘crisis’ applied to migration, economy, environment is portrayed as the cause of unequal urban rights: inequalities represent a rather constant condition of urban contexts, and have been setting the constraints for the urban development agendas of many countries since decades (CIAM, 1951).

In European cities - mostly in the regions facing the Mediterranean basin - international migrations, growing urban poverty, securitisation and militarisation, privatisations, urban competitiveness, and unbalanced resources distribution are exacerbating urban inequalities, isolating entire districts in a condition below the minimum standards of life quality, both concerning the private and public sphere (Cottineau, 2022).

As a general trend, institutional investments and interventions are implemented mainly in few areas of cities with the aim to promote beautification strategies, and with standardised big-scale solutions. This leaves big urban areas uncovered by systemic support, often dispersing or relocating urban poors around the city, thus preventing the consolidation of micro-scale economies and social cohesion (Kunzmann, 1998; Orum and Zachary, 2010; Malterre-Barthes 2020). With some exceptions, structural support against urban inequalities on a large scale is hardly compatible within strategic planning, raising questions regarding the effectiveness of design interventions and the way they should or could be implemented.

This consideration is endorsed by the rise of self-managed initiatives, and grass-root welfare and spatial practices, that formulate alternative answers to issues of urban rights, responsibilities, and power relations (Harvey, 2012; Sassen, 2017; Cellamare, 2014). With respect to conditions of urban poverty and social exclusion, the housing need is often addressed with illegal occupations and in some cases with hospitality and cooperative solutions; at the same time, the lack or scarcity of adequate social and collective services is compensated by initiatives of mutual support and site specific projects.

The research starts from deepening these considerations and from identifying situated manifestations of these condition in the geographical context of South Europe, selecting four cities, as non-reductive case examples: Lisbon, Madrid, Marseille, and Rome. Each different urban scenario is outlined with respect to the topic of urban inequalities, emphasising their specificities according to the correspondences between socio-economic inequalities, urban quality, grass-root initiatives and architectural solutions.

Moving from this observations, the research focuses on selected design interventions for public buildings and facilities intended for collective use, in urban areas whose demography is highly composed by low-income communities.

In particular, the research questions the role of critical spatial practices (Rendell, 2006; Miessen, 2012; Dodd, 2020) in addressing the needs and visibility of these communities, producing spatial solutions able to support the development of subversive systems. Critical spatial practices are delineated as those attempts to construct a different meaning and approach to the production of space, to promote different roles and responsibilities for practitioners, and to question the collaboration between designers, activists and communities.

The work investigates the relationship between design and empowerment: it looks back at architects and spatial practitioners that have declared themselves as dissident, counter hegemonic, those that have been seeking for the “anarchist seeds under the snow” (Ward, 1973), and have been validating and fostering self-promoted alternative solutions to urban needs. It does so by speculating on the different definitions and interpretations given to critical spatial practices, intersecting the fields of architecture, art, politic, activism.

Given the theoretical framework, the core of the research consists of a study of selected projects from the perspective of their architecture and design process. The investigation is developed on eight case studies, selected from a broader range of projects, that have been (or are in the process of being) realised by four design practices, each located in one of the city of the investigation. The projects are chosen for their critical approach to a specific geographic and urban context, for implementing a spatial production process that questions (and eventually flips) the role of the designer, and for experimenting with innovative funding solutions and legislative tools.

The analysis is focused on the role of the designer and the relationship established with the various actors of the process, throughout all the different phases, looking for correlations between actions and design outcomes. This is further investigated by recording the way dwellers and other users appropriate and adapt the projects after their completion, following a post-occupancy analytical structure.

The methodology applied is primarily based on design analysis and fieldwork, and largely relays on redrawing as a method for critical investigation. It mainly involves a series of qualitative interviews and critical conversations with practitioners, through archival research and onsite observation. Fieldwork involves as well a period of observation through a residency, which will allow for an onsite observation of one of the case studies, engaging with the practitioners and with the local community.

The illustrative and comparative study of the projects aims at: testing design interventions as the physical connection between space, actors, and actions; exposing their effectiveness with respect to the inequalities they address; assessing their ever-changing condition - rather than predefined and fixed - and their political implications - with regard to the status of under-represented dwellers.

The research is developed following some core questions: Which architectural solutions do critical spatial practices formulate to support everyday collective activities in sites laking services and facilities? How do (or could) designers cooperate with activists, associations, and immigrants in producing empowering architectural solutions? What is the identity of the designer in these projects? How can we evaluate the success of these projects, after interventions have been completed?

The Community Kitchen seen from above inside Terras da Costa Settlement, with neighbourhood Costa da Caparica in the background

Figure 1: The Community Kitchen seen from above inside Terras da Costa Settlement, with neighbourhood Costa da Caparica in the background

exploded axonometry of the building

Figure 2: exploded axonometry of the building

Synthetic sequence of the design and construction process of the Community Kitchen, in its four main steps:

engagement of dwellers to address problems

Figure 3: engagement of dwellers to address problems

on-site design to define spatial solution starting from situated resources

Figure 4: on-site design to define spatial solution starting from situated resources

participatory construction site

Figure 5: participatory construction site

ex-post interventions to update the project

Figure 6: ex-post interventions to update the project

Illustrations (by the author)

Critical redrawing of the project of the Community Kitchen by Atelier Mob, in Terras da Costa, Lisbon.