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09 December 2015
Domestic renovations and political reform. An interview with Uriel Fogué

Andrés Carretero

His significant professional practice that extends from temporary interventions to the production of texts and even renovating flats works with the present, but he also projects fictions in the past and the future to continue to unfurl his desires. Co-founder of the research group [Inter]section of Philosophy and Architecture, and forming along with Eva Gil and Carlos Palacios the architectural office elii, he is still very young but stopped emerging a long time ago simply for coherence sake. A cheerful conversationalist and lover of salsa, Uriel Fogué is an architect and lecturer

“Sometimes a collaboration, sometimes a competition”, Hal Foster writes in The art-architecture complex (Verso, 2011). Your work as architects is directly related to contemporary art, through collaborations with Alicia Framis and María Jerez, and a recurring presence in institutions that have enabled you to develop specific projects, in centres like MNCARS, Matadero Madrid or Tabakalera. These opportune spaces within culture, in general, and in particular in the art institution, implies a displacement in the public sphere that shifts civic construction to another forum. Do you think that it could form a point of no return given the lack of professional opportunities in the discipline?

I once listened to Beatriz Colomina explain how architectural practice is deployed on various levels, beyond “construction”, in situations such as teaching, publications, ephemeral structures for pavilions, and why not, in the interaction with art and the media. Each one of these spaces acts as a laboratory where agendas feed off each other and back on to the structures that at another time can also be tested in construction. These spaces make it possible to amplify architectural practices. They have always been there. Today many of these laboratories have perhaps shifted to some of the sites you mention. Nevertheless, to think something such as “architecture has died” leaves the construction of spaces in the hands of the technocrats. One thing is to rethink the discipline and quite another neurotically to self-deny it.

In the workshop Las paradojas de la arquitectura política (Tabakalera, 2015), we reread the text of Jacques Rancière, The paradoxes of political art changed the word “art” for “architecture”. The aim was not to equate one with the other, so much as to rethink with this proposal the political dimension of architecture. For Rancière no artistic practice (not even architecture) can be self-defined as political or self-deny it; except when an alteration in the “distribution of the sensible”, that is to say in the way the experience is distributed or in the network of mobilizing agents. I remember in some discussions the endeavour was to determine the disciplinary limits of tradition, the sociologist Amparo Lasén called for architecture to be understood as a “bastard” discipline, like sociology in the beginning. Faced with the sterility of this debate, perhaps it is better simply to get to work!

What is Home without a Mother (Madrid, 2015), your last publication, can be understood at the same time as a textual and as an architectural project, that visualizes or, to use your language, descajanegriza (de-black-boxes) domestic architectural strategies that stem from the world of fiction, with the intention of opening a debate that is both speculative and practical.

There are two ways of understanding the black box. On the one hand the “technological black box” is the one in airplanes that remains invisible, except in a crash. In domesticity, this idea is related to metabolic processes of the city, that in general remain invisible when they provide a service to the infrastructure of the home. “To open the black box”, means to introduce into the domestic space some of these issues that usually remain invisible. In Insider we set up energy visualizers that changed colour according to the consumption of electricity, which made it possible to become aware of this process, making the domestic space a political scenario in which to question one’s habits.

On the other hand, the “black box” for the scenic arts, is the stage: that architectonic device equipped to activate any fiction. If we understand the process of (technological) de-black-boxing in parallel with black-boxing (in the scenic sense), we can understand the home as a scenario where the everyday the everyday can be tested on various dimensions (ethical, ecological, political…); as a space to virtualize and test out the construction of subjectivity; as an infrastructure at the service of the fiction of the everyday.

Continuing with WHM, you indicate the domestic space as “one of the crucial political scenarios for the development of the polemics of modernity”, forming part of a genealogy that links domesticity with politics, where we can find Beatriz Colomina and Andrés Jaque. Reformulating your words: How to rehearse domesticity through fiction to place in crisis the grand narratives of the discipline

One of the grand narratives that have dominated modernity is the dialectic between public space and domestic space, the first being the genuine political space while the second is left relegated to the place of intimacy. Nevertheless, no discontinuity exists as such between public and domestic space. For example, for authors like Janet Wolff, the narrative of Baudelaire’s flâneur, that figure who strolls through the avenues of Paris through the urban renovations of the nineteenth century, is nothing more than a masculine account of public space, because, as she indicates in The Invisible Flâneuse, the flâneur is never a woman. Here the political continuity of both spaces is demonstrated: while the man enjoys the cafes and terraces, the woman labours in the home. The public and the private in this scheme are articulated according to a repro-centric and male chauvinist political model (as recounted in so many stories, from Sentimental Education to Frankenstein). Despite the discourse that identifies the political space with the agora or the forum, domestic space is as political as public space.

To continue in the discursive framework of domesticity at war [[Colomina, Beatriz. Domesticity at war, The Mit Press, Cambridge, 2007]], elii carries out home renovations, amongst other things for pragmatic reasons, as it is the main commission for the younger generation of architects, thanks to its relative accessibility in the current context of the systematic crisis. In progressive political terms, the reformist option exists before the revolutionary one; to what extent does this type of job, the renovation of domestic space “moderate” in scale and economy, can reforming political possibilities be introduced, or a “politics of reform”, as defined on occasion by Peio Aguirre?

We have had the opportunity of developing some transformable domestic spaces. In these jobs the domestic space is understood as a sort of “game board” on which certain domestic “moves” (domestic) take place that emerge through the interaction of the body in space. In this sense, at elii we’re interested in the work of R. Thaler and C. Sunstein surrounding the concept of the nudge. According to these authors, neutral space is nothing more than a myth, because any space has a persuasive and communicative dimensions that affects our way of inhabiting and taking decisions (“choice architecture”). For this, they propose the integration of nudge strategies in design–a shove or gentle push- to favour certain political role-play. It’s certainly a perverse concept, although it is more effective than instructions that in the long run can end up deactivating by dissidence. The challenge is to make the project participate in such processes of “seduction” through the “game board”, allowing that activation of certain “strategies”, that inevitably have to be evaluated by the inhabitants. As we expounded in “Unfolding the Political Capacities of Design” (What Is Cosmopolitical Design?, 2015).

The JF-Kit Houseis unique in your production because it is a domestic space but also a temporary pavilion. In “La casa de Mies: exhibicionismo y coleccionismo” (2G nº48/49, 2009), Beatriz Colomina cites the words Mies used to defend what supposed the radical exclusion of one of his first works in the modern canon from his exhibition in MoMa: “Not enough of a statement”. Your generation is making a huge effort to do things, and you need these things to be in some way or another a statement. How does the JF-Kit House differ from your domestic refurbishments, beyond being a clear statement that works with a representational logic ?

The project arises from a proposal made for an exhibition about the work of elii in the CIVA (International Center for City, Architecture & Landscape, Brussels), with plans and photographs. We thought that given this documentation was already available online; it would be more interesting to employ the budget to use the museum as a laboratory rather than “exhibiting” contents. It seemed interesting to propose a classical architectural exercise: to imagine a “house of the future”. Rancière referred to politics as a mechanism of fiction capable of imagining a possible future and placing in action the means with which to construct it. In this sense, the JF-Kit House is a political fiction: a possible future where inhabitants cover their energy needs for their homes through physical exercise. For this we thought of Jane Fonda, who is a complex persona: sexual icon, Barbarella, politically committed against the war in Vietnam, defender of the construction of perfect bodies through home workouts, at the time when the controversy of AIDS emerges…If you think about it, the houses of the future are usually designed by experts who anticipate a “problematic” future that is later “resolved” through an architectural exercise. However, sustainability is not (just) a technological problem but also a cultural shift, one that calls for an informed debate to discuss how we want (if we want it) this transformation to be. The JF-Kit House tries to participate in this debate. This extreme domestic prototype makes it possible to inhabit a scenario that is already being discussed in ecological debates: Off-the-grid (going offline). But instead of solving the problem, it endeavours to embody it. Is this a statement? Perhaps, but not in the representative sense, not as if one says “this is how we think things should be, let’s see if it’s clear enough” In any case it would be “architecture needs to be discussed” or “architecture can activate certain discussions”. The only thing missing was for Jane Fonda to try the house out…

I’d like to ask you about the possibilities for architecture to carry out its experiments through a textual perspective. If your doctoral thesis (Ecología política y economía de la visibilidad de los dispositivos tecnológicos de escala urbana durante el siglo XX, 2015) is theoretical speculation, WHM could be one of its practical vertices, in the form of a technical record of how to open the black box. InPlanos de [Inter]sección (Lampreave, 2011) you reflected on the textual metaphor in relation to architecture, and in Común, comunidad, comuna (Ediciones Asimétricas, 2015) you use your own work as an example. In what way does your writing praxis relate to your material praxis?

For many authors architecture in itself is a sort of text, a surface where you inscribe and negotiate not just the word, but also an era, instructions for use, forms of interaction, discourse, political forms… In this sense, there wouldn’t be much difference between building and writing, although one has to bear in mind that the “architectural text” is always collective because it never has a unique author or a sole interpreter. To build is another way of participating in other surfaces of inscription, of establishing other types of text. In the same way, just as I project in a team I often write in collaboration with other people to enrich and discuss the subject in depth. When we write about our work we don’t do it to present it as a collection of exemplary cases, so much as to question them and construe them critically. Texts, like the works, have their own life. Texts, like buildings, are habitable spaces.

Andrés Carretero is an architect and a critic.
His practice covers an expanded conception of architecture traversed by art, theory and politics. Co-founder of ASSEMBLY - cooperative infrastructure of architectural production.


09 December 2015

Domestic renovations and political reform. An interview with Uriel Fogué

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)