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From participation to self-provision

From the perspective of a hierarchy or a decision-making authority, the process of involving users or members of a community in a decision-making process is “participation.” Here, participation suggests that a final decision will take into consideration some of the data collected by participatory dynamics. Architects such as Christopher Alexander28 and lately Alejandro Aravena29 have strongly advocated for the use of participation as a mechanism of determining the real role of the built environment in serving a community. Many of these participatory practices have become common practice, as large projects often seek for community focus groups or surveys to understand the potential risks and perception from the public. As architect Alastair Parvin explains:

Traditionally, housing architects have aspired to work on one-off houses for wealthy clients, or large speculative developments for housebuilders.The latter requires designers to engage in “consultation” (usually with local communities), or very occasionally in enabling some process of serious “participation” by future users of the design. The problem with even the most well-meaning of these forms of engagement is that they are ultimately a condescension, a brief invitation to momentarily “participate” in a process you are ultimately not in charge of, and to do so in professional terms.31

A participant will always engage in a conversation that has been predefined and therefore will operate under a constrained domain. In this role, a participant is bound to validate any opposition to the ideas presented but is unable to escape the possibility space, as it is a given. Parvin has determined that the motivations behind construction vary from commercial clients that seek profit in a speculative market to members of a community that seek to occupy and generate cultural value from their dwellings. Parvin has moved away from a practice of participation that entails a form of top-down decision makers in conversation with a community to a form of “self-provision,” where the labor of communities supports their own living.

We cannot discuss the production of the Commons in architecture without establishing that commoners are engaging in the self-provision of a commonwealth, or a shared form of value. Participation practices orchestrated from the perspective of a hierarchy with an interest in architectural production through capital aims to retain and increase such capital. It is only in the case of public projects that the value produced by architecture can be observed to reach public access and define a commonwealth in the city, but these only constitute a very small percentage of the cities today.

The practice of self-provision is an actualization of the Common. Self-provision is an unexpected event that is able to defy a domain and the domain’s frame of expectations. Self-provision can result what the market could label as inefficient or irrational models of production; heritage, culture, religion or personal motivations all define local forms of value. We ought to generate a design framework that is able

Open Source Ecology overview sheet of Micro-House prototype 1

FIGURE 5.1 Open Source Ecology overview sheet of Micro-House prototype 1.

Microhouse 1 Development Board by Open Source Ecology'. Open Source framework to contribute to the design and detailing of housing units and machines

FIGURE 5.2 Microhouse 1 Development Board by Open Source Ecology'. Open Source framework to contribute to the design and detailing of housing units and machines.

WikiHouse by Alastair Parvin 2012. Open Source construction set

FIGURE 5.3 WikiHouse by Alastair Parvin 2012. Open Source construction set.

to incentivize and account for these forms of value, rather than consider them as externalities, or “non-professional” production.

While forms of self-provision could be linked to the “DIY” (Do-It-Yourself) movement, it is important to identify that a process of self-provision does not attempt to emphasize architecture by non-experts. On the contrary, it is architecture experts who are first called to enact the emancipatory power of selfprovision contributing to the population of the literacy ladder. This is a call for a recalibration of the entrepreneurial aspirations of young architects who live the contradiction of designing concepts for houses and furniture that they could never afford, while in reality their condition of precarity doesn’t allow them to afford anything beyond mass-produced furniture such as IKEA. As has been framed by the Architecture Lobby:

Non-hierarchical work, collaboration, open-sourcing, ad hoc alliances, just-in-time delivery—these are things that architects are edging toward and that society deeply embraces. A convergence of a changing economy and a changing profession has the potential to be almost utopian. On the other hand, entrepreneurialism and freelance labor, equally central to this new economy, might be another word for precarity, individualism, competition, and the inability to identify as a class in need of common security. In short, Entrepreneurialism might just be neoliberalism’s dream child.11

The expertise of designers has been dissociated from the value proposition acknowledged by the market. Peer-enforced competition and a scarcity of clients sustain the “starchitect” ideal. It begs for a recalibration of objectives, allowing accumulated knowledge in the hands of highly skilled designers to reach production, connecting with immediate local environments as opposed to generating free proposals for international competitions.

There are examples where architects engage in the production of architecture as a self-commission but go beyond the simple construction of their own dwelling. The case study of the Open City (1971) located in Ritoque, north ofVal-paraiso in Chile, allows speculation on the critical potential of an architecture that is developed in common. For the Open City project, professors, architects, artists and designers founded the Amereida Professional Services Cooperative with the objective of combining life, work and study. The cooperative was intended to ensure the longevity of the project, as it was established as a not-for-profit foundation, the assets of which are non-transferable.32 Documented by Rodrigo Perez de Arce and Fernando Perez Oyarzun, the project was founded as an autonomous initiative and had strict budgetary restrictions. The architectural production is a collective form of authorship due to its progressive and cooperative methodology. No single author has received credit for a vast collection of architectural projects developed over several decades in the Open City.

Hospederia de la Entrada, Cooperativa Amereida, Ciudad Abierta, Ritoque, Chile

FIGURES 5.4-5.6 Hospederia de la Entrada, Cooperativa Amereida, Ciudad Abierta, Ritoque, Chile.

Source: Images courtesy of Amereida

The autonomous nature of the Open City project allowed for the project to live outside disciplinary or market influences, even though it was well known in Chile at the time. It wasn't necessarily a rejection or a countermovement to global trends but an opportunity to define a local value system, deeply rooted in a cultural practice of art in day-to-day life. As Perez de Arce and Perez Oyarzun present it:

In the case of the Valparaiso School, the objective of collective work takes a greater scope and radicalism. And not only because of the weight of a community of interests which went beyond that of the work environment, but because for the School, this collective dimension represented a value in itself; it formed part of a vision which transcended the boundaries of architecture to provide a glimpse of the possibility of an art made by all.33

The collective nature of the project described by Perez de Arce and Perez Oyarzun denotes an architecture produced for and from the Commons as a form of selfprovision that advances and develops a social infrastructure for its further growth. The formal freedoms explored by the architecture of the Open City give evidence that an architecture developed with local codes does not need to adhere to the economics of austerity. Architecture by the Commons can be gratuitous and redundant, as it does not respond to any international canon or standard. Inequality and environmental awareness are emerging conflicts of our time and have been the driving force for collectives worldwide; what is needed is for architecture to define a design framework for collective action and the materialization of such emerging values.

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