Looming ecological disasters and the lasting impact of the man-made world upon nature raise the question of response – how and when should we start responding? Many forms of activism today employ diverse resources, channels, and tools to “raise awareness,” and in some circumstances it is yet to be seen what comes once awareness has been raised. Activism in the field of architecture is one of type of movement that has the capacity to deliver tangible change. Brick by brick, project by project, activist architects can literally change the face of the earth; they can design the world once again in the aftermath of natural calamity and respond immediately to one of the most basic human needs – shelter.

From the project,  200 Social Housing on Nervion River,  Spain, Bilbao 2001.

From the project, 200 Social Housing on Nervion River, Spain, Bilbao 2001.

The concept of architecture as a human right is used by Emergency Architecture and Human Rights, an organisation that “works and builds for socially vulnerable communities around the globe that face inequality, humanitarian crisis and violation of their human rights.” They place the profession of architecture in the, perhaps uncomfortable, position of facing its self-imposed boundaries, while channelling resilience as a modus operandi. The challenge to see architecture as a human right moves beyond the existing UN stipulation on the universal right to housing as a standard for adequate living, and recognises ideas of “heritage, sustainable living, and co-existence” as the pylons of a new way of thinking of architecture and its social role.

These are still unconventional thoughts in a world heavily dominated by capital growth, with economically-rooted values. As Fredric Jameson puts it, architecture maintains its historical unmediated relationship with one form or another of power yet remains deeply connected to the economic in the “form of commissions and land values.” This is intensified by “pressures and compromise when completing commissions for state bodies.” Following this, there is a large concentration of architects in developed areas of the world, while the most acute need for architects is the developing areas of the world, or areas constantly at risk from natural disasters. This speaks to the rather low sense of emergency traversing the discipline. Parts of our world today are almost entirely broken, and rebuilding is necessary, but who will rebuild, when it is not immediately profitable?

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From the series Atlantis by Tea Mäkipää.

Climate change, however, poses a closer-to-home problem for architecture. As the ocean levels are set to increase dramatically in the next 50 years, architecture needs to start planning and designing for a world with rising waters. Displacement, unpredictable migration flows, overpopulated areas – these are all alarmingly realistic scenarios, in which architects would play a central role.

Finnish artist Tea Mäkipää reflects on the reality of living and building in a world of rising waters. In the series “Atlantis,” Mäkipää places a house on water with one corner sinking; life seems to continue, as sounds of daily life come from inside. This is a powerful commentary on the relationship we have with built environment, to the often-ignored vulnerability of human life and man-made creations. The trope of building rising from, or sinking into, all-surrounding waters is found in Olafur Eliasson´s design for the Kirk Kapital headquarters, an investment company based in Denmark.


The Kirk Kapital headquarters designed by Olafur Eliasson. Photo source: Anders Sune Berg.

Although conceptually similar, the two projects are probably at opposite ends of creative intervention: one emphasising the questionable role of architecture in relation to a near future, the other reinforcing the mainstream role of architecture in relation to traditional forms of power. This distinction is essential for years to come, as marginal, yet fierce, activist efforts will aim to disrupt the way we build the world. Once again, the manner we respond to disruption and the ability to turn it into creative capital will make the difference between rising from and sinking into all-surrounding waters.

Words: Elena Stanciu