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Actions in Architecture / Architecture in Action

Patrizia Toscano

11:51 min

HANNAH ARENDT CONSIDERED ACTION to be the most characterising dimension of public sphere, the sole activity able to truly ensure relations between people, and thus the necessary condition for any political existence (Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa, 1958). Action is important because it establishes relations that give meaning to the space between objects, and thus to urban space.

Today, action continues to represent an objective and valid modality for explicating one's presence in public, for expressing one's needs and ideas, for transforming the city through small though significant gestures. All of this was amply demonstrated in 2008 by the exhibition "Actions, What you can do with the city", presented at the CCA in Montréal and curated by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini. The exhibition classified actions in four categories: playing, recycling, gardening and walking. This latter, which can be defined as the practice of occupying space through the physical presence of people, their objects and instruments, their movements, intent on informing "others" of their often awkward presence as well as re-establishing social relations – this includes all phenomena of nomadism, migrations, parkour, slow mobility, territorial exploration, the presence of the homeless in the city – is particularly emblematic when related to the selected videos.

In fact, the four films I choose are characterised by action intended as movement. There is a belief that their association is useful to a twofold and interesting reading of particular urban phenomena: on the one hand the spotlight is turned on the movement of people in a given space (actions in architecture), on the other hand these architectural projects are animated precisely by the presence of people (architecture in action). It must be pointed out that in three out of four cases, excluding "The Mountain" by BIG, we are dealing with projects designed and built specifically to welcome and foster more or less spontaneous public practices. The tool of video, as it is used by the four directors, is undoubtedly functional to the narration and description of everyday life, which passes before our eyes on a continuous basis, and to which we often pay little if any attention. However, it may also provide interesting and useful suggestions for learning about and designing emblematic rather than iconic works of architecture, which can be appropriated and used to host more or less conventional practices.

EVERYDAY LIFE IS THE FOCUS of each of the four videos and projects. "La Ballena", a two-minutes long time-lapse video by Miguel de Guzmán of Imagen Subliminal, documents the movements of students, teaching staff and parents around the raised sports camp designed by Guzmán de Yarza Blanche of J1 Arquitectos for the Collegio Francescano La Salle in Zaragoza, Spain, completed in September 2012. Constructed around the factor of "time", the video attentively documents the lives of the users of this sports facility, captured from different points of view throughout the course of a day. It demonstrates the vitality and acceptance of space by students who have affectionately baptised the structure "la ballena", the whale, for its bulbous form.

Similarly, the work of Juan Carlos Lorza describes the movement and actions of citizens, though here we move from the compact and historic fabric of a Western and consolidated city to the slums of Bogotá in Colombia. The project entitled "Cubierta Cazucá", developed by Giancarlo Mazzanti and his team, wishes to be a successful experiment in architecture intended as a social builder. A 700 square meter roof transforms a basketball court into a true public space, offering shelter for actions and practices that are not robust, but temporary and playful. Actions that make this site a new, small point of reference in the city for a community living in difficult economic, social and structural conditions.

THE ACTIONS DOCUMENTED in the last two videos are different from the two previous ones. The phenomenon of parkour, with its free runners or traceur, belongs to the world of non-conventional urban exploration that is employed here as a tool for investigating and revealing the possibilities offered by architecture, but also to challenge it.

In "My Playground", a work by Kaspar Astrup Schröder from 2009 in Copenhagen, the building designed by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) and known as The Mountain, is used, among other spaces and architectures, as a playing field by Team JiYo. Though the building was not designed for this use that, in the film, serves a diverse form of exploring the city. The movement of the traceurs is subversive in its challenge to such a strong work of architecture; it conquers the building, makes it its own, and uses it at its pleasure to transform it into a pretext for imagining the entire city as an endless playground.

In the video "Hypertube" the protagonists are a number of free runners too (the Barbarrio group). However, here we are dealing with a project designed specifically to favour certain types of practices: a small urban device, designed by Taller de Casquería architects (also the curators of the video) in collaboration with PKMN Architectures. The project was completed in 2013 as part of the "Projecto Paisaje Tetuán", a program focused on requalifying the urban landscape of Madrid through artistic interventions. The device, an inhabitable shelter, functions as a free urban gym for outdoor activities, simultaneously subverting its relationship with the city.

While in "La Ballena" and "Cubierta Cazucá" actions and movements are more ordinary and spontaneous and the videos are tools for reading and recognising the everyday qualities of these spaces, in "My Playground" and "Hypertube", the practice of parkour, which becomes a form of contemporary dance in the latter, is specifically constructed by the director to activate a space and to shed light on its possible uses.

THESE FOUR EXAMPLES are emblematic because they demonstrate the importance of the complementariness between the architect's ability to design for social purposes and the individual or collective initiative of the general public that, through its own actions, is able to activate and instil life into particular spaces and places. Two indispensable conditions, in no way to be taken for granted, that ensure that architecture is able to become a space of success.

La Ballena

Imagen Subliminal

A whale surrounded by colored ramps and surfaces for students to play.

The lively everyday life that animates the elevated Sports Court at Lasalle Franciscanas School (Zaragoza, Spain) is condensed and celebrated in this two-minute video by Miguel de Guzmán (Imagen Subliminal).

A time-lapse narration explores the design of Guzmán de Yarza Blache (J1 Arquitectos) as well as the fluxes of students, teachers and parents flowing inside and around the courtyard from every possible perspective and at every time, during both the morning and the late evening sport and leisure activities.

The "Whale" - that's how the students named the new construction - is a prefabricated concrete structure and is formed with a double layer of galvanized steel that includes growing ivy. This iconic metallic bubble is connected to the existing school through a system of colored soft ramps, that rise from the ground level to the intermediate level and the elevated court. The overall design by De Yarza Blache seems to be highly appreciated by the community it is meant for, since it allowed the school to augment the total space dedicated to the students' activities through a non-invasive and user-centered approach.


Architect: Guzmán de Yarza Blache
Mentioned project: Elevated sports court in the Lasalle Franciscanas School (2012)
Project location: Zaragoza, Spain
Music: Lloyd Rodgers, "On Things Invisible to the Eye (Act II)"

Spain 2012
Duration: 2'12''