How to Cite: Blázquez, Florencia. "Latin American Architectural Collectives in the 21st Century: Re-evaluating Professional Approaches". Dearq no. 37 (2023): 24-31. DOI: https://doi.org/10.18389/dearq37.2023.03

Latin American Architectural Collectives in the 21st Century: Re-evaluating Professional Approaches*

Florencia Blázquez

blazquez@curdiur-conicet.gob.ar

CURDIUR - CONICET
Facultad de Arquitectura, Planeamiento y Diseño.
Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina

Received: June 15, 2022 | Accepted: April 10, 2023

In Latin America the first decades of the 21st century have witnessed the emergence of teams that work in direct contact with communities, suggesting in the process new approaches to the traditional role of the architect that have tended to blur the figure of the author and privilege processes over the finished work. Against this background, the article characterizes Latin American architectural collectives with the aim of determining their professional roles and responsibilities. It has the further aim of establishing the current state of the art in order to set them within the context of a new professional profile. This exercise is intended to establish a starting point for understanding what we believe to be a rupture in the recent production, management and teaching of architecture in Latin America.

Keywords: architectural collectives, Latin American architecture, community participation, vulnerable territories, architecture as a profession, activist architects.


introduction

This article is based on the identification in recent decades of a growing number of architectural collectives1 that have emerged in Latin America2 and which have coincided in pioneering new approaches within the discipline.

The common characteristics of these innovations —the result of a legitimization of popular knowledge and of vulnerable communities in Latin America— may be summarized as the implementation of horizontally organized collaborative models, a re-evaluation of the role of the architect and a view of the profession as a means not an end. These novel approaches are, in turn, related to new modes of architectural production, management and teaching in Latin America, which taken together represent alternative proposals to traditional practice.

This article presents a systematization and comparison of a series of experiences, from among which we explored a range of variables and methodological constants in the approach of recent architecture3. The intention is to promote research into the dynamics of the discipline and its relation to the different economic, social and territorial changes that have affected it.

Taking into account the explosion in communication and the use it is put to facilitating networking and unmediated connections between communities, students and professionals, the research focused on a selection of Latin American architectural collectives and teams with a demonstrable track record, exploring their material production as a mode of self-representation in order to construct the current state of the art in the field. This approach is used to explore the particularities of the phenomenon in Latin America in the years between the final years of the 20th century and the present day, establishing a new disciplinary framework within which to explore and comprehend the architectural work of these practitioners.

methodology

This article focuses on a theoretical exploration of Latin American architectural collectives in the 21st century, aiming to examine their current state and approaches. To achieve this, an extensive review of relevant literature was undertaken to identify historical influences, conceptual foundations, and shared methodologies. The goal is to establish a theoretical framework that facilitates the characterization of these collectives and helps to determine their role as professionals.

After identifying a significant number of collectives, an initial screening process was conducted based on their local impact and representation within the Latin American context. The following collectives were included in this preliminary selection: Aqua Alta (Paraguay), Grupo Talca (Chile), Entre Nos Atelier (Costa Rica), Arquitectura Expandida (Colombia), Semillas (Perú), Colectivo Pico (Venezuela), Colectivo Hormiga (Guatemala), Micrópolis (Brasil), Matéricos Periféricos (Argentina), and Al Borde (Ecuador). From these teams, common points were sought, above all in the disciplinary characteristics with respect to their role as architects.

Recognizing the collaborative potential of telecommunication networks for fostering exchange, the analysis began by studying the editorial and web output of these collectives. This approach allowed an individual assessment of each group, enabling the identification of common methods and strategies. Through an exploration of conceptual similarities and differences, the objective was to establish a comprehensive understanding of their professional roles. To enable the comparison and support a critical-interpretive analysis, data sheets were created containing information on the identified articles and each collective (see Fig. 1). These sheets served as a valuable tool for organizing information and conducting a thorough analysis.

Figura 1

Figure 1_ Collective file: Example Pico Colectivo. Source: Authors in colaboration with architect Bibiana Cicutti, PhD. Images extracted from www.picocolectivo.org and/or official Facebook Pico Colectivo.

In this context, the objective was to analyze the issue in a correlational and explanatory manner, placing the theoretical framework as a crucial tool for comprehending the procedural-projectual strategies of architectural collectives, from their engagement with communities to the finalization of their projects.

Based on the research conducted, the hypothesis put forth is that the processes employed in the interventions carried out by architectural collectives play a significant role in understanding the transformative shift within the field of contemporary architecture in Latin America.

results

First approximations to the state of the art

Upon reviewing various texts, it became apparent that the collective architecture of recent decades can be seen as part of a global phenomenon (Durán Calisto 2011). This phenomenon has its roots in earlier movements such as Archigram, Superstudio, and Archizoom,4 and shows connections with the works of John Turner, John Habraken, and Christopher Alexander, who were pioneers of participatory architecture in the 20th century (Palero 2018). There are also certain resemblances to projects like Rural Studio5 or Cooperativa Amereida6 (Fernández 2020).

A wide range of social movements and groups emerged in Latin America, at the end of the 20th century that activated demands,7 with emancipatory practices, linked to cooperation and the free circulation of practices and knowledge (Bossi et al. 2009; Risler y Ares 2013; Franco López 2019). With shared ideologies, architecture teams started to emerge in the first decade of the 21st century, coinciding with the implementation of collaborative models that aimed to address the specific social, economic, and political transformations in our context. Alongside this development, a growing number of architectural collectives emerged in Spain and other parts of Europe, providing insights into the international nature of this phenomenon.

Therefore, architecture came to be seen not as an end in itself, but as a means to legitimize knowledge and communities. The common thread among these teams was the challenge to the conventional role of professionals, aiming to stimulate the search for new methods. In this context, publications addressing the concept of the insurgent architect8 (Harvey 2003) and Latin American architecture in recent years were identified, providing insights into the connections between innovative architectural approaches and contemporary cultural thought (Durán Calisto 2011; Montaner 2015).

It was observed that, as the second decade of the 21st century unfolded, the number of these teams increased, gaining gradual recognition and dissemination within the disciplinary spheres. They even found their place in academia, offering alternative approaches to architectural education (Fernández 2020) and producing their own body of publications (see Fig. 2).

Figura 2

Figure 2_ Indicative of the creation of groups and related publications. Source: Authors.

Regarding alternative teaching experiences, some courses were designed to move away from focusing their programs on the analysis of works designed by architects recognized by the system, which delve into the relationship between the work-object and the architect-author (Palero 2018), in order to give way to approaches that are closer to the construction of situated knowledge.9

This leads to considering the aspects that differentiate architectural collectives from what could be classified as traditional architects, which can be identified at first glance as breaking points: the dissolution of authorship, interdisciplinary work, and the recognition of processes over the finished work. As a result, the concept of disciplinary autonomy was challenged, assuming architecture as a social science and once again questioning the myth of the autonomous object isolated from its context (Palero 2018), in order to understand architecture as a comprehensible and communicable system (Montaner 2015; Buzaglo 2018).

In this context, significant concepts and authors that contributed to shaping the state of research were identified. The concept of the activist architect (McGuirk 2015), who engages in practice in an unconventional manner and has a strong connection to the social context, played a crucial role in defining this new approach to practice within which collectives are situated. We can also draw a connection between this term and the concept of the barefoot architect, introduced by Johan van Lengen (1981), which refers to an individual who leads a group of people who have chosen to collectively build a structure for the benefit of a community. This role is seen as one of the primary roles undertaken by members of architectural collectives when they engage with communities.

The concepts of actor-network (Latour 2005) and networking (Durán Calisto 2011) have stimulated the examination of collaborative relationships between collectives and the interaction between professionals and communities, with technology playing a crucial role in transforming cultural discourses (García Canclini and Villoro 2013). These networks are presented as alternatives or complements to institutional or academic bureaucracies. Another concept that emerges for investigation is that of paracademy or paraculture (Durán Calisto 2011), which redefines pedagogy, publishing, and their curatorial role.

Characterization of the selected teams/collectives

The period between the first and second decade of the 21st century saw the emergence of ten architectural collectives, with Matéricos Periféricos being the first established in 2001 and Colectivo Hormiga being the most recent in 2016. The size of these collectives varies from two to seventy-four members, with a distinction made between permanent members and collaborators, often including individuals from other disciplines. This reflects the concept of networking (Durán Calisto 2011), which positions architects as components within a larger fabric that combines forces and knowledge to undertake various interventions in the territory.

In the past decade, many of thesse teams have gained recognition within the discipline. For instance, the Entre Nos collective (Costa Rica) presented their work at the Ibero-American Architecture Biennial in Rosario, Argentina, in 2014, showcasing different aspects of Latin American architectural projects and emphasizing community involvement in the creative process. This highlights the reevaluation of methods and disciplinary objectives (Cattaneo 2015). Additionally, several collectives have received prestigious awards, such as Al Borde winning the Schelling Architecture Award in 2012, and have participated in notable events like the Aqua Alta exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2014. These developments indicate that the architectural collectives are being recognized and validated within the profession. Further evidence of this validation is seen in the fact that nine out of the ten studied teams have been mentioned in Plataforma Arquitectura —a prominent architectural platform— within the last three years.

In approaching communities, they typically establish contact through a neighbourhood representative and engage in self-organized efforts. In these instances, the architect's role shifts from possessing absolute knowledge to becoming an active participant who collaborates with the community, local knowledge, and available materials. The collective groups often take the lead in coordinating assembly processes and collective mapping, which initiate the design process (see Fig. 3). It is important to emphasize that these processes, at an initial level, appear to transcend the hierarchical dynamics rooted in colonialism, where the architect traditionally held a central position in design processes. However, this shift does not neglect the architect's technical expertise and ability to envision future possibilities inherent to their disciplinary knowledge (Palero 2021).

Figura 3

Figure 3_ Workshop run by Arquitectura Expandida with the Amphibian community of Leticia in the Amazon to build a floating public space, 2015. Source: Ana López Ortego (arquitecturaexpandida.org)

Regarding communication strategies, in all cases, the teams select photographs for their websites that depict people inhabiting the works. They also include images of the process, which typically consist of photographs of collaborative models, collages, representative objects from the intervention sites, community images, and photographs of the completed projects. This presents a clear difference compared to the web pages of architects who work in a traditional manner, as most of them choose an architectural photographer to capture their works, with the photos being composed in advance.

Furthermore, all the teams have a connection to education, as most team members hold formal teaching positions in various architecture schools in Latin America. Their pedagogical proposals consistently emphasize working at a 1:1 scale, utilizing local technologies, and engaging with the communities (see Fig. 4). Even those without formal positions still teach through workshops or in trade workshops in vulnerable neighborhoods.

Figura 4

Figure 4_ Teachers and students of the Taller Matéricos Periféricos building in an industrial neighborhood in Santa Fe (Argentina). Source: http://www.matericosweb.com/

Finally, the analysis of networks and websites led to the identification of connections among them, allowing for the formation of collaborative networks and points of contact. For instance, Al Borde and Grupo Talca have collaborated on a project together, and Pico, Colectivo Hormiga, and Arquitectura Expandida were invited to a talk by Matéricos Periféricos, among other collaborations.

Redefining the concept of the collective

Even though not all architecture teams within the scope of this study perceive themselves as collectives, it was deemed important to address and transform this concept within the framework of this research.

Among the ten teams analyzed, there are those who identify themselves as collectives (seven, one of which is also an association), others as non-profit associations (two), and others as architectural offices or groups (two). However, none of them bear individual names, as questioning the notion of authorship and established professional canons has been pivotal to their formation. Thus, a possible perspective on collectivity emerged as anonymity, which stands in opposition to the recognition of an author. Interpreting the work of these teams, where processes take precedence over the final outcome, two possible conceptual connections were considered: architectural object-author and process-collective. The notion of process encompasses not only the design trajectory but also the engagement and communication with communities.

Among the teams that do not identify themselves as collectives, only one (Al Borde) explicitly rejects this category. They argue that the system creates labels to diminish the value of the work done by people who associate in ways that were not previously common, thus labeling the term "collective" as a mere trend or fashion.10

According to Manuel Delgado (2007), collectivity is a form of cooperation, a gathering of individuals who act under consensus while maintaining their own identities despite exchanges and agreements. However, does this happen in all the cases analyzed? How do the so-called collectives work? If we consider the teams that do identify themselves as collectives, individual personalities may stand out in various ways (such as those who give talks at biennials, those who sign their full names in the collective's publications, those who are presented as founders on the websites, etc.), while other members appear occasionally or for specific periods of work. Therefore, although most collective narratives emphasize working in horizontal groups, do collectives always work completely horizontally? On the other hand, do conventional architectural offices or teams always work based on hierarchies? These questions can be easily answered by understanding that there are as many possibilities as there are potential groupings. One could also consider the horizontal nature implied by the concept of collectivity in relation to the importance of joining forces for a common objective, both within the team and in relation to the territory and the community they engage with, where each of the three elements (collective, community, and territory) holds equal importance.

As part of the research, we analyzed the descriptions of these teams on their websites and found phrases such as: "new methodologies of cooperation" (Pico Colectivo), "work based on joining forces and building common dreams" (Asociación Semillas), "co-production of participatory architectures or socio-community management" (Matéricos Periféricos), "new possibilities of collective transformation of space" (Micropolis), "collective workshop that develops proposals for social impact with active participation of clients by re-evaluating methods and objectives of the profession" (Entre Nos Atelier), "taking architecture where it has not yet reached, that is cooperating with communities" (Grupo Talca), "activist architectural collective that works with political construction an assembly processes" (Arquitectura Expandida), "social commitment from architecture" (Aqua Alta), "collective organization that carries out projects with a social conscience" (Colectivo Hormiga) and "working networks based on admiration for the work of others" (Al Borde). Thus, building on Manuel Delgado's (2007) perspective, cooperation is understood as a concept closely related to collectivity. It is believed that cooperation between architecture teams and communities can lead to a collective transformation of the territory.

Lastly, in their direct relationship with communities and the territory, it is also worth highlighting the use of transmissible systems, where local knowledge is often applied in the construction of design or material processes. This approach interprets collectivity as a combination of professional knowledge (which encompasses not only producing architecture but also teaching architecture), craft or cultural knowledge, and local or available materials (see Fig. 5).

Figura 5

Figure 5_ Members of the woodcutting community of Pinohuacho (Chile), building the Gorro Capucha Quincho with Talca Group. Source: https://www.grupotalca.cl/

conclusions

After analyzing the data from the timeline, it is clear that what initially emerged as an alternative approach now holds considerable legitimacy within academic and professional spheres, positioning itself as a concrete possibility for practicing and teaching architecture.

It is important to highlight that throughout the research, coincidences were detected in the work of architectural collectives, allowing for the identification of consistent patterns for further study and raising new research questions. These relate to their cooperative practices with civil associations, governments, and communities. They are actively involved not only in the design process but also in the management and organization of resources to construct the projects. This high level of community involvement in most of the cases studied enables the constructed works to become significant landmarks for the communities and ensures their longevity over time, as they receive maintenance from the inhabitants themselves and the architects involved. Typically, the architects remain in contact even after the construction process is completed.

However, after working with the concept of collectives and delving into specific cases, it could be argued that this classification is restrictive and fails to account for the singularities of each group. This opens up the possibility for future deepening and reclassification of these ways of doing architecture.

Furthermore, there is a growing consideration of how these modes of intervention impact territories and communities. These approaches to architectural production value the process of engagement and communication more than the finished work itself. They actively involve the communities they work with and draw upon local knowledge as a catalyst for the design process. In this way, considering the impact these teams are having within the disciplinary field and academia, it is possible to envision a different profile for future architecture professionals—one with varying degrees of social commitment and new ways of interpreting territories and their communities. In this sense, it can be related to the concept of the "transmodern" profile discussed by Santiago Palero (2021), which goes beyond the hierarchical, individualistic, instrumentalist, and Eurocentric aspects questioned by postmodernity. Instead, it embraces a modern spirit with emancipatory characteristics, emphasizing the technical capacity to envision future horizons through the use of techniques designed to overcome scarcity.

acknowledgements

To architect Bibiana Cicutti, PhD, for introducing me into the research of Latin American architecture collectives. To architect Daniela Cattaneo, PhD, for her constant accompaniment and methodological contributions to this research.

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* This article is part of a research project entitled "Alternative approaches in recent architecture production: architecture collectives in Latin America", which is funded by the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Argentina)

1 Groups made up of architects, students or urban activists who practice architecture un-hierarchically and collaboratively.

2 Latin American collectives emerged during the transition between the neoliberal economic policy paradigm that characterized the 1990s and a neo-socialist paradigm, which strengthened the public sectors (Durán Calisto 2011). To this may be added the permanent changes affecting the whole of Latin American that Hugo Segawa argues for in his book Arquitectura latinoamericana contemporánea (Contemporary Latin American Architecture) (2005).

3 We use the categorization of Jorge F. Liernur and F. Aliata (2004), who describe the architecture of the period from 1980 to the present day as "recent". They differentiate this recent architecture from "contemporary architecture", which they define as architecture produced during the maturation period of architectural modernism, between 1960 and 1980.

4 Architectural groups between 1960 and 1970 proclaimed a return to the forgotten roots of the profession and rethought the definition and objectives of the architectural discipline (Parga Prado 2015).

5 Rural Studio: architecture group created at Auburn University (Alabama, United States) with strategies aimed at satisfying problematic social demands.

6 Amereida Cooperative: a consortium of professors formed around 1960 in the School of Architecture at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaiso (Chile), which developed an educational strategy with Project methodologies related to collective work.

7 From native peoples, peasants, movements in the face of economic crises, victims of military dictatorships and gender collectives, among others.

8 Referring to people who are capable of creating their own destinies and not only to those with a university degree (Harvey 2003).

9 That it lies not only in the individual, buy in the implicit social and cultural contexts.

10 Information extracted from the interview held with Al Borde in the framework of Carol Linares Linares (2018) master's thesis: CO.LECTIVOS ¿Entidad o condición? (re)significando a los colectivos como prácticas de la arquitectura actual.