Listen to this article
Architecture is the most contingent of the arts. A painter or a poet, a musician or a novelist can, with even the most meagre of means, begin to create. Buildings need clients and sites, they need planning permission and approval from neighbours, they need engineers and construction crews. And, most of all, they need money.
Architecture is consequently more intimately involved in the economic cycle than any of the other arts. But there is also a curious paradox. Much of the worst architecture emerges from a boom (think of Dubai) when there is too much work and not enough reflection. Similarly, the moments of real inspiration often emerge from economic crisis. Modernism was formed in the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution (the early masterpieces were built of timber offcuts and scrap) and the instability of the Weimar Republic.
The retreat from practice has traditionally fostered intellectual advance and new movements.
But, in recent years, an intriguing trend has emerged: architects frustrated by a lack of opportunity to build who, rather than retreating into drawings or text, have formed multidisciplinary practices to build their designs themselves.
The result has been an explosion of DIY design, often characterised by coarse timber construction, the use of found materials and ready-mades appropriated from art practice, a determinedly ad hoc aesthetic and often quite brilliant invention.
The usual problem for architects building their own designs is finding a site. The shortage and expense of land in big cities has often pushed self-building designers into the countryside, where their efforts might be spectacular but often only affect small rural communities. This was the problem addressed by a Hungarian movement, loosely termed organic architecture, which followed in the wake of the charismatic Imre Makovecz (1935-2011). Establishing a network of independent practices across the country, students moved around working on community projects from village halls to bus shelters, often taking part in the actual building work as well as designing.
Under communism, with all initiative discouraged, such moves towards reinforcing local communities and endowing the identity that architectural standardisation sought to squash, were dangerous political gestures. Yet organic architecture continued, in part to recreate a national identity and also to root architects in the practicalities of everyday life at the start of their careers.
Something similar happened in the US. Rural Studio, established by Samuel Mockbee in 1993 in Hale County, Alabama, concentrated on housing and community projects in Alabama’s impoverished “Black Belt” (originally named for its rich earth but latterly retained as an indication of its black majority). It produced a host of thoughtful, elegant buildings and interventions by focusing not on form but on needs, and so became a place of pilgrimage for idealistic and practically inclined young architects. Mockbee died in 2001 and Andrew Freear, an articulate British-born architect, took up the helm at Rural Studio.
In England, there has recently been a real boom in architects doing it themselves. A successful and highly visible example has been a bar perched on top of a multi-storey car park in Peckham, south London. Designed by Practice Architecture, this is a simple pop-up structure – timber struts and a red canopy – that transforms the tenth-storey concrete rooftop into a hyper-urban cocktail bar. Frank’s Café, which returns each year in a slightly different configuration, exemplifies not only the ad hoc aesthetic but also the quest for curious, often theatrical, sites.
London (and this is a phenomenon mostly found in London) may appear full but it is, in fact, rich with interstitial sites, the leftover spaces created by infrastructure and redundancy.
Another memorable intervention was The Cineroleum, a DIY cinema built beneath the canopy of a derelict filling station on London’s Clerkenwell Road. Its flip-up seats were roughly built from timber offcuts and interspersed with salvaged velvet-upholstered originals. In place of walls was a curtain made from insulation and damp-proof fabric. The ruched curtain was lowered to create a magical space where the sounds of evening traffic filtered in. It was temporary but it has lodged more firmly in my mind than many new buildings I walk past every day.
The Cineroleum was the work of Assemble, the biggest and most prolific grouping of self-building architects. Assemble was also responsible for Folly for a Flyover (2011), a kind of community centre built in brick in the cavity beneath a Hackney flyover, and Theatre on the Fly, an impressive temporary barn of a theatre erected for the Chichester Festival last year.
Assemble has moved from pop-up to permanent with striking success: the architects bring ingenuity and economical use of found materials characteristic of impermanence and installation into the realm of urbanism. They are working on a surprisingly wide range of new projects, including the conversion of an industrial unit into artists’ studios in east London.
Swiss architects Gruppe, who work in a similar way (though, being Swiss, are more meticulous in their construction), this year built Black Maria, an installation-cum-performance space, at Central St Martins art school in King’s Cross, London in collaboration with artist Richard Wentworth. And beyond the UK, the same impulse takes many intriguing forms.
In the spring, I attended an event in Copenhagen that was held in a geodesic dome (of the type popularised by Richard Buckminster Fuller) built by architects Kristoffer Tejlgaard and Benny Jepsen using simple timber and polycarbonate with nuts and bolts construction. The structure was funded by NXT, the contractor developing the site (beside the waterside restaurant Noma), and christened “The Dome of Visions”, its purpose being to hold events to question the nature of future development on the site.
I also recently met young architects Ciguë, based in Montreuil in France, who employ found objects and salvaged items to create extraordinary effects in their commissioned work.
There are some concerns about this phenomenon. One is that there is a certain fetishisation of the language of construction and the temporary which becomes a little wearing in its artifice – roughness itself becomes a kind of luxury consumable.
However, it is a trend that signals a real shift in thinking about architecture as a way of making. For decades, architects have been ceding power to contractors and engineers who increasingly control the process. These are architects re-engaging with building at the most fundamental level and the results so far have been interesting, mixed and tantalising.
Get alerts on Arts when a new story is published