Mauro Gil-Fournier’s spatial and educational practice revolves around the necessity of investigating the affects that are behind the choices we make in our lives. He has recently published Las Casas que me Habitan (2022) and has designed his own educational program, Ecologías Afectivas, which he teaches in Spain. In this conversation with Chiara Dorbolò, Mauro talks about actively engaging with the affective aspects of spatial practice and how these can be a key factor in shifting to more ethical, environmentally and socially sustainable ways of working.
CHIARA DORBOLÒ Where does the notion of “affective architectures” come from and why did you choose it as a framework for your research, design and educational practice?
MAURO GIL-FOURNIER That’s a good question, and one that does not have a single answer. Personally, I find it really relevant to understand how we introduce the personal in the collective and in our architectural design, as it is transversal to our education and to our material practice. How can we be conscious of our personal and collective affections and how can we design with them? And for me, design is not only a human endeavour, but also a more-than-human one: other beings, materials, places, localities, geographies—all of this is involved in design. It is not simply about the situated knowledge Donna Haraway and others talk about. In addition to understanding from which place we design, affective architecture is about putting on the table this inner practice we have, because it is continuously interacting with what is outside of us and with place. Affective architecture is about putting affections in territories—not only in discourse and in narratives, but in place.
Affective architecture is about putting affections in territories—not only in discourse and in narratives, but in place.
CD Can you share more about your references and inspirations?
MGF Inspirations are always multiple. But maybe I can say something about the moment in which we came up with the idea of using the word “affective". In 2015 I was preparing a seminar with theorist, writer, and Professor Elke Krasny, Susana Jorgina (cultural mediator from Matadero) and the team at collaborative platform VIC (Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas). We started having conversations about what we found interesting in the civil practice that was happening in Madrid at that time, about activism in public space. I started wondering what was moving people to put so much effort and time into working together in public spaces, what was behind the openness of those practices that are not for their own benefit and are often not even for their own community. So, together with Elke, we named this way of observing affective practices “Affective Urbanism”, and then I started working on it and developing this idea. And only four or five years later I realised the potentiality of understanding what moves us all, not only for activists, but for everyone. Because we are all “in place”, we all build our spaces, our community, our life. And when I say build, I refer to the material as well as the immaterial. So at that point, what I found inspiring was to try to research the place from which we are doing things, to try and develop this cartography of affections that we put in place, on the territory, with our projects and with our actions.
We are all “in place”, we all build our spaces, our community, our life.
CD Your book Las casas que me habitan (The houses that inhabit me) seems to start from a willingness to explore the blurry border between “project” and “life”. Could you tell us more about it?
MGF What I really like to study—and to live, which I consider the same— is the continuity of affects. Affections are the most transversal things I could find in this world to understand the continuity of things. So starting from myself, I can research how affections are going through me—through the technical tools I use to design—unto the world. This is what creates a continuity between me, my design and the people who are eventually using the result of that design. So understanding these affections is important to understand how, through my practice, I’m affecting people's life, the territory and the ecosystem. So the book is a research into that. As I was researching thousands of initiatives in civil practice in Spain, Europe, and Latin America, I was feeling a big void. And then I found out that if I looked through myself carefully, I began to understand how all these initiatives were also inside me. There is no filter between what is outside and what is inside, and that is the affection. So writing the book felt like opening a very personal door but without really sharing personal facts. And for me, that was a new space. A space that I had been wanting to reach for some time, but I did not know how.
There is no filter between what is outside and what is inside, and that is the affection.
CD You wrote that the houses of your book are “not projects but affective realities that you have detected, discovered and investigated in a radical collaboration with yourself”.1 At the same time, not only do they take shape through your drawings, but their descriptions are so detailed and materialistic that it feels like you thought of them as architectural projects. What was the role of architectural design in your creative process and how is it deployed as a medium to communicate your research?
MGF I think each person has their own tools. For me, the project became a tool to access affective knowledge. Normally, when we design something—it could be clothing, an object, or a landscape—we have to make a lot of effort to come up with a concept: we want to be creative, innovative, we want to make something interesting and beautiful… But if we practise deep listening and try to understand which affections are involved in that specific situation, then the project appears by itself, because it has always been there. But if you put your project over the situation, listening becomes impossible. So for me projects became a tool to realise what is important, to learn things about myself through the materiality of architecture. This is also because sometimes talking about affections is difficult, we don’t always know how to express ourselves, we don’t know how to embody this knowledge of affections. So, at least for me, architecture was really helpful in this. The materiality and spatiality of architecture made this knowledge available to me.
Projects became a tool to realise what is important, to learn things about myself through the materiality of architecture.
Fat Salt and Sugar. Urban Research directed by Mauro Gil-Fournier. 2021 Courtesy of Affective Architectures.
CD You wrote “if we know the affections that are behind our practice, we can propose an architecture that materially looks like our best will, impulses, desires, actions, sentiments and thoughts, both personal and collective”.2 Could you give me an example of how keeping your emotions at the forefront of your mind has improved your design practice?
MGF You said “emotions”, but when I’m talking about affections, I’m talking about something different. I think we live in a very emotional world. Everything today is emotional. But, at least for me, that’s not a good place to investigate, because emotions come and go, they can be very violent and they are easy to manipulate. Affections instead are not as visible, they are like an inner power that structures us. So coming back to your question, I have a very specific example. If I have a very deep need for recognition, this affection will manage all my actions, also professionally: I might do a lot of projects, because that gives me more possibilities for recognition; all my relations, with my clients, with my team, with you, will be managed by this need for recognition. But when I acknowledge this, and I can name it, that can change. I can understand what is a reasonable amount of work for me and I can give more attention to what I’m doing, I can listen better. That’s a simple example, but then it’s interesting also to detect contemporary affections, because then we can understand not only the personal but also the collective and the structural conditions that are affecting us. For example, Lauren Berlant talks about “cruel optimism”, a relationship that exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. So she is naming something very important because it’s related to the individual, but also with capitalism and with the structural conditions of the moment. So I encourage people to understand this research and try to name new affections involved in our design, cities, and communities.
This inner part of myself, the civic initiative that made it possible and the materiality of the project, all is connected because architecture is an affective matter.
CD Alongside your research on architecture as an affective matter, you have also built several projects. How do these two aspects of your work affect each other?
MGF Architecture is an affective matter. A good example is a project I built when I was 24 years old, together with my partners at the time —we were all very young—the 11M memorial in Madrid. We won a competition, so we began to build this glass structure, an 11 metres structure only made with glass. I can name at least two affective aspects of that project. First, when we were working with glass, with this big, massive glass, we were very busy with the structural aspects of the construction and we did not have a very strong interaction with the people affected by the terrorist attack. But then, a woman who had lost her husband in the attack came to talk to us, and we developed a very good friendship. This interaction has allowed me to understand things that happened in 2005 but that I began to understand only a few years ago. The way she talks about the glass, about touching it, about the comfort she got from it… she developed a strong connection with the material and with its capacity to calm her. At this moment, full of pain, she was connecting with a process of creation, and this made me see that it’s possible to design things that might help soothe the pain. Then we finished the project and moved on to other projects. And, this is the more personal aspect, for years I could not talk about this project. Only 15 years later I could explain the project from my own perspective and understand the continuity between this inner part of myself, the civic initiative that made it possible and the materiality of the project. All is connected because architecture is an affective matter.
We have to ask ourselves what teaching is. Teaching is not putting knowledge over someone but helping create the conditions for people to discover, understand, or incorporate knowledge on their own.
CD You started a fascinating non-academic educational program based on your approach. Yet, affective architecture seems a highly subjective approach, very grounded in one’s personal life and emotional state. To what extent do you think it is possible to teach this awareness of one’s own position? Is teaching even the right verb for that?
MGF I think the answer is yes, it is possible. But first, we have to ask ourselves what teaching is. Teaching is not putting knowledge over someone but helping create the conditions for people to discover, understand, or incorporate knowledge on their own. And this is something difficult to do in university. I teach at universities as well and I started to ask myself: what are the conditions that universities create for teachers and students to learn? It has to do with time, the pressure of doing, the pressure of deadlines…We could find other ways to understand how to incorporate knowledge on our own. And I think I can help with that. Affective architecture is not about me. It’s about people who feel there could be another way of understanding design. And there are many people who feel this way. But usually, when we go to university, it creates a distance between us and our own capacity to learn in our own way. So we have to try and shorten that distance and teach people to be confident in their own awareness. This is the second edition of Affective Ecologies, and it’s tiny, you could say it’s a pedagogical laboratory. But it was interesting to see that, even if it was created for students, it also attracted teachers. And if we think of the students that will be taught by these teachers that are now part of this learning community, we could observe again this continuity of affection, and that could change the way we learn, the way we understand design, architecture, landscape and urbanism. But this is not just about projects. I think we can develop systems where people can learn from their own learning. Because in my opinion, there is a lot of power in learning this way but there are affective realities that do not allow us to access this power. So I’m trying to create a space where we can do that together, a space where everyone feels responsible for their own learning. Because in the end, in order to be able to learn, you need to connect to your own learning and understand why you want to learn and what is your real motivation. And in our program, we do that, with honesty and no judgement. And I think these are the spaces we need to open now, both pedagogically and in our architectural practices.
Chiara Dorbolò is an architect and researcher working at the intersection between storytelling, criticism, and design. Currently based in Madrid, she works as a writer, curator, designer, and educator. Chiara studied at La Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, and at the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture. Since 2017, she is a contributing editor at Failed Architecture, for which she curated the special series “A City of Our Own: Urban Feminism for the 99%”, and, together with Daphne Bakker, the project “Stories on Earth”, presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021. After gaining experience in various architecture and interior design offices in the Netherlands, in 2019 she started collaborating with Tobia Davanzo and Gregorio Pecorelli. Their proposal for the redevelopment of the former train station of Rogoredo, Milan, was awarded the first prize in the competition “AAA Architetticercasi” in 2020. In addition to writing and giving international workshops, she has been teaching architecture practice and theory at the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture and the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. In collaboration with Future Architecture Platform and DPR Barcelona, she curated the Architecture Bookfair 2021. She was among the recipients of the Talent Development Grant from the Creative Industries Fund NL in 2019. Her book “Liminal Places. Seven Spatial Stories to Return Home” was published by Onomatopee in 2022.
Mauro Gil-Fournier is a PhD architect, researcher, and professor. After 15 years of professional career, he founded Affective Architectures, a community that makes architecture with pleasure. Formerly co-founder of estudiofam (2003) vivero de iniciativas ciudadanas (2008) estudiosic (2009), since 2017 he co-directs the European project Mares de Madrid in the EU Urban Innovative Actions program (2017-2019). He is Fellow Residence at Art OMI, New York (2019), and his projects have received awards such as the Detail Prize, Bauwelt Price, finalist in AR Arwards for emerging architecture, FAD award, Mies Van der Rohe, among others. His work has been exhibited and published in the Newmark Gallery at the Benenson Center in New York (2019), the Spanish pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale (2018), the Oslo Architecture Triennial, (2016), the Householding Fair at Bauhaus Dessau, (2015), the Lisbon Architecture Triennial, (2013) or the II Biennial of Public Space in Rome, (2013). He is a speaker at numerous universities and forums in Spain, Latin America and USA. His work is often published in international magazines in Asia, America and Europe such as A+U, Arquitectura Viva, and Domus. Recently he published his most personal book “Las casas que me habitan” (Mincho Press, 2021), (Arquitecturas Afectivas Ediciones, 2022).
1 “Las casas que me habitan no son proyectos sino realidades afectivas que he detectado, descubierto e investigado en una colaboración radical conmigo mismo”
2 “Si conocemos los afectos que están detrás de nuestras prácticas, podremos proponer una arquitectura que ensambla materialmente nuestras mejores voluntades, impulsos, deseos, acciones, sentimientos y pensamientos, tanto personales como colectivos”