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Architensions on Transgressing Space
Reflections on how architecture can contribute to subvert an unequal and apparently stable system.

New York-based architecture office Architensions, established by Alessandro Orsini and Nick Roseboro more than ten years ago, contributes to changing some of the paradigms and foundations of the relationship between architecture and capitalism. Through their practice, theoretical work, and pedagogical approach, they investigate the topics of labor, patriarchy, property, gender and racial inequality—some of the very pillars of the capitalist system. Their projects and writings about housing and the domestic space, the commons, and leisure push the boundary of collectivity against the atomization of society. Their work challenges the design discourse against inequality, rewrites what it means to practice and teach architecture, decolonizes the profession and contributes to writing an alternative narrative of the architectural device.

"Complexity in architecture doesn’t lie in the size of the project." - Nick Roseboro

"The Playground", Indio (California, US). A project by Architensions within the context of the “Coachella Art and Music Festival”, April 2022. Photo: ©Lance Gerber

VF Nick, you come from a nonplastic art with no need for function, with a different relationship with the public and space from the one architecture has. Does the process of composing music and designing architecture imply a different mental structure, or do they have common traits?

NR I don't see the difference between composing music, designing a cup or architecture. I always go to the simplest process: when you walk, you have to put one foot in front of the other, and this basic idea allows me to theorize creativity no matter the subject. The more I teach, the more I try to do the same with my pedagogy. Complexity in architecture doesn’t lie in the size of the project. Many architects don't make large buildings, some make small buildings, and some deal just with parts of the building, like the stairs or the facades. Some others don’t even design buildings at all, but participate in the discourse through writing or teaching. Understanding these tensions allows me to comprehend that music and architecture are not about a different way of thinking or mental structure. We think and express ourselves in drawing, writing, collaging, or composing, which are simply different instruments or tools of creative expression.

"We avoid top-down solutions: it is not about giving absolute answers, but further advancing the questions." - Alessandro Orsini

VF Alessandro, you teach at Columbia GSAPP, “Core Studio I”, “Advanced Studio IV”, and recently co-thought “Professional Practice”. Does teaching affect your design approach, method, and the way you run your firm? How?

AO Teaching has always been important to me. It is about the mutual idea that pedagogy is embedded into the design and vice versa. Through teaching, we constantly reinvent and challenge the questions of design, and this is even more true today when we tackle important issues about justice, race, finance, or sustainability. “Professional Practice” is about rewriting what practicing architecture is and what kind of alternative forms of practice we can envision. This is another way to decolonize the profession; we are coming out from the lessons of modernism, which have thrown very heavy questions and constraints about what architecture is and what it is not, who can practice it, and for whom. Today, we are challenging this paradigm, and I think we need to start by teaching and reenvisioning pedagogy. My studio's approach focuses on the research we are working on in the office or on what I’m writing at that moment. I interrogate the students to understand how that specific topic is evolving. Architecture tends to be very stagnant and made of paradigms, and the studio aims to challenge those same paradigms. We avoid top-down solutions: it is not about giving absolute answers, but further advancing the questions. We need to reconsider what is vernacular in architecture, removing references we don't need, either from buildings or books. It is important to reconsider all these parameters, not to erase them but to rewrite a different history. Architecture is a very problematic discipline, it displaces, colonizes, and divides. For me, teaching has always been central and instrumental to challenge the discourse. We, architects, don't do it enough, we need to be more radical.

"Architecture is a very problematic discipline, it displaces, colonizes, and divides. For me, teaching has always been central and instrumental to challenge the discourse." - Alessandro Orsini

"The Playground" for the “Coachella Art and Music Festival”. A project by Architensions as exhibited within the context of “Architectural Drawing: Parallel Rules” at a83 Gallery, New York (US), November 19, 2022 – January 20, 2023

VF Drawing is an essential part of your design research. What is its speculative role, and how does it affect your design process?

AO Today, our profession is shaped around the commodification of real estate. Architects alone don't have enough agency to challenge capitalism. In our practice, we see architecture as a way to rethink equality and the distribution of the space needed to protect our biological life. In other words, the commons, which was the subject of our recent exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York. However, I believe we have agency in the acts of drawing and writing. I consider a drawing to have the same value as a built architecture and, sometimes, a higher one because we architects don't build, we draw. That's where our agency is. By drawing, we learn about tectonics, we interrogate the site, the prompt, and we theorize, something architects should do more. We often embark on competitions to learn how to work with building types that otherwise we would not be given the chance to work on.

"I consider a drawing to have the same value as a built architecture and, sometimes, a higher one because we architects don't build, we draw. That's where our agency is." - Alessandro Orsini

NR For me, architecture—whether a built project, a drawing, or a model—is always an exploration: when we finish a project, we continue to explore. The condition of the architect is similar to the one of a music composer, who has agency over how harmony interlocks together —regardless if someone performs that piece or not. When the composer finishes writing a piece, the conclusion is also a beginning in terms of thought. Drawing is a very powerful tool, especially considering that no one can tell the architect what to draw; on the contrary, the building code represents the requirements and limits for the building. You can find ways to use the code but drawing to build is very different from drawing to research. One way of thinking about drawing is asking “what is the value of that drawing? Are there iterations? Why?” That’s a way to explore beyond the built.

"For me, architecture—whether a built project, a drawing, or a model—is always an exploration: when we finish a project, we continue to explore." - Nick Roseboro

"House No.3". A project by Architensions within the context of the “One House Per Day” research and publication by Andrew Bruno, 2021

VF Housing is experiencing a polycrisis. Compared to the evolution of human behavior and needs, housing —understood as the domestic space and its reiterations as a Western-driven mass product— is going through a stagnant moment. Is housing responding to contemporary intimate, relational, and functional needs and meanings?

NR Housing and domestic space are difficult subjects because sheltering against the natural elements is a right and an essential outcome of architecture. We have been slowly updating and changing housing, but because of the connection between built architecture, politics and economics, we've diminished a possible development process in favor of whatever is achievable on those same terms. Housing, especially in North America, because of its pecuniary value, is also a specific tool in the lives of people: it gives economic benefit, builds equity, and allows people to become “model citizens”. But for these same reasons, housing and domesticity have been, and still are, a symbol of economic violence, social separation, and racial inequality. One problem is that housing is designed around the Western idea of the patriarchal family, not representing what society is today. We need to give agency to different forms of aggregations and models that go beyond the traditional and patriarchal family. The house is historically the place for defining the individual and the individualization of society. Housing related to capitalism thrives on individualization but excludes the collectivization of social interactions and exchange.

"We need to give agency to different forms of aggregations and models that go beyond the traditional and patriarchal family." - Nick Roseboro

AO This is central to the housing paradigm, the meaning of relationships in the household. The paradigm of power and gender, where the patriarch is the head of the family and the female is traditionally responsible for cleaning, cooking and reproduction. Housing is still dramatically linked to these notions because capitalism perpetuates violence on the portion of society that doesn't have access to housing or doesn’t fit into the category of a traditional family. If the patriarchal structure has historically exploited territories and the idea of the pecuniary value, then we should look at other collective models to reconfigure our life and to guarantee the future of society. One author who is central to our research is Silvia Federici, who says: “we cannot build an alternative society and a strong self-reproducing movement unless we redefine our reproduction in a more cooperative way and put an end to the separation between the personal and the political and between political activism and the reproduction of everyday life.”1 This is crucial for the future of architecture as well, what architects can do to give agency to alternative forms of society.

"House on House", Babylon (New York, US), 2021. A project by Architensions. Photo: © Michael Vahrenwald/ESTO

VF You focus on the processes between architecture and humanity and often mention projects that, like New Babylon by Constant, aim to subvert the rules of a capitalist society. What is relevant about the ludic role of architecture, and which are the tools of the architect to enhance it?

NR I'm researching homo ludens and, interestingly, there's also negativity within play. What happens in a playground is not always fun: “the bully” and other direct interactions happen even though these places are designed for fun. There are unexpected outcomes. That is why Coachella’s idea was to critique the sites of leisure: we facilitated a paradox that speaks about the transformation of the homo ludens’ leisure into unpaid labor. This is because leisure and labor coexist in the same plane, they are in mutual need of each other: we labor, we need time away from work, but we want the remuneration, which is used also for leisure time. It is a cyclical situation and I think that's where the tension lies. We cannot talk about labor without leisure. This topic is not brought up enough in the architectural discourse, unless it is about typologies for sports, where leisure is split between recreation and entertainment, which is capitalism feeding itself. Designing an installation for Coachella asks many questions about the relationship between architecture and leisure, how capitalism applied a transformation of the space for leisure, and the meaning of leisure itself. The word leisure in Latin means to “be permitted”, but then it became a synonym for doing something freed from work. In early societies, leisure was embedded into the house. Then, modernism helped change this condition, brought it outside and codified new typologies. Today, capitalism put it back in the house through digital platforms, but Covid-19 has also brought work into the house again, making the distinction with leisure very thin. So, we are researching what parameters to apply to reintroduce leisure into the design of different spaces and typologies and what are those paradigms in which direct life experience informs leisure instead of the economic regimes of capitalism. We created a society based on continuous work and the production of capital, where only the privileged can afford time off from work for leisure, which may not only be entertainment. So, the question is exactly this: who can access these spaces for leisure, and what kind of leisure do they experience?

"We created a society based on continuous work and the production of capital, where only the privileged can afford time off from work for leisure, which may not only be entertainment." - Nick Roseboro

AO My Fall 2022 studio at Columbia tackled “queer spaces”, the Paradise Garage among them. It was a members-only club that became central in the cultural production of queer black and Latinx youth that stemmed from David Mancuso's The Loft, which was an innovative space of leisure. It was successful because it was accessible to people that didn't have the means for leisure, removing financial and sexual boundaries, and a space for equality devoted to dancing. Queer spaces, like the ballrooms, are a great example of the commons that were made by the LGBTQ community to create protective environments for those who were never accepted by society or their families, particularly Black and Latinx. We need to abandon the traditional classification of typologies as we know them today to reconfigure spaces that allow the possibility for leisure, which could be unexpected and not traditional.

"A Gilded Tale". A project by Architensions as exhibited within the context of “Souvenirs: New New York Icons” at Storefront for Art & Architecture, New York (New York, US), September 16 – December 9, 2017

VF To design with paradigms that differ from the context and to work on the imaginary, outdistances the project from the logic of the built artifact. Thus, I always believed that your “Gilded Tale” project was a speculative operation… but then it became a reality with Coachella's “The Playground”! What was the transfer that allowed this change of status?

NR The first transfer was the form itself, it was the grid. The “Gilded Tale” is an unbuilt site-specific project, it is a grid where local people display objects representing their values and the identity of their community. It is a critique of capitalism because gilded objects attract people, but, in this specific case, they do so to promote social values, the community, and the collective. Since we didn't want to produce a project that was top-down to the community, the project stemmed from the Situationist’s idea of direct life experience. The second transfer is that the collective makes the space.

"It is a critique of capitalism because gilded objects attract people, but, in this specific case, they do so to promote social values, the community, and the collective." - Nick Roseboro

AO And the third transfer, paradoxically, holds on the scale. When, in the summer of 2019 the curator from Goldenvoice—who was in charge of selecting the artists for Coachella—visited our office, we immediately understood that we had to start from the Gilded Tale and evolve it. Even when the final project for Storefront was supposed to be a souvenir, we always considered it a tower, and so it finally became a group of towers. That was instrumental because, in order to make a public space for Coachella, we needed to make a fragment of a city in a suburban location, the embodiment of all the negative connotations of the sprawl.

"The Playground", Indio (California, US). A project by Architensions within the context of the “Coachella Art and Music Festival”, 2022

VF Coachella’s “The Playground” is not a built project as we commonly mean it, but rather a giant model. It is not a real playground because there is almost no interaction between architecture and the users, it asks for the users' imagination instead. Its strength lies precisely in its inability to interact and to represent an aspiration at the scale of a building. What does this project aim to achieve in terms of the construction of the urban and social imaginary?

NR It is a project that remained under development for a very long time and that we drew in many possible ways. Our idea was to make a project that would inspire people toward direct experiences, and our question was “where is the leisure space happening today?” The more we were asking the question, the more it was apparent that leisure today is removed from the public eye, but when we arrived at the site, we were shocked by seeing people using this space as a piazza. The ground level is where the interaction between architecture and the people happens. The two variables that changed everything are the context in which it exists—which is indeed the festival—and the shadows it creates. These variables allow people to use the space as a piazza, there's a collective gathering just like I've seen in Italy, even if there are no facades that enclose the piazza. At the same time, homo ludens occurred: people started doing physical exercises, playing in front of the mirrors, and so on.

"Our idea was to make a project that would inspire people toward direct experiences, and our question was 'where is the leisure space happening today?'" - Nick Roseboro

AO We wanted to create an imaginary where selfies were not allowed to happen, and they didn't because the scale was too big to capture, so people were asking others to take pictures, stimulating new encounters. There was another phenomenological component that became crucial—the fact that the dichroic film scattered colors around for people to chase. The colors created by the film and reflected by the mirrors contributed to creating an interactive environment for homo ludens, making this piazza-style node a landmark in the festival. What we wanted to foster was exactly a collective experience and the idea that, when a society is removed from the burdens of profit, leisure becomes more central to the question of equality and justice. This project was, in the end, about promoting the idea of sharing: sharing the earth, resources, ideas and last and foremost, emotions. Because it was a place for emotions.

"This project was, in the end, about promoting the idea of sharing: sharing the earth, resources, ideas and last and foremost, emotions." - Alessandro Orsini

"Vision for San Ferdinando", San Ferdinando (Italy), 2022. A project by Architensions

VF What is the paradigm you are trying to change with your work?

NR First, we're trying to facilitate new modes of discussion, practice, and theory, because I believe that architecture can be part of changing some issues in society. But to do so, we need to abandon any self-referencing disciplinary approach and look also at the social, the political, the environmental, and the economic. For example, we are interrogating ourselves on how to bring to the table the vital topic of social justice. We live in a racialized world, which is inescapable as capitalism. I think that it's very important to understand how we can improve our life by parsing through the issues of our time through architecture.

AO Changes require time and I think that designers all around the world are thinking about these same questions: politics, finance, the physical space—which is attached to the realm of freedom—and the possibility of expression, of living collectively, which are crucial in our work. I would say that our work wants to push the boundary of collectivity against the atomization of the individual, and I think that it can be done through drawing, writing, or teaching.

Bio

Alessandro Orsini is an architect and founding principal of Architensions. He holds licenses in Italy and the United Kingdom, with experience working on a wide range of projects both internationally and in the US. His work focuses on architecture at the intersection of the political, social, and environmental spatial networks with specific interests in redefining new modes of collective living. He teaches design studios at Columbia University GSAPP and has served as a guest critic in several architecture schools.

Nick Roseboro is a designer and musician with experience across many creative disciplines. Roseboro’s research revolves around interpreting urban and rural contexts as complex organisms of social, environmental, political, and ludic insertions within an ever-changing reality. In addition, he is interested in redefining architectural practice through curatorial, pedagogical, and cross-disciplinary means of exploration toward new architectural and creative outcomes and cultural production.

Valerio Franzone is an architect licensed in Italy and the UK with a focus on the relationships among architecture, humanity, and nature. He holds a Ph.D. from the “Villard d’Honnecourt” International Doctorate in Architecture (IUAV, Venice). A founding partner of 2A+P and 2A+P Architettura, he later established Valerio Franzone Architetto. His projects have been awarded in international competitions, presented at exhibitions such as the International Architecture Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, and published in magazines including Domus, Abitare, and Volume.

Notes

1 Silvia Federici, Re-Enchanting the World: Femminism and the Politics of the Commons, Kairos (Okland, CA: PM Press, 2019), 112

Published
22 Feb 2023
Reading time
22 minutes
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