The Great Repair: towards a new social contract
How to approach repair at the scale of systemic, structural and social change? Florian Hertweck, Milica Topalović, Alex Nehmer and Markus Krieger explain their positive vision for repair as a social practice.

Alongside decolonisation and decarbonation, ‘reparation’ has emerged as a widely interpreted concept in architectural, anthropological and ecological discourse. How to approach repair at the scale of systemic, structural and social change? Florian Hertweck, Milica Topalović, Alex Nehmer and Markus Krieger — together, the editors of the publication ARCH+ #253: The Great Repair, which acts as catalogue to an exhibition of the same name— explain their positive vision for repair as a social practice.

KOOZ Let’s start from the title of the exhibition and homonymous publication, The Great Repair. Can you expand on the tension embedded in the title, with its reference to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, or even Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward?

FLORIAN HERTWECK We already had the notion of The Great Repair in mind when Milica and myself suggested a publication to ARCH+ — namely, a project on socio-ecological transition. Of course, we were thinking primarily of Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation, written in the 1930–40s, which describes the transition to a market society in the 20th century. As with the concept of ecological transition, which John Bennett initially developed in the 1970s, Polanyi is thus describing a negative phenomenon. For us, however, the term was intended to introduce a new and positive paradigm: the Great Repair implies a transition to a new material culture. The input of our colleagues from ARCH+, who brought Wilfried Lipp’s concept of ‘repair society’ into play, was very important. Lipp, a former Austrian state conservator, coined this term back in 1993, in an essay that did not receive much attention at the time.

"[According to Lipp] the notion of repair could 'be a relay for a kind of new social contract, in which the reassurance of the past, the recognition of the limits of resources and the agreement on the concept of social justice would be guiding principles.'"

- Florian Hertweck.

We also knew that the concept of repair was very present in the histories of technology, science and information, with critical contributions on technological innovation and the associated obsolescence, — for example, by Stephen J. Jackson. Not so much in architecture, where up to now we have tended to talk about reuse, regeneration or transformation. In architecture, repair is associated more with DIY-movements or purely technical practices and less with architectural culture, because it is often wrongly assumed that repair simply means fixing a defect. However, Lipp emphasises the transformative and regenerative nature of repair. By opposing the various terms used in his discipline, such as restoration or restitution, he proposes to extend the principle of repair from the built environment to the unbuilt and thus to ecological and economic dimensions. As a rejection of a ruined world, he wrote, the notion of repair could “be a relay for a kind of new social contract, in which the reassurance of the past, the recognition of the limits of resources and the agreement on the concept of social justice would be guiding principles.”


KOOZ In The Great Repair — both on page and on site — the medium is (part of) the message. Could you expand upon the way you actively approached and modified the way visitors accessed the site of the initial exhibition in Berlin — and will this be repeated in Paris?

FH The exhibition building of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin’s Hansaviertel district — designed by Werner Düttmann and Sabine Schumann as part of the Interbau 1957 — is undoubtedly one of the most important works of post-war modernism in Berlin. However, like most modern public buildings, it is based on a hierarchical spatial organisation of representation that particularly conceals the rooms for maintenance, care and cleaning, that is to say, essential requirements for daily use.

We wanted to break through this hierarchy and make these spaces visible. After all, the basic principle of repair, be it architectural, material or social, is to extend the lifespan — cleaning and care of everyday life contribute significantly to this extension. We have therefore moved the entrance from the building’s monumental staircase, which normally takes visitors up to the three exhibition halls, to the functional rooms next to the cafeteria. From the service corridor — which, until now, has not been visible to the public — visitors then use a narrow service staircase to reach, directly and surprisingly, the 1000-square metre exhibition hall. This alternative route is accompanied by a series of photographs by Zara Pfeifer, documenting the work of the cleaning staff; the first objects visible in the large hall are the cleaning products themselves.

By reversing the classic tour from a ceremonial staircase and through the three halls, we were obliged to find a new connection between the two larger ones. During visits to previous exhibitions, we had noticed that a beautiful courtyard — around which the three halls extend — was barely used by the public. It was not even visible from the exhibition rooms, as windows had been darkenedfor museographic reasons. We wanted our exhibition about the repair to be open and bright, so we removed these filters to restore the building's relationship with its courtyard. We then commissioned the Atelier Bow-Wow to design a structure made of reused materials that crosses the courtyard in the form of a solar garden: on the one hand, this solar garden restores the circularity of the visitor routes, and on the other, it allows visitors to really experience the courtyard, even in winter.

The Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris, where the exhibition is currently on display, is also undergoing a new repair process — this will begin in 2025, by DATA Architectes. After the prominent transformation of the building into the Centre for Architecture and Urbanism of Paris, by the office Reichen et Robert in 1989 and the long term scenographic display on the ground floor by Finn Geipel in 2004, the Pavillon de l’Arsenal will also be renovated to increase the accessibility and the climate conditions. Thus, we also start the exhibition by showing these different repair processes and the maintenance activities linked to the Pavillon.


KOOZ The project challenges the prevailing “techno-fixes” and their promise to repair the current climate and resource crisis through a green, growth-oriented process of transformation. Rather, The Great Repair asks us to look and work with what is already there — prioritising the maintenance and reuse of our existing building stock. What are the limits of these practices when up against the prevailing capitalistic approach, which prioritises the extractivist paradigm and endless growth?

FHIt seems utopian, even completely naïve to build an alternative to the dominant narrative in the western world. Firstly, the techno-fix-narrative is so powerful precisely because it suggests that neither people nor politicians need to initiate structural changes, because green technologies would continuously generate economic growth decoupled from environmental impacts. Secondly, sufficiency and growth-critical approaches concentrate too often on the change of personal routines, which makes them vulnerable to media and politicians using emotionalisation, hysteria, fears of mass unemployment and migration in order to discredit anything apart from the growth model. Under the current geopolitical and socioeconomic situation — rife with crisis, wars, and inflation — people are effectively less interested in change and rather think about securing their own living standard. However, one may be sceptical about the techno-fix wizards, whose solutions may never come — even if they did, would raise questions of obsolescence, control and power. As we observe, the so-called ambition gap is widening everyday despite a huge current investment in green technologies.

"Under the current geopolitical and socioeconomic situation — rife with crisis, wars, and inflation — people are effectively less interested in change and rather think about securing their own living standard."

- Florian Hertweck.

We face an immense need for transformation, as Eva von Redecker emphasises, in the epilogue to our catalogue; it would be downright absurd to exclude the most strident terms for change that we have in our political vocabulary. But von Redecker understands revolution less as rupture and more as interstitial change; that is, change that creates the new, through and out of the interstices of the old. This is precisely the claim of this project of The Great Repair: reparative changes to social interstitial practices, in order to reach a new material culture. Moreover, sufficiency and post-growth approaches shouldn’t focus on personal sacrifices but rather develop paths to a new planning and political culture: rather than placing emphasis on ‘less’, they might offer ‘more’. More quality of life, more social equity, more independence, more clean air, more time and space, more conviviality …


KOOZ These techno-fixes, mostly propagated by market forces and capitalism, have repressed whole volumes of knowledge and ways of relating to the world as sustainable land use, materials extraction, and building techniques. Contemporarily it is almost impossible for us today to repair our everyday objects and technical devices as they have been purposefully designed for exhaustion. How can we reclaim these forms of knowledge and tools?

MILICA TOPALOVIĆ It is clear that the idea of repair we wanted to convey in this project goes beyond repair of simple objects or even buildings. We are faced with the need of repairing complex relationships and territories — broken climate and ecosystems, systems of commodity production, extreme social inequalities, colonial dependencies and, as you pointed out, the relationships of suppression of informalor indigenous knowledge, within both industrial production systems and academic technoscience.

A segment of the exhibition in Berlin and now in Paris deals with knowledge and tools, titled Tools to the People. Here our intention was to address repair notas a series of individual, isolated gestures, but the possibility of repair as a broad social practice. In the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, visitors will see efforts in which architects and artists are working together with communities to develop tools of repair, and to create conditions in which communities are empowered to carry out repairs within their own circumstances.

Atelier Bow Wow, for example, shows Small Earth, a project for a depopulating cultural landscape of satoyama in Japan. The reparative effort consists in cataloguing — in great detail — the tools and the skills used in agriculture, resource harvesting, construction, and so on, in order to learn from, pass the knowledge, and be able to reinhabit satoyama through a sustainable landscape practice.

Studio Anna Heringer works with a community of women in rural Bangladesh, to repair damages wrought by global clothing industry: re-embedding the cycle of production of textile within the community, based on existing materials and traditional skills, and thus helping restore the ability of self-determination and self-government in the village.

These are of course examples of specific, situated interventions, but you must be wondering, how can we address the systemic questions? We are aware that we have to tackle broader social phenomena of commodification space and experience — and the resulting production of waste — including the practice of planned obsolescence that you mentioned. We have to address wider spatial scales and dynamics of planetary urbanisation, including infrastructural expansion, extraction, and uneven development. How do we do that? We are convinced that, anywhere on the planet, territories are specific, and repair as a design approach requires that we work contextually and locally, with communities and with what exists.

"We are convinced that, anywhere on the planet, territories are specific, and repair as a design approach requires that we work contextually and locally, with communities and with what exists."

- Milica Topalović.

In our studio at the ETH Zürich Department of Architecture, we tackled with our students an interesting case in this context — the energy landscape of the Rheinisches Revier zone in Germany, which has become a symbol of global climate struggle. With students, we researched the dynamic of energy transition in this area, producing a large territorial model which shows the underlying social and environmental issues at stake in this transitional process. When you look at the struggles for clean water, air and for access to basic services — all of which may be sacrificed in the name of “energy”, whether fossil or renewable — it becomes clear that the idea of “tools for repair”mustmove beyond a reliance on equipment and technology: it has to include tools of democratic governance. The model shows that if renewable energy infrastructures are to become tools of repair, working for people and nature, then they cannot remain in corporate control, working for private profit. To achieve a just energy transition, we ought to socialise the means of production — in this case renewable energy production — and to govern these systems democratically, as a common good. Thus in a broader sense, Tools to the People is synonymous with power to the people. However, as Eva von Redecker pointed out in her interview in the exhibition catalogue, ARCH+ 253, this kind of revolution through repair is not a radical uprising, but a process of changing cultures and practices, working at interstices.

The Great Repair, spread.

KOOZ The project highlights practices like those of Fuminori Nousaku and Mio Tsuneyama, who embrace a collective architectural approach, shaped by an awareness of the vulnerability of social structures, and of humanity’s dependence on nature. To what extent does a reparation require a paradigm shift, positioning ourselves as subordinate rather than dominant over our environment?

MARKUS KRIEGER This paradigm shift is not a call for subordination towards the “things” that were previously dominated — that would be a crude inversion of existing hierarchies. It is closer to questioning what Jason W. Moore1 has called “real abstractions” like Nature and Society, Man and Woman, Black and White and so on, that in our modern world practically produce relations of domination. As Moore says, these are not merely conceptual categories or descriptors, but instruments with real material power. So, the shift you mention is not about inversion of hierarchies but about a transformation towards a new state.

Let’s make it more concrete: In our interview with Paulo Tavares, for the first ARCH+ issue on repair (#250), we touched on the founding of Brasília. Here, ‘Modern Architecture’ was central to materialising an oppositional relationship between Nature and. Society on the ground — starting with the crossroads that were paved to demarcate the origin point of the city and its masterplan. Soon after, the forest around the roads was razed and occupied with built structures as a “deliberate act of possession”. Of course, this kind of colonial project assumes the existing as an “empty space”. A space supposedly free to be instrumentalised, to serve the logic of Western conceptions of property and territory. In actuality, as Tavares and others have argued, the Amazonian forests — like many supposedly "empty" spaces — are in fact to a large extent the result of indigenous knowledge, practices and designs that are carefully cultivated to reproduce certain living conditions. What was deemed to belong to the realm of “pristine Nature”, in this case, is in fact a cultural space. For this reason, Tavares proposes that the forest should rather be conceived of as a kind of cultural or even architectural heritage.

"Especially when working towards repair, Tavares stresses, we should work in solidarity with those who have suffered the damages and have already struggled to achieve repair for decades."

- Markus Krieger.

Modernism has repeatedly reproduced these kinds of relations of domination when erasing or appropriating indigenous culture. By extension, architecture — just as its auxiliary discipline, cartography — should not be assumed to be a force for the greater good or as the right means to achieve social justice, without critique. Especially when working towards repair, Tavares stresses, we should work in solidarity with those who have suffered the damages and have already struggled to achieve repair for decades. In the contribution from Tavares and autonôma to The Great Repair, Auto-Demarcation, made in collaboration with the Xavante people of Marãiwatsédé — which will also be on display in the Paris show — we can see what this kind of approach could mean in the context of Brazil. Another central contribution to the exhibition, Awaska Alpa by the Inga People of Columbia and the Ecuadorian researcher Santiago del Hierro, was shown in Berlin: it also deals with these issues by undertaking a project of critical collective cartography against Western notions of territory.

"A metabolism can be organised in manifold ways, some more destructive than others. In the current age of climate crisis, the lifestyles and industries of the Global North have been and continue to be built upon extraction and dispossession in the Global South."

- Markus Krieger.

Nevertheless, to return to the first part of your question, there is still some use to the distinction between Nature and Society, in particular. Here I’d like to reference the work of philosopher Kohei Saito, who has recently revived discussions around the notion of metabolism. His basic point is that all types of societies need to organise a metabolic relation to nature in order to reproduce themselves. This is a transhistorical fact. A metabolism can be organised in manifold ways, some more destructive than others. In the current age of climate crisis, the lifestyles and industries of the Global North have been and continue to be built upon extraction and dispossession in the Global South. It would be wrong to task architecture or any one discipline with the enormous undertaking of repairing these global relations, nor can it only be a matter of disciplines or experts alone. Yet for me, keeping such a metabolic framework remains useful to assess the transformation towards socio-ecological justice, even on the level of a building that is repaired rather than demolished.


KOOZ How does this shift, which relies on deep learning and a continuous process of testing, also require a new understanding and framing of time?

FHIndeed, the temporal dimension plays a central role, as the term transition already makes clear. Many intellectuals, from Paul Virilio to Hartmut Rosa and Pierre Caye, oppose the accelerationism of creative destruction and favour social deceleration. Marvin Trachtenberg has explained in his book, Building in Time, from Giotto to Alberti and Modern Oblivion (Yale University Press, 2010), how architecture has lost its processual nature, ever since the Renaissance and the emergence of concepts like the author and the finished object. For centuries, buildings had been constantly transformed and never declared finished, until the idea of the timelessness of artefacts became entrenched. We must try to rediscover this processual mentality in the production of space, regardless of whether the buildings are heavy or light. Buildings should no longer be understood as finished, virtually unchangeable works but rather as ruins of adolescence (not obsolescence) as Gilles Delalex calls them, which are always being built on. Wilfried Lipp speaks of repair as “prepair” — as preparation for the new. As a result, the practice of heritage protection must also change, enlarging the idea of heritage protection to the aesthetically less-restricted notion of substance care, where the value of use must be placed in the foreground.

"So-called sustainable architecture is part of this creative destruction of the productive system, which is why we deliberately speak of longevity and not sustainability."

- Florian Hertweck.

Above all, this requires new accounting and valuation systems, as the current ones are geared towards a short lifespan. The best example of this is the depreciation mechanisms for buildings, which would promote short life spans and the recurring pattern of demolition and reconstruction. So-called sustainable architecture is part of this creative destruction of the productive system, which is why we deliberately speak of longevity and not sustainability. The height of ecological hypocrisy is when building fabric is demolished in order to replace it with apparently sustainable architecture, whichruns contrary to overcoming extractive mechanisms. Although life cycleevaluations have been around for some time — including grey energy, for example in the calculation — they are generally not applied, even to public buildings.


KOOZ Since the Renaissance, we have progressively differentiated and privileged mental labour over physical labour, the immaterial over the material, and the “creative” and intellectual side of architecture over manual and other skills. How has this distancing between paper, brick and maintenance progressively harmed the field? In what ways should the repair of the built environment first require a repair of the discipline itself?

ALEX NEHMER The differentiation and consequent privileging of mental over physical labour, which you describe, was a core concept in the development of architecture theory during the Renaissance. A division was established between architecture as a design discipline and the crafts that merely execute what the architect has designed. This under-recognition of physical labour has been carried on to the present day, reflected in low pay and social status, as well as in alienated and often harmful working conditions. But it has also resulted in a gradual decline of the manual skills and craft expertise essential for constructing and maintaining our built environment. And it has also harmed architects themselves. As The Great Repair associate curator Marija Marić writes, referencing Peggy Deamer within her essay for ARCH+ 250, the failure to understand their own work as work — seeing it instead as a “calling” — has made architects particularly susceptible to (self-)exploitation: in this way, “architects have actively participated (and continue to do so) in the systemic depoliticisation of their own profession, thus allowing and normalising exploitative practices both within and outside architecture as a discipline.”

"To 'repair' the inequalities of architectural practice today, it is crucial to challenge the working conditions and divisions of labour within the sector."

- Alex Nehmer.

So to “repair” the inequalities of architectural practice today, it is crucial to challenge the working conditions and divisions of labour within the sector. To address the workplace as a central starting point for the discipline’s self-repair, we invited United Voices of the World – Section of Architectural Workers (UVW-SAW) to contribute to our exhibition. The grassroots trade union based in the UK calls for collective organisation of all architectural workers — a term inclusive not only of architects but of all those necessary for the production of architecture. In their fight for remodelling the sector from the ground up, they draw a direct link between the exploitation of workers in the architectural sector to the exploitation of nature: “architecture’s social and ecological damage is only made possible by our labour as workers, planetary exhaustion is fed by worker exhaustion.”

Beyond the workplace, we also found it crucial to address the university as a site for disciplinary self-repair, as it is precisely the site where the self-image and hierarchies of the profession are shaped and reproduced. In ARCH+ 250, Charlotte Malterre-Barthes and Dubravka Sekulić reported on the efforts of the Parity Group at the Department of Architecture at ETH Zürich, which attempts to challenge the power structures inherent to the current architectural curriculum and to revise it with the aim of achieving greater diversity and equality regarding gender, race and class. Not only the content but the forms of teaching themselves need “repair” — therefore our exhibition featured one of the playful commoning devices developed by the Collective Architecture Studio at MIT, under the guidance of Ana Miljački. These devices are part of an embodied teaching experiment that seeks to dismantle traditional hierarchical structures in design education, challenging architecture’s cult of the genius and obsession with competition.


KOOZ The Great Repair has travelled from Berlin to Paris. Beyond these two sites, how do you seek to continue the discourse radical reparation and regeneration endeavours — efforts which require a plurality of scholarship, wisdom, and expertise?

AN As in Berlin, we are once again using the exhibition in Paris as a public forum for debate and negotiation around the themes of The Great Repair. There will also be a school of repair where architects, artists and visitors actively debate around elements of the exhibition. Beyond that, we are currently negotiating with other institutions about the possibility of further international editions.

At ARCH+, we continue to pursue and deepen different topics that we addressed with The Great Repair. This year we will be publishing two consecutive issues on the topic of renovation and conversion, with a stronger architectural focus. Together with local urban initiatives, we are also working on a project in the public space in Munich that is directed against building demolition and vacancy.

We are also following, with great interest, the broad discourse currently developing around the topics of repair, which is being taken up by more and more actors in this field. To name just a two examples, Architectural Review’s issue of February 2024 is focused on repair and restoration, and Places Journal recently launched the article series Repair Manual, which examines how the design professions — premised on growth and consumption — can negotiate the paradigm shift from building the world to repairing it. It is to be hoped that this discourse will contribute to a genuine paradigm shift in the discipline.


Florian Hertweck is a co-curator of The Great Repair. He is an architect and urban researcher. He is a Professor at the University of Luxembourg since 2016, where he directs the master’s program in architecture, and a partner at Studio Hertweck Architecture Urbanism. He is the author of numerous books and the editor of Architektur auf gemeinsamem Boden: Positionen und Modelle zur Bodenfrage (2020).

Markus Krieger is co-curator of the exhibition and publication project The Great Repair, and an editor at ARCH+. In 2020, he graduated with honours from the Department of Architecture at ETH Zürich.

Alex Nehmer is a co-curator of The Great Repair, and an editor at ARCH+. From 2015 to 2016, she worked for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin on the publication series for the exhibition Wohnungsfrage, and has taught in the Metropolitan Culture program at HafenCity University Hamburg.

Milica Topalović is a co-curator of The Great Repair, and Associate Professor of Architecture and Territorial Planning at the Department of Architecture at ETH Zürich. With the Architecture of Territory group, she has undertaken a range of territorial studies around the world, in remote regions, resource hinterlands and countrysides, in an effort to decenter and ecologise architects’ approaches to the city, the urban, and urbanisation.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.


1 Mário Pedrosa, as quoted from Interview with Paulo Tavares ‘From Planning to Planting, Arch+ 250 p. 141.

11 Mar 2024
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