The Possibility of an Island

Project

Nuevo Baztán, industrial town founded and built thanks to Juan de Goyeneche in the first part of the eighteenth century, was one of the national paradigmatic of the so called “poblados productivos”. They were cities that were built ex novo in order to stablish new industrial structures at a regional level by placing both factories and residential areas for the working class together in rural areas next to Madrid.

300 years later we find an abandoned town, without population and completely overwhelmed by the surroundingresidencial areas that serve to those who commute everyday to Madrid. This resulted in a life-work system completely opposed to the one that was presented by Goyeneche during the 18th century.

The productive system has drastically evolved in the recent years, with a crescent automatization of industrial activities, where human intervention is becoming more intellectual and less physical than ever. The production of sensitivities and emotions is the new main sector and production is not going to be as we knew it anymore, as material production is going to be completely detached from human bodies. We can consider then that the intellectual is the worker of the 21st century. Franco Berardi defined this new social class as the cognitarians, a new working class that does not depend on its body anymore, but on his abilityto produce intellectual work out of his brain, since bodies are being substituted by robots and machinery.

In this ecosystem of production and evolution we propose to take advantage of the territorial isolation as Goyeneche did to develop productive structures based on intellectual activities (that are not considered as work anymore but as leisure) that must lead to personal growth of all those people who are part of the town. A new way of understanding factories that instead of producing material assets, will produce knowledge, will produce people. A place where the most prepared cognitarians will have the opportunity to know and learn from each other, enhancing the possibility of learning, thinking and producing new sensitivities and emotions, giving them a real alternative to their precariousness or exile situation.

Is it possible to find an island?

Interview

What prompted the project?

The Possibility of an Island is my MArch thesis, and it was developed as part of the Architectural Design Studio at Universidad de Alcalá.

In 2018 the group was working on productive architectures, their relation to the social body and the changes they are experimenting since the end of the 20th century as a consequence of the transformations that digital technologies are producing over the world as we knew it. In this context, the main interest was to explore the meaning of work in our age, and how it is evolving towards a flexible, non-located and unstable spatiality.

What informed your interest in the site of Nuevo Baztán and its history?

The site was proposed by the directors of the Studio, since it is considered one of the paradigmatic example of productive villages in Spain. Its main interest was the establishment of a territorial network of productive villages, where a group of independent ex-novo towns were founded by Juan de Goyeneche in order to take advantage of the different existing resources. Even if they were independent and produced really different goods, such as soap, leather, clothes or spirits, they were all part of a broader plan that intended to use the countryside as a place that, being independent from the metropolis, was allowed certain degree of innovation and liberty. In some sense, this opposition between cities and countryside is a concept that nowadays is more present than ever and that invited to do a similar exercise but more than 200 years later.

How does the language of representation reflect the intentions of the project? What role do the silhouettes play?

Representation had to deal during the whole process with the possibility of merging two different worlds. In one side the scientific, exact and realistic approach, represented by data, maps, analysis and technical information. On the other one the evocative and suggestive, expressed through textures, collages and colours. Which is the main one? It depends on who is reading, looking or interpreting it, his/her background and his/her intentions, since it pretends to make you draw your own conclusions and interpretation.

Silhouettes played a key role in the project, especially in the very beginning. They were part of the attempt of redefining and drawing the concept of cognitarian subjectivation previously proposed by Franco “Bifo” Berardi. He dealt with the idea that the proletariat, the working class of the 19th century that mainly had his body as a a working tool, is evolving towards a cognitariat, that substituted physical activity by mental effort, becoming the new precariat. It constitutes a whole new social body that considers himself as different from the proletariat, but even if it is constituted by people with higher education and with more developed and intelectual interests, it is essentially the same. Why is that possible? Jobs that depend on bodies are progressively disappearing and being automated, so now the most common work it shifting from working straight in factories to programming and controlling those productive processes. At the same time higher education is not exclusive anymore, so there are a lot of new people in the market each year with the same abilities and preparation, so demand does not need to raise its offer, becoming precarious jobs the general rule for young graduated professionals.

This intelectual precariat, or cognitariat, is constituted by several different kind of profiles concerning their studies, activities or interests, but linked by their intelectual/creative approach to work and the general precarization of their labor and conditions. To represent all these realities was the main intention of those silhouettes, drawing a general image of the situation that would be key for the understanding of the project.

How does the project respond to the existing architecture? How is this retrofitted to respond to the experience of this new island?

Existing architecture in Nuevo Baztán is the representation of the decline of a system of production that ended with an abandoned historic complex and a town without almost any population. The relation of the project with the town is of confrontation, even if at some points different existing buildings are refurbished and adapted, since the new complex is the image of an independent organisational model.

One of the questions that ruled the development of the proposal was questioning the role of the external image of buildings as something that may rule architectural design. To what extent should we consider it the main principle in order to judge or qualify architecture? In general terms concepts as novelty, difference or exclusiveness are appreciated as favorable, but in fact they just respond to market conditions and the continuous necessity of the system of transforming everything into profit. We should instead continue reading and analysing to find what is beyond form, and how architecture, by looking for its absoluteness and independence, can deploy its political action through design, proposing and configurating our relation with our immediate environment and with the existing city, differentiating itself from the infrastructural, replicable, economy-based urbanism.

To what extent will contemporary metropolis develop in response to this shift? Will we migrate back to the countryside?

Unfortunately I don’t believe in migration to the countryside as a possible future, but I still believe in it as an opportunity for alternative models of urban and human development. Once that cities and metropolis have demonstrated to be ruled by economic and managerial factors rather than social ones (as described by Pier Vittorio Aureli in his book The Possibility of an Island), there are two possible paths for us to follow. First: to pursue an absolute architecture that fights against the system from the inside vindicating architecture as politics through form, as something completely independent from infrastructure and urbanism. Second: to look for sites that are not economically profitable so they are independent from the ruling system and alternative environments can be proposed and established. The countryside is shown there as an space that is being progressively emptied and detached from urban cores constituting a fantastic opportunity for exploration and new models due to its critical conditions and its confrontation with the processes of economical growth and exploitation present in urban cores.

Where do you envision the future of cities in 50 years time?

Probably very little changes will occur at a conceptual level. Maybe we will be able to move around the city using new means of transport, automatisation will be completely deployed and new technologies that we can’t image will arise. But the big question is if we will be able to revert the crescent power of economics and management as the main interests when addressing cities transformation or if people will be able to establish themselves as the epicentre of social governance.

Where do you see the future if Nuevo Baztán and your proposal in the same lapse of time?

I don’t think there is any possibility of it to be built neither for them to coexist, but the intention of the proposal is to make those who are looking at it to reflect about concepts such as the absoluteness of architecture, its political will, the possibility of comunal living spaces as exchange buffer zones, the limits between living and working conditions in the 21st century…and so on.

How will architecture respond and deal with this new ecosystem?

In my opinion, architecture must always pursue the possibility of acting from a political perspective, transformating reality by reaffirming its individuality and independence from urban form, not just from an aesthetic point of view but from its very deep motivations.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

I believe that architects will succeed while they keep using effectively their mind to position themselves in the intersection between architecture and all their peripheral fields of work. From sociology to technology or history we must be active and open to different opinions and approaches coming from very different directions, since our activity operates as a mediator between all of them. Whatever the final images of buildings are, we should focus on what is behind them, on the global strategy and the possibilities and transformation that our actions can trigger.

What will be the architects most important tool?

As explained above, the possibility of thinking and solving situations that concern very different fields is and will be our most exclusive tool. It is evident that the other abilities and software we use in order to materialise these thoughts keep changing day to day, and even if it is important to efficiently represent and communicate our ideas, the way we do it will evolve and will be transformed as technology keeps developing itself.

About

Alejandro Carrasco is an architect (M.Arch at Universidad de Alcalá) interested in exploring new ways of representing and reading architecture and the city, currently conducting research on how control strategies and buildings shape urban environments and society. He is co-founder of the office actarchitects and editor-in-chief of Momentum Magazine, and his activity is located in the intersection between many different fields, such as editorial, curatorial  architecture or design. 

#Interviews