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Fighting the system

Rejecting a traditional architectural career in order to directly address social or environmental issues, six trailblazers are profiled in a new series for Al Jazeera

Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first woman architect, once designed big corporate headquarters with lavish budgets but now prefers to provide shelter for villages hit by floods. Against the odds, Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia practices a green architecture that brings trees back to pollution-hit Ho Chi Minh City. In a Spain stricken by economic crisis, Santi Cirugeda operates near the edge of the law in his efforts to provide self-build housing and public space for those that need it.

All three feature in Rebel Architecture, a new series on satellite TV channel Al Jazeera which looks at six architects who, in their very different ways, can be seen as rebels, shunning traditional career paths in architecture and instead choosing to engage deeply with social, environmental and urban issues in order to make a positive difference.

  • Self-trained favela architect Ricardo de Oliveiro plans to extend his house in Brazil into a five-floor building.
    Self-trained favela architect Ricardo de Oliveiro plans to extend his house in Brazil into a five-floor building.
  • Yasmeen Lari outside a women's centre, built on stilts to survive floods in Sindh.
    Yasmeen Lari outside a women's centre, built on stilts to survive floods in Sindh.
  • Students from Balochistan University learn how to build a roof according to Yasmeen Lari's design.
    Students from Balochistan University learn how to build a roof according to Yasmeen Lari's design.
  • Villagers build a flood-proof mud brick house to Yasmin Lari's design.
    Villagers build a flood-proof mud brick house to Yasmin Lari's design.
  • Villagers put a roof on mud hut built to Yasmeen Lari's design.
    Villagers put a roof on mud hut built to Yasmeen Lari's design.
  • Students make a bamboo lattice for the corners and the walls of the Yasmeen Lari-designed house, to prevent damage during earthquakes.
    Students make a bamboo lattice for the corners and the walls of the Yasmeen Lari-designed house, to prevent damage during earthquakes.

Series producer/executive producer Daniel Davies had the idea for a series seeking architects who, rather than pursuing an architecture of aesthetics, were trying to address the problems caused by increasing global urbanisation.

‘If you look at the media, you could easily think architecture is an obsession with folding metal in the most beautiful way,’ he says. ‘We were asking the questions: Is this all that matters? Is it the best architects can do?’

Clearly, the answer was no. Each programme features one architect and follows them as they go about their business. We see the intrepid work of self-trained favela architect Ricardo de Oliveiro, who creates homes in Brazil for those making the most of limited space they have. Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi concentrates on designing floating buildings to address flooding and overcrowding in Nigeria’s waterside slums, but encounters considerable opposition to getting these built. Pakistani Yasmeen Lari’s work is an uplifting tale – she designed a flood-proof centre on stilts where villagers can retreat to if necessary, and has trained others to build many more and disseminate the knowledge further.

Architects feel they are sandwiched between clients and money. But here are six people who have said no to that and have made a difference

Perhaps the most powerful film is about Israeli architect and activist Eyal Weizman, who rails against the use of architecture as a weapon of war in Jerusalem and the occupied territories of the West Bank. He sees architecture as being right at the very heart of the conflict, not just with the erection of the West Bank barrier but through the design of the settlements and the practice of urban warfare, where bulldozers carve out new roads for tanks.

‘Architecture is used by architects as a weapon,’ he says.  ‘Everything is a tactical tool.’

He is now using what he calls forensic architecture to analyse drone warfare in urban settings.

There are no UK architects featured in the series. Davies says that Al Jazeera seeks to provide a broad world view and in any case, the British architects they looked at just weren’t rebellious enough.

It’s clear from the series that the rebels’ lot is often an uphill struggle, pitting them against the authorities. Davies hopes the series may prompt viewers to question what can be expected from architecture.

‘It is crucial to give architects agency,’ he says. ‘They feel they are sandwiched between clients and money, and are hands for hire. But here are six people who have said no to that and have made a difference.’

Rebel Architecture, Al Jazeera, from 18 August – 22 September and then on YouTube. Each programme is shown eight times over eight days following its first transmission starting at 22.30 on each Monday.