Legal Grey Zones and Joyful Construction: Recetas Urbanas’ Architecture



Since 1996, Seville-based architect Santiago Cirugeda and his team of Recetas Urbanas have been organizing and self-constructing social projects for various urban communities in Spain. Funambulist contributor/friend Lucía Jalón Oyarzun interviewed him for us in a self-built neighborhood of Madrid.

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The conversation between Lucía Jalón Oyarzun and Santiago Cirugeda in Cañada Real. / Photo by Román Alonso (April 5, 2019).

Introduction by Lucía Jalón Oyarzun ///

“It is a joyful construction.” This is how José, one of the community’s elders who’s working along with the team of Recetas Urbanas, describes what’s happening at the construction site for a community center in Cañada Real in the South of Madrid. Not five minutes have passed since we arrived and we are already in his car with him and Santiago Cirugeda, the founder of Recetas Urbanas, on our way to a bar to discuss the project.

Cañada Real is a 14 kilometer section of an old transhumance route, the Cañada Real Galiana, which started to populate outside the law in the 1960s. Today, it is one of the largest informal settlements in Spain. Around 8,000 people are estimated to live there in heterogeneous urban areas, where illegal suburban homes co-exist with self-constructed houses where a large Roma population as well as a growing immigrant community live, surrounded by illegal workshops, parallel economies, bars and dumping sites.

While there have been several attempts over the years to intervene there, the conflicting social and political agents, as well as a legal framework understood as article of faith rather than something that serves people, had left the area and its population at an impasse. For instance, the public bid to build this community center on an empty lot at Sector 5 went unfulfilled several times before Recetas Urbanas came along with their proposal.

Now, as the construction comes to its end and affective relationships and trust have been established, there’s a growing sense of melancholy underneath it all. As part of the second phase of the project, there are plans for the place to be run collectively with the community — but everything is still on the air. At the bar, Santiago tells us about this and the difficulties they have faced with a humorous attitude. He speaks of both the collisions with bureaucracy, and the understanding and energy of the civil servants who have made it all possible, trusting them to work around the law in order to make all this happen.

Once we get back to the site, Juanjo, another member of Recetas Urbanas, takes us around the different spaces of the community center. The site is a strip of land that runs from south to north, and as we enter, the kitchen is the first space to our right. The first demand of the community is to share this world around food — it’s already at the heart of the project and where we’ll share lunch with everyone a bit later. Next to the kitchen, there’s a two-story module, with an office space in the ground, and a workshop space upstairs. Next to these, there’s the library and at the back-end of the site, a multifunctional room.

Each of these modules have been produced through open workshops held with different groups of people. The kitchen, built in an artist residency in Madrid with groups of women, came first. Though not intended initially for Cañada, it ended up here once Recetas Urbanas won the public contest for the community center. Next, the office space was produced through several workshops with kids and civil organizations from around the area, and also through women-only workshops, with the Moroccan and Roma women of Cañada. The module upstairs, meant for hosting community workshops, was made at a prison where Cañada Real’s locals who are serving sentences there, in what was a first for Recetas. On its sloping roof we find solar panels that will power the entire community centre as, due to its illegal setting, it cannot be connected to the electric grid. Right next to this two-story module is the library, built in collaboration with thirty students from the School of Design ESDM in Madrid. Finally, the multifunctional space was built through several workshops undertaken with six hundred students from the nearby school Hipatia. From eight-year-olds to teenagers as well as their teachers, they all took part in the production of this last module, the largest of them all.

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One of the self-built structures of La Carpa – Espacio Artístico in Seville, head office of Varuma Teatro and future Andalusia School of Circus Arts (2014).

The atmosphere onsite, that joy José had shared with us before, is what feels truly fascinating about it all. It exceeds architecture or any kind of disciplinary limit we might want to apply. When people arrive, the safety panel at the entrance catches your attention. While these panels usually warn people not related to the site to stay away, here there is a message welcoming anyone unrelated to the site to enter. And it seems to be working, all throughout the day, we’ll see people talking, working, coming and going together. Our conversation with Santiago will be interrupted several times, by Juanjo or Nieves or any one of the Recetas Urbanas’ members coming in covered with dust or wanting to ask him something, by one of the several cats running around, or by a young teen who wants to relive the highlights of the party from the night before. During the early afternoon, the kids arrive with their bikes and footballs (they have a goal at the back-end of the site). Although they’re playing and talking amongst each other, there’s always someone gravitating towards Santiago for a little chat with the “boss,” as they call him.

The center will be finished by the end of April, and until the next phase is confirmed, it is impossible not to feel some dread now that the main group with all their energy and local knowledge is leaving. Nonetheless, the parties — like the one the night before or the one planned for next week — wash any gloom away to underscore the expansively joyful atmosphere. The following questions I ask Santiago were elaborated upon with Léopold Lambert.

Interview ///

LUCÍA JALÓN OYARZUN: Your work usually operates in the grey areas of the construction industry’s legal framework. Yet, we must observe how the biggest specialists of such legal grey areas are usually the capitalist actors, who usually manipulate these liminal spaces for more profit and less taxes. In your case, this practice is fundamentally an anti-capitalist one. Could you tell us how this materializes?

SANTIAGO CIRUGEDA: A capitalist, as we know it, is always seeking the maximum benefit, right? On the contrary, why has there been no accident for 20 years in Recetas Urbanas? Because there is no work stress. Occupational accidents in construction and many other sectors
are due to stress induced by the owner and promoter’s demand of the worker’s performance. And when they demand a lot, people get stressed and have accidents. That is a proven fact.

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Construction at the Madrid School of Design. / Photo by Gabriel Pelegrina (2015)

Even though these workers are more trained than ours when it comes to labor risks, they have to fulfill a course and receive a qualification to be trained in risk. But why do they encounter more risks than some of us who work with the blind, with elderly people, and with children? To be against the capitalist, we do not demand more economic benefit, but for more affectivity.

How is this done? In our case it seems stupid… there is a part of the work we do that makes people feel it is at higher public cost, because we are supplanting the public administration. In other words, we are doing something the administration is not capable of doing and so outsources that work, though at a very low price. On the one hand, we are more ‘profitable’ — that is, we do more with less public money. Other times we ask “Why don’t we demand more money?” since we do five jobs within the one.

It’s true that we also move a lot of public capital, and not just the fees we receive. We are moving stuff — this chair you are sitting on, and all these, are publicly owned because we have made the effort to demand that the municipal warehouses of Madrid give us this material. We are designing resource mobilization protocols, just as we’ve done in prisons or public schools. So much of our work is to mobilize resources: not economic, but human resources, of knowledge, and of affection… which go against capital. Capital is money for money. Whether you are a banker or a plumber, it’s ‘full’ productivity, eight hours a day, and Saturdays too. What we do is to avoid that. But how do we avoid it? By looking for other resources that keep you from needing those economic resources. Sometimes it’s hard, but I think it’s the only way to stay independent and I’m 47 years old. It is happening to us right now. We have been an association for seven years now and we have never asked for help.

I say… well, legally it’s very easy to do what we do, hire construction companies and all is well. The difficult thing though is to find these people, to assemble the whole affective process and such — but that is a process that has nothing to do with seeking economic capital but instead, for another type of capital. And that’s how it works.

LJO: Of course, the relationship to the law is not the only dimension that makes your architecture, what we call “insurgent” in this issue. Could you tell us more about the materials and construction processes that you are engaging in each project?

SC: Someone once said in an article that our architecture looked like it was the same, from one place to another, but that they had understood it was due to precariousness. Here, the red structure comes from Basel. The yellow wood comes of Galicia etc. One important thing is the construction technique: we look for what we call “democratic techniques” so that nobody becomes frustrated. I have worked with autistic people and blind people, and they too can construct this.

“Do you know how to do it? With a saw? A scaffold? Do you want to do it? You want to learn? Or will you pass?” These questions help us with learning about people’s fears. There are those who say “I am a welder,” or “I’m a carpenter,” which is great because when we do need a welder, we will take them on. But above all, there are many fears that come out. “No, no, no, I do not want to do this.” We not only try to simplify the construction processes, but also show that the reward is the house that you built on your own, and one can feel proud about that.

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The processes emerge as we go. There are twelve versions of the plans. Today in fact, a council’s civil servant has written me here to say, “I urgently need a plan and technical installation file, can you send it to me today?” It is absurd that the administration has to ask for a definitive plan of something that is already finished. And because this space does not fulfill precise measurement requirements requested by the council, there is a penalty. I do not understand why it was forbidden to increase 20% of the floorspace of the building. We’ve already gone beyond that. If they denounce us, I’ll say: “Yes, we’ve gone over the limit but which is better, a 45 square meter community space or a 70 square meter one?” We have not asked for more money to construct a bigger community center, but with the same amount of money we are able to expand it more.

The technical meetings are very fun. When they came and said, “But Santi, how much does it measure? This does not measure 45 square meters.” I tell them, “No… look, I’m going to tell you how it goes, 650 children have worked on this and they have started building walls. What are you going to do, throw their work away?” They finally understood it at the end, so at least there’s an openness or levity of mind, and I think that is very intelligent.

LJO: Today, you are involved in a project in Cañada Real in the suburbs of Madrid. Could you present it to us and tell me how is it that architecture can be used as a political weapon in this specific context, where capitalism and colonialism are forces that the neighborhood has to face on a daily basis to be able to exist?

SC: The thing is, this is not architecture. Although we might put screws here, if we calculate the kind of labor we are doing, it minimizes the physical construction… We would need to define what the hell is architecture in order to answer that question.

We are here as a building company that constructs architecture, so we are not here as architects. Seventy percent of the time that we spend here is not used to build, but to have conversations with the community: to learn, to wait, to laugh, to guarantee respect, and be able to build together.

So what is architecture? Or like, how is architecture done these days?

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I do not know anything about Le Corbusier or Mecanoo or Rem Koolhaas… What I do know is that architecture has to have some sociological dimension, because it has to face the imagination and the understanding of a community. Like, if something is to be considered artistic, it is because there has to be a certain aesthetic quality, and it has to understand its user… It’s funny because I’m remembering Rafael Moneo who told me at a conference in Goa in India, very elegantly, “Santi, can I invite you to dinner and drinks to tell you what I think of your conference?”

He told me then: “You can’t guarantee, like you said in the conference, that the people working with you are happier.” And I said in response, “No I did not say that. I said that I have seen happiness in the environment. I have seen that our process has facilitated personal things, because the type of work here is not the work of a professional who has to be there for 10 hours to finish some fitting or sanitation job.”

I then asked: “What about your life with the users?” He said to me: “No, at the scale that I work, I never get to know who the user is.” “And with the construction companies?” Rafael tells me: “I’m always fighting, you fight because you go over the budget, because they do not do things on time, because they are not done as they should, etc.” To which I say: “In our case the constructor is us, the users are with us, and these are much smaller projects. Your life, Rafael, is a magnificent gigantic studio of high architectural quality!” Here, when I say architectural, I’m referring to the building and not to what happens around it.

The power exercised by an architect like Norman Foster is much more powerful than what we can offer, like the architectural tools you believe to have the capacity in enacting political change. Those sustainable design cities always come from great architects like Rem Koolhaas and all those bastards. They have more influence than us, you know. But this project means that there are new social policies implemented here or in other neighbourhoods. Have we used the same architectural weapons as them? No. Yet we are architects all the same — we just use other architectural tools. It’s still architecture, yes, but what architectural tools do we use to intervene in construction? Different ones of course, so technicians can be shocked when they see 500 people here, and so cannot be against it. No matter how technical-minded or how stupid that person may be, he has to accept it.

This conversation was recorded in Cañada Real on April 5, 2019.