The first episode of Al Jazeera’s new series “Rebel Architecture” — featuring architects who use design as a form of resistance and activism — featured Spanish architect Santiago Cirugeda. Based in Seville, Cirugeda reclaims abandoned urban spaces for the public, even though the act of “self-building” is very illegal in Spain. Cirugeda’s buildings serve a social function and are typically quickly-built and mobile structures created from recycled materials. Architecture being used as a social function is a quality that Santiago feels contemporary architecture has lost sight of in its obsession with the aesthetic. In the première episode of “Rebel Architecture”, the show looked at his latest project: a conversion of an abandoned cement factory into a vibrant cultural center, and the negotiations with the authorities to let his National Architects’ Collective turn it into a vibrant cultural centre.
Santiago Cirugeda has dedicated his entire career to reclaiming urban spaces for public and social use. Spain had been hit with austerity, essentially meaning that the state had retreated and almost 500,000 new buildings lie unoccupied and unused, Cirugeda says “people are doing things their own way. In times of crisis, people come together to find collective solutions.” He uses his expert knowledge of urban planning legislation to “occupy” (read “squat”) abandoned spaces and uses that same knowledge to enable community building. He states “self-building hasn’t been legalised in Spain, so any architect taking on this problem has to take on civil and criminal liability,” making reference to the logistical issues he faces whilst working on the edges of the law. “Sometimes we do things that are illegal, but we’re not doing anyone any harm. On the contrary, we’re doing it to benefit more people. The decision to work illegally means a different approach.”