Urban Prescriptions
About the work of Santiago Cirugeda
Archfarm, Fascículos aperiódicos de Arquitectura #6, February 2005
Urbanacción 07/09, April 2010

Graphics by Ana Varela.

For most contemporary architects, the need to base their work on a theoretical principle appears to be a fundamental requirement when carving out a position for themselves in the current world of architecture and, in passing, laying the groundwork for subsequent investigations and relations with or in opposition to their contemporaries. A way of tracing a path, rather than marking out boundaries, by linking up positions or simply seeking an identity. And the case in hand is no exception.
However, Santiago Cirugeda’s career is partly at odds with the notion of the architect "committed to his time". Although to a certain extent his work has a distinct individuality that makes it easily recognisable within the media jungle in which we have grown accustomed to interpreting architecture, we soon find out that his career has nevertheless taken certain detours that defy easy classification. In the first place, because no matter much we analyse his projects and read his texts, we don´t find any clues that point to a new approach to architecture a priori. His architecture seems to deal more with a concept than a shape, despite the fact that the essence of his work is actually his almost impossible materialisations. For Cirugeda, the forms are something that already exists and is just waiting to be discovered. Secondly, because his deliberately frank attitude and immediate responses to everyday situations is not formally reflected in his projects, as is the case of certain examples of contemporary Dutch architecture.
He uses what we might describe as an architecture of action: structures that say far more by themselves than what can be appreciated at first sight, that have some associated political weight insofar as they are responses to social issues rather than (although also including) architectural issues. In spite of all of this, and although we need no more evidence to know that his is a truly singular architecture, the most striking aspect of Santiago Cirugeda's projects is probably their no-logo attitude, or quite simply that, "attitude" dominates over appearance.
Looking at it, it would be a mistake to understand his output solely as a chain of projects linked by a nonconformist spirit of renewal; it is also a protest against routine architecture, the most ordinary type of architecture which, precisely because of its ubiquity, seems to have become immutable, a thing that is because it is.

Round 1. Cirugeda vs. Void

Civil Law, Minor Works Permit, Heritage Protection, Urban Planning By-laws, General Plan Regulating Land Use... Cirugeda uses these architectural terms, usually the prerogative of lawyers and speculators, to invert the logic of building. These regulations are no longer used in the obvious way but rather to search out the loopholes and then attack. Urban planning laws are not violated, they have just been read between the lines. Projects that basically sniff out the non-regulated or non-specified parameters of planning laws, or simply the "depending on how you look at it" parameters, to fulfil our wishes: If I want to play outside your front door, I rent a container. If I want a place to read surrounded by nature, I build a tree house.
He also uses this same idea, which, as he once pointed out, Aldo Van Eyck used in Amsterdam between 1947 and 1978, to create furniture-architecture, in other words, non-permanent architecture that can be dismantled - as if they were objects stored in unoccupied plots - and that do not degrade the conditions of the plot where they are located.
Side-stepping the urban regulations of the Master Plan, Cirugeda thus managed to "build" a house-studio in Seville over the course of a year and a month, and a social centre in Madrid with fairly precarious and ingenious materials such as recyclable ceiling panels for walls, stabilising façade structures for the overall structure, etc. This entire process -which can be hedonistic at times, socially committed at others, but always methodically applied- reveals, nevertheless, in its turn problems in the urban sphere that affect us, in that every action undertaken in the city, and beyond it, is governed and mummified by these laws which, rather than serving the needs of the user, seem to serve other laws, such as those of the market or survival of the strongest.

Round 2. Cirugeda vs. Fullness

Although one could probably think of the urban void as material project, as a space for potential manipulation, it seems less probable to use the same methodology with consolidated structures - whether existing homes and buildings or homes waiting to be built - or to try to go beyond what is supposedly permitted. And yet this is precisely what Cirugeda manages to do by poking around in the tangle of laws and discovering that not everything is written. One example of this is the project "Propiedad horizontal derivada en vertical" (Horizontal Property Turned Vertical, Seville, 2000). In this case, the desire to obtain a five-storey home in an apartment block led him to rent parts of different apartments connected by stairs in the community courtyards. A variety of agreements and contracts with the neighbours -on temporary bases-, plus a thorough knowledge of the Horizontal Property Law and the Civil Code, enabled him to legally create unprecedented spatial structures.
Another project, perhaps the best example of this new attitude towards the law, was his "Ampliación de viviendas con andamios" (Extension of Homes with Scaffolding, Seville, 1998). As if the whole thing were a natural process, he began by explaining the need for space in the tiny homes situated in Seville’s tightly-packed old quarter and then went on to explain how to solve the issue with scaffolds, basing the proposal on a totally new approach to municipal by-laws. This project, which enjoyed extensive media coverage, -Cirugeda's usual method for publicising his work- had a very specific aim: to raise general awareness about the value of laws for protecting -or halting- urban development, and the degree to which every individual is involved in that development.
This interest in personalising architecture, in everyone owning his/her own space and by extension the city, is taken to the extreme in "Individualización de vivienda" (Home Individualisation, Seville, 2002). Reviewing current legislation on the building of collective homes in modern cities, Cirugeda advocated the extension of private elements over elements traditionally regarded as communal, such as the façade or roof. Having launched this premise -and with the mutual agreement of the parties involved- the homes were transformed irreversibly into something no longer defined by the architect, whose capacity was thus limited to providing a clean slate on which occupants could express their concerns and interests, creating a new type of city based on multiplicity. This multiplicity already exists in each and every inhabitant, all of whom refuse to be regulated or governed by laws that impose the criterion of so-called "good taste".

Viewing these works not as part of an architecture de auteur but as small ground-breaking processes, it becomes clear that Santiago Cirugeda is not attempting to create à la carte projects, in the manner of prefabricated houses or log cabin kits for assembly wherever the user chooses. His projects are more a type of construction manual, with user instructions inside. The essential thing for Cirugeda is not so much the project per se, but its capacity to generate certain attitudes towards architecture and an awareness in people of their own importance in shaping the urban environment in which they live. In actual fact, and to use a term he himself coined, they are urban prescriptions that can be used in any city and by any citizen with the same needs. For, don’t we all sometimes feel a desire to change that which is supposedly written in stone?