- This article was written by José Tomás Franco for Arch Daily
Husos Architects’ work advances in an ongoing dialogue between design and research. Founded in 2003 between Spain and Colombia, the architecture and urban planning office stands out for addressing different scales, from the micro to the global, responding to the requirements of specific users but weaving deep contextual networks with the environment and beyond. How do they effectively approach this complexity, in turn promoting social transformation? We spoke with Diego Barajas and Camilo García Barona about their processes of approaching users and other agents involved –not only humans–, about how they address the colonization of the biosphere that has caused climate change, and about their inquiry into activism from a series of battlefields habitually neglected in traditional discourses of architecture.
José Tomás Franco (ArchDaily): When analysing your work, I come across a particular preoccupation for observing and profoundly understanding the dwellers of the spaces you design, where you strive to obtain as much information as possible to nourish the design process. How does this process of relationship and connection with users work?
Approaching the realities that are linked to the projects in which we work is a central element of our design process. This includes the different realities of users and other agents who are involved in an architecture project. Of course, these agents are not only human – they’re sentient beings of all sorts: from a group of craftswomen to migrants in debt, a doctor working in an ER, domestic workers, or the insects and birds which live in anthropised environments.
What’s their daily reality like? What kind of dynamics define their interactions with the world? Are there any underlying, neglected realities in their everyday lives? How can architecture take a stance in the face of these realities, for example in terms of providing space and representation where they can manifest themselves? This working process of acknowledgement can take on many different forms, depending on the agents involved and the type of project – whether it’s a home design, a book, or a bat shelter. However, these questions themselves are a recurring method in our design process. We usually work on them alongside the future users of the space. The exercise of listening is central to us in this process.
Different, non-hegemonic currents of thought have accompanied us in all of our work, but perhaps particularly so in these processes of connection. For example, decolonial and anti-racist thought, Southern feminisms, anti-speciesism, and unorthodox Marxist thought are important elements in our approach. Why these currents? Because to us, they have been important enablers for exploring the subaltern that inhabits each one of us – and perhaps even exorcise our own.
Following up on your question, feminist thought looks at the ways in which the process of acknowledging something – a context, a user, or a network of involved agents – is always situated, and therefore, is never objective. As Black Brazilian philosopher and activist Djamila Ribeiro would ask us: what is our place of enunciation when we design? The social realities that inhabit us as subjects on a daily basis have been companions in our journey, permeating our gaze and our architectural practice. In our case, these realities have conditioned a series of frequently divergent experiences. This divergence is linked, for example, to the fact that we are read as whitino males and have had privileged access to education and, at the same time, we inhabit non-heteronormative bodies, and, because of our accents, we are read as Northern Andean migrants in Spain. Therefore, we tend to be racialised and doubly ‘Othered’ on a daily basis. In our case, the sum of these factors has shaped a series of very different – or even radically opposing – experiences, depending on the context and who we are speaking to. These experiences have taught us that we all inhabit relationships of power and subordination that are always partly relative, as they are constructed according to multiple relational spheres.
These learnings have shaped our minds, and they have made their way into our design process. Acknowledging these multiple relational contexts has been a key element of our practice for years. For instance, during the design process of “(Synanthro)Love Shack, (Tele)Working Abode” (2020), there were at least two overlapping relational spheres which we wanted to explore with particular attention. On the one hand, there were the microrealities of a migrant, non-heteronormative home – which we are part of in this case – in a context in which traditional homes appear to be hegemonic, at least on the surface, and where architecture seems to respond solely to a single kind of family unit and a kind of white, heterosexual, Western subject. On the other hand, beyond the asymmetrical power relationships that emerge between this home and the similar subjects of the same species that surround it, we deemed it necessary to acknowledge our power position as dwellers, as architects, etc – against other species in this urbanised forest, but also in relationship to nature in general: as members of an undoubtedly domineering species on a planetary scale.
We don’t see our projects as solutions to these questions, but rather, as labs – as imperfect, incomplete approaches which allow us to tackle certain issues.
JTF: Then, how do you make sure that a design that’s specifically adapted to somebody can be inhabited by a potentially radically different person in the future?
HA: A key component in our work has to do with being able to design specific spaces which remain flexible and open to the unknown. In other words, spaces which can respond to very concrete realities, and, at the same time, to a diversity of specificities, users, and life changes that occur over time.
Our search for this duality in character – of a marked singularity that’s paired with flexibility – often translates into a spatial response that, despite addressing a specific reality, is able to contain many different meanings. An example of this strategy is our design work on a capsule-space in the living room of the project “A Guy, a Bulldog, an Edible Garden, and the Home They Share” (2018). While it’s true that this project was initially conceived as a space which could respond to the needs of non-heteronormative sexualities in the dwelling, our aim was also to create a space that could eventually work in many other ways. For example, it could work as a guest bedroom in this tiny, 46 sqm flat, as a space for napping, as a home cinema, as a double bed and chaise longue where to relax and read or as an extension of the living room, where other bodily relationships could be built with guests. It’s a soft space, draped in a light grey cover which can be changed, and, at night, it can either be lit with warm, white traditional lighting or with a piece we made using a pink kitchen strainer, which colours the space completely. The latter is a removable luminaire, which means that the capsule’s atmosphere can be redesigned by simply substituting the strainer by a similar one in a different colour. Over the course of three years, the space has been used in very different ways, and so, we can truly state that the capsule could be useful in many different homes – a couple told us they saw it as a very useful hybrid space they could use for sleeping or as a play area for their baby.
For us, it’s about designing spaces that are open to change and can be interpreted differently, but we also accept and are aware of their limitations and particularities. In a way, we understand them not as generic, cookie-cutter solutions in their entirety, but as singular responses built around many singularities in a diverse landscape.
Of course, depending on the case, these spaces may contain reproducible components. For example, aside from the capsule, the water recycling system, which uses water from the shower to feed the plants in the edible garden, could be very interesting to use in many other dwellings. However, the project is not reproducible in all its entirety, as it responds to a specific situation and place. In this way, our different projects come together in their search for work methodologies which can take care of the specific.
In architecture, there is this deeply ingrained belief that a ‘neutral’, ‘generic’ design is ideal, because there is an underlying assumption that neutrality can host an endless variety of users and a diversity of situations. First of all, we should remember that ‘neutrality’ is a socially constructed fiction. In one way or another, every space has a specificity which conditions a series of behaviours and imaginaries. The white cube, which has been written about extensively, is a great example of this. This space has been read as neutral for so long, but in reality, it’s far from it. Brian O’Doherty’s reflections on the topic are key in this sense.
Second, we would argue that the fact that some spaces are used to host an endless array of situations in quantitative terms often results in a huge loss in qualitative terms. To a large degree, the success of these spaces has to do with the logic of the market, where the unlimited capacity to buy and sell prevails over the capacity to care for the multiple realities that unfold in our everyday lives. For us, it’s crucial to counteract, through our practice, the spatial homogenisation of the world around us.
JTF: Your work seems to constantly cross the boundaries of architecture, feeding on knowledge from other disciplines. How important is multidisciplinarity to you? Are we architects guilty of becoming too lost in ourselves?
The problems we face in a design process can’t be compartmentalised into disciplines. Even in the most prototypical working process in our profession – designing a home – there are a series of overlapping realities. How can we expect to take care of these realities without getting to know them deeply and relating them to one another? The dialogue between different fields of knowledge is the only tool which really allows us to approach the different dimensions of any kind of spatial intervention in a broader way.
Repositioning the traditional tools of architecture is very important in the interweaving of these knowledges. In other words, assessing the extent to which architecture can dialogue with other disciplinary and non-disciplinary fields of knowledge, such as philosophy, botany, or gardening, is key. We also think it’s important to be aware of the fact that multi and transdisciplinarity are becoming increasingly mainstream, slowly positioning themselves as one more tool that current power systems have in their way of planning the world. From our point of view, what’s really transgressive is not being multi or transdisciplinary, but being able to activate interwoven knowledge systems in order to generate a socially transformative architectural praxis.
JTF: Traditional materials, new technologies, or a mixture of both? How do you select materials in your projects and how do these influence their aesthetic and functionality?
HA: At present, the issue of materials is as important to architecture as that of energetic consumption. In fact, these questions are closely linked to one another. In this sense, different studies point out that 50% of all extracted raw materials globally are used in the construction sector.
For this reason, we feel it’s necessary to develop a critical approach to the world of materials. For example, in “(Synanthro)Love Shack, (Tele)Working Abode”, the optical fibre needed for the internet connection was as important as the responsibly sourced pine wood we used. Both elements make up the environmentally-friendly character of the project, as they allowed us to design a space where two people could work from home, thus sparing the energy consumption that two daily commutes would usually entail.
Besides this, we think it’s fundamental to evaluate materials from a broader economic sense – in other words, to take into account not only monetary costs, but the various, often invisible economies, which are part of the process. For example, costs regarding the environmental impact of materials during their life cycle, from extraction to use, as well as the social impact linked to the labour force involved.
There is another particularly relevant social component in certain materials which require care. For example, architectural elements made of vegetation, which we have been exploring for almost twenty years through different projects that involve micro-landscaping actions. We started working on this question with the project “Host and Nectar Garden Building” (2005) in Cali, alongside the building’s neighbour community. In this building, the façade was covered with a membrane made of edible plants for insects. Not only did the design have environmental implications; it affected the thermal behaviour of the space, as well as its social aspects. Through gardening works, the membrane contributed to the building of affects and the consolidation of a sense of community, particularly among the sewing shop workers, who had been based in the building for over a decade.
Regarding your question on aesthetics, it’s true that materials contain different social imaginaries which we really must take into account. For example, the fact that a specific material may be more eco-friendly does not automatically make it more desirable, even for somebody who is sensitive to environmental questions. During the design process, it’s very important for us to work alongside the future users of a project, and this includes taking into account their aesthetic imaginaries.
One strategy that we have used across different projects is based on creating new objects of desire using materials and architectural components which are often deemed undesirable in current social imaginaries. For example, we designed systems for water recycling using tubes and filters in non-built projects such as “Refugio Multiespecies” [Multispecies refuge] (2013) or “Edificio para un campus ecosocial” [Ecosocial Campus Building] (2014), which we eventually materialised in “A Guy, a Bulldog, an Edible Garden, and the Home They Share”. These systems are often made of ‘ugly objects’ that are usually meant to be hidden. Instead, we try to reinvent them, conceiving them as microlandscapes of desire in a possibly sustainable, future era, which is obviously different to the one we inhabit at present.
JTF: In your work, the different responses to users’ needs seem to be configured through micro-objects and reformulated – replaced, removed, enhanced, or convertible – domestic spaces. Could we define your working methodology in this way? Where does it come from and how effective has it been so far?
HA: Our everyday lives take place in different spaces, which can sometimes be undervalued because of their size. However, many of these spaces hold great potential and relevance in the construction of our subjectivity and a life in common. For example, let’s think of the bed as a space to hang out. Not only is this space underutilised often, but many times it’s also thermally inefficient and uncomfortable. This space has often been understood from a fundamentally reproductive logic which is linked to the normative home. Usually, it’s also a mediocre space – that is, if we take into account its prevailing use as a resting place.
In recent years, some of our projects have explored different ways of understanding the bed as a social space, as a space for non-normative sexualities, as a convertible object or as an energy-saving thermal nest which can provide the highest atmospheric comfort.
We have carried out this kind of research in projects such as ‘(Synanthro)Love Shack, (Tele)Working Abode’, ‘A Guy, a Bulldog, an Edible Garden, and the Home They Share’, or ‘A Moulting Flat’ (2020), a home renovation project for El Niño de Elche, a Spanish musician and performer.
JTF: What does sustainability mean to you and how do you effectively achieve it in your projects?
HA: There are two aspects of the current climate emergency that we believe to be equally important. The first one has to do with understanding that the environmental crisis is linked to multiple, diverse realities in our everyday lives. In fact, it is an amalgamation of many different realities. For us, this means that the issue can’t simply be tackled as a ‘technical, environmental question’, but rather, it involves desires addressing a series of imaginaries that define progress or beauty, which we may or may not agree with, but which we must take into account in the design process. This is an issue we have explored in some projects, such as “Host and Nectar Garden Building”, in relation to arenas such as fashion or the apparently banal experience of going shopping. The environmental crisis must, in our opinion, be tackled from an all-encompassing perspective, and it must be understood in relationship to various aspects of our everyday lives.
The second aspect has to do with acknowledging that our impact on the climate is partly explained by a series of asymmetrical power relationships, which have been crucial in our development as a society. These relationships have entailed processes of domination and violence – not only towards nature, but also towards our own kind.
For example, we may refer to the dynamics of extraction, colonisation and domination in different parts of the world and the subsequent transformation of these territories’ climates, a phenomenon which is far from over at present. These processes have implied the subjugation of sentient species: from non-human animals to the human communities linked to those lands. They have also entailed class struggles and other forms of violence towards traditionally subordinate groups, such as racialised people, women or people with non-heteronormative sexualities, among others. There are many clear examples of the ways in which these interlocking oppressions – as some Afro-Caribbean lesbian feminist thinkers would define them – have operated historically. For example, the conquest of America, the dehumanisation of native peoples and African slaves, or the imposition of a new sexual order and an absolutist model of reproductive sexuality among the colonised are all processes which took place as natural resources were expropriated, thus resulting in the transformation and the climate. These external and internal processes of colonisation are still in place today.
From our point of view, mitigating the consequences of climate change or simply adapting to it is an insufficient strategy when it comes to tackling the colonisation of the biosphere, which has given way to climate change. We must delve into the roots of this phenomenon in order to get to the causes of these manifold forms of colonisation. We need to examine the different forms of violence that are exercised in these processes, whether they are linked to the natural or the social sphere; and whether they take place across species or are related to race, gender, class, or other oppressions. In other words, we can only develop a new relationship to the environment and to nature if we work from the perspective of acknowledging these interlocking oppressions.
This interlocking aspect is precisely what we try to tackle in our practice. In our search for imbricated or interwoven architectures (Lecture by Husos at Columbia University, GSAPP, 5 April 2019), as we like to call them, we seek to explore certain forms of natural and social healing, and in this way, imagine other futures which are less painful for some and, perhaps, more pleasurable for everybody.
For example, in our ‘(Synanthro)Love Shack, (Tele)Working Abode’, we worked with the idea of interwoven architectures through building loving assemblages between different abject bodies, some of them human, some of them non-human animals. In this case, as well as in ‘A Guy, a Bulldog, an Edible Garden, and the Home They Share’, issues regarding gender and species were not tackled separately, but together.
JTF: When working on building rehabilitation, how do you identify the deficiencies of an existing design?
HA: We’re particularly interested in rehabilitation because its main aim is to give new meaning and use to existing structures. This process can contribute to taking care of – and enriching – a previously existing material heritage, which almost has automatic value insofar as it’s already available, while providing a space to other underlying realities which lack one. For example, a community that lacks a space to live in. We think it’s important to explore the social and environmental values and potentials which any pre-existing element may already contain before an architectural intervention takes place, as this confronts us with the question of whether we should actually intervene at all, before we decide on how to do it. In the case that we do intervene, we try to do it from a care perspective, intervening only where it’s truly necessary.
Departing from the assumption that climate is central to architecture, in recent years we have focused on tackling this issue from a broader perspective, which we call sociobioclimatic architecture. In other words, we understand our practice as a caring agent of various environmental climates, but also of the social climates that emerge in the spaces we inhabit. We turn to a sociobioclimatic approach in order to assess the pre-existing infrastructures we’re going to work with. For example, in our project “Bathyard Home” (2016), we were able to revamp a small window leading to an inner courtyard in the building using minimal intervention – that is, leaving the building structure alone and limiting demolition to a few walls. Through giving the dwelling natural light and creating a new social space in the bathroom area, the dwelling acquired a new south-facing orientation, giving new environmental value to a space that was initially ample, but very sombre. In our conversations with this family, we found out that in their previous home, the bathroom space, which is usually considered to be secondary in a regular home design, was actually where they would interact every morning through simultaneous showering, teeth brushing, grooming, and talking, as they otherwise had little time to meet. Through this minimal intervention, we were also able to rethink the thermal and social relationship between dwellings not facing the street and inner courtyards (patios de luces), which are so characteristic of Madrid.
JTF: How do you make a small project have large-scale repercussions in its context? What motivates this search?
Whether we are aware of it or not, any project, as small as it might be, is conditioned by a multiplicity of realities which operate across different scales. Here, we’d like to go back to the example of the bathroom space, but this time, thinking of the extended water territories that are mobilised through its use. We’re interested in constantly working on this kind of interdependence, exploring the possibilities and responsibilities that this entails.
This multiscale, multimedia approach towards architecture, which we termed ‘dispersed’ back in the day, started in 2000 with a book that we wrote, called “Dispersion, A Study of Global Mobility and the Dynamics of a Fictional Urbanism” (Episode publishers, Rotterdam, 2002). Our book was an unorthodox approach to urbanism in the city of Rotterdam, which focused on informal urban environments. Different to the streets and squares that usually make up studies on the subject, these environments were made up of small, decorated multifunctional interiors, telephone booths and affective bonds. In these urbanisms, different parts of the world were connected through cable telecommunication connections. Cape Verdean and various other African diaspora communities were at the centre of the informal urbanisms we mapped. But instead of analysing migrant urbanisms from the perspective of what they lacked, we did it from the futurist visions that they inspired in us. Almost twenty years after, at a time in which trans-scale, multimedia perspectives have become part of our disciplinary imaginaries, we believe that the dispersed, Cape Verdean urbanisms we studied back then have fully reasserted their potential.
Upon moving from Rotterdam to Madrid in 2003, we continued to explore these dispersed urbanisms and their potentials through other communities which are not usually considered in urban studies, such as the transnational urbanisms conformed by the gay bear community, in which we often participated. We found these examples to be revealing for the architectural field because, among other reasons, they challenged basic disciplinary premises, such as that of public space. For example, the spatial and atmospheric configurations around some clubs generated surprising forms of interaction among the bear community, and also with other urban tribes. These spatial configurations were articulated through spaces like clubs and virtual spaces such as hook-up websites like bearwww.com (Un lugar bajo el sol, N. Aramburu ed. CCEBA, 2008). Classics such as the work Queer Space by Aaron Betsky (1997) or the work of Jan Kapsenberg with Bart Lootsma at the Berlage Institute (2000) were pioneering references in our research. At the time, there were very few examples of this kind of approach in the field of architecture.
JTF: How political is your architecture? What is the power of architecture today to deliver a message, make a declaration of principles and/or break paradigms?
Architecture has a particular type of transformative potential because it’s inserted in our everyday lives, the arena in which, as Lefebvre would say, we lodge our dreams, our desires, and also our dissatisfactions. It’s also an immediate political environment, from which we can transform reality.
For many years, we have been working on political spaces which have not been traditionally considered as such, for example clothing stores, beds, bathrooms, telephone booth centres, architectures for non-human animals, water filters, dwellings, or housing fairs. Without excluding others, we are interested in unpacking the potentials of activism from these battlefields, precisely because they have been routinely neglected in the traditional discourses of architecture and urbanism. Through rethinking them, our aim is to reimagine real possibilities for reinvention.
Check out the work of Husos Architects.
Translation by Carlota Mir.
Links of Interest
- Viceversa Magazine / Something In The Stomach – Edificio Jardín Hospedero Nectarífero para Mariposas de Cali
- Urbanismos de Remesas. Viviendas (Re)productivas de la Dispersión / D. Barajas & C. García (Eds.)
- Dispersion, A Study of Global Mobility and the Dynamics of a Fictional Urbanism by Diego Barajas
- Caballos de Troya y Jardínes Nectaríferos / Husos
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