August 09, 2005


Jokers have the last laugh
Tom Dyckhoff
Guerrilla stunts taunt the system, but they can be bestsellers

ONE day at dawn last November, a group armed with paintbrushes climbed over a fence and up the legs of a derelict signal box on stilts in Shoreditch, East London, a landmark that they proceeded to paint like a mock-Tudor semi, decking it out with hanging baskets, a lawn and a barbie.

Inside, interior lights periodically blinked on and off, as if someone unseen was at home fixing a cuppa. The signal box had metamorphosed into Intact, a spooky installation commenting on redevelopment in the Thames Gateway. Only it was illegal. Within days the newly renewed signal box was trashed again. They suspect “the authorities” (I think they mean Network Rail).

Karsten Huneck isn’t your image of subversion, a beatnik daddio in black — regulation architects’ uniform — with a caterpillar strip beard lurking beneath a bottom lip. By day Huneck works for a respectable firm of architects. By night he works for the Office for Subversive Architecture, a group of architects who met at university in Germany and, now spread across Europe, organise “architectural events”, some legal, others “guerrilla”, such as Intact.

There’s a lot of subversion about right now. If it’s not viral adverts it’s celebrity computer hackers, graffiti artists, and, now, guerrilla architects such as OSA and “Shapeshifter”, who specialises in sculptural wooden structures installed in derelict terraced houses in former manufacturing towns in the North (he won’t be more specific), the kind of houses that John Prescott is keen to demolish.

They’re visible from the street but are soon vandalised. If you see one, you’re lucky. “I like the idea of them being these transitory objects,” he says, “to draw attention to the kind of beauty the Government is about to destroy.” But he also does it for the buzz: “You don’t get a buzz in architecture much these days.”

OSA agree. Their gripe is the stifling lack of spontaneity and creativity in the built environment. Their work, they say, is primarily visual. But it inevitably carries with it overtones about politics and architecture. “We’re called guerrilla, but we don’t mean destruction,” says Bernd Truempler, of OSA. “Architects are about construction, something creative, changing spaces and ideas with positive images.” Architecture, they are saying, doesn’t have to mean egocentric monuments in steel and glass — “it can be made by you and me”.

Subversion has reached even the august halls of the RIBA. Last year they held a conference called Guerrilla Tactics, which taught architects how to bend the system. Keynote speaker? Joep van Lieshout, art anarchist, famed for his unsettling “functional sculptures”, whom DRMM architects had invited to contribute to their lauded revival of the once-failing Kingsdale School in South London.

Most of today’s subversives owe their debt to radicals such as late Fifties French Marxists the Situationists, who lionised space, seeing the modern city as an embodiment of a rationalist capitalism that imprisoned the soul. They sought to release it through creative acts that subverted the “society of the spectacle” doled out to passive consumers in place of real, passionate life.

They inspired the “instant architecture” and “walking cities” of radical architects across Europe, such as Archizoom and Superstudio in Italy, Archigram and Cedric Price in Britain. And they then went on to teach irreverence to the next generation: Nigel Coates, Fashion Architecture Taste, Will Alsop, the Stalker Group in Italy.

There is one difference today, though. Now subversion sells. This week, OSA’s latest subversion, Urban Oasis, takes place in Manchester. It’s a lawn, or a “turf carpet”, gridded with grass-topped tables and chairs and signs such as “Keep on the grass”. The resonances are obvious: wilderness and nature in the overplanned city. Kick off your shoes, feel the grass, relax. Only this one’s legal; it’s sponsored by the brewers Hoegaarden.

For Hoegaarden, explains Adam Prentice, marketing manager for speciality beers at Inbev UK, being associated with groups such as OSA is “really cool”, and that rubs off on the product. This is their first guerrilla event. They’ll do more. OSA deny that they are sleeping with the enemy. “So long as they don’t interfere with the concept,” says Huneck, “there is no issue. In a way it’s more subversive to do commercial projects.”

That’s the irony. Today, subversion is mainstream. “The 20th-century model,” says Jonathan Hill, from the Bartlett School of Architecture, “is do something new, shocking, big. Architects like Zaha Hadid think they’re being wild but they’re just regurgitating ideas a century old.”

True subversion today is working the system, like OSA, DRMM or Rem Koolhaas, with his wilfully ugly icons and knowing subversion of consumerism. “Something that reveals itself slowly,” says Hill, “that perplexes, has ambiguity, that’s what architecture excels at. Architecture can shock, but it’s better at being subtle.”;


Constant Nieuwenhuys The avant-garde Dutch architect fell out with the Situationists in 1960 for trying to imagine a post- revolutionary world in his project New Babylon — a Utopian, half-psychedelic city of life as art, like a giant funfair on stilts. He died last week, aged 85.

Cedric Price Britain’s most influential postwar architect may have built practically nothing but his ideas about temporary buildings of delight to shake us from the mundane and everyday led to the Pompidou Centre and the London Eye. His work is at the Design Museum.

Gordon Matta-Clark The agitprop artist Gordon Matta-Clark would use a chainsaw to literally cut slices out of condemned buildings in Paris or New York, revealing the lives that lay beneath.

The Green Guerrillas They scattered seeds in the derelict lots of Manhattan in the 1970s, creating hidden gardens.

Sam Mockbee Until his death in 2001 he led Rural Studio, a group of radicals in rural Alabama who made buildings of breathtaking form and economy, from materials begged, borrowed and (allegedly) stolen.

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