Towards a participatory architecture

An interview with architect Marcos Coronel

Claiming that “the role of the architect has to change from the exclusive personage to the one involved in common problems”, PICO intends to demonstrate that “architecture is not an end in itself, but a support of processes that go beyond just infrastructure”. Taking their latest project - Zona PsicoGeológica, a cultural center in Guácara [Venezuela] - as a pretext, we asked co-founder Marcos Coronel to tell us more about the team’s participatory vision.

How did you get together as a collective?

When political changes occurred at the beginning of the Venezuelan revolution in 1999, citizens created a new democratic constitution, legalising so-called excluded groups such as social movements, collectives and other popular organisations.

Precisely ten years later, we were finishing university and had a growing interest for social policies and urban paradigms. Asking ourselves how architecture could take part in these actions, we thought of developing a non-individual figure - outside of the establishment’s logics - a sort of research laboratory, that was close to the needs of the people and of the territory. And that's what we did, thanks also to the legal framework brought by the new constitution.


What is the genesis of your approach towards an architecture made by and for the community?

In the 1960's, architect Bernard Rudofsky wrote about an architecture without architects [1] which exists out of an endogenous vision. Favelas, marginal settlements and popular communities - omnipresent in our cities - express exactly that...

Nowadays most of our cities are replete with so-called "slums", but despite this situation, few architects are connected to projects such as public squares, institutional buildings or social housing. And many less care about community projects - such as communal houses, parks, cultural spaces, sports courts or other service facilities - this is absurd. Architects keep thinking as specialists, waiting for commissions or competitions as the only valid mechanisms to front face a project.

In the contrary, it is actually necessary to assume a new leadership, closer to the people who live in this emerging contexts, by being able to work as design technicians, as citizens that build social relationships and as interlocutors between the institutions and the people. Only under this condition of transversality - where architecture is a backing platform - will architects eventually become true agents of the society’s transformation, managing to rethink urban strategies and ways of building in the city.

What does participation mean to you as a collective?
How do you see your role as architects?

One of the things we have been asking ourselves in the past years was how to speak clearly about participation in a sphere where this idea is exploited dangerously and superficially.

Participation is about understanding how a collective environment is mapped, where the popular knowledge lies and how to identify the natural spokesmen and leaders of the community. It is also about finding out how to organise the various works, which areas are to be prioritised, as well as how to define a participatory budget and how to make the right decisions.

Architecture is not only about building infrastructures, but also about working on processes that lead to the creation of a place and thinking about how life will interact with it once it is finished - by programming an intense agenda of activities, for instance. This is where the true sense of participation can be found.


Your aim of “re-incorporating desactivated buildings to the collectivity map” is particularly evident in the project Zona PsicoGeológica, in Guácara.
How did the population react to this intervention?

Due to urban land speculation underused and abandoned buildings and plots - from mechanical workshops to parking lots - are common in Latin American cities. Yet many families do not have access to decent homes and young people often lack of places to gather.


For the Zona PsicoGeológica project, a "Communal Council" was constituted to encourage families living in concurrent sectors to establish a coexistence agreement. Thanks to this act of joint power, the population became not just spectator but also actor of the occupation and of the recovery of the building.


This is why Zona PsicoGeológica is not only a building for a cultural group - although it is managed by artists and urban creatives in the graphic, musical and audiovisual fields - but it also radiates on the whole community. And is even beginning to issue programs that are conceived with other organisations inside and outside the country. In parallel to these cultural activities, there is a basketball court and a skate-park, and some of the rooms are periodically taken over to organise neighbours’ meetings, conferences, cinema forums and public conversations.


The local press has been very supportive, stating that the project would have "boosted municipal and national culture." Does this reflect the general opinion regarding your community-driven design process?

It is true that our practice creates very polarised reactions. What happens now is that popular empowerment appears like an alternative focus, very different from the institutional discourse and society’s point of view regarding collective life. Parallel to assistentialism another system - based on cooperative participation - is growing. These associative forces act as hegemonic counter-powers against the dominant society and eventually foster new ideologies. But it is true that community-based design is still marked by prejudices. Our main challenge and goal is to break this assumptions with facts.


[1] Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, Museum of Modern art, New York, (1964) 1965, PDF;

Cover image by Marcos Coronel; 2-3_Photos by José Bastidas; 4_Photo by Alfredo Pineda; All images courtesy of Pico;

Published: 4 April 2017

#Interview #TogethernessInDesign #PICO #MarcosCoronel #ParticipatoryArchitecture #InCommonFacilities

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