Has democracy failed to resist the neoliberal vision of the city and does architecture have anything to contribute to the debate? A presentation by Leonardo Cappetto, an architect and co-founder of Grupo TOMA, came as a fresh and potent ray of hope on Thursday evening – 17th November 2016. Thanks to Dr. Camilo Boano, Leonardo was invited to present at the Development Planning Unit. His presentation commenced by juxtaposing the rise of populist right-wing politicians almost all around the world and the seeming demise of an alternative to the neoliberal city. But the optimism rose as he presented the work done by the Chile based collective – Grupo TOMA towards attempting to find that alternative.
The promise of an alternative reflected within the very structure of Grupo TOMA, defying the norms that governed the 20th century professional world. Grupo TOMA is a collective of architects without any hierarchical internal relationships. It is a nomad organisation that resents the idea of growth for its sake and it works with temporal communities inherently being denied the chance for any permanent architectural statement.
What motivates a group of architects to let go of the egotistic practice of the 20th century? What inspires their continuing reconciliation with temporal existence? Leonardo’s presentation was just a glimpse into some of the aspects that may answer these questions.
TOMA’s first project involved bringing together neighbours to discuss and decide potential uses for an empty plot in a neighbourhood. Not having accomplished the desired outcomes after months of working with the local government, TOMA moved to set up its office in a factory that was commissioned for demolition and used the opportunity to invite 10 organisations to collectively model a city, comprising of design shops, kitchen, discussion areas, artist workshops, bicycle shops and media outlets among others. Though short lived, the experiment involved developing a territory and building a social organisation to organise that developed territory. According to Leonardo, such an experiment has immense potential in stimulating political questions over the city and thereby informing us of the alternatives.
TOMA’s journey continued in a new factory, commissioned to be converted into a centre for innovation. Cautious of the potential of their actions towards gentrifying the neighbourhood, TOMA embarks on a new project of generating a social narrative of the history of the place. Using a fictitious character of an elderly resident, Mr. Hugo, the narrative attempted to capture the rise of social speculators, searching for their gains in the neoliberal city – “a speculopolis – a Chillicon Valley”, suggested Leonardo. Although criticised of being a “dystopian narrative”, Leonardo claimed that such an exercise helps prompt discussion and provocations against the “seduction and destruction” of neoliberalism. Grupo TOMA has carried out similar other projects in Santiago de Chile, as well as Chicago, where they moved their office for a few months.
Leonardo concluded his talk by hinting at three main contributions architecture can make towards questioning the dominant neoliberal city. Firstly, he claims, the contribution lies in acknowledging the interrelation between the territory and its social organisation, something the profession has neglected so far. Secondly, in his opinion, architecture can help mobilise contemporary political discussion through use of unconventional languages and of experiments. Lastly, he concluded by asserting the potential of architecture in building spaces and scenarios for involving all socio-political conflicts.
Undoubtedly, Leonardo’s passionate accounts of TOMA’s work and its ideological journey stimulated a lively debate. Questions came from the audience that ranged from the ethics of involving community during projects to TOMA’s future plans for a bigger and a more permanent movement. Leonardo’s fitting comments, modestly acknowledging the unknown and further provoking the ideas of permanency, growth and the neoliberal, closed the session by stating, “Although temporal, the projects are Real and even as they disappear – nothing remains the same.”
Follow the works of Grupo TOMA here.