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Charlotte Malterre-Barthes and Lev Bratishenko
Problems After No Construction
23.04.2021

An edited conversation between Charlotte Malterre-Barthes and Lev Bratishenko, with notes for a short story.

The generation split was a problem. Almost everyone alive had grown up in a world that believed new things were better. Some people even enjoyed opening boxes and removing packaging, and many more people enjoyed watching them. These were real pleasures. Who were we to say that they were wrong? They didn’t believe us when we said sorry, we can’t build anymore. For them, this meant that we had failed.

It would take at least one generation to disgrace shipping boxes and plastic wrap, pallets of plywood and bags of cement that sacrificed people and land to be produced. So now we were reluctantly in the horror-production business, and we organized many school trips to the wastelands. We began rehabilitating the wreckers, scavengers, and rag pickers—raising up to the status of Masters those who made a living stealing copper pipe—while international delegations sailed to global centers for reclamation, a nice word for picking through rich people’s trash.

LB: I’d started a text imagining what new problems might emerge if we stopped building, and then I heard about your program, so here we are. Thank you for talking with me. How did you get started on Stop Building¹?

CMB: I think the idea of a moratorium on construction is in the zeitgeist, and Lacaton & Vassal’s Pritzker Prize points to that. I’ve been working on bridging the gap between design decisions and their material consequences, and how to confront the racial, social, and environmental damage that comes intrinsically with using resources. Building is a choice of destruction, basically.
But, to me, it remains a bit of a boutique conversation. It has reached academia—it has reached us—but it hasn't reached the office where the dudes say, “You are only an architect if you build.” So, it is also about deconstructing figures. I feel like it's time to face our responsibilities. The idea of the moratorium is also coming from Bruno Latour’s text² published in March of last year: Latour argued it was a good time to stop and look. But what actually never stopped were the construction sites.

LB: If the moratorium kills something in architecture practice, it makes us ask: what if this is something that needed to die? But, personally, one of the most interesting things to think through was that if a moratorium did happen, it shouldn’t happen the same way everywhere. Let’s say in the global North—an imprecise term—suddenly all the architects can no longer build anything new and must shift to a renovation or maintenance practice, and in the South, because of its much lower carbon debt, traditional building continues for a while—what shifts in the global discourse?

CMB: I think this is a very important question. What and where should construction stop? In Egypt, for example, there is already a moratorium on construction, on everything, except in the new capital—possibly the last thing that is necessary to build. The so-called “informal” that Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker (CLUSTER) research in Cairo, is built out of housing need. In the desert, villas bought by wealthy classes are and will remain vacant because they are used as securities as there is little trust in financial institutions. This interrogates the myth of housing shortages. There is an existing stock which is not totally occupied. One aspect is vacancy, and the other is justice: so many new housing units do not go to the people who actually need them. So, I think there are gradients even within this assumption that all countries need to construct more.

Three hundred million construction workers in the world were now needed as teachers. Maintenance became a priority, and in many situations it was ‘the’ priority. Careful, surgical demolition work shot up in prestige (“Beautiful hole, Jimmy.”) as overqualified engineers applied en masse for new positions. Suddenly, Disassembly Architects were everywhere and many of them were fraudulent, but with raw materials now at impossible prices, even a badly-demolished building was extremely valuable for its parts. Rotor won the next Pritzker and many people complained. The prize came with the right to remove twenty five percent of the Brussels Hilton and that made Rotor very rich.

Once the shock wore off and people stopped panicking, we realized that the pace of change had shifted. Almost every building was enmeshed in claims, sneakily perforated by material miners, and still supporting inhabitants who had to keep the peace through constant negotiation. Ownership would have been a big problem if we had left the records intact.

CMB: In Jane Mah Hutton’s book³, there is a chapter on the High Line where she discusses the use of Ipe woods for the benches, which Diller Scofidio + Renfro specified for the first phase. An NGO pointed out that this wood is not sustainable—actually no wood is sustainable—so for the second phase they used boardwalk planks from piers in New York that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. And I want to ask: ‘Well, why didn't we as designers come up with that in the first place?’

LB: It’s clientelism, right? A question of avoiding responsibility. There are these situations where conditions are clearly external and then somehow, because of pressure, it becomes possible to think in another way. But what I think is powerful about the moratorium provocation is the idea of imposing conditions that maybe seem arbitrary, as arbitrary as a hurricane, but we choose them because we believe in them.

Construction did not end everywhere in the same way or at the same time. Like decarbonization, the restrictions were determined by local levels of excess. Inequalities inside countries had to be taken into account. The calculations were very complex and many mistakes were made, and then everything had to percolate from the smallest units of polity all the way up to the international level. Endless debates. A total mess, obviously. But what had come before was also a mess and the new mess had better morals, so we stuck with it.

LB: I admire Lacaton & Vassal’s work and I agree with you that their Pritzker is a sign of the times. But they have a very clean aesthetic, and you could see it as an intermediate step towards new values of limited intervention or non-intervention. But if you didn't know anything about their practice and you just looked at Grand Parc, you might think it's an ordinary new building.

CMB: It's not trash, you mean? I want to provoke you a little bit, because I think that there is an assumption that architecture that is positioned in a humanist or, let's say, politicized side of the spectrum, is necessarily ugly, right? There is an attitude that those designers who do that kind of work are not the best designers. And on the other side you have Peter Märkli and Zumthor, these boutique architects that do beautiful things, happily pouring concrete. With Lacaton & Vassal, I don't know how things are going to look like in twenty years, let's be fair, but Tour Bois-le-Prêtre is very beautiful. The materials that they use, even if they are affordable and familiar and so forth, still look good. So maybe there is an in-between aesthetic.

LB: Exactly, you could say they are exemplary because they are not upsetting the conventional sensibility that humanist work can seem ugly. They're gently leading the way. It makes me wonder if we need a more obvious aesthetic of repair and reuse.

CMB: I think you're touching on what’s at the core of the moratorium discussion—it works as a discursive Trojan horse that provokes questions around newness versus maintenance. These topics displace the conversation onto the terrain of political systems. It is more valuable for a politician in a functioning or semi-functioning democracy to announce something new: a new pyramid, a new airport, the wall. They're one-off, spectacular projects. You can't announce, ‘From now on we're going to maintain all the toilets in the city; we won't replace them in the next fifty years,’ and expect the people to clap.

So, it is about questioning the functions within our democracies that allow us to wrongly celebrate newness. How do we shift that value system, right?

LB: David Graeber, in his book⁴ about debt, writes about how Babylonian kings would announce a debt jubilee when they took power. They wiped the slates clean. And how this was ambiguously both a responsibility of the king and a way to get public support and build a legacy.

But talking about newness, I think there is an emotional aspect to shifting values. Coming from the Soviet Union as a child, and having my grandparents very close my whole life, has meant being in contact with a generation that has a very different attitude to buying new things. It’s meant using objects like a camera that my grandfather's been fixing since he was fifteen years old, or little things around the house that we've been fixing together for decades. And you have a different relationship to these kinds of objects. They take on an emotional charge through your repair of them. Perversely, I think that the closest thing we have to that today is the note slipped into the box in the factory saying ‘I'm a prisoner here, please help me.’

And I think there’s a parallel to the material implications of design decisions that you talked about at the beginning. Our material relationships are completely obfuscated by capitalist processes. We need to recover our relations to the sacrificial landscapes and sacrificial people behind newness, and to feel sadness and horror.

CMB: Yeah, that's one kind of terrible violence that this topic brings to the fore. It is also present in another form, in the disdain towards care work that sustains our entire system. If you can’t build new, you better take care of what you already have. And I think there has been a shift of attention recently, or maybe just a temporary spotlight, on the care workers that were out there when everyone was at home, those that are the least paid and the most devalued.

LB: Here, the negativity of your provocation appeals to me. Because we’re seeing care appear in so many projects, as a title word in many exhibitions and things like that. And it’s great—it's reflecting a questioning of values. But it's mostly presented as additive, as simply something that we need to do more of. Really, in order to care you have to give up some other things.

CMB: That's the problem of ‘care’: it's too nice. That's why we have to stop doing what we do now before care can be re-centered. Schools could be much more radical by not teaching students only how to build, something I think is already happening in many ways. But then the architecture office remains the lackey of the real estate industry which is basically destroying everything. I think power has to be shifted to allow for things such as designing maintenance protocols—which of course, may sound very unexciting. But this doesn't have to be: if the project is about reinventing how to live in a house if it's about putting double the amount of people in one house—that is already a serious design test.

On top of that, how do you design for the durability of human relations plus the durability of spaces, or even the cohabitation with other organisms? I think these questions are in the air and I wouldn't claim any kind of originality. But for me, it is urgent and I guess your text comes to the same conclusion.

Let's say it's about negating powerlessness.

The new scarcity was compounded by our hypersensitivity to energy use, for obvious reasons, but retrofitting and disassembly were energy-intensive. People calling themselves Ants and specializing in disassembly needed power tools to do their work, though the more experienced ones could do a lot by hand. And even the most efficient industrial disassembly systems required heavy machinery, heat, solvents, and exotic applications of physics to liquify buildings into raw materials. These advanced techniques were debated. Many people saw them as counter-productive, and so they became illegal in most countries. Except in Russia and the U.S., where they would persist for generations, sustaining cadaverous vestiges of the old world.

Decentralized and limited electricity was a hidden blessing: it made dominating others harder. It meant that most of the work had to the done by hand, slowly, in shifts, by people who came to know one another closely. We were like insects contentedly eating away at a wall and at the myth of the “self-made” person. And eventually we would be able to build again—once we figured out how to do so without harm.

¹ 23.04.2021, Stop Building? A Global Moratorium on New Construction, Harvard GSD

² 29.03.2020, What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?, AOC

³ Reciprocal Landscapes: Stories of Material Movements, Routledge, 2019.

⁴ Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House, 2012.