Heading into the entrance of Het Nieuwe Instituut, you might find your attention caught by one of the display cabinets of the NAi bookshop, loosely grouped in the centre of the space. A quick glance at the books often leads to a longer detour when curiosity strikes. Íñigo Cornago Bonal is wandering through the bookstore wearing a navy-blue sweater with a small Chiquita Banana sticker stuck on it instead of a brand logo. He has just started work on his PhD in the Architecture and Democracy programme of TU Delft, the Jaap Bakema Study Centre and Het Nieuwe Instituut. This programme investigates how, over the course of the 20th century, architecture and urban planning played a role in representing, embodying and enabling democracy. In his PhD, Íñigo studies the role of dwellers in shaping the contemporary global housing system and their impact on spatial justice.
Meanwhile Íñigo is also presenting a paper during the conference, The Terms of Habitation: Re-theorizing the Architecture of Housing, at the Israel Institute of Advanced Studies (November 2020). The abstract, submitted with Dirk van den Heuvel, is entitled Open Building and Users’ Agency: Early and Contemporary Experiments in the Netherlands. He is discussing contemporary projects (by Marc Koehler, Fretton, Eberle and Tom Frantzen) as well as historic examples (by Jaap Bakema, Herman Hertzberger and the SAR Group). Central to the concept of ‘open building’ are the ideas of architect and professor John Habraken, whose archive is held by the National Collection of Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning at Het Nieuwe Instituut.
Why did you choose the Architecture and Democracy programme?
Íñigo Cornago Bonal: When I was considering doing a PhD and I saw the Architecture and Democracy programme, it was clear that it aligned with my interests. Many things came together. Because through the Archiprix I had a closer connection with Delft already [he co-directed the Archiprix International workshop in 2015 and 2017 – ed]. In the Netherlands, there is a tradition of studying these relationships between the resident and the housing system, the participative approach, and then you have Habraken, in whose work I have always been very much interested. I am becoming more aware of the role of archives. There are a lot of things that underlie my interest in studying here. But I think the crucial factor was the programme.
Could you say some more about the difference between the house as a commodity, and as a human right?
There is the physical reality of the house and two ways of viewing it. First, there are many agents of the housing system that look at it from an economic point of view, as a financial asset. The fact is that most of the agents — I mean developers, owners, and even the institutions, laws and regulations —focus on that aspect. Financial means become ends in themselves because of the logic of how things work, this financialization. Second, the house is the culturally loaded space of the ‘home’ that has been considered as a human right. These two views clash, because the same physical reality of the house is considered on the one hand as a fundamental right that everyone should have, and on the other as an asset whose value resides in speculation - in inequality.
One of your case-studies is a cooperative housing project in Zurich called Mehr als Wohen (‘More than Housing’). It’s a cooperative development of a neighbourhood. Does it exemplify a different kind of housing system?
I think this project is significant because people don’t own their house; they become part of the cooperative and this gives them right to live in the house. The houses are the property of the cooperative. So, they own the right to live in the houses and make decisions. It’s a different approach and that’s really interesting.
It’s also interesting in the sense that this project is not like other cooperative projects in which the house is flexible in terms of extending or accommodating changes in the household. For example, if you decide to have children or split up. If you require more space, you can move to another apartment within the neighbourhood that fulfils your criteria.
I’m also interested in performance. So, is it really working? Is it really having an impact? Are inequalities among these people, at this scale, decreasing because of it? Or in comparison with another project. I think the scale of it is really fascinating, because it is exceptional – even in Switzerland.
I thought it was interesting that the cooperative in Zurich left some places undeveloped.
So, there’s an area that is undeveloped in terms of building even, and there are some parts of the landscaping, the open spaces around the buildings, that were also not developed. Residents need to pay a small rent and part of it goes to the community fund for all the people living in the cooperative, and this money is for them to do projects in the cooperative, so they can develop some of those areas. There is a working group and they apply for money internally, and then they get the money they can develop something. So, the residents are not only involved before the development of the project, but also afterwards, when it’s being lived in.
Before this interview, I asked if we could meet in a place important to your research process, and you chose the NAi bookshop here in Het Nieuwe Instituut. Are you looking for something in relation to your PhD?
No, that’s the thing. With libraries, you very much look online now usually; you search the keywords, and then you try to find the source in the library and then maybe you go to the stack and then you read it. I like the bookshop because you just go and see what’s there, and of course there are things on display and it’s also a commercial situation, and they want you to buy things. And I also enjoy buying things, you know, accumulating stuff.
I come here and it’s always open; even today the cafeteria is closed, but the bookshop is open. I also very much like the NAi bookshop because you don’t need to enter it, and you kind of move around. It doesn’t have a clearly defined border or limits, so you are just looking, finding.
It’s also good that it’s saying something about which topics are now rather hot. I realise that maybe I want my PhD to become a book and I want to show it in the bookshop, so I am also learning from the commercial aspect. Not in terms of making money, but in terms of reaching larger audiences.
Is that important to you?
Yes, it’s very important to me. Because I am not fetishising academia. I want to learn from it, and I think that they are doing things in academia that are interesting, but sometimes I think the debates are very closed. Even with the terminology. I always look up terms in an ordinary dictionary to see what people understand by them. For example, there’s a problem with ‘agency’. In Spanish, we don’t use the word with this meaning, so maybe I like it because I don’t really know what it is, it’s magical to me; it could be anything. It’s a good exercise.
What other terms are you looking into?
One term is agency, the other the ‘housing system’ and then there is ‘spatial justice’. Up to now I’ve done quite some research and reading on the first two, and now I’m looking into the third. And then I need to see them all together. Meanwhile, there were some kind of spin-offs. When I was looking at agency, it was the question of power. In my PhD proposal, I talk about why the empowerment of the dweller and the need for agency are connected. I am trying to understand the nuances. For the housing system, there is this system theory background there, so I’ll be looking into that. I am looking at the relationship between economy and ecology. There are some people who want to expand these limits of the economic system to make it match the ecological system, so they try to measure ecology in terms of the market; they want to tax carbon emissions, for example.
Do you see spatial justice as a democratic value?
Yes, absolutely. Spatial justice has always been the more elusive concept of my proposal. I have never been quite certain about it. Maybe I left it until last for a reason! For democracy to exist, it is not only about governance or respect for the law; I think it also has to do with a certain equality, so that in general terms the socio-economic and cultural situation into which you are born is not too deterministic of who you will be able to become. I think that is what I am trying to tap into. At the moment housing is part of the problem. And I believe it could be part of the solution.
Interview by Soscha Monteiro
Íñigo Cornago Bonal is an architect and educator. With the support of La Caixa Fellowship he is currently working on his PhD in the Architecture and Democracy programme of TU Delft, Jaap Bakema Study Centre and Het Nieuwe Instituut. He developed his professional practice working by independently, collaboratively, and in the partnership Cornago&Sanchez. In 2016, he was awarded a Teaching Fellowship at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. He also taught at Kingston University in London and led workshops in Science Gallery in Dublin and Medialab Prado or Matadero in Madrid. He co-directed the Archiprix International workshop in 2015 and 2017. With his Urban Toolkit he won a first prize in the Europan 13 competition in 2015. His work has won awards in competitions such as Europan 10 (Tallin), 72 Hour Urban Action (Roskilde, Denmark), the competition for the urban regeneration of the Badel site (Zagreb) and Arquia Proxima (2014, 2016, 2018).
PhD Programme Architecture and Democracy
Together with the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology, the Jaap Bakema Study centre has launched the new PhD programme 'Architecture and Democracy'. The programme seeks to investigate how over the course of the 20th century, architecture and urban planning have played a role in representing, embodying and enabling democracy.
Archive Deep Dive with Burcu Köken
Interview with Burcu Köken, PhD candidate in the Architecture and Democracy programme. Central to her research is the comprehensive study of the architecture journals Forum, RIBA Journal and Mimarlık between 1960-1980, and how they relate to the advancement of various social programmes during the postwar period.