André-Louis Paré
No. 136 - Winter 2024

Building: Finding an Urban Ethics

In his novel Que notre joie demeure (Héliotrope, 2022), Kevin Lambert describes “starchitects” in the world of globalized capital – architects who owe their prestige to fabulous projects that rarely reflect social reality. Lambert’s main character, Céline Wachowski, celebrated Montréal architect and founder of Les Ateliers C/W, is about to inaugurate the Webuy complex in her hometown just as social groups are expressing disapproval of galloping gentrification in the midst of a housing crisis. The most striking inside joke in the novel, which has earned various awards – including the Médicis 2023 – is that Les Ateliers C/W is located at 305 rue de Bellechasse. In real life, this is the address of a former factory that was transformed into artists’ studios and fell prey to real estate speculation in 2020, when it was renovated and converted into high-priced spaces for sale or rent.

This is not a new story: in Montréal, as in many other Western cities, artists move into buildings that have been left empty until a new owner comes along. Their presence in the neighbourhood stimulates cultural and economic development, and when real estate developers discover this, they purchase the buildings and accelerate the gentrification process. In his documentary 305 Bellechasse, dans l’intimité des ateliers d’artistes (Tulp Films, 2022), Maxime-Claude L’Écuyer showcases the artistic creativity of some of the building’s occupants right up to the day when real estate speculation cuts their activity short. Thus, by situating Les Ateliers C/W at an address that is well known in Montréal art circles, Lambert raises an aspect of art history that should give us pause.

As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari remind us in their book What Is Philosophy? (Columbia University Press, 1996), architecture is the first art. Starting with house and land, placing our living space in an environment is a basic and essential gesture. What does this primacy mean, though, in the context of urban development in a large city? In Lambert’s novel, Céline Wachowski takes pride in giving Montréal an architectural gem that will cap her long career. Despite her open and progressive spirit, she overlooks the harm that this will cause to the social structure and the evictions that will result; the implication is that the area where a building is constructed may be neglected – especially because the future of cities depends on people whose vision is bounded by their ambition.

In the view of Olivier Barancy, author of Plaidoyer contre l’urbanisme hors-sol et pour une architecture raisonnée (Agone, 2022), many contemporary architects “use their talents only to serve their prestige and their pocketbook” (our translation). Their plans are designed to please developers rather than to respond to the residents’ needs. This approach is characteristic of those who “are satisfied with the creative gesture (minimalist design, sketch, etc.) without much concern for the siting of the building, or for its users or its integration into the environment” (our translation). The architectural development of a city must not be reduced to a service or an industry whose purpose is solely to build. Although at first glance utilitarian, urban architecture must also foster the pride of belonging to a more egalitarian, friendlier living space. The thematic section in this issue, titled “Building,” therefore probes the future of architecture as a means of creating places for human beings to live within urban agglomerations. It reminds us that architects need to establish working collaborations with the many stakeholders involved in a building’s development – including, if possible, the users. At a time when urban sprawl is expanding, climate change is affecting how people occupy land, and heritage preservation is becoming more of an imperative, how can architecture –and, more specifically, urban planning – contribute to creating a habitat that has a positive influence on how we live?

First, Diogo Rodrigues de Barros revisits the controversy surrounding the construction of the city of Brasília in 1960. He analyzes the crisis of modern architecture in a context in which “the European assertion of cultural authority” interfered with “the cultural and political aspirations of the peoples of the South” with respect to architecture and urban planning. Writing about the Senegalese collective L’École des mutants, Hélène Soumaré relates the history of the Université du Futur Africain, the construction of which was never completed. In Soumaré’s view, the ruin’s futurist modernism reveals “the limitations of the African independence project. The architecture that the project is concerned with presents a vision of the future needs to be examined critically.” From a completely different perspective – that of the housing crisis – but also looking at a more community-minded way of living, Laurence Boire, Olivier Therrien, and Camyl Vigneault present social housing models in Zurich, Berlin, and Barcelona. For these architect-authors, it is important to “question the capacity of architects to effect change.” Their case studies demonstrate that architects can execute projects that support citizen-centred approaches. In the “Essay” section, the co-founder of Village Urbain, Pascal Huynh, analyzes his experience within this community initiative. His work on developing innovative housing has led him to rethink artists’ role in society. In our interview with architect Pierre Thibault, he discusses projects, such as Lab-École, that reflect new ways of living eco-responsibly, and he underlines the importance of dialogue in the process of creating a building, situating architecture as a relational art.

As far back as 1950, philosopher Henri Lefebvre was writing about the right to the city, the right to situate oneself as an individual in the urban environment and to participate fully in its affairs. From this perspective, the city must also reflect gender diversity. Olivier Vallerand takes up this subject as he discusses the work of two feminist collectives, MYCKET and muf architecture/art, that attend to “the experience of public spaces through their architectural layout.” By creating a sense of belonging to and identification with processes and communities, these groups’ practices show that artistic and participatory approaches have the potential to design safer spaces. Olivier Fabry presents artist and architect Olivia Daigneault Deschênes’s urban interventions during her residency at the British School at Rome in spring 2023. By conducting exploratory walks with groups of women, Daigneault Deschênes probed the experience of the public space and in doing so attempted to subvert the original purpose of such walks and use them to reappropriate the city. Finally, Sydney Hart examines the work of Marisa Kriangwiwat Holmes, an artist who uses photography to make reference to architecture on a smaller scale. Hart looks closely at a large mural outside a suburban train station that Holmes created in 2018 as a commission from the Capture Photography Festival.

In parallel with the thematic essays, the “Events” section refers to two biennials: Didier Morelli takes a look at the 18th Venice Architectural Biennale, and Marie-Ève Charron describes MOMENTA Biennale de l’image. The “Reviews” section includes eight critiques of exhibitions presented in Québec, Canada and the United State. Finally, in the “Books” and “Selected Titles” sections, ESPACE is always happy to share recent publications that have drawn our attention.

André-Louis Paré

Translated by Käthe Roth


Cover image credit :
muf architecture/art, Street interrupted, Hackney Wick, 2010. Intervention in Hackney Wick neighborhood (London). Courtesy of muf architecture/art.