Crossbenching – Interview with Markus Miessen [commonthejournal]

Konjunktur und Krise?, No 2

Federica Bueti: I would like to start from the very beginning, from a simple question that could help us to contextualize your practice. When and how did you become interested in participatory practices? And what interests you in a collaborative approach?

Markus Miessen: I spent three years between 1998 and 2000 in Glasgow after which I moved to Berlin for a year. This moment in Berlin at the tail-end of the 90’s was very interesting; when I moved to London in 2002 for further studies at the Architectural Association, my belief in the potential of architecture had almost diminished and I was hoping for it do be revitalized, which – thankfully – it did. In the late 90’s one could witness a very interesting phenomenon in Berlin, which was that many architectural practices had moved towards participatory approaches, and I was really sceptical of this. In retrospect, one realizes that many of these practises were the result of an economic crisis in architecture: practitioners simply needed to define and inhabit a niche, a margin of opportunity. However, it wasn’t exactly the case that they had originally set out to become social workers.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter.

When I finished my studies at the AA, I started a research-project called Did Someone Say Participate?, which I developed throughout my post-graduate work and later in a book, co-edited by Shumon Basar. In it, we attempted to give a non-romantic overview of what we thought of as interesting and challenging practices, which redefine the way in which we look at and understand the production of space today. What they all had in common was that they rethought the relationships between the participatory and their own role as independent actors, they set out to interrogate the often romantic and nostalgic participatory practices that are or were at play. Not in the sense of them inviting others to participate, but in the sense of immediate single-handed involvement, pro-active agency and authorship.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

This project provoked a series of projects and on-going inquiries in regard to the subject of participation and collaborative approaches in the fields of architecture, spatial practice and art, from a distance so to speak, from an outsider’s perspective. I am interested in the role of someone, who is not – by default – assuming the character or position of the good-doer, but a passer-by, an observer, who is attempting to understand a particular phenomenon, or cliché one might say – and then to act upon it without being entangled in its intra-politics. I tried this through projects such as The Violence of Participation, which was a project at the Lyon Biennial as well as a publication, ›The Nightmare of Participation‹, a more theoretical work, and ›Waking Up From The Nightmare of Participation‹, which presents a reflective anthology of texts by authors, who are critically dealing with and interrogating The Nightmare of Participation.

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

19 hours at the kiosk, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2012; commissioned by Valerie Smith; spatial design and programming by Studio Miessen. Photography by Eugster and Affolter

The text (NOP) was always thought of as a starting point, a trigger so to speak; to throw something in the ring in order to start a productive conversation around a particular subject. These projects were thought of as a set of different species of work around a single question. I am now working on a book called ›Crossbench Praxis‹, the actual propositional work, which essentially is the PhD I am working on at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths in London and which will both present a thesis towards an alternative type of praxis as well as a series of examples, which will act as case studies, work that I have produced as an architect. Since 2002, when I was still studying at the Architectural Association, I have been working through a sort of agency or platform called Studio Miessen, through which I have been collaborating with a very differentiated set of practitioners. The way that I tend to work is instead of pre-empting project-teams or working with a set structure in an office, I assemble working groups in order to approach every context with the necessary specificity.

Participation, collaborative practices, self-organized practices, autonomous, independent and community-based practices, are all terms used to describe working modalities in the cultural field. However, this seems to be the mantra of the moment, collaboration is somehow what and how we are expected to work in seemingly open neoliberal working environments. What I found interesting in your approach is that you try to destabilize the dominant consensual model of collaborative practices by introducing the figure of the uninvited outsider. How does this figure function in relation to the neoliberal demand for collaborative labour?

I think there are two things to recognize here: one is that we need to be very careful when considering participation and collaboration as practices per se. What does this really mean? There is often a slight romanticization involved, which goes hand in hand with a nostalgia that relates to and calls for the 1960s and 70s. My understanding of collaboration is neither one of auto-exploitation nor one, which exploits others. I think everyone is responsible for him- or herself. As a collaborator, you should always follow your own, opportunistic agenda. You can always say no. Only when people with different agendas meet there is actually a productive outcome, which produces new ideas or concepts. One has to set up professional frameworks and working mechanisms in order for this dynamic to eventually turn prolific.
To get back to your question regarding collaboration, what I would like to promote is a frictional and potentially dissensual production towards a common goal, which is in fact the whole point about collaboration in the first place: working with friendly enemies. In each project the force-field of actors needs to be redefined. Otherwise one should rather think about partners as pre-empted consensual colleagues to cooperate with over a longer period. The creation of the role of the Uninvited Outsider and Crossbench Practitioner is an attempt to propose a model in which participation is radically rethought: moving away from the romantic idea of all-inclusive democratic processes, where everyone is invited to the round-table to add one’s point, which – from my point of view – ultimately will lead to watered-down and weak consensus. I think we need to work towards the notion of the first-person-singular actor, an independent actor with a conscience. Collaboration can only work if there is something in it for everyone. But this does not mean that it needs to turn into uncritical and consensus-oriented cooperation.

Where does the model of the crossbencher stem from?

What I am refering to when I talk about Crossbench Practice is a specific role that I am developing, which works towards an independent and pro-active individual without political mandate, who retains an autonomy of thought, proposition, and production. This role entails that in a given context one neither belongs to nor alligns with a specific party or set of stakeholders, but can openly act without having to respond to a pre-supposed set of protocols or consensual arrangements. Especially in the context of the recent culture crisis in the Netherlands the role of the crossbencher – as they call the independent politician in the über-conservative British House of Lords – becomes increasingly relevant. I am hijacking this role from this conservative setting in order to (mis)use it as an analogy: it proposes a way of acting, in other words a practice, which operates on the basis of alternative and self-governing political parameters. Crossbench Practice aims to open up a fresh debate, not as a theory, but a way of acting politically.

I think what we need today is a new vocabulary to describe our practices. I recently watched a documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back‹ and in one scene he complained about that fact Times magazine defined him a Folk Singer, but he wouldn’t consider himself a folk singer. In this sense, there is a fundamental problem of how to define a practice without forcing it to fit a limiting definition or consensual model. Is there any way to define participatory practices differently? What terms do you propose to describe your practice? How would you position yourself in the general field of the discourse around the definition of participatory practices?

I think you are absolutely right; it all comes down to the question of one’s role, and the way in which this role becomes productive from the point of view of praxis. Historically, architecture, as a profession, is very interesting in this regard. During the Renaissance the architect was thought of and taught to be a polymath. In reverse, what we are witnessing today is that architects tend to be, both by education and personal choice, highly skilled and super-specific experts, who are very good at catering for one particular item within the complexity of construction, but are often not equipped with the gear that it needs in order to understand and act upon the complex cultural specifics around a particular project. Someone else can easily replace them; and that makes them expendable. They become office robots. It really reminds me of the great recent movie The Expendables, starring essentially the whole bunch of getting-aged action-superstars, from Sylvester Stallone to Bruce Willis, Arnie and Dolph Lundgren to name a few. This stuff simply does not fly any longer.
I am not so much interested in thinking about what genuine participatory practice may be or entail. From my point of view we have in fact been trying to theorize it too much over the past two decades. What we instead need to do is to force ourselves into contexts into which we have previously not been invited, redefine our position, and demonstrate that we can deal with the cultural complexity that surrounds contemporary spatial production. To rethink participation, I would like to introduce the German word ›Einmischung‹(intruder) to our conversation. Germany’s former minister for foreign affairs, Joschka Fischer, poses an interesting example in this regard. He is essentially a self-educated thinker, who first became active during Frankfurt’s 1969 student revolution in which he played a pivotal role as a non-student. He then, later, decided against armed resistance and became one of the founding members of the German Green Party and their first minister. Under the Labour/Green government led by chancellor Schröder at the tail-end of the 1990s Fischer became minister for foreign affairs. He is really the only person I can think of, who fully physicalized and turned into praxis Gramsci’s notion of the long march through the institutions. Absurdly he was the one that was for a long time the focal point of critique within the German Green Party and the Labour Party, which is quite telling I think. As we know, the Left is best at auto-critique and not so productive in terms of coming up with turning into practice counter-proposals. Although one can of course criticize particularities about his decision-making in the past, Fischer can and should be understood as an interesting case, someone who has been interested in the framework of democratic structures, but not for the sake of the structure itself, but in order to generate and stir change. This also means that the party in which one is a member is only a means to place oneself in the larger formal-political structure, which is the parliament. I do not believe that Fischer was ever very interested in intra-party politics and consensus. In this way, he could be compared to a crossbencher, although he is not, at least not from the point of being a fully independent actor.

Fair point and difficult task. To think about structure, not for the sake of the structure, but in order to generate and stir changes, how does this translate into your practice?

To start to answer this means to start to think about, rethink and interrogate the role of the architect and the role that architecture with a big »A« can and should assume in society today. In order to ask what is new knowledge in architecture today, one must ask or rather define what architecture means in the first place. Over the last two decades the role of the architect, at least viewed from a critical perspective, has been interrogated and developed substantially. The question of what does one consider to contribute to the production of space is one that circulates around the potential effects on space and how those effects and affects are and can be generated, amended and influenced – and who are the people and practices in charge of those proliferating changes. Architecture with a big »A« can only assume relevance again once it assumes responsibility: responsibility in terms of negotiating, mediating and enabling relationships and conflicts that individuals and groups, whether public or private, can perform within space. Anyone interested in a subject of societal relevance will by default realize that any reality is based on complexity. »A«rchitecture deals with precisely this complexity: socially, and therefore politically, and spatially. Where critical and collaborative research, first-person singular participation (i.e. »I contribute«), and individual dedication towards an ethical position question the modalities of practice, new sets of knowledge are being generated. This is the way in which I hope to practice. Sometimes this works more successful than at other times. Some of my projects are dealing with a-physical frameworks, such as a consulting project I ran for the last two years for the Dutch art organization SKOR, together with Andrea Phillips. Here, the main question was how, as an external observer, you could help to redesign the organizational and content-related »software« of an institution.

Miessen_Institution Building_Goerlich

Institution Building; edited by Nikolaus Hirsch, Phillip Misselwitz, Markus Miessen, Matthias Görlich; Sternberg Press,2009; photography by Matthias Görlich

In other words: how can you alter the way in which the institution functions on a day-to-day basis, what is its goal, what kind of programme to they produce, how do they speak to different sets of audiences? Together with Nikolaus Hirsch, Phillip Misselwitz and Matthias Görlich I worked on a project for the European Kunsthalle (Cologne) called Spaces of Production. The project conceptualized, tested, and practically applied a spatial strategy for the European Kunsthalle. The investigation did not result from purely theoretical or conceptual considerations, but was the result of the activities incorporated into the European Kunsthalle’s founding phases’ two-year work practice from 2005 to 2007. Our spatial strategy for the European Kunsthalle was the direct result of applied research – an iterative investigation informed by resonances between theory and practice.

Miessen_Manifesta Backbench

Backbench, Manifesta 8, Murcia, Spain, 2010. Spatial design by nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson). Photography by Pablo Ferao.

In the past I have also worked on several architectural-scale projects for institutions such as Performa Biennial in New York, an archive and film-set for Manifesta in Murcia, an interior for Archive Kabinett, a Berlin-based discursive forum and bookshop. These three projects were done in collaboration with my former partners at nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson).

Miessen_Winter School

Winter School Middle East, nomadic, currently based in Kuwait; founded and directed by Markus Miessen, co-director Zahra Ali Baba;

At the moment I am working on projects with the Witte de With in Rotterdam, Powerplant in Toronto, an office space in New York, the Winter School Middle East (Kuwait), an NGO in Los Angeles, a public forum in Gwangju, and the development of a rural art centre in the greater Frankfurt area.


Gwangju Biennial On Site, a community Hub for content production, 2011. A project by nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson). Photography by JomgOh Kim.

But my practice also concerns teaching, writing, editing, sometimes curating. However, I would still introduce myself as an architect. Teaching and writing is very important for me. The constant exchange stimulates thinking in all sorts of directions. Also that one is constantly being exposed to different backgrounds and nationalities that sometimes just laugh at one’s own suggestions is very healthy.

The concept of participation and the term crisis seems to be equally present in current discussion about cultural politics. It seems that the two concepts are closely linked, they complement each other as indispensable parts within contemporary political rhetorics: crisis is the problem, participation the therapy. Do you think that collaborative practices can help to solve‹ or to survive the crisis? How do collaborative practices work in a time of crisis and how does a crisis play itself out within the space of a collaborative practice?

I think your point about participation being understood and used as some form of therapy is brilliant. Modes of participation have, in terms of state politics, but also on smaller, less formal scales, most recently been used as a kind of placebo. Just look at the United Kingdom or The Netherlands. What was once thought of as a pro-active mode of individual engagement has been cleverly revamped as a populist tool to regain a larger consensus, even if agendas do not add up or meet. However, there is the question of what we are really talking about when we talk about crisis? Are we talking about a content crisis or an economic one, which then leaves us with infrastructural changes that have an effect and affect on the cultural landscape? I think there is a danger of calling everything a state of crisis today. This is similar to the danger of refereeing to the notion of urgency. If we only ever deal with the urgent we may in fact forget the important. Collaborative approaches can on the one hand be sustainable while on the other they can produce and foster specificity, which would otherwise be very difficult to achieve.

You have recently been appointed Professor for Critical Spatial Practice‹ at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and on many different occasions you have expressed the need to define spatial practice in terms of a »critical modality«. Could you elaborate on this concept?


Architecture + Critical Spatial Practice, annual newsprints, edited by Markus Miessen, design by Matthias Görlich, Städelschule Frankfurt, 2012/2013,

What I am doing in Frankfurt is to set up a framework through which one can critically think, learn, and pose questions about and around the production of space; not only in terms of a theoretical construct, but also in regard to specific spatial problematics. The most important question in architecture, to me at least, seems to be: how can we, as practitioners, manage to be involved in some of the most pressing societal issues and questions. I think the way to do this is not to get too bogged down on the nitty-gritty of the building or construction processes, but to understand the cornerstones of spatial design and to be able to curate the very complex cultural territory and its processes, the many different stakeholders, interest groups, benefactors, sufferers et cetera. This is where the role of the Outsider comes in as a very productive character. The problem of course is that it is a very thin line: you are either a morally responsible individual with a conscience or a fucked-up autocrat with neoliberal intentions – there is not really too much space that one could inhabit in-between those two polar conditions. What is fantastic at the Städelschule is that it offers me the possibility to open up the process of investigation across different student communities, from architecture, but also from the different art studios directed by Douglas Gordon, Simon Starling, Tobias Rehberger, Willem de Roij or Isabelle Graw, to name a few. Students are coming to my studio with very differentiated personal agendas, which makes it a real pleasure to teach there. It is not about communicating hard skills, but to carefully sensitize the group as to how one can act in space: how one’s individual practice can alter existing and produce new spatial conditions, be they of urban, architectural, or 1:1 scale.

In »the Production of Space« Lefebvre argues that »a Spatial Practice refers to the production and reproduction of spatial relations between objects and products. It also ensures continuity and some degree of cohesion. In terms of social space, and of each member of a given society’s relationship to that space, this cohesion implies a guaranteed level of competence and a specific level of performance.« Lefebvre seems to suggest that to engage with space in a critical mode is a matter of competence and performance. Do you agree?

Absolutely! Competence not in the sense of being authorized to do so, but in the sense of being sensitized and being able to understand the forces and variables that have an effect on the production of space. Not every problem favours a physical solution. There is the legendary quote by Cedric Price that he was once having a client-conversation with a couple, who approached him to build a house for them. His response was that what they really needed was a divorce.

Markus Miessen is an architect, consultant and writer. The initiator of the Participation quadrilogy, his work revolves around questions of critical spatial practice, institution building, and spatial politics. His practice, Studio Miessen, is currently working on projects for an with Bergen Assembly, Performa Biennial, Witte de With, Kosovo National Gallery, Weltkulturen Museum, and the artist Hito Steyerl. Their largest project to date is a strategic framework and new Kunsthalle building for a former NATO military site in Germany. In 2008, Miessen founded the Winter School Middle East. He is currently a professor for Critical Spatial Practice at the Städelschule, Frankfurt, and guest professor at HEAD Geneva as well as USC Los Angeles”



Architecture for the people by the people by Alastair Parvin

This video is a presentation on, where the idea of democratisation of the city is presented in a different scale, at the individual house production measure, through the utilisation of software and technologies that are in process of masification.

Quite interesting to tackle the democra-city from a bottom up dimension.


The contested space in Santiago: Clash between citizens and government within the civic district

by Francisco Vergara


It is well understood that good city is a place where citizenship, state and private world are represented, and coexisting in harmony and build successful relationships looking for general good. For Ash Amin, the good city is achieved when the urban order permits to enhance the human experience (Amin 2006). In this essay, it will be use the idea of ‘good city’ as a democratic space, which through conflicts can change the balance between government, citizens and private realm, to produce new space meanings. From this definition, appears an initial question that can launch other inquiries: How the conflict can improve the city in order to generate democratic spaces designed to receive a claiming citizenship? Find the answer is not a central topic for this essay, nevertheless here is explored a path to deepen the idea of democratic space towards produce better cities.

This essay presents a critical view about Santiago city’s actual state, after a series of manifestations and social revolts leaded by university students from 2011 that aspire to create a good society, generating structural changes to a political system and economic model. The street is seen as a space of protest and representation for citizenship, allowing understanding the importance of public space in support of civic development for a nation. It will be expose how political violence had changed the civic space of Santiago in three occasions. It concludes with a hypothesis towards a good city that embraces citizens participation in urban transformations.

The street as a space for protest and expression

“The street is dead. The discovery has coincided with frantic attempts at resuscitation. Public art is everywhere -as if two deaths make a life. Pedestrinization- intended to preserve – merely channels the flow of thus doomed to destroy the object of their intended reverence with their feet” (Koolhaas 1995)

Some years ago, Rem Koolhaas stated publicly that the street was death, and with that he announced the decadence of public space in neoliberal city. In this realm, it is impossible to do avoid Santiago as an emblematic case, wherein the street was dying but suddenly has risen as a consequence of people’s discontent with the residing economic model. This manifestation of discontent has two extremes; on one hand the citizens demanding rights and on the other hand the government defending actual institution mechanism.

When the government demonstrates incapacity to react to what citizen’s claiming as proper, it is the citizenship as a collective body, which will self appropriate those necessities. The last year has seen take ownership of the streets, to claim for better management of natural resources, better education, for respect for sexual minorities, and better work rights, among other reasons. This has resulted in marches and protests, which have become a traditional act in Santiago (Almost folkloric)

“The demonstrations have open in the last two years a dialogue. Chile seems to be about to a process of democratic deepening that arisen from the citizens, of which the city can be part, whether giving space to this dialogue, as well facing on a transformation process by itself.” (Cociña In press)

From a theorist point of view, David Harvey says “The Street is a public space that has historically often been transformed by social action into the common of a revolutionary movement, as well as into a site of bloody suppression. There is always struggle over how the production of and access to public space and public goods is to be regulated, by whom, and in whose interests” (Harvey 2011); from this idea, we can infer that public space is defined by the manner how the users activate it. Protest has been one way in which human activity transform these spaces into a culture symbol. The public space becomes a cultural record, one in which a society is built through popular claims. The public space is alive when society is angry or happy, and in other words, the public space is loaded with meaning when it is massively occupied.

“It is about the recognition of conflict as constitutive of the social condition, and the naming of the spatiality that can become without being grounded in universalising notions of the social (in the sense of community, unity or cohesion) and a singular notion of the people” (Swyngedouw 2011)

Chileans for years lived their cities in a commercial way, moving their public life from parks and plazas close to their neighbourhood, to shopping malls; so new needs appeared linked to leisure. In fact, families began to depend of spending access and goods acquisition, a materialist life conception. Nevertheless, this conditions are changing, shifting towards the public life again. “The market, scenario that for long decades was a space of analgesia and depoliticization, becomes a conflict scenario. The symbol, principal actor of this play, is the Shopping Mall, get in conflict with society in an evident irony. The Chilean society was surrendered to Shopping Malls the evil was the symbol of development. Suddenly they criticize that Shopping Malls are too big and disrespectful with the environment. That used to be what they loved years ago that they came to put a foot over whole the city what marked whole his erotic, the strength of his power” (Mayol 2012)

The street began to resume their empowerment over private space, once again with protest and the discontent becoming powerful engines of urban changes and thus is how the modern history of the cities has showed.

The violence and urban transformations

To the historian Gabriel Salazar (2011), the violence had produced real changes in Chile, which when reviewing the history seems to be indisputable: “any time that citizenship has manifested with sovereignty outbursts the response had been, initially by police then systematically using Inner Security Laws, taking a repressive attitude which is a provocation by itself, and that produce a clash”. As a result of these clashes, diverse historical situations have marked deep changes on the manner in which the city in Chile is understood. For Tschumi (1982) “There is no architecture without action, no architecture without events, no architecture without program. By extension, there is no architecture without violence”. The violence in architecture can be physical, conceptual or ephemeral, and these kinds of actions together with a socio-political component can bring like consequence, symbolic urban transformations. Historically, it is possible to review diverse projects of high world impact that have exposed how violence, in different ways, produces spatial changes in cities. For example, between 1852 and 1870 the Paris transformations, headed by Napoleon III and under the address of Haussmann, were achieved because of physical violence from authorities. This result in wiping out the original trace of the city to generate a harmonic relationship between civic space and built environment, manifested in the gentrification of the downtown, expelling people to the periphery of the city (Saalman 1971). Another example of how violent acts changed the configuration of the city occurred in Berlin: after the wall demolition, disappeared social, economical and political divisions between Eastern Germany and Western Germany, to start a process of reunification, where the Postdamer Platz is nowadays an emblematic case. On the other hand, the city of Medellin in Colombia has been a worldwide example about how to recover public spaces in a city that were previously ruled by the drug cartels in the 1980s and 1990s. (Brand 2011)

There is a link between social processes that generate violence and urban transformations. The social unrest is an indicator of possible and relevant urban changes and in this sense is an exciting review what has happened in Santiago of Chile between 2011 and 2012. For Salazar (2011), “the violence begins with denying the law, but the execution on physical violence depends of the circumstances and in Chile that should not be disparaged. A social-citizenship movement that want to change the Constitution of the State through a peaceful way can not forget the existence of an army, which is not democratic, that never had been democratic and that in their history has always repressed social manifestations in a violent manner”.

In 2011 Chilean citizenship began to awake and protest against many social injustices, which were arming for decades. The lethargy produced after years of intimidation, and repressive dictatorship has finished, and the street is once again a means to express discontent: Marches against hydroelectric projects and energy from coal projects, because the citizens want no more environment destruction to justify a production to enrich just 5% of population. Marches have also appeared to defend sexual rights because citizens are tired of discriminatory behaviours; the education, of course, was the central topic of the marches, bringing to the streets more than 100.000 people for each march.

This, added to the political representation crisis, inasmuch as citizens do not believe in representative institutions and are looking for new choices towards a democratic civil society. The national poll from “Centro de Estudios Publicos” (Public Studies Centre) in august of 2012, states that the 78% of Chileans consider that the economic situation is from mediocre to bad. A 60% do not feel identified with any parties; an 83% of the population consider that democracy is from regular to very bad, and only a 6% of the people trust in parties, whom finally govern.

There is an evident tension between civil society and government that shakes the city comprehension in order to find new manners to produce representative spaces, and refund what is a good city for Chileans today; achieving thus what democratic citizenship wish for their future.

Three spatial transformations in three historic moments

During the republican history of Chile, diverse violent facts triggered relevant social changes. Following these situations, the idea of good city could be discussed and resignified, starting by understand the importance of conflict in order to generate the conditions of good cities. Three historic study cases now will be presented. These had consequently resulted in spatial transformations about the meaning of the civic district of Santiago. The analysis of these facts can help to define the guidelines to design democratic spaces to a XXI century’s Santiago.

1. Massacre of Workers Insurance Building: Civic District of Santiago

In the ends of 1937, saw a dispute arising to define the future president. Gustavo Ross, who also was the Treasury Minister, at that time appeared to have the position of advantage. Far in the polls was Pedro Aguirre Cerda, from the Radical Party, characterized in those years for progressive ideas and with a strong social compromise. In 1937, the Public Works Ministry was preparing the construction of civic district of Santiago, to highlight La Moneda as main government building of Chile. On September 4th of 1938, a students group from the National Socialists Party undertook an occupation of a governmental building close to La Moneda to protest against the government of Alessandri. The government reacted with excessive violence through the police. Once the students were surrendered, the police killed 59 students. With this massacre, the citizenship lost his trust in Alessandri and for extension in Ross, his golden boy. Finally, the president elected was Pedro Aguirre Cerda, and began the radical governments era, and is this new president who inaugurated this new civic district. Paradoxically, the first huge civic act occurred in this renewed area was precisely the funeral of Pedro Aguirre Cerda, who died while he was president. The violence against students not only have changed the political history of Chile, but also it changed the meaning of this plaza because the president Aguirre Cerda was quite close to people, and he was a wise politician. Hence, in the moment when he inaugurates this space people make a connection between the space and the beloved president. On the other hand, the final years of Alessandri government made him more distant to the people, and this project in particular was heavily criticised. Everything changed with the massacre for Alessandri, for Aguirre Cerda and to the civic district too because the meaning of the civic district was further related to the beloved president Pedro Aguirre Cerda, rather than the reticent relationship between citizens and Alessandri, as a consequence, this first civic space of Santiago had popular affection.

The good city should have a strong link with how the government manage his projects and policies. However, a problem could appear if the government decisions are taken from a populist will. This is dangerous because if they only think to be kind with people, and as a consequence they break the balance with the private realm, the government will face new and complex problems[1].

Barrio civico La moneda bombardeada

2. Coup: Bombardment of La Moneda

In 1973, the government of Salvador Allende was facing strong criticism from the opposition, and on September 11th, the military forces commanded by Augusto Pinochet did a coup, in which they moved the army troops towards the government palace to take it. This fact had a climax when two airplanes form Air Force bombard La Moneda, destroying some parts of the building. This act of high violence was symbolic again; the republic that had been developed during the preceding decades was destroyed by a dictatorship that abolished the institutionalism, installing a politic model based on the market (Klein 2008). This destruction represents the way in which the dictatorship worked: Destroy the preexistence and install as fast as possible a new society model based on capitalism. Until today, Chilean society should fight against this model that has shown to generate huge inequities and tension between people. The bombing of the central building of the country is a way to establish a hierarchy, with an army controlling civil society and democracy.

It is worth made the question: Is it possible to create a good city during a dictatorship? To answer this question is fundamental understand that a good city is far of a controlled space, it should be a place for diversity.


plaza de la ciudadania

3. The return to democracy: Citizenship Square

This case is interesting because the design of a space supposedly representative pushed by the government, the citizenship react trying to appropriate this space and strangely the government react repressing their civic expressions.

In the process of democratic transition, during the government of Ricardo Lagos (2012), two significant public works to the citizenship were realized: the first was that La Moneda palace opened the doors again and thus became in a building where Chileans could feel free to pass and use because belonged to all of them. The other work was the Citizenship Square that should be a place where people could make meetings in a civic atmosphere. Nevertheless the problem arose when the political authority and the square’s design itself did not work as citizenship space. On the contrary, any possible demonstration in the square unleashes a troop of police to preserve the security of La Moneda. During Michelle Bachelet government, authorities installed a fence to separate La Moneda from the square, and during the Government of Sebastian Piñera the open doors of La Moneda were closed again. Even though, this case does not have a direct violence to change the spatiality, has a fear to the violence, a fear among compatriots and this fear represented through the fence and closing doors is a mode of violence too because it splits two components of a good city, the civil society and the government. Apparently a good city cannot be developed without participatory processes.

ciudad tomada

Towards a Democratic Santiago

The manifestations that surrounded the palace of La Moneda in the last year generated high impacts. The discontent from citizens over the political realm was showed by polls and public marches in streets, pushing the relationship between civil society and government towards a critical point; “from the coup the dictatorship split the state from the citizenship, removing his trait of social sensibility and empowering the trait of the market, whereby the citizenship began to consort between them and with that began a unique citizenship culture, a participatory and local culture” (Salazar 2011). Nowadays, a citizenship critic of in which the country is addressed, claim for cities able to interpret a new manner to understand the civic, integrating, participating, activating, contesting.

To establish a hypothesis with audacity, the spatial configuration of Santiago should be developed through a citizen consultation in order to reveal what Chileans want from their capital city. This consultation should consider an information campaign in television, radios, newspapers, schools, universities in order to educate citizenship about the manner to transform cities. The aim of this campaign is create a critical civic body to make conscious decisions about their city development. The government should do a public competition where the final decision about the winner of the planning and urban design process will be selected by experts and citizenship in an open vote, which should be free and inclusive.

The relationship between government, citizens and their conflicts can help to produce a new methodology towards a democratic city, reaching to achieve representative spaces, starting with the comprehension of conflicts as a source of urban design guidelines.

It has been reviewd that violence generates changes in the meaning of spaces within cities. Therefore, the social tension in Santiago could be a positive quality if the government find the way to address this opportunity. Maybe the first step to avoid violent social conflicts is stopping reactions based on repression and more violence. Perhaps they can start with listening what people want and then start to change the city, not backwards, in order to install a democratic urban development.


Amin, A. 2006. ‘The Good City’. Urban Studies. Vol 43. No. 5/6: Pp. 1009-1023.

Brand, P., Davila, J. 2011. ‘Mobility innovation at the urban margins’. City: Analysis of urban trends culture, theory, policy, action. Vol 15. No. 6: P. 647.

Cociña, C. (In press). ‘”Cinco escenas y un relato: profundizacion democrática en la ciudad de los consensos”. Revista Materia. Escuela de Arquitectura Universidad San Sebastian: Santiago. (Accepted for publication November 2012).

Harvey, D. 2011. Rebel Cities. 1st Edition. Verso: New York – London.

Klein, N. 2008. The shock doctrine. Penguin Press: London.

Koolhaas, R. 1995. S, M, L & XL. 1st Edition. Monacelli Press: New York.

Lagos, R. 2012. The southern tiger. 1st Edition. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

Lefebvre, H. 2012. The production of space. 32th Edition. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.

Mayol, A. 2012. El derrumbe del modelo. 1st Edition. LOM Ediciones: Santiago.

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Salazar, G. 2011. “La Entrevista de Tomas Moschiatti”. [Online]. Available: [ 4 August 2011].

Swyngedouw, E. 2011. Designing the Post-Political City and Insurgent Polis. 1st Edition. Bedford Press: London.

Tschumi, B. 1982. Architecture & Disjunction. 1st Edition. MIT Press Ltd.: Massachusetts.

[1] NOTE: One of the examples that shown what happen when government breaks the balance between citizenship and private realm occurred during the Salvador Allende presidency, when the entrepreneurs saw how his profits were falling before economic changes driven by the president.  These break of balance finished with the putsch leaded by Pinochet and with the instauration of the neo-liberal model in Chile.

Reflections about Participatory Processes in the context of Building for Development

by Francisco Vergara

FECH Protest in Santiago. Agencia Uno

FECH Protest in Santiago. Agencia Uno

Sometimes, look back after intense periods of reflection, production and discussion, can open the mind to new interpretations about the learnings and experiences earned.

I am studying for my last exam in the masters programme of Building and Urban Design in Development, particularly in a course called Participatory Processes, taught by Dr. Alexandre Aspan Frediani and Dr. Caroline Newton at University College London. Reading my notes in calm and without concerns about time or deadlines, I feel closest to my country now, due to many things that Chile is lacking in democratization matters and production of equality.

This reflection is guided by the topics of the course and in some way, is a mode to study and produce at the same time. The aim is define my own perspective about participatory design in development countries and in the pursue of that aim, probably I will fail but the route through could be interesting to share.

Revisiting the first approaches to participatory design

“Participatory approaches fail to recognize how the different, changing and multiple identities of individuals impact upon their choices about whether and how to participate, and over look the potential links between inclusion in participatory process and subordination”

Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari (“The case of participation as tyranny”)

Not all participation is synonymous of a positive approach about resolve problems related with built environment, that depends mainly of the way how this processes are developed and who lead the process. Undermine a process of participation with particular interests could be very easy to empowered persons whom make decisions that affect thousands. However, a process leaded in a completely bottom up strategy could break the balance and decant in situations which could be hard to handle.

One of the important lessons from the topic reviewed in the last term is that when a participatory process is started, the hierarchy should be broken to put all the actors in the same level to produce democratic discussions, respecting the backgrounds of each.
This description sounds obvious, but from my experience, many times the government (for say something) face the community explaining what are the plans and strategies to follow, so the relation is still up – bottom. And the community many times just have the role of claiming for changes in the government plans. On the other extreme of this situations, the community organized can put pressure over the government to create changes and the government resists to this changes because are not part of the political agenda.

Break the hierarchy is fundamental, because the role of each actor is add value to the process, not only claim or only listen. As Frediani said, “The process of participation needs to be unpacked, going beyond merely the creation of spaces, for decision making”, in other words, the production of new spaces should be a consequence of a conscious, collective, informed and inclusive proce of decision making.

Deeping about this topic, for each participatory processes there is a knowledge production linked to the understanding of the local culture and related with the aims of each project. This production demand that the methodologies to implement participatory projects should be flexible and adaptable to each case. An strict schedule and checklist of labours to do could decant in failure.

Other main point is the institutional framework in which this processes are developed. The practitioner should be able to understand in deep the normative which frame his work and in that labour find the cracks where the participation could act in an effective way in benefit of communities and regulatory actors.

If the aim is empowerment and spatial transformation, the process must be composed by three main vectors:

Learning: The community, authorities and practitioners must be open to learn new methods, change plans and include new values to each project.

Participation: Not referred just to involve people in process, is about make that each actor be fundamental part of the processes and the outcomes are consequences of informed consensus.

Development: This processes are an interestin opportunity to discuss the idea of development and redefine it from the tensions and agreement among the actors that are part of this procedures.

The participatory process to produce spatial changes able to represent the will of all the actors involved, in my opinion is based on break the hierarchical structures in order to equalize the knowledge and work over the base of respect and common sense.