The New Wave: The Collective

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Desire to Build in the early days in their studio in Dundee © Desire to Build

The New Wave: The Collective

A few years ago the image we had in our imaginations of The Collective would probably have resembled a romanticised vision of an intellectual avant-garde from the 60’s such as Archigram theorising on future cities or creating fusions between literature, music, design and art such as, Fluxus in New York or the Situationists in Paris. The Collectives emerging today however are far more pragmatic by nature; the scarcity of architecture jobs is driving greater numbers of students and graduates to generate their own practical experience. They have a DIY attitude and they chose to express it in their matter of fact names like Assemble and Desire to Build.

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Walking City in New York, 1964. ©Ron Herron, Archigram. Courtesy of Ron Heron Archive.

Of course the eagerness to make a difference through self initiated architectural projects is no new thing either. Back in the 70’s and 80’s one of the most influential groups was ASSIST in Glasgow. They helped to revive an appreciation for the tenements by working with communities to renovate them and in the process saving much of Glasgow’s built heritage. 1

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Illustration of Common Repairs in Tenements. © John Gilbert

Glasgow has also given rise to Scotland’s own highly politicised vanguard called GLAS. Jude Barber Director at Collective Architecture and one of the founding members explains:

“Glasgow Letters on Architecture and Space (GLAS) was a workers cooperative of architects, designers, teachers and activists. The group originated at the School of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde and was formed in 2001. Its objectives were to construct both a theoretical and practical critique of the capitalist production and use of the built environment.

GLAS had a clear manifesto and disseminated its ideas through publications, political actions, public lectures, design competitions and workshops. Its publication glaspaper was distributed freely in Scotland and documented the work done by GLAS as well as providing a voice to community groups struggling to preserve local services and transform their local environment. These included issues such as Glasgow’s M74 extension, the closure of Govanhill Pool, spaces of labour and the funding of schools and hospitals through the Private Finance Initiative.

GLAS’s activities can be understood as attempts to re-imagine alternative ways of producing buildings and cities and to consider the way we use and experience them.

Whilst GLAS no longer exists as a group, its message and actions are as pertinent today as they were in 2001.”2

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Glaspaper 01: Urban Cabaret. ©GLAS. Courtesy of www.glaspaper.com

Certainly the times we are living through are crying out for another collective such as GLAS. Perhaps it’s because we are less politicised and no longer believe in grand ideologies as a society that today’s collectives have seemed conspicuously apolitical however the act of doing in itself is political and these pro-active groups are tackling issues on community and place making through the re-appropriation of neglected inner city spaces for public use.

One of the major benefits of being a collective is the opportunity to draw on greater resources. Collectives can mobilise up to hundreds of people over a period of time who are happy to participate on a voluntary basis, as well as pool expertise, money and donations in order to make a project happen.

This can have its downsides of course; principally quality and comfort suffer, as the resources available often restrict the type of projects carried out to rough and ready structures. Yet this is often all that is needed to spark change within a community. The openness and inclusiveness of their construction creates ownership amongst participants and their collective endeavour is often empowering.

One recent collective to have emerged in Scotland that embody this new spirit are called Desire to Build. The group is made up of a core of five people, André Ford, Nora Wuttke, Esme Fieldhouse, Seán McAlister and Stephen Mackie who are graduates from Dundee University’s School of Architecture.

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Three of the Desire to Build group on site in Dundee. © Desire to Build

Since graduating last summer they have pursued very separate paths in architecture, but rediscovered one another in London, perhaps because of the strength of the bond they forged on Tayside as Esme Fieldhouse explains:

“There is an intimacy in a city at the scale of Dundee: some kind of proximity that feeds each other’s creativity. So the energy of experiments that were started in Dundee were able to travel southwards. London can prove impenetrable when you try and pierce it with an idea on your own and so a collective brings weight. Our separate lives were brought together by an itch that wasn’t being scratched by various day jobs: a desire to collaborate as a group in a way that came naturally at university and to build something at a scale of 1:1. The collective bulges to another 15 or so people who have been involved in site-seeking bike trips and furniture workshops along the way.”

The support group that the collective provides cannot be underestimated, they are often able to develop a fluid approach that allows them to seize on opportunities when they present themselves as Esme continues:

“Through several discussions, a more articulated idea emerged: a gathering process of small temporary gestures tailored to a unique patch. We stumbled across Fairchild Gardens, because it looked sad but then we found an enthusiastic artist who works in the park and fledgling friends’ group. Starting at the scale of a stool, incremental changes would be based around how people interact with it and events become as important as physical insertions. This means interventions that don’t leave a scar but a trace of a positive experience, a happy memory.”

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“So far in London, there has been more community engagement than action but the plan is to get our hands dirty building for the Banquet of Big Ideas in spring. This way we hope to embed future potential in the park but equally, to take something from the experience. For us, a desire to build hints at the beginnings of a more lasting collaboration.”

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Montage of proposed activities in Fairchild Gardens, Hackney Road, London. © Desire to Build

Why is this an important typology for the future? As communities group together in co-operatives and housing associations the typology of the Collective, as it becomes ever more sophisticated, has the potential to provide essential resources through alternative financial structures where labour, ideas and goods are exchanged. In the process the Collective might just help to provide positive examples of communities free from ‘inequality, repression and segregation’.

  1. Gilbert and Flint. 1992. The Tenement Handbook: A Practical Guide to Living in a Tenement. Alden Press, Oxford
  2. www.glaspaper.com

Pidgin Perfect is a creative studio who build, produce, make and create as a means of bringing different ideas and different people together, putting the community at the heart of urban projects.

Pidgin Perfect are Dele Adeyemo, Marc Cairns and Becca Thomas.

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