Parasite Blues

published in AR Architetti Regione n. 47, March 2011, pp. 24-31

Interview to Alessandro Zorzetto, by Giovanna Astolfo

The programme is always changing faster than the buildings themselves; parasitic architecture fits into this discord by making up for the natural resistance of the built environment. In a European reality that preserves1 and grows little, in the context of a historical (and modern) building heritage that is often mummified and of an equally mummified building regulation, parasitic architecture, with its multiple and multiform ad hoc solutions2, constitutes one of the last remaining openings for making architecture. A child of the feeling that architecture is a “ball and chain”, de-responsible because all meaning is delegated to the pre-text, always and in any case relegated to the role of lover, parasitic architecture is part of the rapid processes of consumption that official architecture stubbornly and annoyingly continues to resist. Lacking an autonomous status, it is subject to basic rules, such as that of not being bigger than the building that houses it, on pain of subverting the hierarchies and a crisis of identity. With a content of denunciation of the limits of architecture and the city, it not infrequently slips onto the crest of illegality. The very meaning of the term parasite is not positive, having to do with the exploitation of resources rather than its production. In its fifteen minutes of fame, parasitism has the opportunity to change its negative appeal while continuing to preserve its iconoclastic connotation.

Beyond parasite architecture are the works of Santiago Cirugeda, a Seville architect who works mainly on temporary architecture. Alessandro Zorzetto, an architect from Friuli who works with the studio, answers a few questions.

G.A. You don’t agree that Cirugeda’s architecture is defined as parasitic, even though it has all the characteristics of parasitism: temporary, mobile, small, subversive…. Why?

A.Z. The adjective parasite undoubtedly lends an appealing tone to this architectural genre, especially because of its implied desecration of formal classical and contemporary architecture. The term parasite, however, has a strong negative connotation: in biology, parasitism is a form of symbiotic relationship in which the parasitic organism exploits the resources of its host, causing biological damage. It is true that the architecture of Recetas Urbanas3 is temporary, mobile, small and subversive, but let us not forget that it is primarily a reversible process, which, as in thermodynamics, can be reversed: the initial conditions can then be re-established without causing damage or modification. To define Cirugeda’s architecture using the biological metaphor of symbiosis, it would perhaps be more appropriate to use the term mutualism, in which the relationship is beneficial to both symbionts: It is in fact architecture that gives form to unexpressed potential, or that completes the architectural organism on which it is grafted, for example by providing necessary spaces for the population that the designer had not foreseen, as happens in the extension of the Espai d’Art Contemporani in Castellón (it is often justified by saying that a project “is never finished”: this is how a design gap can be filled by another piece of architecture).

G.A. Cirugeda’s projects have a critical content towards the city; without necessarily becoming illegal, they manage to exploit regulatory holes. Tell us about your idea of a-legality.

A.Z. At the regulatory level, we are used to distinguishing according to the legal/illegal dualism what we are allowed or forbidden to do respectively, ignoring legal nuances and so-called legislative gaps. The term alegal refers to this sphere of legal uncertainty and is an interstitial term between legality and illegality. In the Treccani encyclopaedia, the term alegal is included under the heading dissent: alegal is “those forms of contrast […] that choose paths not explicitly regulated by the rules”. Cirugeda’s interventions are often defined as alegal because in Spain there are still no specific laws regulating this type of construction. This modus operandi can also be read as a suggestion to update the regulations governing town planning. There is only one openly illegal project in Cirugeda’s career, with the aim of challenging the gentrification process implied by Seville’s new Urban Plan.

G.A. Some criticism has been made of Cirugeda’s installation at MAXXI in Rome4: the risk is to turn containers into icons… 

A.Z. The container is a standardised product according to the ISO standard, which lays down precise rules and measurements. Designing with containers therefore means implicitly accepting these international principles, so that it is not possible, for example, to modify the load-bearing structure, and we are forced to act by aggregation at the moment of architectural composition. The container is therefore very limiting in itself as a design tool. I think it is secondary whether the aesthetic result is pleasing or not, although the container often seduces the minds of designers and sometimes becomes a trendy icon. One of the main characteristics of the container, for which I consider it to be an exceptionally valuable element, is its versatility of use and speed of assembly: it is a construction that could be defined as instantaneous, a commodity for immediate consumption that makes it possible to quickly resolve the most important needs, those related to living. In my opinion, this is how the use of this now overused element in Recetas Urbanas’ projects should be understood. In a way, architecture is “erased within the system”, to quote Arata Isozaki. The installation at MAXXI in Rome represents the project Trucks, Containers and Collectives, which involves numerous groups, collectives and associations with the aim of creating a network of self-managed spaces on Spanish territory.

G.A. Other criticisms come from those who have no particular faith in self-building, or from those who believe that this way of doing architecture, though conceptually powerful in terms of defining a series of urban rules, tends to be trivialised at the compositional level.

A.Z. The term informal in architecture refers to a spontaneous, often precarious and illegal construction method, generally adopted in the slums of large cities. These settlements are characterised by a total absence of urban plans and design rules. However, they show an innate capacity to build, given the low level of literacy in these areas. Man is therefore by nature endowed with building capacities, which if properly directed can bring good results and originality. Self-building then becomes a powerful tool, which can access vast human resources and significantly lower the cost of construction. Aware of the fact that it is not a matter of specialised labour, the Recetas Urbanas team often promotes self-building, providing a design and construction approach adapted to the needs, through assembly sheets, safety courses, design of installations, construction management, advice on legal aspects and possible leases. An ordinary citizen is involved in the construction of his or her own house or structure that will serve the community. And, despite the scepticism of some, with excellent results, as in the case of the House on the Roof project, which involves the (reversible) self-building of an alegal rental accommodation without land costs.

G.A. But architects do not have the “solution”, the “recipe”… 

A.Z. In the cooking world, a recipe is a solution to a primary need, nutrition, through a series of instructions on how to implement a process that transforms the ingredients into a final result whose value exceeds that of the initial elements. If we transpose this definition to architecture and think of the concept of a recipe applied to the city, we realise that this represents one of the possible solutions to solve a primary need, in this case living. The urban recipe thus expresses a possibility, a way of enhancing the capabilities of a given space or place. The fact that there are not so many urban chefs of Cirugeda’s calibre is another matter.

 Alessandro Zorzetto, Freelance architect – Pordenone

 Giovanna Astolfo, Architect, PhD – Udine



1 Preservation is the title of Rem Koolhaas’ installation at the Venice Biennale. Io Donna, 30 October 2010

2 Under the umbrella of parasitic architecture there are heterogeneous solutions, from Diller and Scofidio’s Bubble to the emergency stairs of buildings. Not a typology then, but a practice of not recent origin. Although it is not part of the official culture but of the vernacular tradition, it has the opportunity today to enjoy its quarter of an hour of fame.

3 Santiago Cirugeda, Situaciones Urbanas, Edit. Tenov, Barcelona, 2007.

   Recetas Urbanas, Camiones, Contenedores, Colectivos, Ediciones Vib[ ]k, Siviglia, 2010

4 Spazio. Dal Corpo alla Città. By P.Ciorra (30th May 2010-23rd January 2011) Maxxi,Roma.

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