Informal and “homeless”, the international collective Constructlab leads temporary architectural projects around the world. Interview with founding member Alexander Römer in Berlin.
Berlin, special report
Constructlab was born in France from an encounter with the Exyzt collective, but is based in Berlin. Alexander Römer, an architect who went through years of training, is one of the founding members of this international collective of builders of temporary architectures. We met him in Berlin, just as Constructlab’s new website went live.
What inspired this practice of collective construction, which is at the origin of Constructlab?
When I was still in architecture school, I told people about my experience training as a carpenter for several years all over Europe and about my own desire for construction projects. Thanks to this experience and the two years I spent as a conscientious objector at Pierre Rabhi, at Carrefour international d’échanges de pratiques appliquées au développement (Ciepad), in the south of France, I had a growing list of contacts. Our first project was three construction sites for the Greek Orthodox Sisters from the Solan Monastery, near Uzès, one of the first religious communities committed to the environment. This was the foundation for what became Constructlab—sharing a way of doing and constituting “interest groups”. We were about five to seven individuals, not all skilled in construction, some of us came from social sciences, but we all had the desire to learn. In this way, Constructlab is not a clearly defined group, but rather a gathering of people who come together for specific projects. It’s always evolving, open, federated around shared interest.
After the Pierre Rabhi network, I got involved in the experimental project for the Cantercel accommodation in Larzac. In 1990, architects from École spéciale d’architecture in Paris and the Sens et Espace studio created in the 1970s by the architect Hervé Baley, in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture, formed the association Sens Espace Europe and established this space for experimental architecture. I built my little cabin there and supervised most of the on-site projects from 1998 to 2012.
How did the name Constructlab come about?
I worked with Raum Labor on Der Berg (the mountain), an artificial mountain built before the demolition of the Palace of the Republic in Berlin. I met Nicolas Henninger from the French collective Exyzt, who was invited to put together a team of mountain builders. There were Serbians, Austrians, the French guys from Directeur Général (Gonzague Lacombe and Daginsky).
Der Berg (the mountain), Raum Labor project in Berlin, 2006:
Later Exyzt invited me to participate in the Metavilla project for Patrick Bouchain at the Venice architecture biennale in 2006, for which they were gathering skills: Graphic Lab, Video Lab, and Construct Lab—the skill that I could contribute. That’s where the name came from.
“Metavilla”, Venice architecture biennale 2006, EXYZT collective:
At what point did you take the “jump” into recycling the materials of Constructlab’s actions?
The Rebiennale project in Venice in 2008, through workshops to demantle biennale sites and collect used materials for construction, called attention to the massive amount of material discarded by art and architecture biennales. Exyzt got involved with young people from social centers, with the Stalker Osservatorio Nomade collective and the Dutch architects of 2012 Architecten, who were drawing up maps to trace the journey of materials. Today, under the name Superuse Studios, those same Dutch architects are managing the Harvest Map project, a marketplace for professional upcyclers in Holland.
It was the first time we thought about reusing the materials, with the idea of using them to build a pavillion for the Kurds at the 2009 art biennale. We decided to not focus on the idea of a Kurdish nation, but rather to think about Kurdish identity, its diaspora on Planet K, the Kurdistan planet.
I also participated in another recycling project with Patrick Bouchain and the philosopher Michel Onfray in Argentan (Normandy), Onfray’s hometown, which hosts his Université populaire du goût [Popular University of Taste]. Built entirely from reclaimed materials, based on two containers at the end of their journey and a decommissioned framework from our friendly host and carpenter in Argentan, Benoît Budin, the Manable functioned as a shelter and meeting space for the gardeners of the ecological rehabilitation project, as well as a kitchen for the Popular University sessions.
From one collective to another, at what moment was Constructlab “built”?
The Southwark Lido in London in 2008 was a big federating moment. With Exyzt, we built the entire structure on site, we lived and worked there, lots of people came by, the future Assemble and Practice Architecture came for an internship… Constructlab really took off in Portugal in 2012, for Guimarães, European Capital of Culture.
Exyzt had become a complicated organization to manage. Many people didn’t want to waste any more energy in meetings. Nicolas Henninger and I suggested opening up the invitation by the Curators’ Lab of Guimarães [a residency in the former Asa factory] to young people in Guimarães. We got about 30 students involved in the Construir Junto project.
Even if we were only scheduled to be there for three months, we created the conditions so that they could work there all year round. That’s what happened. The big structure became a presentation space for Curator’s Lab throughout the year, the construction site cabin became the cafe, and in September, I came back to plan the next steps.
We built the whole thing with uncut 2.40-meter planks, which came out to 40m3, or about 12km lined up. We knew that we could reclaim the wood. The curator Ligia Afonso introduced us to villagers from Cova do Vapor, a very particular, informally established village. In collaboration with the association of resident fishermen who built the water sewage system themselves, we designed a project for reusing wood and obtained a permit to build a temporary beach cabin. Casa do Vapor included programs offered by the villagers themselves, around a kitchen, a surfing school, a library, children’s activities. We got a little support from the Lisbon architecture triennale to equip the kitchen, but on the whole, the project was entirely based on a contributory economy.
Six months later, we faced the problem of taking everything down. We were invited to move the project to a favela-like village with no running water. The project took the form of a structure built from the same wood in a small open space in order to centralize water usage around a kitchen. To see it through, we conveyed the project to young people in the area. We are still involved with the organization created for Casa do Vapor, especially around Plataforma Trafaria, a temporary laboratory in a former prison. During the last triennale, we collaborated again on construction activities.
One of Constructlab’s most important projects took place in Belgium for Mons, European Capital of Culture 2015. Can you tell us more about it?
We were invited by the department of youth and local action for Mons, European Capital of Culture 2015, with a reduced budget around the theme “Mon(s) idéal” [“ideal Mons” or “my ideal”]. The question that we had already asked ourselves at Guimarães was also at the core of several local projects: What can an artificially built European Capital of Culture year generate afterwards? A significant number of initiatives were scheduled to take place throughout the year, we had to meet again in autumn to discuss what would happen afterward. Our offer was to build a space that considered the commons. We found a site, a sort of public park resting on top of military bunkers, abandoned about 15 years ago. We reopened it and installed toilets, a kitchen, cabins, so that we could live there. For us, it’s the best way to understand the situation, the neighborhood, to manage proximity, the needs of the residents, to be able to react to what’s going on around us. We thought of Mon(s) Invisible—Suspended Garden around the agora, designed as a space for debate, encounters, presentations, rituals, performances, etc. During the first three months, we hosted African music concerts, yoga classes, medieval banquets, etc. Les Compagnons du levain, residents who had set up an oven in our garden, offered weekly workshops to learn how to bake bread. Along with the pétanque players who played in the bunkers above, they started an association and were able to open the following year.
How do you see the future of the collective?
In December, we organized a two-day meeting, where about 30 of us came to discuss the structure of Constructlab, which up till then had been rather informal. The first day was reserved for various project presentations, about 35 in 2016. This allowed us to see the different ways in which they were carried out, what kind of response we give to an invitation from a school, a festival, a biennale, a city, etc. For now, we’re still operating based on interest groups. But in this collective dynamic, each one of us remains independent. Whenever one of us decides to engage in an action on behalf of Constructlab, he assumes full responsibility.
The second day was reserved for two possible paths: How to organize responsibilities, who wants to take them on… We wanted the project to last and not be tainted with frustrations, we take the time because we really don’t want it to fail. So we also sought outside consulting. We will no doubt continue with artists’ interest groups, but we’re thinking of starting an organization to manage the commons and creating a space in Berlin, a Constructlab. Not a fablab, more of a convergence of architects, designers, artisans and artists. We also want to open it up to digital fabrication, but we need to meet competent people with whom to collaborate.
What are your projects for 2017?
We have two ongoing projects here in Berlin. For ZK/U, a center for art and urbanism, we are designing a building extension, kind of like a parasite, within a gray legal area. The other project is at the Bauhaus University, with the designer Le Van Bo, to design a tiny house, a tiny construct lab if you wish, a sort of portable trailer that will move around for various actions.
Our biggest project this year comes from an invitation to Montreal, on the symbolism of the Mont Royal, which is at the heart of the city. As the real Mont Royal is not quite as big as all the Montrealers would have us believe, we’re going to build its echo. It’s a copy of the Mont Royal in the form of an artificial wooden mountain, which we hope will become for two to four years a meeting place for the local community. This intermediary project is planned on the land of the future campus of the science university, which already integrates a number of garden initiatives in the surrounding area. An international construction site is planned for July, with a lively form, performances, initiatives from people in surrounding neighborhoods and organizations that we met along the way. We would also like to organize encounters for citizen science in order to find a bridge between popular education and the future university.