Architecture, liberated

Paul Dobraszczyk, Architecture and Anarchism: Building without Authority (Antepavilion in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021)

It scarcely needs pointing out that there has been a lot of interest in the architecture of the 20th century over the past decade or so. An overwhelming proportion of this enthusiasm has been for modernist architecture. As much as an interest in the buildings themselves, this often reflects a desire to return to what these buildings represent. There’s a collective longing for an era of post-war consensus, and the way in which the nascent welfare state provided for its citizens’ needs, which looks increasingly attractive after more than a decade of austerity.

The architectural historian Paul Dobraszcyk’s latest book, Architecture and Anarchism, is refreshing for going against this now well-worn grain and telling another story. It explores architecture that is not provided for people, with their perceived needs met by the beneficent hand of a top-down, omniscient state, but by people, setting out the potential for citizens to identify their own wants and needs and take up the tools to provide buildings for themselves.

Bookended with accounts of two recent and heavy-handed police raids on the arts organisation Antepavilion in London (by whom this book was commissioned), central to the book is a questioning of the concept of power – primarily, who has it and how it is used. The book offers a grounding in anarchist thought and histories of self-building, organising and grassroots action, as informed by the core tenets of anarchism: autonomy, voluntary association, mutual aid, and self-organisation through direct democracy. It sets out a series of oppositions – humanist as opposed to authoritarian, participatory as opposed to top-down, free rather than uniform, inclusive rather than elitist.

Through these, Dobraszcyk explores a number of motivations behind self-building, from a political act of resistance and refusal, and a desire to create counter-communities, to a means of empowerment, to a desire to escape conventional social structures. Of course, for many people – such as the homeless and migrants – this isn’t a choice and arises out of necessity. The book highlights that instability and large-scale movement of people will become an even more pressing challenge, in the context of future pandemics and climate change – and we’ll all need to find ways to adapt. Looking to anarchist building and organising projects which are already seeking new and less resource-intensive ways of living on the planet, Dobraszcyk suggests, might give us some ideas. Rather than focusing on buildings, per se, Dobraszcyk points to broader-based movements, from the Transition Towns movement to Extinction Rebellion, suggesting that just as important as physical spaces is the capacity to think outside the box and imagine how things might be different.

In general, Dobraszcyk takes an expansive approach to what constitutes ‘architecture’. This includes not just permanent structures, but those designed to be temporary, or which arose in response to specific needs, from protest camps to the Calais Jungle, and those which were never built. It doesn’t just include new buildings, but includes DIY refitting and renovation, as in Granby Four Streets, Liverpool. The book even considers transient gatherings, such as the annual Burning Man festival in the California desert, and artworks and games, experienced in both the physical and the virtual world.

Exploring these themes across a range of case studies (primarily from the Global North, but also including examples in Southern Asia and Latin America), Architecture and Anarchism is an accessible, readable introduction to the subject. Giving the book something of the quality of a textbook or reader, each case study is summed up with a short assessment of the place in question, as a lesson to be learned of what worked or didn’t work.

The real strength of the book is its photos – primarily new pictures taken by Dobraszcyk, augmented by a handful of historic photos and archival images – which give a glimpse into self-built projects and communities around the world. What doesn’t come across quite as strongly is a sense of place. As I read, I longed to get an idea of what it was like to visit these places – the smells, sounds and atmosphere – or to have heard more of the voices of those who lived there or experienced them. While that may be beyond the scope of this book, it’s certainly piqued my interest to read and explore further.

Natalie Bradbury