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Recently I’ve been seeing a fair bit of buzz around a new documentary series from Aljazeera called Rebel Architecture. It’s on architecture of all things, but as the name implies, it’s about doing revolutionary things with architecture. I’ve seen the trailer doing the rounds a lot recently, watched it and thought: how excellent and interesting the series looked, how rubbish it was that I wouldn’t get to watch it. (I don’t own a TV so I’ve never been entirely certain whether Aljazeera English is a satellite channel or what the deal is to watch them.) But today, as I poked the internet gently, I decided to actually look at the website and see if I could find out how to watch it and failing that, if it was planned to syndicate it other places that I might have a better chance of seeing it in the near future.

Excitingly, the series page on their site is really interesting in its own right and, even better, the first few documentaries of the series are available to watch free online. It wasn’t initially clear if only the original two would be the only ones available online as a teaser for the rest of the series, or if they were adding one a week as they broadcast them on the channel itself until all six of them were available. As I’d hoped, the later option is the case (Working on the Water was the one that first caught my imagination so I was particularly keen to see that), given that their website offers both online streaming and video on demand services, and I’m delighted to be correct.

Guerrilla Architect
Can Spanish self-build legend Santiago Cirugeda turn an abandoned factory into a vibrant cultural centre?
The focus of the documentary was certainly the factory, but the part I found more interesting were the temporary structures, made of brightly painted girders, like giant mechano structures, able to be extended and contracted as necessary. Structures built by the communities they served as temporary solutions while they waited for the slow wheels of the state to move to grant them permission for a more permanent solution (or not in many cases) from a circus arts centre to an extra classroom for a school. Charming and whimsical buildings; full of character and fully evolved to the needs of their users.

A Traditional Future
Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari uses local building techniques to rebuild villages in the flood-stricken Sindh region.
Lari has the distinction of being Pakistan’s first female architect. Her initial career and reputation were built on designing showcase pieces in steel, concrete and glass for giant corporations, but after disaster struck in 2005 she turned her hand to designing disaster relief shelters. However, her shelters are not the flimsy, mass-produced houses of so many international organisations, but built using local material and techniques (like lime and bamboo) to improve on traditional designs to create a more permanent solution that will resist future floods and earthquakes. She also uses the same materials to build shared community resources, like a raised community centre in rural Sindh, which doubles as a community storage facility in times of flood, keeping 30 families’ belongings safe from the flood.

The Architecture of Violence
Eyal Weizman explains architecture’s key role in the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the evolution of urban warfare.
Unlike the other programmes in the series, this episode is not about using architecture to improve life in a particular place or even as it initially seems, about how architecture can be used as a weapon of war and colonisation. It’s more about a rather fascinating subset of architecture called forensic architecture. Basically, it involves looking at the damage to architecture caused by battles and wars to reconstruct a narrative of what happened, separate from the unavoidable bias of aggressor or survivor. Allowing arbitration to take place based on what actually happened outside of the justifications and arguments for and against.

Greening the City
Vo Trong Nghia attempts to return greenery to Vietnam’s choking cities and design affordable homes for poor communities.
This one was fascinating in its own way, because its very much about pushing against ‘market forces’ and convincing his clients that once people see what he has to offer they will see that his houses are better than what they have and guy them. He’s essentially trying to build a garden city and the process and attitudes expounded reminded me oddly of both Victorian philanthropists building their model villages and those 1950s public information films about building suburbs in the US. As beautiful as his stand-alone creations are and utopian though his plans may be, I really hope he’s learned from the mistakes of those who came before him. Otherwise he’s just building an environmentally friendly Milton Keynes…

Working on Water
Architect Kunle Adeyemi sets out to solve the issues of flooding and overcrowding in Nigeria’s waterside slums.
This was the first documentary in the series that I heard about, and it was fascinating, not only because of the unique processes involved in building infrastructure buildings on water, but also because of the way the communities they were built for were so embedded in the process. In some of the other documentaries, we see the community building the structures themselves or being taught how to replicate the process of building a structure for themselves. But here, we see the community as clients to the architect, giving feedback and suggestions to help evolve the designs. In the other projects there was more of a sense of the community saying ‘we have x problem’ and the architect coming in and giving them ‘y’ solution. There seemed to be much more give and take here. Also given the struggle these communities have to get the authorities to recognise them as the rightful owners and occupants of the land, it was really nice to see them portrayed as intelligent, informed contributors to the process, raised not only valid but often nuanced concerns, rather than as helpless victims of a faceless power.

The Pedreiro and the Master Planner
Informal builder Ricardo de Oliviera struggles with the government’s plan for the future of Rio’s Rocinha favela.
The film is really the story of two people working to improve the housing and general environments of the Rocinha favela in Rio. Ricardo de Oliviera is a self-taught, highly skilled builder who has built a large variety of buildings (houses, apartment blocks) across the favela. Luis Carlos Toledo is an architect who put together the designs for the government’s radical programme of favela urbanisation, working closely with the local people to incorporate their ideas. Those of his ideas that have already been implemented have proved a hit with the locals, the extra space created having been colonised for gardens and play parks, giving the residents a sense of permanence. However while the people want a school, a hospital and a sanitation system, the government is intent on building a cable car system that will be of little use the residents. Mostly the film seems to be about the contrasting ways of improving the place. Toledo with his grand ideas, hijacked by the government’s desire for a showpiece, Oliviera with his hands on approach to making life better one house at a time, and the residents group, holding public meetings and protests trying to hold the government to account and get what they need from the government rather than what the government thinks they should have.