Just returned from our trip to UK. Among other things we participated in this year RGS Conference in the session “Assemblage Theory in Urban Research”. Here I leave our presentation. I hope to hear feedback from you!
Just a few odd data pieces: Guadalest, a little village one hour far form Benidorm with a population of less than two hundred is probably the town with more museums per inhabitant, its 9 venues attract so many visitors as the El Prado Museum in Madrid; more than 70 per cent of tourist residents usually do shopping in flea markets and street markets; in the region of Alicante one of every two houses is sold to foreigners, mostly second hand homes, and more than 24 per cent of the total official population are foreigners, being mostly europeans. We, as both architecture researchers and practitioners, are well aware that conventional planning tools cannot deal with this urban reality that has emerged.
In exchange we see in assemblage theory a tool able to make sense of all these new modes of dwelling and describing and explaining its causalities. Taking the suggestion that assemblage can be a new paradigm (Farías, 2011) we ask ourselves if we could possibly use it to make city. Can we have active and prospective city making tools inspired by assemblage theory? The people we’re studying and working with migrate to enjoy a better way of life and have been called lifestyle migrants and their quest to redefine their quotidianity has changed the entire territory, towns and cities near (and not so near) the coast of Alicante.
We will present you first hypothesis and results of our research and praxis in the touristic coast of Alicante. In it we depart from assemblage tools as emergency, flat onthology, mobilities, etc and we try to find their operational dimension looking at their possibilities and limits and proposing new ways to continue developing them.
This is an ongoing conversation we wanted to share here as this would be, of course, a collective and multidisciplinary challenge, where urban professionals (public or private), researches, inhabitants and institutions are to change their roles, practices and tools. Also assemblage would eventually have to be deformed and redefined even beyond what urban studies have done to it. There we go!
Benidorm and the lifestyle migrants it brought
Alicante’s touristic coast story must begin in Benidorm, of course. Its peculiar development as the bigger mediterranean touristic industry has boosted an environment of distributed economic abundance that has much to do with the empowerment of its inhabitants. This distinguishes our inquiry as there exists good research of architectonic and urban practices that try to empower people related to assemblage (see Till et al. and Nieto). However the practices they highlight tend to appear in scarce environments and they hardly produce stable forms of life though they are encouraging and possibilistic. The lifestyle migrants we are studying are also looking for original empowering better lives, but they are somehow able to produce relative stability.
The agency of materials activated by creativity
One of our hypothesis is that Benidorm environment’s success, or the Costa Blanca as it is called, not only relies in sun and beach (and beer). Inspired by the work of Cronon about Chicago we affirm that the mountain range that shapes it has “promoted a particular way of development” (Farías, 2011:21). Beyond the villas developed in the hills that contrast so much with Benidorm high rise, the lifestyle migrant has unexpectedly repopulated the nearly abandoned inland fields and villages. As workers fled to new jobs in the coast, foreigners established semi-permanently attracted by picturesque and climatic attractive, sea views and liberty spaces at bargain price.
To support their lives they’ve made up new businesses and original ways of making a living that they’ve evolved and sustained in time. Our inquiry takes us to mountainous Guadalest where people as belgian Andrea Ludden owns the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, with 20.000 thousand items. This life story repeats in the Vehicle Museum, and the three of miniatures. All this improbable business have made real some potential virtualities of these charming orography. We think this could be a possible tool for an assemblage urban practice: creativity. As what turns on the capacity of agency of materials, be it the topography or the objects that gather these unlikely museums.
Territorialization as embodiment in people’s life
Another case we’re working on is an activity that has emerged in touristic Alicante since the arrival of northern migrants: flea markets. We’re concerned about how local institutions are appropriating them as an economic and touristic development tool, but also how the participants are.
We focus on the mobility and territorialization of these urban actions. Assemblage studies of travelling policies (see McCann and Ward, and McFarlane) have managed to talk about time making emphasis in assemblages as “historical constructions” (Bender and Farías, 2010:316). But they insist in the non-linearity of these processes and its complexity. Though their descriptions may facilitate its comprehension they do not facilitate the participants to make future bets. We think this is so because assemblage inherits Deleuze’s preference for cinema’s time, in which events are seen from outside following one another frame by frame. However, in our first interviews to merchants we’ve realised that their perception of their activity and mobility in time is not so fragmented. Though they are in fact components working to stabilize the identity of the assemblage as well as forcing it to change, or even transforming it into a different assemblage (ibid.).
Returning to the original development plan of Benidorm, it taught as that its success was due to allowing agents evolve in time growing with it (see Gaviria and Iribas), precisely what some resorts or speculative and centralised urbanistic plans lack of. The urban grid that established a market of possibilities was set up and deformed by the same people, owners of land, investors, tourists, merchants, etc that effected its actualization.
So, our hypothesis is that an assemblage urban practice should focus better in agents temporality than in the assemblage’s one. For us, the more or less territorialization of these actions lies not in them being generic brands as medieval fairs or outlets (González, 2013) or original street and flea markets, nor in them selling local or global products. It has more to do with the embodiment in agents’ lives, with its empowering and the creation of stable forms of personal development in time.
Ability and affect, key spaces for intervention in the assemblages
Lastly, we’re looking into the home building processes of the lifestyle migrants. Thanks to assemblage we can overtake the ideas of cultural landscapes that tell us that these houses are being built as their are because owners follow a socially constructed image of the typical mediterranean house (Rapoport in Ingold 2000:181). A view shared by the regulations of municipalities that try to fight the resulting pastiche landscape imposing to promoters and designers other stylistic images adding layers to the assemblage.
On the contrary, we try the ANT way and follow the inhabitants-promoters’ steps through the process and discover new agents, for example, promotional brochures of services, books written by earlier adopters full of advice for beginners, etc they all play a crucial role in the selection of materials and technical solutions. All these things distribute the agency of that building, not being responsiblejust the contractor, architect or the promotional images, but all of them together. As McFarlane (2011:219) we think this multiplies the spaces for critical intervention and, for what we have seen, the development of abilities and skills is one of the most effective spaces.
So do also understand the professionals working for this lifestyle migrants as the warranty they give in their promotions is: “I’ve been doing this here for years”. Also the townhall of Llíber (another small village in second line beach mountains). They have displayed signs on paths to warn potential foreign buyers to inform themselves before buying about the regulations of the plot they’ve liked. So they learn the bureaucratic functioning of the territory in the moment their being affected by its beautiful landscape. This kind of action taking could be part of the urban practice we’re seeking as, like Ingold (2011:94), it understands that “skilled practice involves developmentally embodied responsiveness”.
Conclusion: towards an urban assemblage practice
We think that assemblage theory allows us to understand better the city and territory building and it can evidence in its extent actions as the financiation and accord necessaries to excavate the water wells that made possible such an enterprise as Benidorm and all Alicante’s touristic coast development.
But, to go beyond these necessary thick descriptions, we propose an assemblage urban practice that allows us to be active agents in its building. It would take on assemblage tools nuanced by the concepts we have exposed: creativity, embodied time, distribution, affection and ability. And we’re testing them in our architectural and research practices: developing guides for self-contractors, proposals that link fairs and markets to merchants and buyers through ITCs, open peer to peer building systems, territorial plans that redefine rural house concepts, etc.
We are aware that such a proposal makes us just another player in the urban play just like others. Going from planning (the modern paradigm) or critic and intervention (postmodern paradigm) to an assemblage urban practice that unveils the political implications of our actions as practitioners, researches or inhabitants. And, as it leaves no one inocent, we love to discuss them. As much as we’d love to hear your comments and proposals to develop this possible type of practice. Thank you very much!
Farías, I. and Bender, T. (2009) Urban Assemblages. How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies. Toutledge. London
Farías, I. (2011) Ensamblajes urbanos: la TAR y el examen de la ciudad. Athenea Digital – 11(1): 15-40 – ARTÍCULOS-ISSN: 1578-8946
Gaviria, M. Iribas, J. M. Sabbah, F. Sanz Arranz, J. R. (1977) Benidorm, Ciudad Nueva. Dos Volumenes. Editora Nacional, Madrid
González, F. (2013) De les fires-mercat a les fires-festival. Les fires com a eina de promoció. http://fefic.com/uploadFiles/congressos/wiimzhfizpye7oxbyzp5_20%20Congres_Francesc%20Gonzalez.pdf
Ingold T. (2000) The perception of the environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill”. Routledge, London.
Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Routledge, London.
McFarlane, C. (2011) Assemblage and critical urbanism. City. 2011;15:204-224.
McFarlane, C. (2009) Translocal assemblages: space, power and social movements. Geoforum. 2009;40:561-567.
McCann, E.J. and Ward, K. (2011) Mobile Urbanism: City Policymaking in the Global Age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nieto Fernández, E. (2012) ¡…Prescindible organizado!: agenda docente para una formulación afectiva y disidente del proyecto arquitectónico. http://rua.ua.es/dspace/handle/10045/26235, Alicante.
Till, J., Awan, N. and Schneider, T. (2011) Spatial Agency: Other Ways Of Doing Architecture. Routledge, London.