The Things Around Us
51N4E and Rural Urban Framework
Untitled (The Things Around Us)
From Within an Ecology of Practice
by Francesco Garutti
Where Meaning Can Emerge
Choreography Is a Good Word for It
with Rural Urban Framework
Inventory of Tools and Tactics
for Transforming Contexts
September 2020, Montréal
The Things Around Us
Rural Urban Framework
Canadian Centre for Architecture
FROM WITHIN AN ECOLOGY OF PRACTICE
The potential for architects to be influential and transformative agents
of space has been increasingly contested by the developmental logic
of neoliberal urbanism. Often called upon to simply participate in,
rather than shape, transformation processes, twenty-first-century
architects are confined by the rules of an uncompromising market
and its restrictive, conformist design ideologies, employ ing practice
only as a “decorative tool.” 1 With the possibility of a radical reframing
of space now hampered, many architects today find themselves
reduced to service providers, asked only to improve the marketability
of developers’ projects with surface-level features like well-being
and sustainability. Given these conditions, the need to reconsider the
character and scope of the architect’s role grows ever more pressing.
More than simply the practice of building itself, with aesthetic and
programmatic parameters taking the lead in informing design work,
the process of making architecture today is moulded by an overwhelming
coagulation of economic, social, and political forces. The
debate in the discipline between contextualism—the idea that buildings
should be derived from their context, physical, temporal, or
cultural—and autonomy—according to which architecture is an independent
aesthetic product—is therefore increasingly irrelevant.
Context means something wholly different in today’s polymorphous,
extensive, and global urban space. To reassess what architects can
do, we need to examine the frameworks within which they operate,
redefining the concept of context and questioning its use. An updated
vocabulary and a new catalogue of tools to analyze global urbanization
processes are perhaps good places to start. 2 But we also need to
recognize and learn from those architects applying these new ideas
of context both in and on space.
51N4E and Rural Urban Framework (RUF), two offices active in what
seem distant and distinct geographical areas—the centre of post-
1 See Teddy Cruz, “Rethinking Urban Growth: It’s About Inequality, Stupid,” in Uneven Growth:
Tactical Urbanism for Expanding Megacities, ed. Pedro Gadanho (New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 2014), 51.
2 Christian Schmid et al., “Towards a New Vocabulary of Urbanisation Processes: A Comparative
Approach,” Urban Studies 55, no. 1 (January 2018): 19–52.
As both insiders and outsiders, the architects of 51N4E and RUF act
in turn as builders, planners, entrepreneurs, activists, community
organizers, and policymakers. They are directors and activists, choreographers
of relationships and conditions, and, from their liminal
vantages, careful observers of what cannot—and, as their work
shows, should not—be controlled. Taking this decentralized and dynamic
position, the two offices provide a disciplinary reflection on
the role of the architect as author. What they offer, in the face of a
new, complex, and urbanized context, is a case for the radical power
of an ethics of weakness. To redesign our present, ultimately, we have
to be able to listen, observe, and strategically incorporate, absorb,
and enable other actors’ points of view. Only then does the building
that emerges reflect what context means today, and only then does it
meaningfully contribute to context’s transformation.
DIALOGUE AS A SELF-REFLECTIVE MODEL
Listening, observing, and incorporating others’ points of view are,
more than utilitarian design strategies, key elements of dialogue, of
exchange. How can we transform these dynamic, conversational elements—questions
and reactions, positions and oppositions, silences
and interferences, proximity and contrasts—into a coherent reflection
on making architecture today? How can we imagine an architectural
exhibition as, all at once, a form of dialogue and a representation
of it? How can we design a conceptual space conducive to different
ways of looking, thinking, and drawing architecture today in response
to inscrutable and constantly shifting contexts?
The CCA’s Manifesto series of exhibitions and books was conceived
in 2006 to investigate the complexities of our time through
architecture by bringing contemporary practices into conversation.
Discussions between Gilles Clément and Philippe Rahm on redirecting
our approach to the environment (2006); between Greg Lynn, Michael
Maltzan, and Alessandro Poli on the meaning of the relationship between
technique and technology (2010); between Stephen Taylor and
Ryue Nishizawa on forms of living in dense urban fabrics (2008); between
Bijoy Jain and Umberto Riva on the redefinition of the domestic
“interior” (2014); and, most recently, between Kersten Geers, David
Van Severen, and Go Hasegawa on the role and use of history in
51N4E in conversation
with the CCA
1. RESTRUCTURING THE OFFICE
Francesco Garutti (CCA)
When we first met, in Brussels, you were telling me about the new
structure of the office. What’s behind the change?
Freek Persyn (51N4E)
The idea is that we’re trying to create some clarity, to deal with the
fact that 51N4E has gradually started to take up more and more diverse
work. The name 51N4E has become a kind of symbol for an office
that does a lot of things, but nobody really knows what. So, we’ve
moved this name to a holding company that can facilitate and foster
collaborations. It’s a holding company in the sense that it “holds” very
diverse activities and offers support for larger operational questions
and dynamic and complex processes of transformation.
This new 51N4E contains different studios, each of which are in
their own way about intervening in different moments of the process.
One studio is called Cast. This, you could say, is the architectural company,
focused on adaptive reuse, but also on transforming existing
settlements. The goal here is to imagine and build environments that
are inherently about adaptation, that have a capacity to absorb and
The second studio is called Acte, and with this studio the idea is to
focus more on the conditions that create projects, on setting the right
conditions. It’s also about creating alliances and developing business
models. Sometimes, in an architectural project, we’re asked to deliver
an answer to a question that’s not even properly posed. Sometimes
it is better to activate a second track that deals with the questions
that emerge in the process. Often, we also feel not enough people are
involved; we want to include people that are too often left out of the
“urban transformation process.”
Sotiria Kornaropoulou (51N4E)
You can also see this transformation less as restructuring than as giving
form to what is already happening, especially with these first two
studios. Cast, the studio with the architectural focus, has been growing
quickly. Giving it autonomy is one way to manage its growth. We
need to professionalize certain aspects of the architectural projects,
streamline their processes, dive deeper into circularity, adaptive reuse.
And then with the creation of Acte, we can continue to work on
the conditions of the project by asking questions, putting together
coalitions of actors, programming, testing basic relations between
space and context. We wanted to give this work visibility because,
while subtle, it has a lot of weight in determining what happens in the
projects that follow. Splitting companies is also in this sense an opportunity
to take this second line of work more seriously, to develop
its tools and methods.
And then the third studio—though this is still more of a dream
than a real company—is called Root. It’s about making environments
more biodiverse, about working with plants both inside and outside.
It is a bit of an experiment for us because it is the first one that implies
a structural collaboration with a party outside the 51N4E circle. It
started with one successful collaboration with the people we worked
with on Skanderbeg Square.
What was for us very interesting in that collaboration was that these
people are actually contractors. They do landscape design but have
backgrounds in biology and ecology, and they come to it from a contracting
perspective. They focus on how to install things, how to
maintain them. They don’t start with a totally new design. In this way,
landscape design with them becomes more like maintenance design.
It’s about growing landscape in a certain direction rather than installing
and planting it from scratch. That’s where this third studio
We come to the table with different backgrounds and expertise, but
we share an attitude. Working together on Skanderbeg Square, we
discussed how the square could be in one, five, twenty, or fifty years.
For us, this was very refreshing: though architecture is much more
inert than landscape, we would still not really dare to guess how conditions
will change in the next fifty years. From both sides, what we
tried to set up is a solid base with a generous internal logic to leave
margins for change. In the process, we realized how much landscape
is defined by the way it is followed up on and managed. We would often
5. TIMELINES AND LIFESPANS
This makes me think of the idea of curating a building, rather than
just designing it.
We do have that kind of a relationship with the BUDA factory. We’ve
followed up and have changed the building and modified it, made new
openings and new connections. And it’s interesting because you start
to structure these changes collectively, with the clients and the users,
to build preciousness and an identity. You discuss together what to
respect and to keep and what to allow to transform according to its
The TID tower is the same. It’s very mathematical, its façade seems to
be coherent, but really, if you look at it, the building is ad hoc. Only two
small things are defined, and everything else is negotiable. There is
the shape of the tower, the space of the golden cupola and the urban
void of the galleria. Everything around these interventions has been
malleable. In retrospect, it is amazing to see how much these three
shapes have been respected and how much the things between them
have been changed. There’s room to play around these things. You
define a timeframe in which certain things hold and others change.
Architecture has this capacity to structure different timeframes like
this, and at certain moments it can even stop time.
Are there limitations to participatory processes like these?
In Dutch, dialogue is tegenspraak—something like “counter-speech,”
which has a certain resistance baked into it. It’s true that participation
has this kind of “go with the flow” notion attached to it, the idea
that you should make people as happy as possible and talk as much
as possible. Of course, there’s something good about it, something
noble. But dialogue is also about resistance and about silence. When
you don’t speak, you can listen to what’s not being said. The word
participation, for me, too often treats citizens like customers or consumers:
their desires should be met, and the best design is the one
that meets the most desires, or worse still, leaves everyone in their
We try to do two things: one is to understand what a person wants,
their ambitions and their capacity for complexity. The second is to
take responsibility for exceeding that situation, to bring it to a higher
level. In participatory practice, this doesn’t always seem like the goal.
I think the best dialogues have people commenting afterward that
what we arrived at was not at all what they expected. We ourselves are
also surprised when something new emerges. Not every meeting gets
there, and it does take a lot of energy and openness from everyone,
but when it happens it is something magical.
Does the process change entirely with each project? Or do you
have a set of tools or constraints you use to enact this dialogue?
Johan is very good at trying the bad ideas of others. That’s often your
first reaction in this process, that the idea is bad. But if you try it, you
end up levelling yourself with the others. Then you start to understand
what it means. You sometimes discover things you hadn’t thought
about yourself. It’s good to give the other person the benefit of the
Could you tell us a bit more about your connection to ETH Zurich
and the Design in Dialogue Lab there? How did that come about,
and how does it feed back into your practice?
It was quite an intuitive choice to apply there: I’d heard it was a
school that creates the conditions for you to be entrepreneurial. My
application was based on a proposal of what I wanted to investigate,
and, in that sense, if they hadn’t liked the proposal I wouldn’t have
worked there. The conditions the school offers are, I think, unique in
Europe. I often have the feeling that what we do at 51N4E doesn’t have
a good conceptual framework—there are no real words for it—so I was
intrigued to develop it more. Our approach is, I feel, quite different,
and so I hope that ETH allows me to both describe it and develop it.
6. THE DYNAMICS OF PROCESS
I’d like to end us on this idea of transformation and on the urban
today. The default way of seeing the forces that define the urban
today would be to put -isms or -ion words on it—words like globalization—which
seem to oversimplify its complexity.
I was talking before about architecture as a process—things have
become so interrelated and interconnected that you do indeed get
degrees between urban and rural, city and not city. These still do exist
as environments. You can feel one way in one place and another
way in another place. In a Belgian city, there’s a certain density of social
interaction that you won’t find in more suburban areas. But the
processes underlying the dynamics in each of these places are interrelated.
It’s more interesting to look at these similar processes and
patterns than to think in categories.
And then, how do you intervene? If everything is a process, how
do you intervene? For me, there’s a conceptual flattening that’s necessary,
a process of looking at things in a fresh way that’s applicable
wherever you are.
Does that add up to a kind of methodology? The approach you’ve
outlined about listening and creating the conditions for a dialogue—is
that specific to the places that you’ve worked, or do you
think it could be used wherever?
What’s specific, maybe, is the awareness, the way you understand
your own impact. There’s not an unchanged or unchanging reality out
there, so the fact that you intervene in a site gives you an agency that
changes the conditions you work in. When you make a building, you
are not just making it fit into a context, but you actively change that
context, especially in areas that are not very consolidated, that are
in doubt or in transformation. The same goes for a group dynamic in
a project. You shape it while it also shapes you. In a way, ideally, it is
7. LOCAL AND GLOBAL PRACTICE
This is another way to interpret the local and the global. Maybe it’s
important to be both an insider and an outsider, as Josh is saying.
You look at all these things locally, but you look at it having seen other
places around the world and able to see the connections between
them. Sometimes that’s our responsibility: to look at Mongolia and
what’s happening there, but with an awareness of what’s happening in
Latin America; to understand why it’s different and ask what solutions
can be transferred, what solutions are irrelevant.
So these same considerations, in some sense, apply universally,
across the planet? I’m thinking specifically of your comparisons
of the ger district in Ulaanbaatar to Paraisopolis, Brazil and
Baishizhou, Shenzhen, but also of the particular uniqueness of
rural Chinese development.
I remember a conference from when I was in London; it was called
Strangely Familiar, and its name stuck with me. Somehow, we like to
work with things that are familiar and normative but also quite other,
quite strange, quite confrontational to their place or context. I think
there’s something about the architecture in these places that has
that kind of quality. It’s not completely of its place nor is it completely
alien. It’s hybrid; it has duality.
Our participation in these places is an attempt to allow for these
places to evolve naturally. It touches on this question of architecture
without architects again. When the world changes very slowly, you
don’t need designers, because communities can innovate according
to their own needs and build for themselves. It’s an inherent part of
our relationship with our environment and an inherent part of how
communities work. Traditional communities are always innovating,
but that innovation happens over a very long period of time.
Now, as the world moves faster and faster, we witness many local
places getting more and more fragmented. What we try to do in our
work is that we try to create a new spatial cohesion. We try to stitch
together aspects that have been fragmented by the forces acting on
these areas. And we also try to create a cohesion between the past
and future, between an abandonment of one way of building and the
wholesale adoption of a completely new way of building. The communities
we work with are interesting because they still have one foot in
a certain cultural condition—they still hang onto the richness of these
places—but they also want to catch up. They want to speed up toward
what they perceive as a modern condition.
There’s immense potential in working with these communities
specifically because they present new possibilities for how development
can occur. We’re interested in how architecture works in
dialogue with what’s around it. And so the combination of alien and
familiar in building becomes a vehicle for an evolution of place that
remains in harmony while adapting to rapidly transforming lifestyles.
How can we engineer spaces
to promote and facilitate new
Offering common ground by
building new notions of civic space
Skanderbeg Square (51N4E)
Ger Innovation Hub (RUF)
Interrupting patterns by
providing possibilities for collective
Skanderbeg Square (51N4E)
A model of Skanderbeg Square and its neighbouring institutions
hosts discussions on public and private space
OFFERING COMMON GROUND
Skanderbeg Square; Tirana, Albania; 2008–2017 (51N4E)
During the development of Skanderbeg Square, various major institutions
facing the square reached a consensus—through extensive
negotiation around a working model—as to how each would refit their
respective entrances to make for a flexible and approachable public
The front steps of a bookshop abut the square as part of
51N4E’s plan to refit the area’s relationship between public
Key infrastructure for the social life of the square,
the chairs act as instruments of improvisation
Villagers enter the building without entering the hospital rooms, using it as a community space
Screens blocks are assembled and tested at the University of Hong Kong
Angdong Health Centre; Baojing, Hunan, China; 2011–2016 (RUF)
Variations of a screen block for the hospital courtyard were prototyped
at the University of Hong Kong and then sent to Baojing to be
mass produced locally. The dyed concrete blocks filter light to create
soft interior spaces, while the exterior façade, constructed with
reclaimed gray bricks, give the building a quality of familiarity to the
Varying orifice positions in the blocks make for distinct lighting conditions
inside the hospital
A wooden mould is used onsite for production and
as a tool for engagement with local contractors
This project, through all its parts in Albania, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, Mongolia,
Switzerland, and Montréal, would not have been possible without the help of 51N4E's
and Rural Urban Framework's close teams of collaborators: Roxane Le Grelle,
Sébastian Roy, Ajmona Hoxha, Guust Selhorst, and Chiara Oggioni, Jersey Poon,
Yi Soon, and Irgel Enkhsaikhan. Our gratitude goes as well to all the people we met,
drove with, were helped by, and shared food with—everyone we walked with and
talked to during the many journeys we took to make this book and exhibition happen.
© 2021 Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal
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LEGAL DEPOSIT April 2021
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The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie;
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Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and Library and Archives Canada
cataloguing in publication
Title: The things around us : 51N4E and Rural urban framework / edited by
Names: Garutti, Francesco, editor. | Centre canadien d’architecture, issuing body.
Description: Co-published by jovis Verlag.
Identifiers: Canadiana 20200092111 | ISBN 9781927071731 (softcover)
Subjects: LCSH: Architecture, Modern—21st century. | LCSH: Conversation in art. |
LCSH: 51N4E (Firm) | LCSH: Rural Urban Framework (Firm)
Classification: LCC NA687.G37 2020 | DDC 724/.7—dc23