The Things Around Us: 51N4E and Rural Urban Framework


ISBN 978-3-86859-668-7

The Things Around Us

51N4E and Rural Urban Framework


Stills from

Untitled (The Things Around Us)


From Within an Ecology of Practice

by Francesco Garutti


Where Meaning Can Emerge

with 51N4E


Choreography Is a Good Word for It

with Rural Urban Framework


Inventory of Tools and Tactics

for Transforming Contexts


September 2020, Montréal

The Crane

The Waste

The Asbestos

The Coal

The Home

The Trucks

The Vacancies

The Entrance

The Sign

The Partnership

The Shade

The Music

The Noise

The Residents

The Edge

The Things Around Us


Rural Urban Framework


Canadian Centre for Architecture


The Offices


Francesco Garutti

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.

The Collision

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.


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



Where Meaning

Can Emerge

51N4E in conversation

with the CCA



Sotiria Kornaropoulou

Aline Neirynck

Freek Persyn


Irene Chin

Francesco Garutti

Andrew Scheinman


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?

The Maintenance

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

facilitate change.

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

comes from.



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



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

daily use.



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

comfort zones.

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


The Cupola


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,

The Boundaries

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.



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



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.

The Vantage



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

social relationships?


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)

The Negotiations

A model of Skanderbeg Square and its neighbouring institutions

hosts discussions on public and private space


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

and private



Key infrastructure for the social life of the square,

the chairs act as instruments of improvisation

The Friends

The Caretakers

Villagers enter the building without entering the hospital rooms, using it as a community space

The Patients

The Moulds

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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ISBN 978-3-86859-668-7

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The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie;

detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at

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

Francesco Garutti.

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

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