Just a Sandy, Sloping Bit of GroundHow a car park turns into a place to be
Take one sandy car park, two friends and an idea: The result is La Carpa, a sociocultural space, a creative place where artists, musicians and the people of Seville meet to exchange ideas. What makes this place so special is the fact that is was created with no official permits, without levying a single fee, just through the coming together of a community and the help of local people. Read More
Take one sandy car park, two friends and an idea: The result is La Carpa, a sociocultural space, a creative place where artists, musicians and the people of Sevilla meet to exchange ideas. What makes this place so special is the fact that is was created with no official permits, without levying a single fee, just through the coming together of a community and the help of local people.
Everything looks a little cobbled together on this triangular square. The first thing that catches your eye is a big circus tent with its red and white stripes. But before you can start to imagine an entertaining show with clowns, elephants and acrobats, you become aware of a big spider crouched next to the tent. Its body is a red container painted with a smiling face and balanced on six iron legs. In the shade under the iron spider there is a little stage and two children’s slides. There are some other strange buildings next to the spider and the circus tent: unfinished wooden cubes, a lorry, and various containers. Some have windows, a canopy, a little terrace with pot plants; one even has a fire extinguisher. So you realize that this is not a circus where you watch a show, this is…. Well.
There are some other strange buildings next to the spider and the circus tent.
“La Carpa is a sociocultural space, or better a public space, no, no, an artistic space is what they wrote on the sign,” says Santiago Cirugeda as he waves two bottles of beer towards a bunch of tables in the shade of a covered terrace, which later turns out to be a former art project. It is a hot day. Well, it is always hot in Seville. “Tomorrow the Andalucía Big Band will play here, we are expecting a lot of visitors,” Santiago tells us. “I am sure the police will show up. They have been showing up a lot lately. The problem is that the city council cannot categorize us, so they won’t give us a license.”
What’s to be done with a sandy car park?
But let’s start from the beginning. It all started with Santiago’s friend Jorge, whom they call Bifu. Bifu grew up in this neighbourhood, an apartment block on the periphery of Seville. He always looked out from his apartment onto this triangular piece of ground between the wide street and the sandy car park. Bifu works for a theatre group, has lots of contact to other cultural groups, and became aware of how many of these groups needed space for their activities. Why not create a cultural space on this triangular square, Bifu wondered. So he called his architect friend Santiago, who at the time was already working with his Recetas Urbanas (urban recipes). Santiago founded Recetas Urbanas 16 years ago as an architectural studio that focused on cooperative architecture.
Usually an architect develops a building plan according to his client’s instructions. In the case of Recetas Urbanas, citizens organised in cooperatives come up with a plan to create their urban environment. Some of these so-called self-construction projects are approved by the regional council, but many do not get a permit. The cooperatives ask Santiago for his urban recipes. He listens to their ideas, gives technical advice and instructions, connects them with other cooperatives, and provides them with legal counsel.
The demand for his work is constantly growing. In order to better connect the different projects, Santiago helped launch the arquitecturascolectivas.net website, a platform where cooperatives can exchange advice, materials, or search for funding. So back then, four years ago, when La Carpa was still a sandy car park, Bifu called his friend Santiago and told him about his plans for a cultural space. Bifu said he had enough people who would help, a land concession, and had already applied for public money. “We started the project and of course never saw a centimo of public money,” Santiago says. Nor did they get a building permit. No money, no permit, no material, just a sandy, sloping bit of earth.
From an Idea to a cultural space
“We took everything we could get,” Santiago remembers. Material from art projects that was no longer needed. Santiago brought the lorry and the containers that house bathrooms from former construction sites. The spider’s legs were made by an engineer friend who originally invented them for bridges. Sometimes the local government gives out free public goods that are no longer needed. The cooperatives use the website to inform each other about abandoned public material being given out in their region. This is where most of La Carpa’s container buildings came from. Crowdfunding helped them purchase more expensive materials, such as the big circus tent. They found a factory owner who had an old circus tent he was willing to sell them inexpensively. Santiago looked at it, it seemed fine, so they bought it. "We use recycled materials, which is a risk for me as the architect," Santiago says. “I have to make sure that things are stable and not broken. I also take responsibility during construction. Since we build without a permit, if somebody gets hurt during the construction process it could have legal consequences for me. But so far nothing has ever happened.” Never? Well once, Santiago laughs and lifts his hands: There was a lawyer once who visited us to give us some legal advice and broke his nose.
In the beginning Bifu, Bifu’s parents, his then girlfriend, her parents and Santiago were the only ones working on La Carpa. But more and more people joined in, friends, neighbours. The more it grew, the more cooperatives showed up to ask if they could use some space in La Carpa for their activities. Today La Carpa is used by eight cooperatives and has 1,200 members. It is not easy to coordinate with that many people. Everybody has different ideas, different expectation, and as these grow stronger, the more time and energy gets sacrificed to the project. "You have to listen a lot, discuss a lot. That takes a lot of energy and time," Santiago says. "One of the most important things is knowing who is participating seriously and who is responsible for what."
Citizens formed an initiative to restore an old house in the centre of Seville, so the senior citizens who lived there did not have to move.
In La Carpa things are coordinated in weekly assemblies. There are disagreements, but also lots of enthusiasm because people feel that the project is functioning well. That is not always the case. Santiago remembers the "Casa de Pumarejo" project. Citizens formed an initiative to restore an old house in the centre of Seville, so the senior citizens who lived there did not have to move. Santiago started assisting them with his urban recipes, but after a while the project petered out due to differences among the diverse initiative committees. David was passing by and heard some of our conversation: "Each cooperative works for itself, but at the same time we have to work together," he says. His cooperative’s, "cuarto revelado", building is two stacked containers connected with a somewhat adventurous stairway. The containers have been painted turquoise with “cuarto revelado" written on them in black plastic tubes that were originally used for drainage. The downstairs has a darkroom for developing photos, upstairs is a cosy office. This is where David and his colleges from "cuarto revelado" organize photography and drawing workshops.
"We create value with our projects"
All kinds of people come to visit La Carpa. The nearby school takes a lot of field trips to La Carpa, and neighbours do not have to drive to the city centre for cultural activities. "What we do is a direct attack on the figure of the architect," Santiago claims. He feels citizens have the right to design and construct urban spaces themselves, since they are the ones who pay taxes and use these spaces. “If we use abandoned public space, we are not hurting anybody. When we meet with the local politicians to negotiate permits, we are citizens, lawyers, architects, hackers... We are better positioned than they are; we are organized. And we are right. With our projects we create value; we provide education in our open classes and we support the social and cultural development of our community.” It seems the city council still thinks differently though. At the end of March their land concession expires and La Carpa runs the danger of being removed. Friends and members of La Carpa are preparing for resistance. And Santiago is thinking ahead about new self-construction methods. "What if we propose a deal to the city council: We renovate abandoned public buildings using self-construction, calculate how much this would have cost them using a commercial company, and instead of paying us they let us use the building for a certain number of years." But until then, they want to repaint the spider to show people that they are still working on La Carpa and have no plans to leave it.