Heritage, Italy, Architecture

The Non-Extractive Architecture(s) Project

Members of Space Caviar and the re:arc institute discuss alternatives to dominant paradigms

The XYZ Cargo mobile library by N55/Ion Sørvin and Till Wolfer was used during Non-Extractive Architecture Research Residency at V-A-C Zattere. Venice, 2021–2022
Photo by Marco Cappelletti with Filippo Rossi and Eugenio Schirone

Through a constellation of initiatives and teams, the combined forces of Space Caviar and the Practice Lab at re:arc institute are working to establish a new paradigm: non-extractive architecture(s), a detailed ongoing directory that aims to address challenges both internal and external to the field. In conversation with EastEast, representatives Sofia Pia Belenky (Space Caviar) and Nicolay Boyadjiev (re:arc Practice Lab) discuss the terminologies, geographies, and philosophies that inform and define the program. 

EastEast: Let's start with terms: for decades, there have been waves of criticism of modernist architecture for its universalist ambitions and solutions. These critiques have highlighted multiple problems with the approach, including the toxicity of the construction industry and the irrational misuse of resources. For example, Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 Moma exhibition Architecture Without Architects focused on alternative building methods in which an architect is not an author intervening in space but a mediator who is situated in a specific context and locality. They gather knowledge, materials, and the climatic particularities of the space as an inherent part of their practice. With this legacy in mind, how do you define architectural practice in 2024, and how should it evolve in the future? 

Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture by Bernard Rudofsky. Book based on the exhibition in The Museum of Modern Art in 1964.

Full text of the book can be found here

Sofia Pia Belenky: There's an amusing story told by Tim Ingold about Leon Battista Alberti, how in his Ten Books on Architecture he defines the role of the architect by specifically pointing out that an architect is not a carpenter. Apparently, the reason this distinction is necessary is that in Alberti's day, carpenters had come to be known as architects due to a mistranslation in an ecclesiastical document of the year 945, in which the translator from Latin had mistaken the verb "architecture" for a compound of "arcus" (arch) and "tectum" (roof), jumping to the conclusion that an architect must be a specialist in the construction and repair of vaulted roofs. In many ways, Alberti's urge to define the role of the architect by exclusion, by listing a series of activities they are not responsible for, is indicative of a trajectory of hyper-specialization that was (somewhat ironically) part of the Enlightenment reorganization by reduction in breadth of many fields of knowledge and labor. It is here that the purview of the architect begins to shrink as the complexity of the final product increases.

We’ve always been fascinated by the inverse idea, particularly in the form in which it emerged during the period you reference: the architect as a full-spectrum designer who actually does know at least the basic principles of how to repair a roof, or pick good lumber, but is also capable of strategic thinking around multi-century material procurement strategies integrated into the urban landscape, or non-depletionary stewardship policies for production and reuse of buildings, and at the same time is driven by curiosity and the impetus to research and continually widen their horizon of knowledge. The essence of the writing of Ivan Illich and Buckminster Fuller in this period largely comes down to a fierce diatribe against specialization—they were almost maniacally convinced of the need to be-specialized to survive, and this idea influenced the philosophy of the Non-Extractive Architecture project considerably. Non-Extractive Architecture is in many ways an invitation to zoom out and zoom in at the same time, and in any case to get away from screens a little more. This is something we attempt to practice ourselves at Space Caviar, where we always hang on to a certain hands-on engagement in all of our projects.

I think the long-term goals of the project are to propose an alternative model of what it means to be an architect, especially to young people getting into the profession now. Architecture and design schools tend to be locked into a certain understanding of the architect's role in society and the heroic, modernist model they hold up as an example for young designers tends to be self-perpetuating, with consequences that are not always desirable (for society in general, but also for architects themselves). Rather than addressing design challenges from a purely programmatic or compositional perspective, as schools tend to train students to, we want to start from the very end of the story: how can I solve this design problem in a way that will not simply shift the problem, perhaps in a different form, somewhere else?

It sounds simple, but in fact, it's incredibly difficult because much of the prosperity we have collectively achieved is simply a function of externalities we've created elsewhere, usually in poorer countries further south. Unpicking the supply chains our daily lives depend on and rethinking these productive activities so they weigh on our own shoulders and not the shoulders of others is going to take a very long time—we literally have to unlearn what we've been taught and in some cases start over. 

Non-Extractive Architecture Workshop and "Non-Extractive Architecture: On Designing without Depletion" at Palazzo delle Zattere, Venice, 2022
Photo by Marco Cappelletti with Filippo Rossi and Eugenio Schirone

Nicolay Boyadjiev: I think the architecture industry—as every other industry on planet Earth in 2024—needs to be re-conceptualised and re-deployed from the perspective of its role, responsibility and leverage within the climate crisis. I say “industry” here first rather than “practice” because I think it's important to recognise climate change not only as a planetary process but also as a planetary industrial project irresponsibly undertaken over the last 200-400 years at truly industrial scale—with all industrial sectors collectively/inadvertently optimized for the extraction and transfer of carbon in one direction from the ground up to the atmosphere—irrespective of how their individual disciplinary grand-narratives may have been told and internalized in the process. In other words, the climate crisis was “made” in these 400 years through an incredible expenditure of work and labor across all industries—with truly disastrous ecological and social consequences for the many to the benefit of the few—and in the next 100 years, any viable response to it will require an equally colossal expenditure of work and labor across all industries—only faster and in reverse—in order to course correct and address/mitigate/adapt to the damage.

For me this has implications both for architecture “industry” and “practice,” because the built environment is hiding in plain sight both amongst the worst contributors to the climate crisis but also amongst the most powerful sites of leverage in the context of our response to it. Architecture practice (noun) would benefit from being demystified and in many ways de-linked from its vestigial attachment to the siloed “authorship” of any individual practitioner or building, and should be seen as exactly what it is: an ongoing practice (verb) to address social needs within the site-specificity of their ecological context through the mobilization of local know-how, work, and labor. 

Architecture is therefore not “embodied” in individual design-objects but should rather be defined as “practiced” via the ongoing design and tending to site-specific relationships across our social infrastructures we need and the ecological infrastructures that contain us. Its evolution should be informed by its ability to give shape to the site-specificity of that relationship in the viable and pluralistic terms that are required and, to go one step further, by the necessity of re-imagining the institutions that make more ecologically responsible and socially just relationships possible in the first place. Part of our work at the Practice Lab is to address both aspects of that evolution, or to reference your Rudofsky example: to think about “architecture without clients” in the traditional sense of the term. 

Projects from Non-extractive architecture(s)' directory of design without depletion

Datecrete, United Arab Emirates
Datecrete is a bio-based material developed that combines the durability and strength of concrete with the eco-friendly benefits of date palm fibers.

Arquitectura Mixta, Mexico
The studio is committed to sustainability and incorporates environmentally friendly materials and design practices into all of its projects.

Rammed Earth Construction, Global
Rammed earth has been utilized in construction for millennia, with evidence of its use dating back to the Neolithic Period. This technique was commonly used in China for both ancient monuments and vernacular architecture, including the Great Wall.

Phumdis, Asia
Phumdis are a series of floating islands found in the Loktak Lake in India. They are composed of vegetation, soil, and organic matter in various stages of decay, and are used by local communities for fishing and other livelihood purposes.

EE: In the late 20th century, there were multiple names for environmentally conscious architecture, such as “green architecture,” which was criticized for being a bit naive at best. What was your process behind your decision to refer to your framework as “non-extractive architecture”? 

SFB: A lot of what led us to initiate this project was a certain frustration around the words “sustainability” or “green architecture,” which far too often have come to describe or mask extractive projects. The idea that simply by making your building out of a certain material or making it performative in terms of energy use you have somehow solved the problem. The attempt instead is to actually describe the problem as much bigger than we would like to see it. It is not simply about making our buildings more efficient (that is of course necessary and should be taken for granted), but we need to look at all the externalities of how we make architecture and look at all the implications of how we build, not just about the end product. We need to rethink architecture to be much more integrated with its immediate surroundings and be less dependent on long complex supply chains. We believe that there can be no singular definition of Non-extractive architecture, and we realize it's an incredibly complex and nuanced question. Non-Extractive Architecture is not a dogma; it means different things to different people in different places and times. Its definition is a (small) part of the collective decision-making process upon which the continued existence of our species on this planet depends.

Language is important, it’s also about reclaiming these words and giving them precise meaning that is not attached to capitalistic gains.

Projects from Non-extractive architecture(s)' directory of design without depletion

Awi'nakola: Tree of Life, North America, Canada
Foundation was established by a group of Indigenous knowledge keepers scientists and artists brought together by a mutual commitment to create tangible solutions for the current climate crisis and educate others through the process. Awi’nakola is a Kwak’wala word meaning “environment, including everything from the land to the ocean, and all the air in between.” The Awi’nakola Project is a research group working to keep the rich ecosystems of the some 2.7% of high productivity old growth left in the province intact.

Forest Wool, Netherlands
Forest Wool's mission is to diversify monoculture-driven fiber industries, promoting efficient utilization of underutilized resources and reducing dependence on imported, farmed fibers.

Chinese Loess Belt Dwellings, China
Yaodong is a traditional form of earth shelter dwelling common in China's Loess Plateau. They are carved out of hillside or excavated horizontally from a central sunken courtyard.

Simple Architecture, Bangkok
Simple Architecture employs a highly collaborative design process, attuned to local contexts and client needs. Their work showcases the flexibility and sustainability of indigenous materials, often featuring bamboo and adobe mud bricks.

EE: Quite often, indigenous, vernacular, or traditional architectures are dismissed as practices that cannot fit the scales of the globalized world. How do you approach the problem of scale in your own architectural and curatorial practice? Despite the fact that architects may be embracing environmentally friendly practices, stakeholders, policymakers, industry, and the global market don't always accept them. In your opinion, how could one deal with this issue? And if the goal is to create a global movement, or at least a trend, is there any way to speed it up? 

NB: I think you’re right about the general discrepancy between the individual embrace of the “right” values or architectural pledges to do the right thing etc. and the indifferent business-as-usual reality of the market, which doesn't so much “reject” them than wholesale “ignores” them because of their lack of any kind of meaningful enforceability. Parenthetically, this is also why I think the lingering modernist impulse of multiplying declarative “manifestos” about that “what or why” for an already converted audience isn't actually particularly useful from a tactical standpoint. Having worked for nearly a decade in more “normative” architecture settings—large studios and firms working hard to do good, clean, user-friendly design-objects with doors, windows, canopies, etc.—I can say that very few architects aren't personally aware or conflicted between their personal commitments to climate action and their industry's generalized complicity in maintaining the status quo. But architecture as a professional discipline currently has very little ability or agency to work on projects that meaningfully apply their values or address these challenges without being beholden first and foremost to other interests and market constraints.  

At the Practice Lab, we have tried to address this in structural terms through the design and application of alternative “ways of working” for architects and professional practitioners by commissioning them directly to realize local, self-initiated, and community-led projects that address highly site-specific social/ecological challenges. While at an individual level, practices are working on local interventions quite different from one another, at a broader institutional level we at the lab are learning from their process and working on building corresponding legal templates, protocols, and blueprints that can standardize, accelerate, and scale this kind of work. Our goal is to help establish precedents for the non-profit sector to work directly with architectural studios—”non-non-profits”—in ways that leverage impact way beyond what an individual project, firm, or even philanthropic foundation can do on its own. 

Our hope is that the design of these blueprints can shift larger trends both within the architectural industry (normalizing and scaling this typology of site-specific socio-ecological infrastructural projects not by individual growth but through collective multiplication) and the philanthropic industry (normalizing new tried and tested ways of working directly with architectural practitioners in order to help society realize projects that aren't incentivised across current market-driven or culturally-rewarded channels). In other words,  I think of the planetary movement we are hoping to achieve less through the format of a manifesto about the “what” or “why” than through the format of a proven alternative operating model for the “how.” Philanthropy or as we refer to it “Para-Philanthropy”—not “anti,” “better”, “fixing” philanthropy but “in parallel to” philanthropy—is a space of possibility and a genuinely interesting space of design to explore this. 

Pooling Xolox, Mexico, by Taller Capital

Pooling Xolox will be a water basin that acts as a community space and a collection area for water run-off created from the construction of a cancelled Mexico City airport. It is planned for the town of San Lucas Xolox, where water runoff from construction-created divets in the land have led to the flooding of infrastructure for the locals. Instead of rerouting the water beyond the town's limit, Taller Capital hopes to divert and collect the water into a basin created by the earth, which also acts as community space where excess water might be used for agricultural purposes.

Project was supported by The Practice Lab by Re:Arc Institute in 2023 and now in construction

SFB: The idea of non-extractive architecture is absolutely not new, and it would be tempting to argue that it's always been there. There are plenty of studies into the ways in which vernacular traditions all over the world have evolved to establish a balance between the needs of a community and the equilibrium of the environment it is situated in. But it's important to point out that we're not advocating a return to past practices or the dimension of the vernacular. We live in a deeply technologically empowered society, and our tendency is to solve the problems we cause through bad planning and exploitative use of technology with more technology.

The transition towards a non-extractive approach to design is a function of a larger shift in the scope of economies and should be recognized as an opportunity for increased, not diminished, collective prosperity. The goal is to create a global movement; we feel hopeful in the incredible breadth of practices and ways of practice we have discovered while working on this platform and believe that there are no alternatives to working in this way. It will require a global movement and a collective effort from all disciplines. 

EE: Another important issue is geographic focus and decentralization. How do you deal with the split between the local and the global? How do you decide to focus on specific studios, practices, or techniques? And how do you avoid Eurocentrism and Orientalism to ensure equal collaboration with practitioners all over the world? 

NB: Our work begins with the framing of research briefs in relevant geographic areas and problem spaces, rather than with the selection of specific studios based on their individual “merit.” In other words, the practices are a function and outcome of the research context rather than the other way around, which is also why we have avoided creating a “competition” framework where practices apply for or interpret the initiative as an “award” to realize a “dream project.” Selected practices are in effect commissioned to propose and realize self-initiated projects defined collaboratively with their local community, and are compensated for the work that they do in the process. In this way, we are also very lucky that our funders and collaborators share our implicit understanding of philanthropy not as a form of “charity” centered on the values of the one who provides it, but as a means to mobilize resources, work and labor defined locally by the community of stakeholders who is in the best position to make those decisions instead of us.

The reasons why we work predominantly in the so-called “Global South” are very pragmatic: the reality is that the effects of the climate crisis are not evenly distributed and this is therefore where some of the challenges are the most pronounced / where design interventions are most needed, as well where their reverberating effects are most impactful. Sadly, the most sustainable “carbon-neutral” building in Copenhagen or Amsterdam won’t matter if we don’t address deforestation or biodiversity loss in Central and South America. Additionally, the know-how and expertise of how to deal with these challenges already exists in situ: it isn’t about importing one-size-fits-all solutions or about re-skilling/up-skilling based on European or North American standards, but rather about recognising and elevating the skills and methods that already exist on site when relevant. As such, we share your point on avoiding to superficially “reward” a performative type of vernacular formalism/orientalism that fetishizes non-Western forms for the benefit of Western audiences, and strive to create and build a decentralized process within philanthropy where we work to find highly competent local practices/communities and commission them through highly open-briefs to realize projects with the knowledge they already have, but which isn’t always formally recognized or incentivized in practice.

All tags
Non-Extractive Architecture
An ongoing project aimed at collectively rethinking the balance between the built and natural landscapes, the role of technology and politics in future material economies, and the responsibility of the architect as an agent of transformation.
re:arc Institute Practice Lab
re:arc institute's space of learning by doing which works directly with architects and professional practitioners to prototype new models for philanthropy in architecture. It supports the realization of site-specific, self-initiated, and community-led projects that address local social and ecological challenges.
Space Caviar
Architecture and research studio led by partners Joseph Grima and Sofia Pia Belenky, operating at the intersection of design, technology, politics and the public realm. Founded in 2013, the office uses built work, exhibitions, publishing, writing and film to investigate and document contemporary modes of habitation and the spatialization of social and political practice. Space Caviar’s work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Triennale di Milano, Biennale Interieur, Vitra Design Museum and Nilufar Gallery, among others.