My encounter with De Strip Architects is one of those random suggestions of the Instagram algorithm. Occupied, as we all are, in dodging crypto-currency miners, life coaches, and whatnot I was happily surprised when I bumped into their account and started following them. I immediately figured that I was in front of something peculiar and for sure something refreshing compared to the average architectural/design we see on social media, that is why I was immediately intrigued. Their approach and ethos resonated very much with me, so I wanted to learn more about their story and practice.
De Strip Architects is a socio and architectural design duo based in Brussels since 2019, formed by Mohammad from Palestine, who, among other things, has worked as Senior Architect Urban Planner at the UNESCO Urban Planning unit for Palestine; and Filip from Macedonia, who has worked in several architectural and urbanism practices in Skopje and Brussels.
They are using social media (Instagram, YouTube) to enhance a movement of opinion on social and architecture topics: they talk about, critic, and discuss architecture and urbanism, showing the logic (or absence of it) behind the spaces we go through every day, stripping them down to their basic elements and recombining them with unexpected outcomes. But most of all I was fascinated by the profusion of sketches they make, which in a way is like stripping down architecture itself and bringing it back to its root, drawing. Imaginative, visionary but also ironic and irreverent, and as they put it, “We show social aspects of architecture in a colorful and entertaining way to bridge the gap and bring everybody on board.
De Strip Architects dare to re-imagine the city sharing their knowledge and toolbox with everyone, theirs is a process that demystifies architecture, trying to erode the barrier that keeps people away from it, making architecture accessible.
When I started my research about them, I found on their website this very strong statement about their vision and their practice that says “We dominantly strive to fight against project-discrimination. Regardless of the invested capital, social status and political power, every project should be treated in an equal, proportional, and profound manner”. These words struck me, for it is quite unconventional for an architect’s studio to claim this and for sure it might feel like David against Goliath, not only from a practical and financial point of view but also from a cultural one. Filip admit that “while this remains a goal for our practice, treating equally all clients despite budget constraints and social background, it is quite hard to put it in act when you are a small studio although it is a cultural fight worth carrying with other means”. On this regard Mohammad added “the majority of the inhabitants of the city is made by middle or lower class and these are the people who need more help, why all the focus must be on public commissions or fancy shiny project?”. The assumption for the cultural shift is to refound architecture and urban planning on the principle that everybody deserves well-thought-out homes, buildings, streets, squares, in short, good architecture.
We are recovering from a pandemic that, among other things, ruthlessly showed how not all the homes are comfortable and pleasant to live in 24/7. While a few people were (re)discovering the pleasure of baking and meditate and considering this event a sort of blessing for self-development, many others found themselves stuck in small apartments fundamentally not designed to be fully inhabited, where you can simply sleep, eat, wash. The philosopher Emanuele Coccia in his book “Philosophy of the Home” describes very poignantly what is a home, “It is not only a spatial problem. Inhabit doesn’t mean to be surrounded by something nor to occupy a certain portion of the earth. It means intertwining a relationship so intensely with certain things and certain persons that makes our own happiness and our breath inseparable”. But if your home is not designed properly and has not enough space, it might be quite difficult to breathe and find your own happiness in it. The inequality that has informed has convinced people of being grateful for living within four walls and under a roof and that they cannot claim the right to have a nice home and not simply to have one. I believe this is one of the reasons why social housing is usually poorly designed.
For example, one of De Strip most interesting videos makes a stringent comparison between social housing in Brussels and in Singapore with the aim to break the stigma around social housing blocks. Basically, social housing in Brussels (but also in other countries, Italy for instance) are conceived to be cheap, not to be pleasant to the eye and not to be really lived (sleeping neighborhoods). In Singapore instead, the tower blocks are imagined to be fully experienced, for instance the space in between the tower has always urban equipment such as benches, playgrounds, and even communal fridges. Or the fact that the space is designed to incentive the interaction between people and objects, so your apartment is not confined to your kitchen and bed, but it spills out in the public domain. They also analyzed the sound atmosphere, while in Brussels reigned an eerie silence, in Singapore there was a lively sound of various humanity interacting and playing. Quite an eye- or, better, ears-opener.
In one of their sketches, De Strip tackles the issue of the gentrification in progress in the canal area in Brussels, it’s the hyper-recognizable shape of the ex-Citroen garage soon to become the modern art museum Kanal-Centre Pompidou, with a middle finger stuck on top of it. When these kinds of operations take place, they seem to imply, we need to ask ourselves and then to the city institutions, who is doing this and why? Why the surrounding neighborhood is being neglected and 200 million are being invested in renovating one building? A museum that opens in a disadvantaged area of the city should be an opportunity first for the communities that live the neighborhood and not one of the reasons why they soon won’t be able to pay their rent. A big museum should not be the flywheel to gentrification but a space where the communities experience the pleasure of art but also meet and identify with themselves, all the rest is art-washing.
On their social media, Instagram especially, there are many sketches on the most diverse topics: from the new public buildings that look like cakes with the claim “People asked for better public service and they received a cake” to the parasitic churches pointing out how churches are underused, from the architecture of homelessness to witty reinterpretations of famous buildings and landmarks.
De Strip’s approach in their sketches is quite utopian, unrealistic, and imaginative but not for its own sake: on the contrary, as Filip says, “the idea behind why we use the sketches like this is to set the threshold as higher as possible so when someone comes to downplay it, even if this happens the result is always above. Your starting point for negotiation is still way higher”. This made me think of the forgotten lesson of Machiavelli according to whom “You should do like the cautious archers, who figuring the place where they want to hit too far away, (…) they set their aim way much higher than the intended place (…) to be able, with the help of such high aim attain their plans”. In a world where is getting difficult questioning the status quo it is a breath of fresh air to see their works, breaking the norms and looking at things with an oblique gaze.
*These works have been allowed for the purposes of this blog only. For any reuse of the works De Strip Architects will have to always be credited.