Leo Cappetto, Ignacio Rivas and Serena Dambrosio—Santiago, Chile
[LC] Leo Cappetto
[IR] Ignacio Rivas
[SDS] Serena Dambrosio-Santiago
Operating in such a context, what does it mean to start a new School of Architecture? How can we investigate new forms of learning, new forms of knowledge and new forms of collective organisation? What does it mean for a school to operate in environments of affection, care and support? In this interview we speak with Leo Cappetto, Ignacio Rivas and Serena Dambrosio about the operations of the Escuela Nunca (Never-Never School).
The Escuela is a school of architecture that has been emerging in Chile since 2019 through a series of operations, or ‘glimpses’. These operations function through exploring concurrent events and conditions in the city and examine the role of the institution in today’s social and political climates. In a way, the school was a direct response to the passion and deep connection we have with architecture schools, but also, a direct response to the extremely worrying lack of radicality and experimentation present within those schools. Briefly following the school’s conception, Chile was undergoing the Estallido Social; a huge manifestation and social uprising that arose in October 2019 against neoliberal policies. It was an incredibly explosive moment for the country. Within that context, we were planning our first operation under the title ‘The Street in dispute: monument, infrastructure and multitude’. We were very interested in exploring what architecture, in the most expansive way of understanding it, could offer in relation to the social movements and discourses that were happening in the streets of Santiago.
The moment in which the school was started is extremely crucial. Following the social outbreak of October 2019, public spaces became deeply militarised and controlled, and academic spaces were shut. Being taken out of our academic community, we all found ourselves absolutely lost, disoriented and desperate to find new spaces for sharing and collectively discussing what was going on. On the one hand, the school came as a critique of the exacerbated condition of individualism and competition in educational institutions operating in the context of neoliberal economic cultural development. But on the other hand, the school arrived at a very crucial moment in Chile when these same institutional spaces demonstrated the absolute inability to respond to citizen demands.
The school, for now, is an experimental project that tests what it means to make a school. We never see it as an ideal future school, but rather, as an experimental project that aims to investigate new forms of learning, knowledge and collective organisation through creating an environment of affection, care and support. Each of us has had different ways of dealing with the themes or subjects of this school but, at the core, we all have this idea of creating an independent space that practices itself.
We have been slowly shifting away from existing modes of governance. We started the first operation with a more traditional approach as we proposed the subject of study. We defined a few actions or activities for that week and those were somewhat dismantled during that process. In the second operation, we still proposed a subject and managed to find a space for the school to examine this subject. However, what happened following that was less planned. We left it more open to others to make those decisions. For the third appearance, we inverted the entire process and invited everyone to a marathon where each person would propose a 1-2 hour action. Now for the next one, this year, we are shifting even further as the school is not proposing any subject whatsoever and is inviting everyone to bring their own particular interest or topic that they want to develop through this collective structure. So right now, we are in the process of defining that mode of governance. We are still designing the model of our collective residencies. We are planning monthly assemblies to decide what we are actually doing, what the schedule is like, and how we are appearing to the outside. This is almost an attempt to empower others by giving them agency to participate in the decision making process of our operations, and to further divert the power of defining what the school is from us to others.
Through framing the project as a ‘school’ an effective relationship is established with the history of the school as an institution and the problematic, over-commercialised and bureaucratic conditions that it is operating in today. Schools are becoming places that are very isolated from their context.
There is some precision in the use of ‘school’ or ‘escuela’ in Spanish. The negation in its name, Le Escuela Nunca, or the ‘Never School’, plays with the idea of opposing the conservative, neoliberal understanding of what a school is and critiques the main structures that formulate those schools. That’s why we define our school as a non-disciplinary, non-commercial, non-bureaucratic space that allows for the exchange of knowledge in a free, open space. That’s how we’ve chosen to define the word school. Because we know how schools usually operate. We have been living in schools, and working for them, and we know how much the bureaucracy takes out of our soul and time every day. So in many ways, our definition of a school opposes the neoliberal project.
We never think about this project as an alternative space that we can permanently move into. Rather, we think of it more as a parasite of conventional institutions that gives us space to criticise what is happening in the outside world, so there is a constant interaction with conventional and independent space.
I agree that this idea of creating an isolated temporal space with your
community has the
risk of becoming a bubble that doesn't actually respond to what it’s criticising. What comes
to mind is this
text by Rosa Luxemburg ‘Reform or Revolution’2 Rosa Luxemburg, & Mary-Alice Waters (1973).
Reform or Revolution Pathfinder where she refers to the comparison between unions and cooperatives; unions being the structures that try to reform the state or the system, and cooperatives having the problem of becoming isolated bubbles that only become good models for themselves. So, I totally agree that there is a risk of this happening. In one dimension, the way the school is trying to deal with this contradiction is by creating a space of care. We believe that one of the main transformations against neoliberalism is transforming our way of working, our way of producing knowledge and trying to get rid of the anxiety of overproduction or becoming ‘entrepreneurs’. So that is one of the main battles we have, both individually and as a group. And I honestly believe that that’s as important as the battle with the institution itself. In another dimension, the school is trying to constantly force ourselves to appear outside, to appear in the street, to go to as many events as we could and to invite people from outside to influence our work.
That is one of the key elements of the school. It is about opening up the space for the school to be accessed, judged and criticised. It is about testing, reflecting and transforming in the same way as it is about practising.
For me, it relates to architecture in terms of value, in terms of property, and in terms of theoretical organisation. We also still talk about architecture in the school, or at least what we understand as architecture. We still discuss political problems that are very related to material conditions.
There's so many parts to question about the relation of our school with architecture. I will say that we are in conflict with the architectural discipline. In fact, our relationship with architecture is not a nice one and we are in the process of a breakup. But we are finding new friends, making new connections and are trying to be as simple as possible with this idea. I still believe that there is a struggle inside the architectural field to expand the discipline from the idea of just buildings, parks and the urban. I think that by stealing some methods, processes, actions and performances that are present in art, there are possibilities of creating other forms of knowledge for our discipline. I know that it is easier to define the school as non-disciplinary, or trans-disciplinary. But I prefer to maintain our connection to some sort of architectural condition that we are trying to expand and change. I prefer to try to transform that condition instead of negating it and giving it away completely.
Here, in South America, there are other histories that are not necessarily known to Western societies. In those histories, projects of development and outbreaks of futures exist. We believe that both the role of the future and the role of these ‘other histories’ are related.
For example, when we started at the end of 2019, something very particular was happening in the social movements. The Mapuche flag became one of the most important symbols of what was happening there. A lot of people that were carrying this flag were not necessarily Mapuche themselves, so there seemed to be a project of solidarity forming—a solidarity project that represents a lot of people that are not necessarily under that same level of oppression. In that manner, there are lots of histories that still contain ideas of the future. Therefore, we really believe that we can look back to other projects of society, other projects of organisation, in order to try and deal with the challenges of the present and to also reimagine the future.
We were discussing the idea of references the other day, and very naturally, the school doesn't seem to have any reference. Not in a way that we haven't had any interesting imaginaries to refer to, but more to do with the moment of this project’s appearance. The project is extremely absorbed by the present. I feel that it is almost an obligation to pay excessive attention to what is happening right now, what’s been happening in Chile since 2019, and to all the movements that are happening around the world from COVID-19 onwards. So in that way, the project has the energy and capacity to deal with these subjects. As you can see, in the names of the appearances, the themes or the subjects that we’ve been trying to study, to learn, and to reflect on, are mostly dealing with present or future models of society. So, for the moment, we are not going backwards in history too much. This is something we all relate to in our own personal research projects and it’s also something that we are trying to change in the next format of our operations in an attempt to be more careful with how we do research and how we produce different ways of knowledge.
On the one hand, there is a rejection of this idea of a utopian model that can be applied to the present. This reaction against previous models is a way to say there is no ideal model for the school, and we have to build one instead. In this sense, I totally agree with Ignacio in emphasising the deep connection our school has with the present. However, on the other hand, we are also trying to experiment with a non-linear understanding of history. So maybe this going back and forth is just a way for us to understand how rearticulating the present could be a different way of understanding the past, but also a different way of understanding new futures.
This may be the most complicated relationship with history. But this break from linear understanding is one of the most crucial things we are subconsciously experimenting with as we are breaking the institutional narrative that neoliberal culture has been fostering.