ALUMNI PROFILE: Engaging Civil SocietyProfile
by Torange Khonsari, AADipl 1998
27 March 2019
London, United Kingdom
My Club (Home and displacement, story of Polish refugees from Siberia to Iran 1945), Watford High Street – UK, collaborators: 30Bird, 2011-2013
This Spring, the AA Gallery will host an exhibition by Amnesty International to showcase their investigation into the impact of conflict on civilians in Raqqa, Syria – the most destroyed city in the world. Related to the theme of this exhibition, AA Conversations is publishing a series of interviews with alumni who have challenged or dealt with the topics of urgency and conflict through their student work or in their current practice.
The Whitechapel Gift shop (Refurbishment of a home turned cultural space for 2 months), London – UK, Client: Mari Pilar Cortizo-Burgess, collaborator: 30Bird, 2010-1012
Torange Khonsari trained as an architect and is an academic, and founding member and director of Public Works. Since graduating from the AA in 1998, she has taught architecture and activism at Royal College of Art and UMA School of Architecture in Umeå, Sweden, as well as the London Metropolitan University. Her work is situated in-between academia and practice and has enabled and enriched an exploratory environment within which her collective practice: Public Works operates. Their work occupies a terrain of architecture, art, performance and civic action, taking various forms including discursive events, research, campaigns, urban strategies, participatory art & architecture.
LJ Works (land secured for LJ Farm. project by Tom Dobson from public works), London – UK. Client: LJ Farm and Lambeth Council. Collaborator: 00 Architects, Re-powering, Meanwhile Space. Currently on site – 2019
How do you think studying at the AA has influenced your work/career?
Studying in Diploma Unit 10 under the tutorship of Carlos Villanueva Brandt and Robert Mull totally shifted my idea of what architecture can do. It also enabled my interest in politics to thrive in an architectural context. At the AA I was able to critique what I was being taught; I learnt to be rigorous and was given the confidence to experiment. What in the 90s was great at the AA was the fact that you could repeat your fifth year for a small fee
if your project hadn’t reached its potential. With this in place, students dared to do experiments that came to be described by tutors as ‘heroic failures’. These were necessary to innovate new models of acting and making things as well as encouraging students to take risks. To me, coming from a conventional degree, the environment at the AA felt more like a laboratory than a school that teaches you to toe the line. Maybe it was the confidence to be heroic or naïve that made me determined to practice what I had learnt in my diploma.
Patachitra art centre, West Bengal – India, Client: Banglanatak NGO, Collaborator: Touch TD. 2010-2011
What role does urgency/conflict play in shaping your practice?
For the first 10 years of our practice we experimented and tested what is public in the city, and questioned how to engage civil society in claiming public space. Today, however, in an age of severe inequality where 10% of the world’s population have 50% of the world’s wealth according to the world equality lab report of 2016, the biggest issue for us as a practice is how to support the other 90% and their rights over the city’s spaces as both a common asset and wealth. David Harvey talks about rights to the city being a human right that is being overlooked. As inequality continues, land becomes one of the main sources for extraction of wealth to the private sector and the creation of debt. With land being a deplete-able resource that is becoming privatised globally in metropolitan cities we, at public works, see the urgency to address this. Shifting our roles from architects that enclose land through the creation of private real estate, to those who find tactics to retain land in public ownership is what has shaped our practice. We understand public ownership does not mean distribution towards common wealth but have learnt to take one step at a time and carry the public landowners on this journey with us. This is not about a power struggle between winners and losers. Rather it is about the decentralisation of power to make the public sector more powerful through collaboration with civil society. It is about an intricate ecosystem of engagement, where state, civil society and ethical private organisations collaborate. There are new models of economics for common good being developed globally as well as ownership, authorship and governance models. It is the right time to address this urgency towards shared wealth with environmental goals rather than individual wealth with financial goals
What role does the architect play in solving urgent problems?
As an academic and a practitioner, I think we need to expand the profession beyond a singular focus of the building as an artefact. Instead, it is about how that artefact solidifies a space as a public space either temporarily (from which we learn) or permanently where land equality can start to develop. I don’t know how many assessment tables I have sat on in the last 19 years in architecture schools where students are told to skip to the building, thus missing opportunities of what possibilities there are within the processes designed and tactics that could have been discovered. We need to have more critical and reflective practices, which don’t just pretend we are addressing ethics of care. I can talk about this for hours but in a nutshell my biggest passion today is teaching innovation in the practice of architecture. We need more practices to influence the socio-political challenges our cities face.The innovation in practice means we can expand our skills and expertise to areas that we haven’t yet imagined. For us in public works this has worked through interdisciplinary collaborations between many disciplines and knowing that our focus is not necessarily a built building but rather public rights over land. We always struggle with singular images to represent what we do. Singular images or a house style is not relevant for us. As a collective, everyone has their own taste developed through projects with future users and practice collaborators. Every project would have had a process which requires 10 images each of drawings and pictures to illustrate the project. What I have included are a snapshot of projects across public art, performance, architecture and large scale public realm.
Home in the service of science (How public is a public research institution, relations between home and work), Cambridge – UK, client: Laboratory of Molecular Biology. 2016
Geesthacht an die Elbe, Geesthacht (counter proposal to housing on the river front. Landscape masterplan implemented) – Germany, Client: Geesthacht municipality. Project leads Sandra Denicke Polcher and Torange Khonsari, 1999-2004
What topics do you consider to be of vital importance and urgency in contemporary architectural practice?
This may sound harsh but I think in our hearts we all know that architects have become less and less significant in large decisions about how our environments are shaped. This is because we have been reactive rather than active in what we should do as architects. We swarm around a new government policy where money is released and then compete fiercely with each other for those jobs. We don’t get taught to truly collaborate or even compromise on tastes we impose on the world. We need more reflective and critical practices to restore the image of the architect and expand the profession beyond its traditional walls. We need to innovate in forms of practice, and look into more contemporary notions of ethics rather than purely that of aesthetics. How do we invent new practice models that use our many skills beyond making a building to tackle urgent issues such as climate change and social inequality? Through these innovations and problem solving we can empower future architects, the discipline and ourselves. We have to work together, collaborate, lobby, and if we use our creativity to set up new unique practices we can support each other than compete. For example, if you create a local clean energy plant in a neighbourhood, this tackles climate as well as local income generation and over time the decentralisation of energy supply, which in turn will tackle the wealth divide. Another practice that has developed a new ecological material with scientists works with us to create the enclosure of the plant etc. You scale up by more and more practices working together and implementing small changes. I think the heroic large scale architectural vision needs to also be addressed critically. We have got it wrong before, maybe not for the culture of architecture but for the people who had to live in these projects. Even if 50% of practices in the world truly changed the shape of their practice, we would see a huge shift. Maybe this is also me talking from a feminist perspective of a practice, which is a shift from the patriarchal values we have been taught for thousands of years
MUD play playground, Cambridge -UK, Client: St Matthews School. Collaborator: 30Bird. 2013-2014
What advice would you give to current students?
Take risks and allow yourself to heroically fail, see this as a way to learn. Take your destiny and career into your own hands, it’s the role of the teachers to guide you and give you skills but where that takes you is all up to you. Don’t follow a path just because that’s what has been set for you. The key is digging deeper to know what you truly care about.
Tiny town hall, London –UK, Client: Southwark council, Collaborators: Brookfield gardens, Queensborough community centre and TRA, Collaborators: Alice Proctor, Dan Wilkins. 2019
For more information:
Discover Torange Khonsari’s practice Public Works
Watch Torange speak as part of the Housing London: Visions for the Future lecture at the AA
Diploma 10 Unit Brief
Read the full set of profiles by visiting our Alumni Portfolio