Introduction, Concrete Conspiracies / Text by Geraldine Barton

In their first collaborative exhibition, Concrete Conspiracies brings together sculptural work from Denmark-based architect Mia Frykholm and the artist duo Spacegirls. Employing concrete sculptures and object forms, the Leth and Gori studio is turned into an architectural test-bed, exploring how the spaces around us influence the ways that we relate to one another. If it is the grid of the city that determines how we interact with one another, it is the in-between spaces– formed beyond the exterior of the building– that determines our social interactions. Looking to reinterpret our everyday experiences of the built environment, Fryk and Spacegirls juxtapose experiments in materiality, building methods, tactility and scale. Above all, Concrete Conspiracies explores the relationship between physical structure and lived experience, where it is the viewer’s physical and emotional responses that are central to the project. Inhabited by different sculptural and spatial arrangements, the gallery has been made into an immersive landscape: textured slabs delineate and dictate pathways on the floor, minimalist concrete flats slot together and build upwards, while half-moon fragments map and make solid invisible movements, as if ghosting the curve of an opening door.

Drawing from American architect Keller Easterling’s concept of ‘infrastructure space’, which refers to space as an information system or as an environment with the potential to be data rich, Fryk and Spacegirls probe the invisible systems that operate between buildings, questioning the relationship between the body and the built environment. In her book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (2014) Easterling emphasizes that architecture needs consider more than just the shape and outline of individual buildings, and insists that it is crucial to fold the ‘infrastructural matrix space in which buildings are suspended’ into the design process. How do people physically navigate a space and what interactions might this facilitate along the way? Giving form to not only spatial but also social possibilities, Concrete Conspiracies explores architecture as a conspiracy, as a ‘secret plan’ that physically guides our social interactions, and strives to open up a positive discussion about responsible design.

In 2014 Easterling identified repeated forms and building standards as the ‘soft law’ of global exchange. By reinterpreting familiar methods and materials, Concrete Conspiracies breaks with the formulaic and the routine to extend the discussion about what architecture is and can be. We are less accustomed to the idea that space itself, rather than the building, can be an actor and a carrier of information. ‘Infrastructure space, with the power and currency of software’ writes Easterling ‘is an operating system for shaping the city.’ Rather than the thing itself, Fryk and Spacegirls explore the relationships between things, looking to reframe the single object form as only part of a larger stream of objects.

Writing this from London, it is clear that sensitivity towards the needs of the individual needs to be made a priority, rather than simply falling back on outdated building standards that disregard the interest of local communities. Demolition and eviction continues to affect those living in council housing across the capital, affecting those who are most vulnerable, while ownership continues to be transferred from public to private. Rising rent costs have also led to alternative venues, libraries and clubs closing down, with buildings increasingly streamlined for the flow of capital by disconnected interest. As both a product and a producer of social relationships, it is key to look at architecture in terms of what might be done to work with the everyday for public good rather than private profit. We ought to consider the way things really are rather than a theoretical idea about the way things ought to be. What might we learn by using local knowledge and listening to the needs of the individual, and how might this approach positively affect entire neighborhoods?

In 1951 the Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi attacked the ‘exterior forms and acrobatics’ that she felt were devaluing the ‘spirit of modern architecture’. By combining design and public need, however, and by putting people in the center of the project, Bo Bardi proved that it was possible to develop a more responsible form of design. Centered on social purpose, her practice focused on what buildings can do for the people who experience them. Today, in an increasingly stifling social field, it seems urgent to reconsider Bo Bardi’s approach. Architecture can become a support and system for contemporary urban life, but the focus needs to be shifted away from object forms towards a truly infrastructural perspective, where both physical and abstract forms are considered alongside each other – the social interactions that a building facilitates can be as important as the building itself.

By presenting small-scale models of structures and grids, Concrete Conspiracies looks to evoke the kinds of bodily sensations that bring architecture back to its most fundamental purpose of sheltering and housing. The installation works as a kind of script that lays out certain movements. But at the same time audience members are encouraged to navigate the space as they wish, opening up the tension between how a space is designed and how it is used. With echoes of the acute contemporary pressures of surveillance capitalism and neoliberalism, viewers are invited to consider their own position in relation to subject matter, which raises questions around both personal and political agency. Divisions are made throughout the gallery to vary the distance between two individuals, while experiments in tactility and scale reorder perception and subvert our everyday experiences of the built environment.

Drawing on the ideas put forwards by the sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who argued that abstract space was produced and perpetuated through grids that were quickly taken over by capitalist systems of production, and from the philosopher Jacques Rancièr, who presented these spaces as sites for positive social change, Concrete Conspiracies encourages intimate exchanges and interactions. It is multiplicity that can affect the public grid, where shifting perspectives can be a means of not only better relating to one another, but of also developing a more ethical architecture.

Architecture is more than just the building. It is also about the flows of people, information, and resources that shape space. Today, the practice of architecture often confronts situations where these flows cannot be reduced to modernist managerial approaches to systematizing and structuring. With the growth of the ‘sharing economy’ we have witnessed the primacy of software over hardware, where it is the abstract, invisible networks of information that increasingly dominate and determine our reality. The gallery is turned into a site of social exchange and draws attention to these abstract, in-between spaces as spaces of renewal, where shared spatiality allows for intimacy and closeness, and where public spaces and public ideas are encouraged to flourish.

Keller Easterling, ‘IIRS’, e-flux, Journal #64- April 2015 (online) Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London: Verso, 2014), p.13 Lina Bo Bardi, ‘Beautiful Child’, Habitat 2 (January- March, 1951) ‘Architecture as Intangible Infrastructure’, e-flux, Issue Two, September 2016 (online)