Harvard Design Magazine

It’s Armando Contreras’s first day back at work after an extended vacation, and though he has pans to scrub and receipts to tabulate, followed by a long commute home to the southern fringes of Mexico City, he isn’t complaining. Standing in the kitchen of Comedor Café Wi-Fi Café Zena, in San Miguel Chapultepec, he smiles and says, “I live a great life.” For the past six months, the 30-year-old designer and artist, who goes by Armani, has been drawing and reading and going to parties. Never mind that his wallet contained less than 10 pesos—the equivalent, roughly, of two subway rides or one taco al pastor or half a US dollar. Armani survives, you could say, by his personality. Hyper-empathic, he barters with sensations, experiences. A chatty stroll in exchange for a beer. His friends tell him not to worry, that they’ll pay.

I met Armani less than three hours ago. Already, I have paid him 80 pesos, for lunch. By an arrangement with the café’s experiment-courting proprietors, Armani is “in residence,” preparing lunch daily, Monday through Friday, together with his friend Gerardo Arellano, a young cook and baker whose primary trade is catering music festivals. Armani has limited his experiment to six months, maximum; but he can stop whenever he wants. “I have the freedom I’ve searched for for a long time,” he says. “If I don’t want to open for a week, I don’t have to.”

Sure, Armani can do as he wishes. But that isn’t to say he doesn’t care how you feel. After customers finish their meals and pay, he hands them a survey to fill out, if they want. It’s a ritual you’d expect at a corporate establishment concerned with performance metrics, not the type of restaurant where artists get free rein of the kitchen, the Wi-Fi password is “trolltrolltroll,” and food probably won’t be ready until 45 minutes after the appointed opening time.

Yet feedback is the essence of Café Zena. Everything from the seating arrangement (a single table runs the length of the space, into a light well open to the sky, with just one interruption) to the loose operational format (rotating cooks, one-off events) conspires to create an atmosphere of experimentation and conviviality.

All of it is by design. And even its impresarios are designers. But a run-down of size (80 square meters), lighting (a random variety of desk lights on the table, and, in the bathroom, a rotating multicolor disco ball), and materials (gray plaster walls, concrete floors) will tell you very little. To start to understand this place, you have to see it as one thing among many others, all connected. Imagine vectors pointing out in all different directions across Mexico City, persons and things linking Café Zena with a constellation of other “subspaces” run by the umbrella entity ELHC, both past and present: CBR (Comidas, Bebidas, Revistas), a now-defunct convenience store with two branches; Muebles Sullivan, a furniture showroom and café; and Macolen, a storefront print studio. To understand the singularity of ELHC, and its significance as an approach to design, you have to talk to people, trace itineraries, immerse yourself in a community. Which is what I did over the course of a week this past May.

If there’s a center to this tangled consortium, it is ELHC’s cofounders and their respective offices. Manuel Bueno, who goes by Manny, heads the graphic design studio Pesca al Curricán. And Rodrigo Escandón and Guillermo González, who go by Ro and Willy, run an architecture practice called APRDELESP. The subspaces function as infrastructure for the offices—places where vague, unwieldy abstractions like “the social” or “collaboration” or “public space” are manifest as lived experience, complicated and messy. The designers use them to conduct research and retrieve information (“information” is one of their favorite words), but never from a distance. Manny, Ro, and Willy—who were born, like myself and most people who congregate around ELHC, between the mid-1980s and early 1990s—are right there in the spaces, living and working and trying to figure things out.

One Monday night we’re sitting at one end of the long table in Café Zena—Ro, Willy, and I, and Ricardo Matias, a Portuguese architect who joined APRDELESP in 2014, two years after the firm was founded. The three of them spend most weekdays working here, on laptops, while the café carries on around them. Friends stop in with little to no notice. Strangers appear and new relationships are forged— relationships of the personal or professional variety, or, more often than not, a combination of the two. These friends might even embed a link to Radio Amigos, ELHC’s open-format internet station, somewhere on their own websites.

A pair of lozenge-shaped eyeballs collaged onto random bits of clip art, the “amigo” icon is a kind of badge that extends, literally and symbolically, ELHC’s hyper-local community farther out into the world. Ro and Willy go on and on about its meaning. Ricardo, the least loquacious of the bunch by far, explains the significance succinctly: “It’s not [about] having the amigo, but the connections it brings to us.”

“It’s a connection,” Willy says, energetically, as though a 250-watt light bulb has gone off in his head. “We didn’t start Radio Amigos because we wanted a radio station. It began because one of the people who was doing events here—our relationship with him got very intense, and he wanted to make this project with us. I think that’s the most interesting thing. People come to these spaces, begin a conversation with us, and this conversation doesn’t stop—it evolves.”

Consider Bree Zucker, an American art dealer who moved to Mexico City three years ago from New York City. On the day she arrived, she had an iced latte at Muebles Sullivan. Later, she visited Café Zena, without knowing it was operated by the same people as Muebles Sullivan. Eventually, Bree met Ro and Willy. They became friends and argued a lot. Last year, they opened a new ELHC subspace together: Galería La Esperanza, a closet-size exhibition space located in a bodega storefront one block from Café Zena. The subspaces are enablers, but just as important, they are magnets for a type of person who, like Armani or Bree, wants to get involved.

I meet Bree one Thursday night at Muebles Sullivan, at a celebration marking the conclusion of the gallery’s latest show (Diego Salvador Rios, the artist exhibiting, oversaw the Café Zena kitchen for a time). The DJ cues up music on his MacBook, which is plugged into a projector, and sources visual pleasures—YouTube videos and box-blurred anime from Xtube. I take a seat on a three-legged stool, part of the system of white metal furniture that is available for purchase in the café. “When I first showed up, I wanted to make an art bar,” Bree tells me. She was concerned that people in the art scene weren’t talking; groups weren’t hanging out together. The bar never materialized, but weekly karaoke parties at Muebles Sullivan—held on Thursdays and Fridays, from ten in the evening until close, which is usually around two in the morning—satisfied most of those desires. It wasn’t her idea, the karaoke, but she supported it and brought people there, helping forge further connections. “Karaoke night is a way of collaborating,” says Bree. “You have to participate.” Singing isn’t obligatory, and most people will probably never sign up for a song, but a tone is set and a social atmosphere spreads.

I ask Bree what makes ELHC special. “They’re really good at letting each other grow,” she says. Not only are they building spaces for people to use, but they’re allowing them to be used however people wish, without an agenda. Characterizing ELHC is difficult. While I tend to describe it as a collective or collaborative, in some important respects—like how the subspaces operate both as living experiments and experiments in living—ELHC is closer in spirit to a commune. Design is deployed as a tool to activate social relations, a means toward an optimistic end. But while a commune might suggest separation, a simulation of another society at a remove, ELHC makes its home within the city. Like a gang—a nonviolent and fun-loving gang, granted—it has discernible contours (age and fashion, most conspicuously), a passionate inner circle, and a powerful relationship to place.

I can envision the subspaces developing elsewhere in the world, assuming the right people are involved. It’s harder, though, to imagine ELHC having started somewhere else besides Mexico City, this big petri dish of problems and unfulfilled promises and possibilities. Guillermo Osorno, a journalist and editor who runs Horizontal, an online news-analysis site, echoes this sentiment. “The city lost hope in the ’80s,” he told me one morning over espresso at Centro Horizontal, a second-floor space in Colonia Roma where the publication hosts events and classes and runs a café. The malaise that set in with the 1985 earthquake and general economic and social crises was alleviated in the 2000s; Osorno believes ELHC’s subspaces are emblematic of the city beginning to reinvent itself. He was so impressed by the vision and scope of the project that he wrote a newspaper article on Café Zena shortly after it opened.

Meanwhile, as Centro Horizontal came to fruition, Osorno gained firsthand experience working with an architect. “His ideas, his views—always. And I had to pay,” Osorno recounted bitterly. The furniture was unsatisfactory, too. I witness the defects firsthand: the stools shake, the tables are too tall. Osorno was leery of working with another designer to improve the space, but a friend of his, the chef Gabriela Cámara, vouched for APRDELESP (they designed the offices of her restaurant group). He hired them in early 2017. An initial presentation, a distillation of the positive and negative aspects of the existing space, evolved into a series of weekly meetings held every Thursday. In the course of the conversations, Osorno and another Horizontal cofounder elaborated their “dreams, hopes, wishes” for the space. This is not far off from what most designers do, but Osorno and other clients I spoke with recall a unique kind of satisfaction.

“These guys are just a bunch of questions! Great!” said the artist Mario García Torres about working with APRDELESP on the renovation of an apartment for him and his family. Excited by the prospect of a group of young architects opening a business to realize their first architectural project, he agreed to make a small investment (it helped that his studio is down the street and he’d been wanting a local lunch spot). While the interrogative mode comes naturally to the artist, who has earned his international reputation with laconic conceptual work, he was ambivalent about the survey

APRDELESP conducted of his belongings. The “inventory,” a signature of their process, involves making measured drawings of personal items—furniture, appliances, electronics, sentimental objects, whatever seems important. Practically, this presents a less varnished image of the client. Philosophically, it prioritizes the act of inhabitation. How, or by what means, do people occupy spaces? In a kind of sanctioned nosiness, the architect-anthropologists nonjudgmentally comb the stuff of everyday life, satisfying their curiosity, at least temporarily.

Brett Schultz, the director of Mexico City’s Material Art Fair, an annual showcase of small, independent galleries, received an assessment from APRDELESP completely unsolicited. The first time Schultz met Willy, at a party, the designer immediately offered blunt criticism of the 2015 fair, its second edition. Schultz was receptive. The 2016 edition, the first designed by APRDELESP, went too far with what he describes as a “mayhem vibe” (gallery booths owed directly into one another without corridors, creating a kind of labyrinth that had a strong impact but frustrated time-crunched collectors). Nevertheless, Schultz brought them back for this year’s fair. The design, still aisle-free, was more navigable, laid out like neighborhoods. “The whole point of doing an event like this is discovery,” says Schultz. “The mood is a reflection of an attitude that we share toward fair-making.”

In many ways, these sympathetic client-architect relationships are an outgrowth of the ELHC subspaces and their intensive conviviality. Osorno doesn’t agree with all of the solutions for the Centro Horizontal renovation, which is curently being built, but he’s satisfied with 90 percent of the design and prefers not to fight over the other 10. (Pragmatists, ultimately, the architects have focused on reorganizing the circulation to permit independent activities to occur simultaneously.) APRDELESP doesn’t want to fight either, though that wasn’t always the case. Their first commissioned project, a restaurant interior, was a “disaster.” Adopting a “superhero model of architect,” a role they learned in school, the designers approached every argument expecting to win. When the client pushed back, communication sputtered out and morale plummeted. “That project changed our way of relating to clients,” said Willy. “We are not interested in collaborating in a way that we propose or sell something. It’s really important that they work with us.” He now believes you need to be able to let a lot of information change the product, to engage in a dynamic that is more intensive than idealistic.

I get what they mean. Still, I wondered why the conventional method was so disastrous. Was it some kind of existential disaster?

“No, nah, nah,” said Willy. “We don’t suffer.”

“Then why not keep working like everyone else works?” I asked.

“I do think we suffer,” said Ro. “I think that dynamic is very stressful.”

“The way it is now?”

“No,” said Willy. “The way it was before. It’s not that we are really frustrated—”

“I’m not saying you’re frustrated.”
“It’s not suffering.”
“Maybe it’s just not satisfying?” I asked. “Yeah, exactly.”

“It’s definitely personal,” added Ro.

Straying far from the professional mold, armed with strong personalities, they’ve earned a reputation among some local architects as irreverent punks, irritating delinquents. Or worse. “We were on a panel once,” recalled Ro, “and someone got really worked up about us not accepting that we’re, like, architectural terrorists or something.” Yet, in the many conversations I’ve had with the designers over the past couple of years, I have rarely heard them sound vengeful or patricidal. I wonder, too, if the overheated intergenerational combat that propelled so much creative work in the past is really that effective today. Once social and economic underpinnings—from property ownership to social security— become so in rm and untenable, as they are today for so many young people, you have to take a different tack. Anyway, why waste energy destroying what is already broken?

Going off script means you’re bound to be misinterpreted, however. “I think it’s very difficult to understand that we are an architecture office, and why we are posting flyers for karaoke nights,” said Willy. The graphics in particular, which mine an internet vernacular, are the most conspicuous affront to good taste (especially the good taste of architects) and a litmus for generational prejudice. While an older, more established person can traffic in juvenilia—and might even be cast, positively, as provocative and fresh—APRDELESP, by embracing its own time, is forced to go on the defensive. In architecture, the right to act young is earned with age; it’s a liability for the young to appear too juvenile. “We take everything very seriously, but on the outside it seems very … ,” said Ro, searching for the right metaphor. “It’s like being a goth kid in a very serious way. From the outside, you’re seen as a clown.”

Governments define the age when you can drink and vote and consent to sex. Most of us, though, know adulthood to be a bunch of learned behaviors and cultural expectations. Rather than an absolute age, youth is better expressed as the period before you are an adult, whenever that may be. This is the time that the community around ELHC, regardless of age, lives by. The time before you settled down and had kids; when kinship didn’t revolve so strictly around blood or law, and family was an elaborate web of friends—more pluralistic, capacious, queer; before your sense of possibility was blunted. A teenage mentality might not be comfortable, or even pleasant—anticipating all those learned behaviors and cultural expectations creates torrential anxiety—but it is a mentality that holds stubbornly to the belief that things can still change.

In her recent essay “Kelly Lake Store,” writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus identified a tendency in contemporary art to- ward dislocation. Recounting her unsuccessful application for a Guggenheim Fellowship—her proposal to use the grant money to reopen a shuttered business in a depressed Minnesota town was rejected due to its commercial character—Kraus elaborates how transformations in the global economy have led artistic practices to absorb activities from far outside their traditional domains. For instance, as underground and independent cinemas have vanished, non-narrative filmmaking has migrated into galleries; with the deterioration of traditional newspapers, investigative journalism might end up as an installation. “Why would young people enter a studio art program to become teachers and translators, novelists, archivists, and shopkeepers?” Kraus asks. “Clearly, it is because these activities have become so degraded and negligible within the culture that the only chance for them to appear is within contemporary art’s coded yet infinitely malleable discourse.”

In many respects, the artists and designers who keep ELHC’s shops and run the kitchens are representative of the phenomenon Kraus describes. Yet, for APRDELESP specifically, shopkeeping permits them to resist their own, comparatively less malleable, discourse and profession without abandoning it. Instead of jumping ship to someplace more accommodating—the art world has room for architect-artists—they’re devoted to changing the terms of practice, negotiating what’s presumed to be fixed and absolute. Rather than what artists make, the architects are curious about how artists work. Indeed, a quick look through the holdings of the ELHC library, a collection of pirated PDFs available on its website, reveals affinities with artistic movements like social practice, Fluxus, and relational aesthetics. What unites these interests is an explicit rewriting of the role of the artist and spectator and an expanded idea of creative activity, emphasizing duration and participation. Something similar is embodied in the firm’s original, unabbreviated name, Apropiación del espacio. They changed it after only six months, concluding it was too pretentious sounding, and haven’t looked back since, carrying on in their own exhilarating way, with incomparable inertia.

“The thing with change is not to change [only] once,” says Willy. “For example, a very basic thing like the name of your office: if you are not comfortable with the name of your office, but you have an image, people know you, if you don’t change the name, you are not able to change the name another time. You need to change everything, because if you don’t change you are not able to make further changes.”



Of the 30 or so employees of ELHC, the research arm of the Mexico City architecture office APRDELESP, not a single one is a designer. Instead, they are managers, dishwashers, cooks, and servers, supporting a panoply of commercial ventures, or “subspaces”: a restaurant (Café Wi-Fi Café Zena); a café that doubles as a showroom for a made-to-order metal furniture line (Muebles Sullivan); a window display–size art gallery (Galería La Esperanza); a print shop (Macolen); and, until earlier this year, a pair of convenience stores (Comidas, Bebidas, Revistas). For APRDELESP’s Rodrigo Escandón and Guillermo González, architects preoccupied with how space gets used and wary of design that smothers the everyday, the disciplinary imbalance is practically an accomplishment. As Manuel Bueno, a frequent collaborator and ELHC partner who runs his own graphic design studio, jokes, “Instead of buying nice Herman Miller chairs, we just open a space.”

Skeptical of the tired orthodoxies of professional design practice from the start, APRDELESP has been working to circumvent them ever since its first project, a restaurant, in 2011. “It went really bad,” recalls Escandón of the vexed commission. “We were working in a traditional way, trying to defend our ideas and also trying to sell our ideas.” A few months later, already plotting ways to escape this transactional dynamic, the designers were offered the lease on a ground-floor space in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood.

Looking to provide a revenue stream and ensure the 430 square feet remained in a constant social flux, they settled on the idea for Café Wi-Fi Café Zena. They designed the tables and chairs and walls and graphics. And they conceived the collective ownership structure—a joint-venture model with low buy-ins and transferable shares that has been replicated in other subspaces since. Plenty of architects have acted as their own clients to pad out their portfolios, but Escandón and González were interested in what the space could do, and in producing better conditions for their work. “More than a project to show off,” Escandón explains, “we wanted an experimental project, to think.”

In fact, the architects achieved both. As new ELHC subspaces opened, commissions followed (primarily apartment and office renovations), and the entrepreneurialism and experimentation became harder to disentangle from their design work. APRDELESP’s highest-profile (if small-scale) projects involve exploiting ELHC’s resources. When Museo Jumex commissioned fixtures for its new David Chipperfield–designed building in 2014, APRDELESP produced wastebaskets and pamphlet stands from Muebles Sullivan’s furniture system. And last year, when asked by Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura to participate in an exhibition, APRDELESP had a tiny coffee kiosk built along the perimeter of the institution’s walled garden. On one side, the kiosk, which was operated by ELHC, served gallery visitors; on the other side, through a place mat–size opening in the wall, it served pedestrians traversing a barren stretch of sidewalk that abuts a bleak thoroughfare—an infrastructural space that architecture could never compete with but a functioning concession stand proved able to enchant.

Most afternoons, Escandón, González, and Ricardo Matias (a collaborator since 2013) can be found working in one of the subspaces. These are where they met all four of their current clients. “Maybe if you’re private you have to sell yourself,” says González, his hesitation proof of the statement’s veracity. This approach to public relations not only bypasses publicists but, Escandón adds, “puts the emphasis on the dynamic rather than a formal style.”

In resisting a formal signature, APRDELESP has honed a representational style that embodies its design methodology. A project, or case study, as it is referred to, does not culminate with a thoroughly curated set of photographs but lives on as an overabundance of casual snapshots documenting initial surveys to construction to full-fledged inhabitation. (APRDELESP, an abbreviation of apropiación del espacio, is a mantra as much as a name.) Similarly, drawings, color-coded in red, blue, and black, delineate preexisting spaces and recommended changes, as well as catalogue the sorts of belongings most architects would rather pretend do not exist, like kitchen appliances and kitschy knickknacks.

This interest in everyday life and its unprejudiced documentation calls to mind Wajiro Kon, the Japanese architect/ ethnographer who around the middle of the past century critiqued the high Modernist prohibition on “traditional” habits by exhaustively sketching people’s personal possessions in their domestic settings. But are the customs and artifacts of APRDELESP’s clientele—the capital city’s cultural elite—really so ordinary? In this sense, these designers represent business as usual in their field. Which is why their interrogation of business and of the practice of design is so vital.

New Theater Berlin


Sometimes you want your neue a little—nay, a lot—more new. New Theater is a storefront playhouse on a blah Kreuzberg block opened in 2013 by the budding American artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff. Like most everyone else who writes, directs, and acts in productions there, they are degreed in art but uncredentialed, dramatically speaking. Theater’s new to them—hence the name, they half joke. And hence the excitement this fledgling, disorderly endeavor has been able to sustain among the devoted community of artists and art-world affiliates that fills the unreserved bench seating for more-or-less-monthly stage productions and then transitions afterwards to the theater’s bar while thumbing their nose at stubborn art/life distinctions.

Henkel and Pitegoff intend to keep it this way—resolutely amateurish, intimate, and uncontained, that is—so they’re shutting New Theater down come April, before it acquires too much institutional certainty. (The fear of growing old: Perhaps there’s some of that too.) Fortunately, last Sunday, I had the chance to see one of the last performances.

By ten past seven, the last bodies crush in: 130, give or take, in a space that typically seats fewer than sixty. For one night only, Karl Holmqvist and Arto Lindsay are starring in “The Rant.” Klara Lidén has done the decor (lazily twirling cardboard boxes spray-painted with hot-pink N’s and O’s) and Nhu Duong the clothes (cryptic black graphics on stark white denim and sweats). Tickets went quick.

For the next half-hour Holmqvist voices concise statements off handheld note cards, his pitch somewhere between speech and song, constantly varying. There’s less theater than normal—no scripted dialogue, no curtain, no characters—but still plenty of theatricality. Or is it the other way around? Regardless, it’s an exuberant parade of non sequiturs shot through with a few leitmotifs: Los Angeles, pants, irritating airline fees, lost-and-found inquiries, and cycles—bodily, existential, financial. One card, for instance: “Do you believe in reincarnation? You can come back as a dog.” Another card: “Museum of Tolerance: Good luck with that.” Another card: “LA opening all full of Swiss people.” Another card: “Is money smart or stupid? Is success smart or stupid? Think about it. I do, all the fucking time.” Sporadically, Lindsay shouts.

The austere utterances suspend meaning and stir a kind of wonder into innocuous actions like the taking on and off of a jacket, the parceling out of “reputations” into its four constituent syllables. Each sip of water enchants. Smartphones remain in the audience’s pockets. Over the course of the performance, the output from Lindsey’s amp and Holmqvist’s language machine starts to accrue, fuse—then the nothings come undone. Final card: “I miss my sweater.”

And like that, theater becomes bar. Opinions, hugs, and kisses are shared. The few voyeuristic big shots filter out; the crowd skews millennial. Conversation segues. “We run a stock image archive,” a DIS rep explains to two attentive boys I pass on my way to the white L-shaped countertop where Flora Klein and Grayson Revoir are doling out booze, pilsner, and Club-Mate at modest markups. Next to me, someone is paying tributes to Simon Denny: “I loved your slide show at DLD.” Another intones post-Fordist foreboding: “I got to network my ass off this week.”

Behind the bar, musician Dan Bodan is helping himself to thin-crust pizza. Technically, the slices are reserved for stars, but the line between performer and patron is difficult to police. Everyone I meet seems to have been involved in New Theater in some capacity—whether as actor, director, stagehand, poster artist, costume designer, bartender, or bar-back. Bodan is recounting his stage premiere to me when he spots Ilja Karilampi. “Wait, who was my character in your play supposed to be a mash-up of?” he asks. Karilampi pauses, hesitates:

“Uhh . . . a mixture of this guy I was hanging out with in New York and—”

“Gay thug. That was the name of my role,” Bodan remembers suddenly.

“Yeah, gay thug. It was a good role.”

“I did it well. I was high on ecstasy the whole time.”

“Wait, for real?”

“No! You didn’t provide. I’m just really good at grinding my jaw.”

“Yeah, you did really well.”

Karilampi gestures across the room. On the wall is a poster for The Hunter in the Armchair, a stage adaptation of a book he wrote about a five-month stay in New York. “It was kind of hard,” recalls Karilampi as he fidgets with a poppers bottle. “But we did the script together, Max, Calla, and I.”

You could think of New Theater as a knot—a point in Berlin where the strands connecting coteries and kunstvereins and friends and lovers in Switzerland, Sweden, New York, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, London, and other places capital and thus art accumulates are so entangled that “collectivity” and “collaboration” just go without saying, literally. You don’t hear the word “curate” either, though it’s easy to imagine it cropping up once the theater closes down.

To the artists who run this space: Just junk the arts administrators’ e-mails. Or run the risk of becoming yet another one of those “special projects” on the fair circuit.



“I have to minimize you guys for a second,” Meredith TenHoor says, interrupting a Skype conference underway with Timothy Hyde and Michael Osman, architecture historians at MIT and UCLA, in her office at Pratt Institute’s architecture school. Academia’s occupational hazards being known to include astringent rivalries, it’s tempting to interpret “to minimize” as a professor-to-professor put-down. But TenHoor isn’t speaking euphemistically—it’s pertinent that she quote from a colleague’s e-mail and add more voices to the discussion. Hyde and Osman reappear moments later, unperturbed if pixelated. They wanted more ideas mixing too. The conversation recommenced.

The three partners understand the intricacies of on- and offline scholarly communication well. For much of the past decade, together with a small band of rising architectural historians, they’ve led Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, a forum for collective research devised to overcome the most alienating and intellectually restrictive features of their discipline.

At conferences and workshops, and, more recently, on an online publication and discussion platform, the collaborative assembles designers, students, and scholars around common interests. Through cross-disciplinary inquiry and methodological breadth, they’re forcefully animating architectural discourse. By refusing divisive postures and vanguard narratives, they’re also shifting its tenor.

From the start, Aggregate was a social and intellectual project. In 2006, Arindam Dutta, a professor at MIT, convened a group of architectural historians whose work related to processes of what the philosopher Michel Foucault termed “governmentality”—the feedback set of processes that determined societal conduct. Some of the participants were junior professors readying first books, others were completing dissertations; a few had tenure. All sensed a need for different kinds of conversations between historians. “We really wanted community, to engage with people who could push us to new conclusions,” TenHoor recalls.

And so they began to meet twice a year. They met in places like Syracuse, Cambridge, New York, Los Angeles, and Oberlin, Ohio. They developed a workshop model and transformed the “blind” peer review—that notorious academic gatekeeper—into a more constructive face-to-face process. They argued and laughed and debated and concurred. A book was spawned. Published in 2012, Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (University of Pittsburgh Press) is a collection of ten essays on concerns ranging from ergonomics and urban obsolescence to postwar–France food markets and refugee housing in 1950s Pakistan. Global in outlook and attentive to architecture’s intersection with law, human rights, and financial systems (among lots of other things), the book is Aggregate’s most comprehensive statement thus far. But interpret it as a sharp-edged position cautiously.

“I think it’s a symptom of our field that people want to see Aggregate as a collective with a set theoretical position,” TenHoor responds when asked whom the group’s pushing back against. Hyde, insistent, adds: “We’re not a project of resistance.”

Is the tendency to define a cohort of theorists and historians by adversaries claimed and positions staked really so strange, though? After all, Aggregate does work in a field shaped in lasting, if contentious, ways by an American journal called Oppositions, the theory–heavy house organ of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Against these divisive backdrops, however, Aggregate finally gets thrown into relief. The collaborative’s impact isn’t a measure of firm lines drawn or thick walls erected; it’s a matter of the group opting out of the us-versus-them posture altogether. This antipathy for division is less an absolute principle than a prerequisite for the subtler kinds of critique and expanded forms of scholarship Aggregate wants to facilitate. “Before thinking of Aggregate as a position, or a project, you really have to think of it as a process,” Hyde explains. “It is about developing ways to work and write collaboratively, and to engage in critique and review that allow for the unfolding of different kinds of work.”

Aggregate’s web platform, instructively named we-aggregate.org, is vital to these ambitions. Designed by Project Projects and realized through a Graham Foundation grant, the site is organized around four thematic “umbrellas” (Discipline, Matter, Plots, Systems) directed by separate groups of editors. Currently, the published material consists mostly of single-author articles—with the exception of a couple of slide shows and Jonathan Massey and Andrew Weigand’s enormous “Risk Design Analytical Drawing” of London’s Gherkin—but it’s easy to imagine the range of media formats not possible in conventional academic books or journals.

More significantly, the platform operates at a tempo in sync with Aggregate’s open-ended and discussion-centered outlook. As an archive that accrues over time rather than is published all at once, the site accommodates response and invites further participation. It’s perfect, really—so long as it stays shy of perfection. “We don’t know what Aggregate will be,” Osman insists. “And it’s a really important part of it, that level of unpredictable future-ness.”