Brown Building by Mariana Fernández

Improvised architecture as a form of temporality for marginalized communities.

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

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A drawing of a house in the shape of pliers titled, Casa en forma de alicate (Pliers-Shaped House), by Los Carpinteros

Los Carpinteros, Casa en forma de alicate (Pliers-Shaped House), 2003. Courtesy of Dagoberto Rodriguez.

The artist collective Los Carpinteros’s 2003 drawing Casa en forma de alicate (Pliers-Shaped House) is, as its title suggests, a house in the shape of a work instrument. The dining table and the living room are placed in the blades, and the bedrooms are in the grips that together hold a patio and a swimming pool. It is a home defined not according to its function, but through its construction process.

Construir (to build) is a fraught verb, one loaded with revolutionary and utopian significance. We build houses, we build dreams, we build new ways of being and becoming in acts of survival. The early collaborations of Los Carpinteros were born in the late 1990s and early 2000s out of the highly precarious context of postrevolutionary Cuba. Working within a postcolonial imaginary, the group adopted the self-effacing identity of the carpenter to build a vision of home that had been repeatedly fragmented in relation to the island and its diaspora.

To build a home is to imagine a degree of safety and stability often antithetical to experiences of migration, displacement, and diaspora. Casa en forma de alicate holds the tensions between building as thing (as house) and building as verb (as practice). For the many people whose notions of home have been destabilized by the uneven impacts of modernity and globalization, the act of building a house and the material manifestations of that process produce a version of home that exceeds the confines of space and national borders.

An image of various rooftops titled, Autoconstrucción: The Film, by Abraham Cruzvillegas

Film still of Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción: The Film, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City and New York.

In 2017, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented HomeSo Different, So Appealing: Art from the Americas since 1957, the first group show at a major Los Angeles museum to focus on art from Latin America and its diasporas since the 1950s. The sweeping exhibition organized the works of over forty Latin American and US Latinx artists around the often-tenuous premise of “home,” bringing attention to the numerous building practices that exist outside of the dominant historical narratives of modernism and urban planning. Through its various thematic principles—”Model Homes,” “Recycled Homes,” “Troubled Homeland,” among others—the exhibition attempted to establish home as relational, a social dimension articulated by familial and communal relations rather than fixed in geographic space. Home-building, as the exhibition showed, is directly linked to constructions of identity and is not a neutral act but a political necessity. By grouping artists through the various ways they materially, collectively, and inventively construct homes rather than according to geopolitical lines, the exhibition also proposed, albeit more subtly, that race might be understood as a practice rather than as a fixed identity category.

Brownness, as performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz understands it, indexes but is not fixed with the racial and national contours of latinidad: “It is the ontopoetic state not only of people who live in the United States under the sign of latinidad, but of a majority of those who exist, strive, and flourish within the vast trajectory of multiple and intersecting regimes of colonial violence” (José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown, Durham: Duke University Press, 2020, 122). Brown, then, is not just something that you are (in the sense that you are Browned by multiple forms of colonial violence), but something that you feel and do—and something that you feel and do with others. Particularly in the context of migration, where the life chances of new residents are for the most part marked by poverty and systematic inequality, Brownness articulates the collective attitude of survival and inventiveness that unfolds despite and in the face of harm, the “uncanny persistence in the face of distressed conditions of possibility” (ibid., 4). 

When I began thinking about how Brownness is enacted in the built environment, I was struggling with how the term doesn’t translate to Spanish but still points to the shared space of both racial oppression and political vitality occupied by minoritarian subjects outside of the United States. Where Latinx studies have been dominated by spatiality, Brownness, as a perhaps more capacious alternative, centers temporality. As Sandra Ruiz argues in Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance, Brownness exists in the “simultaneity of what is now and what may only ever come” (New York: New York University Press, 2019, 147). The idea of building is compelling to me because as both action and edifice it signals the ongoing transformational processes through which Brown people dream of and materially enact space within the future. Though racialized subjects do not all build in the same ways, thinking about architecture through the temporality of Brownness (and of Brownness through the process of home-building) challenges perceived notions of minoritarian incompletion and allows for a more complex understanding of the multiple models of bottom-up architecture that have emerged under the auspices of autoconstrucción or “self-building.”

A large wooden platform covered with found objects titled, The Autoconstrucción Suites, by Abraham Cruzvillegas

Abraham Cruzvillegas, The Autoconstrucción Suites, 2013. Photo by Gene Pittman. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

At its most basic linguistic level, autoconstrucción signals the Brown communal right—necessity, even—to “self-construct.” The concept, first posited by urban planners in the 1970s to denote the makeshift building practices of shantytowns in Latin America, has grown to encompass the multiple ways that Brown people materially and improvisationally construct habitable spaces out of conditions of precarity and instability. As articulated by Abraham Cruzvillegas, one of the artists featured in HomeSo Different, So Appealing and a key practitioner of autoconstrucción:

The concept comes from a building technique that is led by specific needs of a family and by the lack of funds to pay for constructing an entire house at once.… Aesthetic decisions are intertwined with the ability of the builders to use anything available or at hand, depending on place, circumstance, or chance…. Autoconstrucción is not a weekend hobby; it’s not bricolage or DIY culture—it’s a consequence of unfair wealth distribution. As opposed to massive building projects, it points to an autonomous and independent architecture that is far from any planning or draft: it’s improvised. (Abraham Cruzvillegas, “Prime Matter: Abraham Cruzvillegas on Autoconstrucción,” March 14, 2013, Walker Art Center website)

For Cruzvillegas, autoconstrucción is linked to the survivalist need to build with the materials available at a given location, in a given circumstance, creatively and improvisationally. Cruzvillegas grew up in Ajusco, a neighborhood south of Mexico City constructed on notoriously inhospitable rock by squatting families, his own included, during the 1960s. Like many of the squatter communities that sprung up throughout Latin America during this period, Colonia Ajusco was born out of an influx of displaced rural peoples seeking work in the cities. Mexico’s move away from agriculture toward industrialization in the postwar years sparked massive migration to urban areas, with Ajusco emerging as one of these migratory communities’ many “self-constructed” solutions to the problem of housing. Like every structure in Ajusco, Cruzvillegas’s family home is a work in progress, with visible additions and modifications to existing constructions evidencing the ongoing labor of building and rebuilding that emerges as a way for Brown people to claim space and futurity. As Cruzvillegas says, “Self-construction is permanently unfinished. I love that idea” (Abraham Cruzvillegas, “Abraham Cruzvillegas by Haegue Yang,” BOMBSummer, 2013).

A man with his short off performing in front of a large wooden platform and musicians titled, Autoconstrucción, by Abraham Cruzvillegas

Performance documentation of Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción, kurimanzutto, Mexico City, May 21–June 26, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City and New York.

Though typically read through the failures of modernism, autoconstrucción’s unfinishedness proposes a form of Brown building and existing within architectural space that is ongoing and transformational. Since 2007, Cruzvillegas has adopted the term as a material and conceptual approach to artmaking, building sculptures and installations that are constantly subject to modification, accumulation, and even destruction. The Autoconstrucción Suites (2013) are an assemblage of construction materials—discarded furniture, unpainted wood structures, broken appliances, cinder blocks—that form part of Cruzvillegas’s wider, self-constructed sculptural practice of reuse and transformation. Like Ajusco, the works are urban landscapes fabricated out of the material remains of crisis. The ongoing process of constructing and arranging these salvaged materials is a resistance to building as professionalization, guided, rather, by the intuitive, inventive, and joyful approach to materials that arises from Brown temporality. When his installations are activated by live performances, the makeshift building practices of autoconstrucción recycling, improvisation, and continual tinkering with form the material and conceptual framework for improvisatory exchanges that reorient laborers’ collective resourcefulness away from survival toward spontaneous, integrated activity that is intent on critiquing the present by imagining and enacting other temporalities and other spaces. 

In the context of transnational migration, where home is often neither here nor there but suspended between points of arrival and departure, origin and destination, the process of Brown building acts as a passageway from the now to an aspired future, even if that future is constantly shifting. The migrant dream house, or the “remittance house,” typically refers to a house built in a migrant’s hometown with money earned abroad. For the many people Browned by experiences of voluntary or involuntary migration, the dream house provides an opening from which to imagine a possibility of homeownership often foreclosed to them in the United States. Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, the construction of dream houses has transformed the rural landscapes of Mexico and Central America and materialized migrants’ shifting attachments to place and belonging.

A color photograph of a building facade featuring an image of a Mesoamerican pyramid and an American flag titled, Arquitectura de remesas, by ​Andrés Asturias

Andrés Asturias, Arquitectura de remesas (Remittance Architecture), 2009–10. Courtesy of the artist.

Like Ajusco’s autoconstructores, migrants build their dream homes in stages—slowly, informally, sometimes sporadically—with changing economic positions, material attachments, and family needs, which often results in a hodgepodge of additions and changes to existing adobe structures. In Andrés Asturias’s photographic series, Arquitectura de remesas (Remittance Architecture) (2009–10), colorful dream houses in Central America index the unique form of architecture emerging from binational building. The remixing of US architectural designs—such as shingle roofs, front lawns, and terraces—with local materials and embellishments reflects builders’ shifting ways of life and social relations. One of Asturias’s photographs depicts an orange facade that pairs the iconographies of a Mayan temple and a US flag. Rebar visibly protrudes from its rooftop, and construction materials, including cinder blocks and plywood, appear in the foreground. It is unfinished, like most dream homes, signaling both a material architecture already in existence and a body always in the process of unfolding. As photographer Walterio Iraheta describes, dream homes are autorretratos—or self-portraits—of their makers. They are material transformations of the built environment directly linked to shifting constructions of the self.

A color drawing of a standalone house with a tree on the side titled, Dream house architectural drawing, by Jorge Javier Argote

Jorge Javier Argote, “Dream house” architectural drawing, 1984. Courtesy of Carmen Argote.

In a series of sculptures and installations by Los Angeles-based artist Carmen Argote, the dream house similarly emerges as a symbolic, affective space of both the here and now and the not-yet, a constellation of reality and ideality collapsed. Argote’s large-scale installation Mantas (2014) is a reconfiguration of the dream house her father planned to build for the family in Jalisco, Mexico, after a period of working in the United States. In a series of drawings made over several years, her father imagined a modernist home that could hold his aspirations for middle-class domesticity. With its pitched roof, two-car garage, front lawn, and backyard pool, the dream home informed a constant dialogue of home between Mexico and the United States, one shaped by distance as much as by class difference. Though the family never moved back to Mexico, Mantas offers a way to rethink diasporic understandings of home beyond a nostalgic sense of loss or unattainability.

Argote reconstructs her father’s drawings on mantas, a thin muslin cloth conventionally used as a covering around the body. With its closeness and likeness to skin, the semi-translucent cloth performs a dialectic between the dream house’s absence and presence. The house’s high walls and brick facade become lightweight, almost see-through fabric, and the door, the threshold between home and not-home, is removed, bridging the divide between inside and outside. Inside Argote’s dream home, blocks of color index only the outlines of home furnishings, providing an incomplete picture of domesticity from which other memories might flow. Rather than a stable marker of belonging or identification, Mantas provides a new provisional dwelling, one that is temporary and transportable as much as it is continually in the process of self-construction.

A large sculpture of a house made out of cloth titled, Carmen Argote: My Father’s Side of Home

Installation view of Carmen Argote: My Father’s Side of Home, 2014. Human Resources, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist.

When the work was displayed at Human Resources in Los Angeles as part of Argote’s 2014 solo exhibition, My Father’s Side of Home, viewers were invited to collaborate with the artist in the construction of cardboard structures to fold the fabric. The collective action of measuring, planning, folding, and pleating evolved into a series of sculptures, entitled Folding Structures, the artist built three years laterIn these works, the markings of her father’s modernist dream house—a bed, a front lawn, a pool—are transfigured into mantas, folded up and sitting atop a self-constructed architectural model. In the artist’s words: “Here I am the architect, taking the color and shapes of his drawings and remixing them into my own architectural models of sorts.” The deconstructed boxes made of muslin, papier-mâché, cardboard, and tape reject the planning of modernism in favor of transfiguration and modification, proposing a building, in the present, attuned to mixtures, confluence, and hybridity.

A white geometric sculpture with a blue towel on top, titled Folding Structure (Pool), by Carmen Argote

Carmen Argote, Folding Structure (Pool), 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

To locate the production of home as a constant folding and unfolding is to suggest a modality of building that is always in process, unfinished. As Muñoz reminds us, utopia is not prescriptive. It is a mode of possibility that renders potential blueprints for a moment where the here and now might be transcended by a then and there. Where home exists as forward-dawning and not yet here, building in the here and now is the passageway—a political and aesthetic gesture aimed at carving out time under the intersecting regimes of colonial violence. Perpetually transformational and refusing to let Brownness ossify into a fixed identity marker, autoconstrucción posits that to be unfinished does not mean to be incomplete. And that only by building and rebuilding will we arrive at something we haven’t even dreamed up yet. 

Mariana Fernández is a writer and curator from Mexico City.

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