The political dimension
An interview with Ateliermob
Lisbon, PT

From their office in Lisbon, Ana Catarino and Paula Miranda explain the truly participatory nature of Ateliermob’s practice. Through their ‘Working with the 99%’ project, we understand the real time-frame associated with public participation instead of the often-encountered model where ‘participation’ becomes merely a buzzword. This is part of a series of video-interviews with a selection of emerging European practices. A project by Itinerant Office within the cultural agenda of New Generations and the support of Funder35. Interview by Gianpiero Venturini and video by Luca Chiaudano - CPStudio.


AC: I’m Ana Catarino, and I’m an anthropologist. I’ve been working with Ateliermob and also with 99% for the past years. 

PM: I’m Paula Miranda, I’m an architect and I’ve also been working with Ateliermob for the past three years.


Ateliermob and Working with the 99%

PM: It’s usual to ask where the ‘Ateliermob’ name comes from. It has to with how it sounds, but it also has to do with the ‘mob’ part which refers to a group, or to the collective. In the last years, it was also associated with mobility because we did lots of projects connected to that. However, the name had nothing to do with that in the beginning. Inside Ateliermob, when the crisis started, we began to do another kind of project. While in the beginning, we were mostly working with public institutions, at some point, we started to work in another way: we developed a project called Working with the 99%. That project eventually got bigger and is now a cooperative under the same name.

AC: Starting as a project inside Ateliermob, it was the idea of providing the services of an architect to those who could not afford it. They were either publicly-financed, usually with the Lisbon municipality, and others were financed by other institutions, but the client was the community, or a particular group. The idea of Working with the 99%, was precisely the idea to work with those who normally don’t have access to architecture or to architects, and those who have an idea that an architect is something outside their perspective; the idea that architects only do big projects involving a lot of money.  


Housing, policies, public space, safety

AC: At the moment, one of the themes we have been working on, that passes through several projects, is the question of housing and how the city has changed certain policies. We have been involved in this discussion with people around certain new housing policies and it is an ongoing investigation in our practice. It then passes through some projects either in the form of informal settlements or in other ways of experimenting or imagining ways of living in the city. We also did a project about safety in the public space for women. One of the things we do here is that whenever we discuss housing or whatever concept, we ensure that it comes from our practice. Our practice is important for us to think about the concept, and vice versa. It’s not about reading or researching something and then directly applying it. What is more interesting for us is to think through our practice. 


Working in different context, time matters

AC: It’s always a challenge to work outside of our familiar contexts. It’s good, but it takes a lot of time. You need projects that allow you to take your time. If it’s a small project, then it’s more of a momentary intervention, but if you want to produce something bigger involving more people, then it has to have enough time.

PM: Sometimes it’s not easy for other people to understand that we are not dealing with just one person. It takes time to understand what people need and want. We have to get to know the place, the context and the difficulties that they have. Sometimes, there are things going on that they do not tell us. We have to spend time with them to actually understand their situation. People are starting to understand the importance of participation, but sometimes they don’t understand that we need to be with the people for a long period of time to know and understand what they need better. Sometimes, the programme that we are given is not exactly what people want. We have to understand how to work with them and how we can gain their trust. That is time we can then save when someone comes knocking on our door because we would already have their trust. There, it is up to us to introduce ourselves and gain that confidence. 

AC: I think it has become a bit of a challenge, because ‘participation’ has become a buzzword, sometimes very empty. For instance, sometimes they ask us to go to a particular place to do a participatory project in 2 months. We always say that a 2-month project is not a participatory one. Rather it is a consultation project wherein maybe we can do two meetings with the people. It doesn’t really allow for true participation. It’s also a challenge for us, it’s a dispute of concepts, in a way. We really need time for it to be participatory insofar as the people really say what they want, and not so much what they think we expect to hear, which is also sometimes a bit tricky.


Models and procedures vs. hands-on approach

PM: This is another thing that also takes time: understanding what the best method for a particular project, people or place is. It’s very different when we work in an informal place from when we work on a square in the centre of the city. The number of people involved are also very different. We always have to readapt and understand if it our approach is working or not. Sometimes, we might conduct a survey and realise that we might need to conduct a debate instead. If that doesn’t work, we might have to go knocking on door, house by house. We have to have that time to understand what the best way is for each project, place or community. 

AC: It’s funny sometimes because we start a project sometimes with an idea of how we are going to carry it out, and then it changes completely. That’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating in the beginning but then it’s good because you allow yourself to make errors and then correct it. That’s how we prefer to work. Instead of having a fixed method, we try different ways. We know what we want to achieve in the end. You always want to solve some type of problem that was previously identified. 


Positioning. Activism, the architect as a politician

AC: We are active citizens that want to think and act in the reality we live in. That’s also how we position ourselves as professionals. In a way, it is already a political action. For instance, for the recent elections in the parliament, we were called to assist because of the work we do. It was due to our experience, and our way of seeing politics and life in general that we were able to bring things to the table. I don’t know if there is a need for a greater number of architects or other professionals in administration. We need to broaden the idea of doing politics. It needs to be more horizontal in the way policies are defined and discussed with several agents in the field discussing it with different agents and points of view. Through our practice, in some way or the other, we are doing politics.


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Photography Courtesy of Ateliermob