An Ethic of Care in Urban Interventions

by Mauro Gil Fournier E.

For architects, employing an ethic of care involves reflexive practice with value placed on process, empathy and everyday life. This post explores several projects in which participants adopted processes of interdependence, nurturing and long-term sustainability.

In 1973, Liz Christy, an artist and New York City resident, found a vacant lot in lower Manhattan that was once a farm owned by the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam. She obtained permission to turn the site into the city’s first community garden, paying City Hall a dollar per day as rent. Liz and her fellow gardeners called themselves the Green Guerrillas, and started to plant and create a recreational space for the community. After more than 30 years, one can still find this lot between Bowery and Houston streets in Manhattan, cared for by local residents. Small guerrilla actions have the potential to mobilize long-term urban care-giving.

The first garden by Green Guerrillas, between Bowery and Houston streets in Manhattan.

Almost everyone born in Amsterdam between the 1950s and 1970s is connected by an unusual fact: All grew up and were cared for, in a sense, by one of the 700 playgrounds designed by Aldo Van Eyck. Van Eyck not only designed the playgrounds, but also worked closely with local communities to decide where they should be placed and for what uses they should be equipped.

After World War II, during a period of modernist ideals, the Public Works Development Department attempted to provide every neighborhood in Amsterdam with at least one place of leisure. Beginning in 1947, Van Eyck and Jakoba Mulder — head of the department — created playground designs that favored relations of equity and empathy. Derelict places in the city were given careful attention. Van Eyck continued worked on these spaces for over 31 years, and many are still in use today.

Aldo Van Eyck's Dijkstraat Playground in Amsterdam.

Lina Bo Bardi is another architect that adopted an ethic of care. She is known for integrating Brazilian Tropicalism with modernist discourse, creating a synthesis of tradition and contemporary urban complexity in projects such as the Olodum House and the Benin House in Bahia.

Bo Bardi's Teat(r)o Oficina de São Paulo project helps us understand the care and empathy with which she approached her work. Founded in 1958, the theatre company has occupied the same building since 1961. After a fire in 1966, the company was plunged into economic difficulties. Bo Bardi began to collaborate with them by building stage sets. After five years, one of the set designs developed into a project called "Na Selva Das Cidades," which reconfigured the space abandoned after the fire into a street theater.

Teat(r)o Oficina in São Paulo, Brazil.

The street theater was conceived as an open space with a dirt floor, similar to courtyards where children play and women grind millet. This fundamental characteristic shows the close relationship between the memory of place, outdoor activity and care. The project was completed over a 10-year period, from 1981 to 1991. Through longterm collaboration with directors, technicians, visitors, and the site itself, the architect acted as care-provider for all other participants, and vice-versa, generating an affective fabric of multiple relations.

Care-providing activities are based on process rather than pointed action. Caring is not just an act, it's a perspective. Lacaton & Vassal's intervention at the Place Léon Aucoc in Bordeaux accentuates the site's latent beauty by replenishing gravel on the ground, planning a periodic cleaning, pruning the lime trees and modifying paths. These action words — replenish, plan, prune, modify — depict a process of continuous change.

Lacaton & Vassal's collaboration with Frédéric Druot in the Tour Bois le Prêtre project significantly improved a housing block by adding a prefabricated extension of spacious balconies. Residents were able to continue living in their apartments as they were expanded. The designers worked with the strengths of the building, helping to link diverse inhabitants, existing structure and the surrounding landscape. Their labor was a transformative process of mediation between the many project elements.

Remodeled interiors at Tour Bois Le Prêtre, 2011. Source: Lacaton & Vassal

As architects, the systems we are part of don’t always allow us to accomplish our goals. It becomes necessary to take a detour and explore in order to modify our goals and ourselves. It is through this process that the labor of care helps generate a shared project through cooperation and exchange.

The ethic of care can be a mobilizing agent for participatory development and urban empowerment. Limiting care to the private sphere leaves the public sphere lacking quality attention. The citizen ethic feeds itself through familiar, affective and interpersonal roots, thriving on reciprocity between public and private, justice and care, architect and citizen.

Mauro Gil Fournier E. is an architect at estudiosic in Madrid, Spain. He can be followed on Twitter via @mgilfour or @desdevic. This article originally appeared in Spanish on La Ciudad Viva, and was adapted and translated by Hector Fernando Burga with help from Melissa García Lamarca. This is the second post in a two-part series exploring the role of the architect as urban care provider. The previous entry is available here.

Credits: All images from La Ciudad Viva.

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  1. these examples are so well chosen, so inspiring. yes, i see the need for approaching the planning, design, and development of cities as ongoing processes of care, not just projects to be completed, used, abandoned, demolished, and redone.

  2. I agree with this too, especially the way you portray the architect as one catalyst among other possible catalysts in the human-nonhuman networks that make up urban places. Turning to practice, I wonder how clients can afford to keep an architect nurturing as Lina did a building or public space for a long period of time?

  3. Those are pretty cool stories. But really it just comes down to people having pride in where they live. Some do , some dont.

  4. Dear all. Thanks for the coments, te thing is not so easy. I suggest also to see tris other comments for the spanish versión.