Johanna Bruckner

Tarra Vague / Text

Terra Vague: Against the Ghosts of Land

Johanna Bruckner



The research hypothesis for this text revolves around a discussion of the Brazilian architect Sérgio Ferro’s critical analysis, which emphasises the socio-economic transformation of built space as the politics of the material and of social class. His ideas are read against the background of the finance-driven deregulation of buildings in Hamburg’s HafenCity and the subsequent reorganisation of production and labour conditions, based on new technological and infrastructural development. Concepts such as the scaffold, which refers both to physical labour on the construction site as well as to the algorithmic scaffold or framework as both method and object in algorithmic infrastructure and logistics, constitute the tools alongside which social and cooperative performances of living and working are emerging. Research is discussed with the participating performers in temporary social settings on site, on the basis of which dance scores are developed which, in turn, feed back into these notes. The performers’ responses are articulated in bodily, physical gestures, and their transmission aims to propose new social infrastructures for the present.


In this text, which is based on my works Terra Vague: Against the Ghosts of Land and Total Algorithms of Partiality, I would like to discuss some of the Brazilian architect Sérgio Ferro’s key ideas, and consider his propositions as a critical response to the politics of urban renewal in Hamburg’s HafenCity. Sérgio Ferro was born in 1938 in Curitiba, Parana. He is a graduate of the University of São Paulo, where he also taught. His work focuses in particular on questions of labour and production conditions in the construction industry; his involvement in the planning of the new capital city Brasília during the 1960s played an important role in the development of his theories. Together with Flávio Império and Rodrigo Lefèvre, he formed the radical architecture group Arquitectura Nova, which critically examined the Brazilian ideology of modernist building practices, regarding them as a form of social exclusion[1]. João Batista Vilanova Artigas, a fellow militant, established the Institute of Brazilian Architects (IAB) in São Paulo, as well as FAUUSP, the Architecture and Urbanism College at the University of São Paulo. Within this framework, the group conceived its formative architectural discourse of freedom and democracy, contrasting its ideas for the construction of Brasília with a reality characterised by appalling and unsafe working conditions, in which badly paid, ill-fed labourers were exploited. In looking for a response to these unacceptable conditions for architectural production, the group gravitated towards the communist faction, which at that time provided an ideological home for a significant portion of the leftist intelligentsia. Arquitectura Nova played an active role in various demonstrations and strikes, calling for democratic access to architecture, design and construction, and envisioning a highly politicised approach to living space[2].

Drawing on these experiences, Ferro wrote of architecture as the production of commodity, its modern practices fostering a division of labour in order to generate value. For Ferro, this principle was embodied in the jargon involved in architectural drawing, which alienated and was indeed largely incomprehensible to the builders. In Ferro's conceptualisation of architecture, the design process cannot be separated from construction. His aim is to abandon this transformation of production in favour of design solutions. He searched for architectural answers that could immediately be put into practice by the general public, who by and large built their own houses without employing architects. The result of these undertakings was unconventional architecture with a deep aesthetic feeling, based on on-site experiences and civic demands[3].

Between 1961 and 1962, two emblematic experiments substantiated the group’s architectural praxes. The first was the Casa Boris Fausto[4] (Boris Fausto House) in São Paulo, which consisted of a large canopy of reinforced concrete supported by four pillars tied by one-metre high beams that formed a balance of six metres. Although it was a one-off attempt, the Boris Fausto House was nevertheless representative of the impasse between industrialisation and the construction industry at that time[5].

The second experiment, the Bernardo Issler House[6], located in the city of Cotia in the state of São Paulo, was characterised by the decision to return to traditional construction methods in order to rationalise procedures and popular techniques, thus enabling significant collective savings without going through the industrialisation process. The Bernardo Issler House, designed as a masonry brick vault, was an opportunity to put the group's hypotheses into practice and identify economically and technically realistic construction solutions. The house is based on masonry furniture, in order to overcome the division between the social and service sectors. Space for social and collective action is afforded top priority. Looking at the house’s structure in greater detail, the living rooms are located in the northwest façade, thus receiving a large amount of sunshine and reinforcing social interactions within the building. The surplus that the sunlight produces here is regarded as having a collective value. Access to the house is from both ends, in linear form. The windows provide natural light and ventilation during the day, while in the evening artificial lighting takes the form of a trim between the floor and the roof. The house has a concave surface that protects its occupant and is the expression of the most primordial form of human habitat, its roof echoing the spatiality of caves and Brazilian indigenous huts[7].

Arquitectura Nova’s practices, beyond their aim of producing accessible and reproducible design and ergonomic solutions, reflected a new respect for the worker on the construction site, allowing for a collective working experience involving builders, architects and residents. The organisation of the internal space beneath the house’s curved architecture was further explored in the group’s later projects. In their 1965 house, Império and Rodrigo defined these models as the prototypes for new housing construction in Brazil[8].

In 1970, the Brazilian dictatorship responded by exiling Ferro alongside his mentor, Vilanova Artigas. On leaving prison, Ferro decided to emigrate to France, where he became a professor at the School of Architecture in Grenoble. The legacy left by Arquitectura Nova, also referred to as New Architecture, was however more an opening up of new perspectives than an actual establishment and integration of its methods into society. Indeed, neither the historical situation at the time nor class barriers would have allowed this: just as the roles of the people were played by middle-class actors for an academic audience, the primary target audience, New Architecture was still, in the end, a bourgeois house built for intellectuals[9].

Let me now read these considerations against urban renewal regimes in Hamburg.


Passing large areas of wasteland occupied by sea birds, with the river beds smelling of marsh drying out in Hamburgʼs early July heat, the street ends abruptly in front of a block of pale green shelters. The refugees who live here are confronted with private corporations’ aspirational new luxury enclaves in immediate proximity to their living space: the clime of urban redevelopment. Most of the land is being sold to private investors; new homes are rising up and will soon change the landscape entirely.

HafenCity Hamburg is characterized by the finance-driven deregulation of buildings and space. It is emerging as a form of governance in which liberal democratic structures are mimicked for use in the organisation of residential urban areas. Since its beginnings at the turn of the century, HafenCity has been characterised by an expansionist policy of turning former warehouse lots into luxury apartments. Accordingly, city and civic life are dominated by data governance and smart homes: electronic money and virtual civic services in the form of life streams and invisible cables remodel the city into a dematerialised stream of desires. In responding to HafenCity’s urban renewal and taking into account recent technological developments, one must understand the link between labour and housing that underwent a transformation as a result of urban and economic reorganisation and neoliberal victories in the areas of labour and cognitive value production. Housing has always been a spatial instrument of governance, wielded for the purpose of making society calculable[10].

The post-Fordist saturation of urban life merges with a Fordist approach: the speed with which property is physically built and the machine-led approach contradict the anthropomorphic agendas of algorithmic architectures[11]. What are the possible agencies inherent to this agonisms, which confront the ubiquitous processes of dematerialisation, the digital fabrication of civic and urban life and the deregulation of dwellings and built space with methods that aim to reveal materialisation to be an organisational planning practice – also called a constituent support structure, as outlined above with regard to Sérgio Ferro’s work – as well as to identify the processes involved? Which potential and productive articulations result from this agonistic confrontation? The bodies in the performances that make up my art work are the forces of materialisation, proposing infrastructures of social encounters beyond class barriers and exclusive contexts and which will be referred to throughout the project[12].


The labour force on the construction site in Hamburg’s HafenCity is mainly drawn from eastern and south-eastern Europe on a temporary basis, the workers being recruited by firms before leaving their homes and then ʻboughtʼ by construction companies in Germany. Firms compete to offer the cheapest labour,  often simultaneously charging their partner companies money, before then closing down their operations. New firms emerge but disappear equally rapidly, due to the corrupt nature of their enterprise. Construction companies in Germany are doing business with ghost firms in the east and south-east of Europe[13]. I am attempting to work with labour organisations in these geographical areas to enable a response to the European ghost trade scenario on a structural and political level, as well as to ensure that after arriving in Germany, workers will have the capacity to invest in establishing workers’ solidarity networks, ideally on a global scale.


Over the course of several months I have worked with a number of performers and labour unions in temporary social settings on former warehouse plots, wasteland, and areas earmarked for imminent construction, within which the group develops dance scores and language in order to transform the urgencies of construction labour and the paradoxes of housing policies and their associated ambivalent structures into potential collective agencies. Ground plans for future construction in HafenCity are redrawn to integrate aspects of Sérgio Ferro’s conceptions of housing, creating forms of accommodation that better meet the needs of prospective populations, which will include construction site workers, refugees, and others who require affordable space. The new drawings are scores to be performed. In the practical work accompanying this text, the floor plans that are usually automatically and technologically generated for homes in HafenCity integrate Sérgio Ferro's proposed housing values in their algorithms. These new algorithms put forward entirely new housing models, and may in the future be able to be printed in print stations distributed throughout the neighbourhood. The repeated performance of these newly-composed algorithms reinforces the validity of this idea within society, positioning the concerns of Ferro’s popular house within the age of algorithmic infrastructures.

The bodies perform in relation to one other, creating a physical language that remains autonomous for the time being because the scores, in their emerging structure, are temporarily foreign to the capitalist abstraction. The bodies’ movements are beyond the range and scope of HafenCity’s surveillance mechanisms, as they interrupt and disrupt the algorithmic streams of data and finance. These bodily constellations perform as self-determined, self-composed durational social endeavours, rehearsing relational accountabilities. Different experiences in the investigation of labour and housing are discussed and put forward. A collectively produced manifesto poses demands to HafenCity’s authorities, conceding the social pluralism of society only under the condition that support structures sustain citizensʼ subjectivities on a stable and equal basis.

The organisational practice proposed in my work is simultaneously a general support structure and an archive and data resource available to those who need it. It collates information shared by workers in relation to conditions on site, and is updated with information based on local and situational experiences, while making reference to  practices such as those of Sérgio Ferro and the Arquitectura Nova Group. These practices are actualised by a changing group of performances on a global scale in response to situational immediacy. Technology has the potential to link agencies worldwide but it may involve politicising co-ordination and envisaging a future in which education, labour and data critically have to be considered more closely interrelated.  These practices, which we refer to as Scaffolding Agency, are to be elaborated upon.


[1] See, accessed on 21/05/2017

[2] Felipe Contier, “An Introduction to Sergio Ferro”, in Industries of Architecture, ed. Katie Lloyd Thomas, Tilo Amjoff & Nick Beech,  (New York: Routledge: 2016), 87–93.

[3] Ibid, and; accessed on 19 June, 2018.

[4] images 3-5

[5] see for example: and, accessed on 9 April, 2018.

[6] image 7

[7] Ibid., accessed on 10 June, 2018.

[8] Ibid., accessed on 11 June, 2018.

[9] ibid, accessed on 9 April, 2018.

[10] Andreas Rumpfhuber, “Housing Labour”, E-flux Architecture,, accessed on December 4, 2017.

[11] Algorithmic architecture describes the cybernetic feedback of data into the computational design process of a building. Ned Rossiter (for example, in Software, Infrastructure, Labour, New York: Routledge, 2016) refers to algorithmic architectures in the sense that he approaches them as algorithmically managed forms of automation serving infrastructure, trade, and the building industry. He describes algorithms as complex machines operating under neoliberal forms of governance, labour, and the globalisation of manufacturing and service industries. In using the term ‘algorithmic infrastructure’, I am referring to Keller Easterling’s, Extrastatecraft. The Power of Infrastructure Space (London: Verso, 2014) and her understanding of infrastructure. For Keller Easterling, infrastructure “typically conjures associations with physical networks for transportation, communication or utilities. Yet, today (…) infrastructure includes pools of microwaves beaming from satellites and populations of atomized electronic devices that we hold in our hands. The shared standards and ideas that control everything from technical objects to management styles also constitute an infrastructure. (…) Infrastructure is now the overt point of contact and access between us all - the rules governing the space of everyday life”.

[12] A more detailed overview of the work with video links can be found on

[13] This information is based on conversations with representatives from labour organisations in Hamburg, 15 July 2017.