Far from the madding crowds of Valencia in eastern Spain, Fernando Abellanas is enjoying the solitude of his unique new studio. But it’s not the airy, light-filled glass and white walls affair you might expect for an architect: it’s a purpose-built desk space that hangs in the underbelly of a major city overpass.
On one “wall” – the concrete pillar that supports the highway above – a detachable structure of plywood boards and metal tubes serve as a desk, chair and shelves. Using the bridge’s beams as rails, Abellanas’ structure can slide on rollers from one side to the other.
It’s an example of what is becoming known as parasite architecture – buildings that cling, perch or sprout from others. The studio took Abellanas, a furniture designer and plumber, just two weeks to build after he discovered the space. He was drawn to its strange mix of materials and location. “Despite being next to trains and with traffic above, it’s a place no one stops to look up at,” he says.
Parasite architecture is a growing trend and ranges from planned projects, such as residential wooden pots installed on Toronto’s CN tower, to makeshift structures – such as Tadashi Kawamata’s artistic tree houses, which he scatters everywhere from New York parks to the Paris Pompidou centre, or the entire illegal “villa” one man built on top of a Beijing condo over the course of six years.
Abellanas says he wasn’t looking for “a feeling of total silence or peace, but rather that sensation you get as a kid of being able to sit and peek at what’s happening around you without being seen – be it in a cabin or a cardboard box in your own house”.
The new phenomenon is partly due to how difficult it has become for many architects to realise their designs for public buildings, explains Ellis Woodman, director of the Architecture Foundation. This has lead to a rise in low-cost, short-term projects, many of which seek to engage local communities in new ways. Woodman gives the example of the boat above the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank, and the Blue House Yard in north London’s Wood Green, a work and community space on the site of a car park and defunct council building.
The foundation has created its own parasite, the Antepavillion, a rooftop project above an east London building for which it plans to commission a young architect each year. For 2017, an air duct-shaped structure has been built by PUP Architects as a provocation for local councils to re-think urban planning in the area.
In many cases, pop-ups – such as restaurants, temporary stores and artistic projects – and parasites are much the same thing, but while a pop-up might be a temporary standalone structure, a parasite is often a longer-term intervention in the urban landscape.
Meanwhile, Abellanas says he is self-taught and favours a DIY approach to urban intervention. One of his previous projects involved riding train tracks that were built but never used (the recession killed the state project) in a rudimentary self-built car. In another, he climbed a €24m disused tower block in the vein of skyscraper “roofers”.
Abellanas sees his project as part of a series looking at Valencia’s disused spaces, and despite the obvious opportunity for social commentary, he says he’s not trying to make a statement about the lack of affordable space in the city.
Rents in Spain have grown by 20.9% in the last year, according to housing site Idealista, but thanks to Abellanas’ own ingenuity – and his willingness to work under a busy bridge – he has his own workspace and home.
City authorities are yet to react. “I think they haven’t discovered it yet,” Abellanas says. When they do, he assumes they’ll order him to dismantle it – or that someone will break it or steal its materials. “It’s surviving a lot longer than I thought,” he says. “It’s really well hidden.”