“Maker Culture is trying to have a smaller footprint and thinking of a more equal coherent system. In a way that you pay more attention on where materials come from, how things travel in the world.”
Samuel Kalika is the founder of Critical Concrete. The emerging educational and social initiative stands out of the regular dynamisms of real estate development and promotes new mechanisms to rehabilitate social housing and improve public and cultural spaces shared by low-income communities. It advocates a fundamental right to adequate housing, that is often disregarded due to lack of public resources or political regulation.
Can you introduce yourself? Have you been working as an independent and/or are you involved in cultural/maker organizations?
Samuel Kalika: My name is Samuel Kalika. My background is in mathematics and arts. I founded the association Critical Concrete in 2015. It’s a project related to sustainable in social architecture. We do research and all kinds of things in order to be able to rehabilitate socially relevant places. Within our project we work a lot with the mobility of people.
Why did you start with Critical Concrete?
Samuel Kalika: I started because I was previously working in an organization in Berlin. It was more a kind of artist residency scheme where we would host a lot of artists and then develop projects with them. After I worked there for five years it was also the time for me to move on. I moved to a place a little bit closer to the sun somehow. I just came here with the idea of developing a project space, this kind of “hipster fantasy”. When I arrived, I encountered the kind of deficient housing situation in Porto. I thought it would be more interesting to focus the project on these kinds of issues. We still try to create the space. It’s something that is happening as well but it’s not the priority of the project anymore. Now we are more focused on the architectural projects and any social outcomes. We were offering “summer schools” which was kind of our kickstarted format where we would rehabilitate a house or an impoverished family in collaboration with students and partners. It was set up into an educational framework. We stopped doing this. Now we’re moving into a slower and more complete format: CRITI.CO, Sustainability online learning network.
Building CRITI.CO | Sustainability online learning network:
We moved into another format to develop a project in partnership with esap– an architecture school in Porto. We’re celebrating the 1st Edition this year. At the same time, we applied and luckily got the project grant for the rehabilitation and refurbishment of seven housing items, socially oriented and two public spaces in the city of Esposende, which is like 40 minutes up North from Porto and Ramalde which is our neighborhood. These projects intersect clearly and on top of that there is the research which also takes a lot of our time and resources because we really want to develop things a little bit differently and more coherently in terms of sustainability of materials and processes. I guess these are the biggest challenges for us.
What is Critical Concrete and how to contribute:
How do you define what is known as “maker culture”?
Samuel Kalika: I think it’s trying to have a smaller footprint and thinking of a more equal coherent system. In a way that you pay more attention on where materials come from, how things travel in the world and in general trying to be a more conscious about all these things. I try get closer to the supply chain and work more locally.
Have you participated in mobility programs in the past? Can you elaborate on your experience(s)?
Samuel Kalika: As a student I went to Spain and China. I also did another mobility to Germany and stayed there for five years. In all kinds of different organizations, I worked in, we set up all kinds of mobility schemes to host a lot of people as well as sending them. The main programs that we work with when it comes to specifics of mobility it is Erasmus for Entrepreneurs, European Solidarity Corps and Erasmus traineeship/internship. Overall, our experience is really good. If think there is one thing that needs to be thought through when we talk about mobility. When you’re talking about mobility programs for young professionals like 26/27-year-old, six months it’s just not enough. This is my feedback to give to Erasmus for Entrepreneur because they limit and tend to shrink the duration every time.
We need to spend time on site to really understand things. No projects happen within three months. If you want to see any kind of development, you need to stay a little bit more especially in terms of involvement. I’m a huge fan of the European Solidarity Corps for this reason, even though the application process is a bit more complicated. It’s a lot of paperwork but at the end the fact that the experience is much longer pays off.
What were your favorite contexts when you participated in mobility schemes in Europe or Internationally? Workshops? Symposia? Training? Residencies?
Samuel Kalika: We could not have done anything that we did without it. Being super blunt about it, we started Critical Concrete with one website, an idea and some mockups. I found someone to help me at the beginning that kind of jumped in. We did it within Erasmus for young Entrepreneur. She could work full time while I was still working part time in my old job and then we got interns that could come in and actually do the muscle work. We couldn’t have grown and done any project on the scale of what we did, without mobility programs.
“When the focus is on social work you don’t really look at the income as something super fundamental, but you want to have a social outcome and want to develop a project that’s going to be more conceptually coherent. It’s very difficult to do it without this kind of mobility schemes which provide you with workforce.”
For the people it’s super interesting as they do a mobility project in a starting organization. They really have the chance of redeveloping a lot of things. That’s the spirit that we try to keep even though it’s already a five-year-old organization. We always have new stuff going on that we try to push in order to have people engaged and not make them feel that they have to do the lame work. On the contrary they’re taking responsibility that we really need. In the end you create the real community with the people that come through and go out. I’m personally in touch a lot with the people I’ve been working with here before. You are making really good friends and you build up a community. Your ideas spread out as well as you grow through these people that come to you and then these people are going home and then they want to create something. It always puts the bar high in terms of work expectations.
Do you collaborate with European/International partners or organizations?
Samuel Kalika: Due to the international nature of our project from the very beginning and the fact that my own network was very spread out it’s almost a natural thing for us to do applications with other countries and trying to develop something. We often fail in these applications but at least we try. Sometimes you win and then you become part of a project. At the moment we have a very good partner in Greece with whom we do projects together. In terms of the educational platform, we’re setting up an online platform right now focused on sustainability. It has a strong identity to architecture and the making of things but it’s also a bit broader. The platform is completely international. Our mentors come from different organizations and different countries. The composition of the project is of the good people we know who aren’t necessarily here. Some are here and it’s amazing and then we’re super happy to have them, but some are not. Still the format works good like this.
What have you been missing to better develop your creative practice? Do you see loopholes in mobility programs regarding maker practices and culture?
Samuel Kalika: The thing I’ve been missing in my creative practice is my creative practice (laughs)! When you start an organization, you absorb most of the of the heavy lifting work that is the administrative work. From time to time, I have a little bit of envy towards the people working with me who finish their job at 6’ and then they can think about something else. On a very personal level I miss more time. I’m working on that.
I think dimension of internationality and working in a foreign country is very difficult. Just imagine how unprepared you are to start an organization in your own country. If you multiply this effort by 10 it shows how hard it is to do this in another country. The administrative part is heavy that it’s almost funny at some point.
We are currently working on a big project. One of the administrative points that we need to do is to sticker everything bought by the money of this project with “Co funded by…” on it. it’s a budget over the duration of two years. It takes so much time to put all these stickers on all items we buy. We should ask ourselves if this is really necessary.
What we don’t need are more workshops. Every time you start an organization you are looking for money, right? You want to hire people to do things. The only thing you can find very easily are more trainings. I understand the logic to be efficient with your money, but I don’t need another training about administration in Portugal. I need to hire someone local that can help me with this. That helps us as an organization but at the moment the focus is not like this. In order to get out of poverty we don’t need another training, we need money!
Critical Concrete, Working with Wood:
All our activities have always been funded. I never take anyone that is not paid. There is always some kind of exchange. The only thing we do, where there is no money involved is work and travel. That means that people will come here and work 20 hours/week and have food and accommodation for exchange. There has to be an exchange.
I really see a culture problem in foundation work as the aim of foundations is to help a lot of people with the least money possible as they are in a culture of numbers. The money giver has to report on the number of activities that they’ve done and the amount of people that were affected by the money that they spend.
For them a good project is measured on how much money spend per capita. This mentality of having the most efficient euro to give to as many organizations possible. It helps you to start something but at some point, where you want to become serious either you need to understand investment schemes which I don’t understand. Not everyone knows which law you need to apply to and how investment schemes work. At some point startups need to put a lot of money into their work, develop it with some counseling and it either works out or it crashes. This mentality of risk doesn’t exist as far as I encountered in this kind of foundation work, funding mobility schemes or trainings. No one takes risks.
What would be to you a dream mobility scheme for makers? Would you give priority to travel support, social encounters, technical access or networks building?
Samuel Kalika: When it comes to mobility, I think there are two types I believe that should be empowered. One type is me visiting your project. I come for one week or three days to do some shadowing. I work on some tasks with you. It would be one week, very short, condensed and super nice to have some drinks – amazing. From my experience, the shadowing style of mobility works really well.
The other type, as earlier mentioned, would be to stay one year. People in their mid- to end twenties that want to develop an idea but don’t have the tools yet, are not ready for the fight and need to spend time in an organization to be mentored, learn and do their homework. We need more than Erasmus+, we need real international schemes. I have to say “no” to lots of people every week because they just can’t come as they don’t have a grant.
For me these are the two types of mobility that are extremely valuable. The one in the middle with a duration of three months landscaping is unhelpful in my opinion.
What is mobility in times of world pandemics? Should we still invest on that? And, considering our travel restrictions, how can we continue to grow and reinforce networks, if we cannot meet one another? And why is that important (or not)?
Samuel Kalika: Absolutely! We are all learning with this pandemic. We have steps that we need to take to be careful and then once we take this step we keep working. We keep doing what we do, and we adapt develop it. I think it would be such a waste to stop doing what we’re doing when we can do it safely. We are in a place where we have the luxury of being able to host people when needed. We have a couple of rooms that are always more or less free. We work with masks and everyone is careful.
I have about 3-5 people that really want to come and work with us and I don’t have places for them. This is a heartbreaker; they are amazing, and they want to come here. I feel really blessed but then I can’t host them right now because we don’t have enough programs. The pandemic is not the problem for us!
We need more funding for these kinds of schemes. Different funding’s that target people in specific. There are people that just cannot take Erasmus+. One year after your studies you are out. That’s already excluding a big bunch of the population. When you are older than 30 years old, you can also not take part in EVS (European Voluntary Service) anymore. What remains is Erasmus for Entrepreneurs where you can take only one per director or organization. Within all these schemes we need more fluidity. I wish I could take five more people because we have capacities for that and there is just so much work to do and all of the tasks are so cool. We need funding that can allows us to do so. We need more programs and more mobility. It brings so much richness to the people and organization!