It’s been over a year since two Buenos Aires residents settled into their unusual home: a deteriorated building set for destruction.
Partnering with a few friends, they converted the place into a cultural house, all while knowing that it would soon be torn down and replaced with a high-rise apartment complex. As suggested by the cultural house’s name — MUTA — the building mutated, becoming more vibrant, warm and active every month.
Over the past year, MUTA put on more than 30 formal events, including art and music festivals, film screenings, debates and workshops, and most recently, a street fair for the neighborhood.
“The house is an excuse,” said Mati Lastra, one of the residents and coordinators. “It gave us the chance to live this. We could do the same without the physical space.”
Creation of a Cultural House
Recently, I visited the house to glean some insight from the organizers. Investing in the house seemed like a massive undertaking for something that would be demolished in a matter of months. Why do it? Lastra and his friends explained their mission:
- To rethink how we behave by inhabiting a space that will change
- To understand how this situation modifies the way we live
- To create opportunities for artistic expression
Reconsidering the use of property is pertinent to the landscape of Buenos Aires: 24 percent of dwellings in the city are vacant, according to various estimates. In some cases — as with the MUTA house — this is due to a drawn-out development approval process. Developers seeking to tear down a property typically have three options: pay someone to oversee the place, board it up or leave it vulnerable to vandalism.
Before MUTA became a reality, Lastra learned about the empty house through connections with an architecture firm. Seeing an opportunity, he offered to take care of the house, pay for the services and make the house livable. He moved in at the end of 2016 and lived there alone until Sasha Reisin joined him a couple months later.
When we sat down to talk about the project, the group marveled at how perfectly the partnership came together between Lastra and Reisin, along with Alejo Naipauer, Gregorio Guerrero and Lu Benvenuto.
Reisin had previously attempted to create a cultural house but struggled with resistant neighbors. Naipauer, on the other hand, successfully hosted one in his own apartment, but he didn’t have the space or resources to fully realize his project.
“We had different experiences at different times, but in the end, this was a hub of all the experiences,” Lastra said. “You can think about doing something, but to gather people to be part of the project, it’s not an idea anymore — it’s something concrete.”
Living in the Center
Of all the aspects of the project, what intrigued me most was living in the midst of ongoing events, gatherings and open doors.
“For most people, home is a place where you go and feel safe and comfortable,” Lastra said. “In this case, the house is changing all the time. You don’t create the same feelings you have in normal house.”
Reisin, who lived alone for years before moving in, told me that he has met dozens of people every week in the MUTA house. He admitted that “sometimes you want to sit and rest and do nothing.”
“It affected me,” he said. “MUTA is a breaking point.”
Because of the unusual living experience, he felt inspired to make a significant life change. Prior to MUTA, he felt discontent with a long-term office job, and through meeting new people and experiencing a different way of living, he decided to leave his position.
“It hit me — now I have to risk myself to do what I want to do,” he said. A talented muralist, he now dedicates himself fulltime to his artwork.
Events By Many, For All
Over the months, people began to propose different events and activities for the cultural house. Guerrero offered to host interactive film screenings on the rooftop terrace. Benvenuto came to the first event without knowing anyone and suggested weekly drawing nights in the living room.
“I feel that it’s not just our project, but it’s a living thing that people start to participate in,” Reisin said. “That’s really valuable.”
Cecilia Soler, one of the current residents, said her favorite ongoing activity has been the drawing nights. “It’s moving to see everyone drawing together without knowing each other but sharing the experience all the same,” she said.
The past year has held a lot of sharing. The group hosted concerts, workshops, film screenings, food fairs, yoga sessions and daylong fairs, in addition to intermittent CouchSurfing guests. In December, they set up a sidewalk festival with a makeshift bedroom, kitchen and living room in front of the house.
“Sometimes the flow of people can be a little tiring, but most of the time the experiences were really lovely and enriching,” Soler said. “It is interesting what is produced as a space integrates the community. … There is always someone who participates for the first time, and that is motivating.”
Amidst the buena onda, many people sought a label for the project: Creative? Entrepreneurial? Hippie? “People tend to put it in a category to see if they want to go, if they fit,” Lastra said.
But for those who’ve participated in the project, MUTA has simply provided a place to land.
“We all entered knowing it’s going to end,” Guerrero said. “It’s going to be a sad moment but full of joy, too.”
Although the demo date isn’t yet firm, the group anticipates the house will be torn down sometime in February.
End in Sight
As the project mutates yet again, the organizers are reflecting on their original intent to participate in cultural efforts — however ephemeral. So MUTA is onto its next iteration.
Next up, Lastra and Reisin plan to take the concept abroad and partner with other cultural communities. They’re building a website, seeking grant funding and preparing to launch the mobile MUTA in late March.
They won’t have the house, but as far as they’re concerned, that will not hinder the project.
“The community, the connection, is not going to be demolished,” Lastra said, adding after a pause, “or maybe yes, but not by a machine.”
To keep tabs on MUTA, follow the group on Facebook.