From Affirmations to Disruptions: Understanding Design as a Political Act
Ho sentim, aquest contingut només està disponible en English.
D'arquitectura i urbanisme
Publicació del Col·legi d'arquitectes de Catalunya
Ho sentim, aquest contingut només està disponible en English.
Great article but It could be difficult to read due to the use of typefaces
I was at the event and I have read the discussion with Ross Wolfe, but I have to agree with Ross that the statement that all architecture is political is too general. We all have to operate within (or push against) the limits of the current political and economic systems. If this complicity is acknowledged, then you can define your role as an actor within it. Just as a baker needs to bake bread to earn a living, an architect needs to design and build structures. Without seriously going into the notion of a paper / utopian architecture, I do think that the realm in which a discursive and political architecture can operate is therefore extremely limited. The underlying question is much larger; how do we put a political and financial structure in place which enables us to make more equitable environments.
As for the negative influence of Peter Eisenman, I think this may be a bit of an overstatement. In most European, Latin and Asian countries the influence of Eisenman has been extremely limited.
Thomas, I would say that to me this is the statement that is way too general as to become paralyzing rather than actionable:
“The underlying question is much larger; how do we put a political and financial structure in place which enables us to make more equitable environments.”
Yes, we all understand that the system needs to change. But at this point I am pretty confident that none of us has an answer on how or what it would look like after that change. This is also a weirdly classical-modernist (and Euro-centric) view of looking at the world. Once we erase everything what does the new look like? Are we sure it would be better or just another failed modern experiment? Are we to rethink all structures from scratch or is there room for revolution and reformation to happen simultaneously?
I will maintain that yours and Wolfe’s is a pessimistic and fatalist view. At the end this is all fine to discuss in academic circles, but I am an architect and I am not willing to make the false decision between: 1- choosing sconces for luxury clients 2- waiting until the entire system changes to “someone’s” revolutionary ideas or 3- retreating to paper-architecture or sci-fi as a pseudo-political act. I am not willing to wait for the revolution to later understand what those in charge of my new liberation want from me and what levels of purity in political thought they want.
I will work now with those that are doing something to create critical disruptions in the world right now. But this is not the “do anything” attitude that Zizek critiques in contemporary anarchists. This is a critical way of operating to create smart disruptions. This is highlighting systems of oppression, this is making proposals that can create real change while raising political consciousness. This also, by the way, includes talking clearly about existing racial/ethnic, gender and class privileges.
As for the Eisenman, I never said he was the only one working on the post-functional project — he is just a leading figure in the U.S. (a context that I know better). Actually, as we all know, this project really began in Europe. From my many work visits to Europe and Latin America architects there maintain a narrow definition of what it means to be an architect and what architecture can do, especially when it comes to critical political engagements. There are places where this may be changing like the many promising politico-architectural collectives coming out of Spain and Puerto Rico, or the work of dutch artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk but these remain the exception not the rule.
A longer response to Quilian’s article is linked above.
Regarding paralyzing vs. actionable judgments of the contemporary architectural situation: I would contend that ineffective action, by definition, is effectively equivalent to no action at all. Since the rise of “activism” in the 1960s antiwar movement and “direct action” following the alterglobalization protests, there’s been a prevailing attitude of contempt toward what is seen as “the paralysis of analysis.” The disdain for any theoretical reflection that does not lead straightaway to a positive practical program is, I believe, misplaced. Critical theory is not called upon to perform miracles, to see immediately workable or pragmatic solutions where none are actually to be found. What it can do, however, is articulate — through a ruthless critique of that which exists — the conditions that would be necessary for a revolutionary architecture to again become possible.
Nowhere have I argued that architects should pack up their bags or close up shop. Good architecture has been and continues to be made under capitalism, bringing real and occasionally enduring improvements to people’s lives. It would be foolish, however, to maintain that this is the primary function of even the best buildings or designs, considered at a systemic level. An individual architect’s intentions might be quite noble, in fact, but the extent to which his or her efforts can be realized under the present social order is determined by the totality of existing forces and relations that obtain at any given moment. Progressive architecture and design may be tolerated within certain prescribed limits, and broader allowances may be made for more ambitious projects or interventions in specific cases, but it would be a grave error to see the political impetus in such instances as arising out of architecture as such.
For example, should sufficient opposition arise within society to threaten the ordinary functioning and reproduction of capital, demands can be placed on governments that are much more likely to be met. Rosa Luxemburg argued over a century ago that the possibility of substantial legislative reforms was itself symptomatic of the danger (real or perceived) that revolution might take place. This would require a sustained, politically organized mass movement at the heart of capitalist production, concentrated in the most advanced centers of world industry. Needless to say, the center of gravity for such a movement would have to come from outside the narrow professional milieu of architects and urban planners. Of course this doesn’t preclude their involvement in such a movement, as workers and specialists from a wide range of professions would likely be involved.
In fact, this is what I took to be the essence of Thomas Angotti’s remark toward the end of the event. Without a viable working-class movement — through which architectural reforms might acquire political salience — answers are much harder to come by. Fears surrounding the potential consequences of revolution are no doubt real, and are indeed as old as revolutionary history itself. At least within the Marxist tradition, the point of such social and political transformation would not be to “erase everything,” as Riano puts it. This would amount to merely an “abstract negation,” the total annihilation of anything and everything in its path. Revolution in Marx’s sense, as Žižek would be keen to point out, would follow a more Hegelian logic of “determinate negation,” arising out of the conditions that presently obtain.
Dear Ross, I think the crux of this impasse between you and I is that you seem to narrowly define what critical theory and architecture are and can do. As a designer, I am willing to experiment and push on both, trying to expand what the two can do together.
In my previous responses I have pointed towards a few possible ways for design to work within critical theory so I will not go into it again.
I do like this:
“Without a viable working-class movement — through which architectural reforms might acquire political salience — answers are much harder to come by.”
I think we can agree that architects working in a revolutionary vacuum can only affect limited change. What I am arguing for, actually, is the critical role by which architects/designers can help create, support, maintain those movements.
Finally, during our twitter discussion Cesar Reyes reminded me of Keller Easterling’s excellent essay “out-maneuvered by stupidity’s agility” in “Did Someone Say Participate?” In that essay Easterling says the following about the potential role of architecture in the current political environment:
“Righteous political resistance, sure of its central principles, strangely resembles the righteous tautologies of stupidity itself. Righteousness even fuels stupidity’s tendency to symmetrical deadlock. Moreover, the principled stances of political resistance are out-maneuvered by stupidity’s agility with multiple fictions…
A resistance that protects authentic locality not only protects an impossible fiction in a world where capital is flowing in all directions, and sets up future targets for abuse…
In this light, tools like architecture and urbanism, which seem to be seen of political dealings, may be particularly well suited to send in a new technology or logistical wrinkle — one that tips the power of the lockdown towards other political contingencies. Resistance too may adopt stupidity’s agility to manipulate and confound the world’s most abusive situations – if it is too smart to be right.”
Again, the Keller Easterling quote — expanded/corrected:
“Righteous political resistance, sure of its central principles, strangely resembles the righteous tautologies of stupidity itself. Righteousness even fuels stupidity’s tendency to symmetrical deadlock. Moreover, the principled stances of political resistance are out-maneuvered by stupidity’s agility with multiple fictions. Certainly some of the classic powers associated with the proletariat apply to a worker who no longer exists. A resistance that protects authentic locality not only protects an impossible fiction in a world where capital is flowing in all directions, and sets up future targets for abuse. Yet just as the utopia of the park turns into its supposed opposite — a ubiquitous condition — so the state of political immunity and exception may turn into its opposite: resistance. Exception, as its alternately understood to mean a temporary or unique opportunity, can create both interior and exterior conditions that place the park in the crosshairs of the political conflict that it attempts to banish. These opportunities may be most effective not when they righteously and officially square up to the problem, but when they invent an ingenious ricochet that changes the terms of the situation.
In this light, tools like architecture and urbanism, which seem to be innocent of political dealings, may be particularly well suited to send in a new technology or logistical wrinkle — one that tips the power of the lockdown towards other political contingencies. Resistance too may adopt stupidity’s agility to manipulate and confound the world’s most abusive situations – if it is too smart to be right.”