The Architecture of Action

Apr 21, 2010
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

If one were to take global architectural cultural events as a barometer of the profession’s mood (always a danger) one might speculate that a social and political agenda is re-emerging in the architectural mainstream. The World Architecture Festival held in Barcelona in November addressed a thematic of ‘Less Does More’. Here is an admittedly fleeting attempt to place architecture at the heart of the world’s economy, and to try to see it as part of a critically responsive force for change in these straitened times. More tangibly, the current Rotterdam Architecture Biennale has labelled itself ‘Open City: Designing Co-Existence’. The thematic exhibition and event streams of ‘Refuge’, ‘Reciprocity’, ‘Community’, ‘Squat’ and ‘Collective’ ask questions about social justice in the city from the point of view of the designer: ‘How can architects and urbanists make realistic contributions to the sustainable quality of the urban condition?’ Perhaps it is no surprise that at the apparent nexus of irreversible global climatic change and a global financial crisis, sobering assessments are being made of architecture’s value to society. What has been revealed in the past 12 months is a widespread distrust of the financial elites and multinationals that have landed us in our current condition, and consequently perhaps the emergence of a backlash (an outbreak of localism) against the iconic mega-projects of starchitects.

As acknowledged, it is, however, rather trite to gauge such potentially important shifts through the short term and changeable circuitry of the global architecture bash. What might be more accurate would be to begin by reminding ourselves how architecture has traditionally seen itself operating socially and politically, and how current transitions might arguably represent a paradigm shift in that operation.

The discrediting of a social and political ambition for architecture has largely been a product of the failure of the modernist project of social equality. This unfortunate ideological meta-theory was, although well intentioned, instrumental in fundamentally disregarding the value of the messy indeterminacies in society. Modernism in architecture, certainly at its original birth in the early 20th century, was implicitly bound up with improving the lot of society, usually through regimes of organisation, stratification of uses, fresh air, light and plentiful space, and these ambitions were clearly enshrined in an aesthetic of orderly functionality and hygiene. This pathological focus on ‘improvements’ to society and the solving of social problems has characterised architecture’s engagement with the social and political ever since. Early modernism and its emphasis on control and categorisation had the effect of gradually trying to remove the chaos of human life. Our modern discomfort with uncertainty is noted by political philosophers such as Zygmunt Bauman, and post-modern thinkers of the new left such as Chantal Mouffe who have articulated the problems of liberal democratic theory as an inability to acknowledge the multiple and contested views of human existence. They argue that not only is it impossible to achieve democratic consensus, but that this actually threatens to suffocate the richness that characterises public life.

Clearly in this new ethical landscape of what Bauman calls “liquid modernity” architectural and urban operations have become more sophisticated, so that rather than focus on instrumental technologies alone as the mechanism for improvement, a range of actions have emerged which address the complexity of our society. A significant minority of practitioners globally, particularly in Europe, have adopted techniques closer to relational art practice than architecture, and have developed a set of methods that take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than seeing design as an independent and private space of autonomous production. These practices adopt a focus on the process of architectural production as much as on the product and in this process is an acknowledgment of the factor of sociability, the principle of dialogue and a place of intensive encounter. Responsive to the essential indeterminacy of human coexistence, such projects try to negotiate a difficult path that acknowledges the micro-politics of site, and are often at a consequently microscopic scale of implementation. Examples are diverse, ranging from forms of micro-urbanism to new definitions of participatory practice. Jeanne van Heeswijk’s project for a Rotterdam Housing Estate in 2002-03, De Strip, was an influential, temporary occupation in the ground floor of the estate, providing a public hub of activities which placed as much emphasis on the ‘soft’ infrastructures of social networks, identifying entrepreneurs and key players, as it did on the hard infrastructures of public internal spaces. Similarly ground breaking has been the work of the Stalker group, a collaboration of architects and artists based in Rome whose project Immaginare Corviale (2004 ongoing) initiated a collaborative laboratory with the residents of the infamous 1975 social housing block on the south west edge of Rome, giving rise to a series of public spaces and galleries, urban vegetable gardens, squatting facilities and a neighbourhood television station.

What is unfortunate though is that critics of architecture’s social and political role can endlessly refer to the discredited aspirations of modernism as fuel for their argument that this is a fundamentally flawed ambition, and that sorting out society’s ills may well be beyond the purview of architects. Certainly at the societal scale they may well be right. Although that concern has not deflected a long line of innovative, polemical and practical practitioners (from Cedric Price and Archigram, to Rural Studio and Teddy Cruz) from envisioning an expanded role for architecture beyond the formal.

What is also particular about the contemporary engagement with the social (which has been gathering speed globally since the turn of the 21st century) is the accelerated change in our global cultures. New media and network technologies have created hybrids of physical and informational space, where the role of the immaterial and virtual (the invisible social and political infrastructures of space) is fore-grounded by technological innovation in the form of our mobile networking gadgets. More than ever the capacity for social and political interaction in virtual space questions the role of the physical as a socio-political device.

But critically, the argument around sustainability (that over-used and kicked around term often defined by intangibly broad mother statements) has begun to transform itself in the past decade of the noughties into an increasingly urgent debate of not just environmental, but social and political proportions. The sustainability debate is starting to affect the bedrock of our materialist culture by questioning our habits, standards of living and everyday lives. This is as much about a politics of the ground-up as it of the top-down, fundamentally challenging individual notions of comfort that we have all taken for granted for 30 years or more, and provoking designers and architects to grapple with the re-design of everyday life. If the causes of global climate change are now acknowledged by experts to be as much about a multitude of small-scale habits and routines, as large scale problems of industry, then it is difficult to disregard our responsibilities as we are made increasingly aware that consumption and waste are an individual quotidian affair, and not just a problem for governments.

One might therefore see sustainability as one driver of an emergent socio-political agenda in architecture; one which is not just a search for social justice (though clearly this is still absolutely relevant) but also a search, at its most melodramatic, for personal responsibility and action. The global war on terror, the rise of religious extremism, climate change and global warning – in the face of such insoluble problems, there is a tendency to seek the specific and the particular as a way to counteract this rhetoric of immensity. These types of global paranoias and political meta-problems have been predicted by political theorists like Bauman as an unfortunate side effect of global democracy after the fall of communism. Globalism has afforded us an increasingly worrying overview of the world and generated an ever more generic idea of culture. The privatisation of our lives has brought many liberations, but it has eroded our sense of common citizenship and our capacity for an active political culture. And so, what characterises emerging social and politically engaged architecture is operation from the ground-up, on ordinary and everyday problems. In line with the stratified economies of architectural production (from small to large) each with progressively less social and political content, the ground is a comforting place, full of actual concrete references and rich contingencies which can be juggled, balanced and often sorted out. This is a place where ideologies are not useful, but where action is valued.

One cannot get too far into an architectural bookshop these days without noting the plethora of publications that document the groundswell in action-oriented architecture and urbanism, both in the west and in developing countries. The most mediocre of these might represent no more than a type of paternalistic colonialism, operating as good deeds in design for those subject to social injustice. However, the best examples (and they are diverse) are signs of a much more ambitious engagement which operates provocatively to question what ‘improvement’ might actually be, and how the ameliorative potential of architecture might be located within its role as a representational medium for the dilemmas of our existence.

So if action from the ground up is one characteristic of an emerging agenda, the second lies in the more slippery territory of aesthetics and spatial representation: what does this practice actually look like and how might aesthetics operate socially?

Alejandro Aravena of collaborative ‘do-tank’ Elemental has built more than 1000 houses for Chile’s poor in a collaboration with the Chilean oil company COPEC, translating ideas into facts on the ground: with a budget of only US$7500 per unit the only solution was to build half a house, providing a physical gap for families to self-build the remainder. Although awarded the Golden Lion at the last Venice Biennale for the staggering innovation and success of the typology, Aravena is frustrated with the notion that architecture is beyond building: “The biggest challenge today is to try to engage non-architectural issues – meaning poverty, segregation, violence – with our specific knowledge, which is to do buildings.” This is also exemplified in the work of Diebedo Kere, a young architect from Burkina Faso. As someone from a rural African community, Kere benefitted from the opportunity of an architectural education, and has used it to return to his home continent and innovate with the limited resources available there. His primary school in Gando involved refining local techniques of clay brick construction to produce a community built resource that is simultaneously about the introduction of a new economy, and a new formal language.

Equally provocative, but in a different context, the UK practice FAT’s (Fashion Architecture Taste) scheme at Islington Square, Manchester, for innovative developer Urban Splash represents a publicly funded housing project to rehouse the residents of part of a high rise sink estate. Taking as a premise the notion that the client was the existing tenant rather than the funding authority, FAT undertook public consultation with a group of families and produced a gutsy, in-your-face aesthetic; a cross between Dutch gables and Walt Disney. Such eccentricity sits in stark contrast to the remaining housing blocks, a rebellious reminder of the intimate taste of messy domesticity versus rationality and its social and political relevance to the city.

Closer to home, in response to the Victorian bushfires, a whole raft of design initiatives have been launched which try to address both the long term and short term needs precipitated by this crisis. The Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority offers a range of 19 blueprints donated by architects in Victoria for local residents, while the Regrowth Pod by 1:1 Architects offers a fragment of permanent infrastructure for temporary inhabitation, from which to begin a new home. Most recently, the Kinglake Pavilion constructed by students from Monash University offers immediate relief and a social space of literal re-construction for the Kinglake community.

Many of these projects have a physical diversity and exuberance, which runs as a counterpoint to their sometimes earnest socially-engaged agenda. The formal or aesthetic constituencies are not suppressed in the desire for social change, in fact they are utilised for their ameliorative potential. The philosopher Jacques Ranciere offers some direction here. His argument that the aesthetic is an ontologically social domain comprising forms of perception leads him to define the aesthetic as “the ability to think contradiction”; implicitly, that architecture can act as a provocateur through its aesthetic and spatial constituencies, allowing us to confront darker and more complex aspects of our predicament as a society. Rather than a mechanism of ‘improvement’ in the mode of the instrumental technologies of early modernism, such work presents itself as both provocative and useful. This represents a revival of the idea of engagement with the social and political, but through a re-invention of ways of living in the small scale here-and-now, as opposed to the utopian visions of modernist ideologies. As Nicolas Bourriaud notes in reference to current social and political art practice: The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realties, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real.”

Arguably, what characterises these and other diverse examples of contemporary socially and politically engaged practice worldwide is the sophisticated way in which the dynamic of real social action and the creation of autonomous physical proposals is synthesised. Such practice reveals an enthusiasm for personal intervention, and a deep commitment or sense of responsibility toward the actual realisation of a project, whatever shape or form that might take. Typically, these practitioners tend to operate somewhat outside of professional convention, often finding clients and making projects according to need. Improvisation is a key component, developing innovative collaborations and inventive solutions. Outcomes are often marked by extreme innovation and modest scale: a combination of provocative physical proposals and tactical manipulations of political landscapes. This is architecture, but not as we know it. And yet this resourcefulness offers the mainstream of architectural production some useful lessons. There is an ever-increasing demand for architects to adjust to new modes of operating in the face of threatened marginalisation in the building industry. Architectural collaborations with, for example, the opportunistic practices of the urban slum dweller, or the savvy developer can offer new directions for operating on the intractable norms that can characterise our profession. Understanding and harnessing an ability to act effectively and inventively as architects can produce extraordinary outcomes from very ordinary scales and contexts. Extraordinary not just for the way they operate socially, but for the way they appropriate an architectural language of unexpected pleasure and provocation.

Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991
Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London – New York: Verso, 2000.
Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London: Continuum, 2004.

The 2010 National Architecture Conference extra/ordinary runs from 22–24 April 2010 in Sydney. extra/ordinary will dwell on the culture of the extraordinarily ordinary. As an antidote to the incessant abstractions of globalisation, we will be gathering together those who have an enthusiasm for engaging with the contingency of the everyday: inventing new ways of operating; embracing collaborative approaches and initiating direct action on the ground. Producing outcomes that are innovative and utilitarian, provocative and pragmatic. Resolving ordinary problems in extraordinary ways.

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