Interview: Andrew Benjamin

September 6, 2013

In the early stages of development for AR131–Present, AR editor Michael Holt discovered ‘Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture and Judaism’ (1997), a book written by Andrew Benjamin. Here, he speaks to Benjamin about the conflict between preservation and sustainability.

Andrew Benjamin is Professor of Philosophical Aesthetics at Monash University and an Honorary Adjunct Professor at University of Technology, Sydney. He previously taught philosophy and literature at Warwick University, UK. An internationally recognised authority on contemporary French and German critical theory, he has been Visiting Professor at Columbia University in the City of New York and visiting critic at the Architectural Association, London.

Michael Holt: Would you say that preservation and sustainability, in contemporary discourse, are particularly anachronistic? In effect, do these terms cancel out the ‘present’?

Andrew Benjamin: What is needed is an understanding of preservation as a politico-historical category. Preservation needs it own theoretical understanding. Given that preservation can’t be understood as maintaining a three-floor facade and inserting a 25-storey building behind it, the question of what preservation actually is needs to be rethought. Preservation can’t be limited to appearance, such that all that need be preserved is a building’s skin. Who preserves, and for what reasons, are questions that have it be posed in relation to what the literal object of preservation actually is.

MH: If preservation is semantically tied to the past and sustainability with the future, where is the present? Is the present looking at a ‘before and after’ condition? 

AB: As a philosophical term I’ve always used the ‘present’ as the site holding and so staging the conflict as to its nature in place. Is the present able to be radically reformed, or is the present something that will gradually evolve into a future that may be either worse or better? Rapid transformation or gradual evolution are possibilities. They are in conflict. Both offer visions of a future. The locus in which they’re presented as visions is the present. The present then will lead in different directions. The political is the name to be given to the conflict that occurs at the present, concerns the nature of the present and different projected futures. To the extent that there is unanimity, there is the betrayal of the political. A betrayal which is the denial of the political in the name of a politics whose presence is the imposition of a different form of sovereignty – sovereignty that denies the political is the extent to which the latter is understood as the democratic appears in the terminology of the bi-partisan, or the attribution of an importance to the economy.

MH: So in contemporary architectural discourse, would you say the term ‘present’ is a political conflict?

AB: The important element in any argument whose goal is reworking the present is to break the link between the present and dates. The present is not 2013 – or not just 2013. For me, the present is created by the problem of the relationship between the local and the ‘global city’. The present is then created by the conflict between the acceptance of the social democratic impulse within which health, education, welfare and infrastructure are the preserve of government, and the refusal of that impulse in the name of a withdrawal of ‘entitlements’. Architecture, precisely because it is a work of culture, needs to maintain its place within and as part of culture. The culture of the present is, once again, a locus of contestation. There are no national interests at the present; there cannot be bi-partisan agreement at the present. The present is the locus of a conflict of values in which decisions and stances are fundamental. They’re often taken in ignorance of what is occurring: occurring at the present.

MH: In AR131 it is suggested that, when Reyner Banham wrote Four Ecologies, there was a focus on the burgeoning ecological movement, but it was also manifest at a time when Modernist production was steadfast. At this point preservation and sustainability became twin concerns, spinning out of control. Is the present discipline a static moment?

AB: The most important terminological development is to rework the concept of sustainability. Sustainability should no longer be limited to concerns that are strictly environmental. There needs to be an understanding of ‘cultural sustainability’. I would say that both need to be deployed in the evaluation and judgment of any architectural project. To identify sustainability as simply an environmental concern – and the importance of such concerns need to be underscored continually – removes the architecture from its place within the urban fabric and thus its place within culture. When an object is removed from its place within the urban fabric, it becomes a concern of culture. Architecture can’t be conflated with simply building. It’s only by insisting on ‘cultural sustainability’ that it is possible to identify architecture as a concern of the present. For instance, a casino may be an environmentally sustainable as a building, but whether a casino is sustainable under any other criteria is entirely open to question.

  • Jim Gall September 8th, 2013 5:37 pm

    Why not read the work of Professor Tony Fry, who is a design philosopher who has been making this argument for 10 years. I have worked with Professor Fry on a number of projects since 2007 that have made this argument. In fact sustainability (can be sustained and is sustaining) can only exist if it, relationally, deals with biophysical, social economic, and cultural (ideational; intellectual, experiential, emotional, etc) ecologies: ecologies of the earth, social ecologies and ecologies of mind.
    This is thinking that design students at QUT are already getting the benefit of.
    Great to see this idea becoming visible but a shame that it, and its deep importance to the value of design, weren’t picked up on much earlier.

    Jim Gall

  • Online Editor September 10th, 2013 9:24 am

    Thanks for the comment, Jim.
    We have previously published a column written by Professor Tony Fry about his work on sustainability-based design thinking. More here: http://www.australiandesignreview.com/opinion/2085-a-decade-of-design-education

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