Design and Dissent: Architecture’s Political Agency
By: Lindsay Harkema
“If on the contrary we face the problem of making our reckonings with reality at every moment, if we face the problem of living creatively, living truly that is, regular breathing is no longer enough and we must invent on each occasion the utensils for ‘doing things’ and find the answers to new queries.” —Superstudio, Invention Design and Evasion Design
Architecture has a tenuous relationship with politics, despite being an inherently political act.
For this discussion to be productive, clarifying terms is crucial. In this essay, “political” refers to the organization and implementation of governance of a group of people, as well as their experience and participation in that system. “Architecture” refers to the organization and implementation of a constructed environment occupied by a group of people, as well as the design process which informs its articulation.
Both politics and architecture are concepts that evolve in response to collective human experience. Yet established political systems, like the built environment, are often slow to change. This inability to adapt quickly gives rise to dissent—the critical and rebellious questioning of systems currently in control. Oppositional movements gain legitimacy and identity based on their difference, exception, or deviation from the general rule.
For a democratic society, dissent is highly productive. Dissenters challenge assumptions and encourage discussion about the critical issues related to our rights as citizens. Dissent is channeled through political discourse and action with the goal of stimulating change to meet the collective desires of the people.
The space occupied by dissent is often misunderstood. We typically think of collective actions of dissent as those committed in public—mass protests, demonstrations, rallies—and don’t recognize the equally potent spaces of dissent in the private realm. Furthermore, we don’t typically think of dissent as “designed” or as a possible design outcome. However, design itself is a form of revolution against current reality. Designers participate directly in the formation of the public and private realms. The public world–a space of action–and private realm–a space of discourse–are both political. They are mutually dependent and are, today, increasingly blurred.
The Push and Pull of Dissent
History holds important lessons for the cross-pollination of political dissent in the public and private realm. Emerging at the height of ideological fervor in post-revolutionary Russia, the designers of the Avant Garde sought to rethink the everyday life of a new society. A new Soviet state emphasized the pursuit of societal progress and collective life, and designers were charged to develop the spatial, visual, and graphic languages which embodied the promise of this new life for the Soviet citizen. This vision sparked an era of vibrant design innovation. Avant Garde architects designed and built the bold geometries of Constructivist buildings, as well as imagined possible futures in which architecture could defy gravity. These design projects targeted the community scale and domestic realm through the creation of new building types, such as workers’ clubs and communal housing.
In 1929, Konstantin Melnikov, a prominent figure of the Avant Garde, designed and built a home for his own family nestled within a continuous block of multi-story residential buildings in central Moscow. A freestanding house composed of two interlocking cylinders, the building is an interruption in the otherwise flat and solid facades extending to either side. At the time, the construction of a private home was a radical exception to the socialist government’s agenda of universal communal housing. While the predominant political ideology emphasized work and progress (the work day had been lengthened under the first Five Year Plan a year earlier), the Melnikov house was designed as a space of sleep, organized around the particular needs of the family. The house stood in silent opposition to the political tenets of the Soviet regime. As the interest of the authorities shifted from innovation to control, the Avant Garde fell out of favor, and eight years later Melnikov was banned from practicing architecture.
Under Stalin, the Soviet Union experienced an ideological backsliding. The revolutionary roots and forward-thinking, progressive design of the Avant Garde was replaced with classical notions of empire, expressed architecturally through sheer monumentality and ornament. As governmental control increased, new practices of dissent emerged in the hidden social spaces of the private realm. Because public space was increasingly surveilled and controlled, the private, communal sphere became the space of political activism through common practices like kitchen talks and samizdat, the handmade reproduction and underground distribution of banned literature. These domestic movements eventually gave rise to the forces that would ultimately undermine the Soviet state.
Like the kitchen talks of the Soviet era, the current political climate in America has inspired forms of dissidence in the private realm, creating a free space of open discourse within the comforts of the home. In her recent New York Times article, “Home is Where the Resistance Is,” Ronda Kaysen describes a community organization in Brooklyn that invites undocumented immigrants to members’ homes for dinner: “With food, wine and child care, living rooms are transformed into havens where immigrants can speak freely with lawyers and advocates about their rights and risks.”
Space, Media, and Dissent Today
Our time is witnessing a resurgence of public political action. In every major series of demonstrations of the past decade—the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, among others—public squares emerged as platforms for collective protest and, at times, revolutionary action. These events reinforce a political conception of public that depends on a space of free discussion and debate. However, this conventional notion of public space and behavior as distinct from the private realm, no longer holds. Increasingly the spaces, routines, and behaviors of public and private are becoming interconnected through the technological communication, social media, and the constant inundation of information fed to us via our ever-present digital devices.
Recently, the effective occupation of airport entrances and loading zones in protest of Trump’s travel ban reveals a more agile and emergent space of political exception within the gray zone between public and private. At airports across the country, the occupation enacted a deliberate transformation of the space most immediately related to the topic of debate (i.e. the airport immigration control). These actions were amplified not because of their iconic presence in the urban public realm, but because of their multi-scalar effect seen both immediately at the site of the demonstration and globally through photos and videos shared on social and news media.
Yet, with the reappearance of widespread political demonstration comes widespread skepticism about its effectiveness and ability to change our political reality. Many protest movements have failed in their inability to maintain momentum, described in hindsight as having “vague, unstructured causes; too much diversity of purpose; no real political path forward” and “made a lot of noise but didn’t lead to lasting changes.” In other words, how deeply do revolutionary ideas penetrate our psyches if they are absorbed through Facebook while we are lying in bed? It’s a brutal oversimplification but accurately illustrates the challenge: How can designers of the public and private realm rethink our indirect participation in political discourse and more intentionally intervene?
Changing Currents in Design’s Political Agency
The current hands-off approach towards the political agency of design is the result of a 20th century that witnessed a split personality towards activism. Modernism strove toward universal and egalitarian ideals by preferencing function over form. Ultimately, these efforts fell short, and worse, at times played a role in the perpetuation of the social inequalities the Modern movement had initially sought to dissolve. In response, design retracted into a more comfortable, neutral, creative practice, operating outside of our political reality. Postmodernists turned architecture’s design focus inward. Interested in historical references, style, and consumption, Postmodernism backed away from the the revolutionary ambitions which were critical motivations of Modernism.
Despite a general disinterest in politicizing the profession, several design practices that emerged during the post Modern era of the 1960s and 70s — such as Team 10, Archizoom, and Superstudio — maintained a radical streak, issuing manifestos and envisioning utopias which sought to redefine the political agency of design at multiple scales. While impractical in immediate application, these ideas are highly relevant in our current moment. They understood design as a mode of intervention into the everyday, and they perceived domestic life as a laboratory for experimentation, resulting in a broader vision of possible collective, public life.
Part of the radical architecture movement in Italy, Superstudio rejected the culture of consumerism with which they felt design had become complacent. Practicing design as intervention, they operated through the insertion of poetic objects, projection of aspirational superstructures, or instigation of new behavioral patterns that would disrupt the monotony and dreariness of the everyday, incurring a prolonged revolution. In 1967, Superstudio made a claim for “evasion design,” based “on the theory of introducing foreign bodies into the system: objects with the greatest possible number of sensory properties (chromatic, tactile, etc.), charged with symbolism, and images with the aim of attracting attention, or arousing interest, of serving as a demonstration and inspiring action and behavior.”
Like the climate from which Superstudio emerged, our time is witnessing a resurgence of politically active public and private life, and in response, a wave of criticism about how it becomes relevant in our daily lives. For the most part, designers have yet to respond in a meaningful way. Perhaps better said, designers have yet to take full advantage of the opportunity for provocation of the moment.
The recent results of a prominent national design competition, MOMA’s Young Architects Program (YAP), illustrated the presence of multiple messages in its short list of proposals. The YAP has, for the past two decades, been a platform for emerging design practices to put forth innovative proposals in response to its annual call for a temporary outdoor installation at MOMA PS1. One of the 2017 finalists, design practice SCHAUM/SHIEH proposed a project with the charged title, “Blow Up the Wall!”. Featuring inflatable forms that appear as though they are climbing over the perimeter walls of the PS1 yard and zones of differently colored sand as ground cover that would mix as visitors move through the courtyard over the course of its installation, the proposal has clear political undertones. As a powerful allegory, the project inserts elements into the yard that are subtly symbolic of current political tensions and allows the posh summertime partiers to fill in the gaps. The playful manipulation of the courtyard wall keeps its presence constantly in visitors’ peripheral awareness. In approaching another patron with hopes of striking up a conversation, a partygoer might ask, “So, what does this wall mean to you?”
By contrast is another finalist, Bureau Spectacular’s “Pool Party,” whose promotional video begins with the statement: “Summertime is a time of leisure. It is a time when we remember to forget, at least for one or two weekends there should not be a single worry in the world. Any hardworking person should take some time off, partake in some casual day drinking, half listen to some outdoor concerts, and forget your worldly sadness.” The implication that “worldly sadness” is ubiquitous and the only possible relief is utter denial is both unsatisfying and ultimately futile. Like the unprecedented number of Oscar nominations for the whimsical film La La Land, “Pool Party” makes us uncomfortable, thinking to ourselves, “Is this really the cultural artifact we need right now?” The MOMA jury chose neither of these proposals as the winning project, opting for the material experimentation and advanced technological proposal by Jenny Sabin composed of robotically knitted textile solar panels.
What is to be Done?
Our current moment is defined by scarce middle ground. If neutrality is not an option, then one of the primary needs of our time is for a more deliberate will to act politically, to break down boundaries, to engage in discussion and debate, and to foster sustainable modes of resistance. Moreover, for designers, it is also a moment to revisit the creative potentials of revolution at all scales. Like Superstudio’s mode of evasion, design inserts itself in the existing context, undoubtedly political, so to alter, in some way, that particular reality, suggesting another worldview or alternate future, and doing so consciously.
While “RESIST” is the popular battle cry, and “protest is the new brunch,” without a meaningful and sustained refinement of our everyday life, protest movements alone will not achieve the desired impact. 2017 has already seen the rise of a diverse, young, politically active public seeking new forms of resistance and creative industries stepping up to the challenge. From inventive tech organizations like Debug Politics to messages of activism in new music compilations released as a part of Bandcamp’s Our First 100 Days initiative, new modes of activism are demanding proposals, and designers have the choice of whether or not to participate. With ‘sustained revolution’ as a goal, there are countless, yet-to-be-defined ways to interpret the project brief.
A review of the recent music video, “Work”, by musician Charlotte Day Wilson, which is an ode to ordinary urban routines of women infused with a strong political message, accurately stated “In an ideal revolution, activists will routinely engage with causes that don’t affect them personally.” With revolution as the goal, resistance and dissent must become part of the everyday. This notion presents a renewed agency for designers reimagining our built environment to recognize their political agency to partake in the creation of new spaces of exception and forms of resistance. Seek the new bodies of maximum sensory properties, demanding of attention, intriguing, inspiring. Define the deviations in our spatial environment that pose new ways of seeing and interacting with others. Design the exception to the rule.
Lindsay Harkema is a New York-based designer and educator, currently teaching at Syracuse University School of Architecture. She grew up in the southwest and midwest United States, before attending grad school in Texas, and then beginning her career in New York City. She graduated from Rice School of Architecture, where she was awarded the Morris Pitman Award in Architecture. Lindsay’s research and design projects explore the ever-shifting relationship between the built environment and the human ecology that occupies it, and the opportunities this dynamic creates for territorial, spatial, and political exceptions.
- Juhani Pallasmaa with Andrei Gozak, The Melnikov House, London: Academy Group, 1996.
- Ioffe, Julia, “When Protest Fails”, The Atlantic, January 21, 2017, accessed February 27, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/01/womens-march-protest-trump-russia/514064/
- Resnick, Brian, “Four Rules for Making Protest Work”, Vox, January 31, 2017, accessed March 8, 2017, http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/31/14430584/protest-trump-strategies-experts
- Superstudio, “Invention Design and Evasion Design”, in Architecture Culture, 1943-1968, ed. Joan Ockman, (Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation/Rizzoli, 1993) pp. 438-441
- “Pool Party”, Bureau Spectacular, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQPKuBnoa6U, accessed February 27, 2017.
- “Protest is the New Brunch”, episode of Pod Save America, Crooked Media, January 30, 2017, https://getcrookedmedia.com/here-have-a-podcast-78ee56b5a323#.nzy73ubga
- Jordan Darville, “Charlotte Day Wilson’s “Work” Video Has Become An Inspiring Tribute To The Women’s March”, Fader Magazine, January 24, 2017, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.thefader.com/2017/01/24/charlotte-day-wilson-work-womens-march-music-video