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Critical Response – Design and Dissent: Architecture’s Political Agency

April 12, 2017

By: Jordan Hicks

Towards the close of her eloquent call-to-arms, “Design and Dissent: Architecture’s Political Agency,” Lindsay Harkema writes: “With revolution as the goal, resistance and dissent must become part of the everyday.” The built environment, as the fabric and structure of our day-to-day existence, clearly has a role to play.

Harkema’s piece focuses on dissent. But, given the quote above, it might be useful to further delineate between dissent and resistance. Dissent is communication. Dissent is the expression of disagreement, a rejection of power, whispered or shouted. Resistance is action. Resistance is rooted in the same sentiments as dissent, but it has instrumental ends, directly working against power for a specific outcome.

The difference between dissent and resistance, right now, may seem semantic—not least of all because the current administration operates through miscommunication: misdirection, cheap rhetorical moves, and comically obvious lies. But, as we’re talking about architecture’s participation in dissent and resistance, the distinction is important. Architecture is always both instrument and sign. While different eras and different individuals may emphasize what architecture does over what it says, or vice versa, every building is both speaking and acting. All this may sound a bit too academic, a bit too bookish given the gravity of the issues at play. But, if architecture is to participate in resistance and dissent, we need to explore and reevaluate its capacities.

Most of the cultural practices outlined in Harkema’s piece are examples of dissent—they communicate a position. But interestingly, the Resistance Dinners currently taking place in New York sometimes have an instrumental component—immigrants consult with lawyers and other advocates to learn about and strategize over how to protect themselves.

Both resistance and dissent are crucial right now. How can architecture facilitate resistance? And how can it express dissent? These questions might be too large and too complex to explore fully in a brief essay. Instead, they prompt more questions about architecture’s evolving political agency.

On Resistance

It is difficult for architecture to actively resist existing power structures. As Aldo Rossi lamented, “There are no buildings of opposition, because the architecture that is going to be realized is always an expression of the dominant class.” [1] Models of resistance to global capitalism proffered by late 20th century thinkers and architects generated compelling new design ideas—Kenneth Frampton’s “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” springs to mind—but their political efficacy might be invisible to anyone not familiar with esoteric art and design discourses. The same could be argued of more contemporary practices framed around resistance, such as the work of Pier Vittorio Aureli and the theoretical projects of Dogma, his partnership with Martino Tattara. The work is compelling and rigorous in its intellectual interrogation and formal resolution, but to an uninitiated observer, the act of resistance is not always legible.

However, opposing the Trump administration is markedly different than opposing something as diffuse, multifaceted, and ideologically promiscuous as “global capitalism.” The key difference is that there are powerful existing groups that oppose the administration’s objectives: state and local governments, well-funded non-profits, and some factions of the business world. How can architects collaborate with these groups in supporting immigrant communities, bolstering free speech, or protecting reproductive rights? And, is that role something more than simply designing a building to meet a given program?

Designing buildings for progressive programs is laudable and important work. However, all too often, a project is proclaimed to be “humanitarian design” solely because of its use or client. These characteristics are not initiated, funded, or facilitated by the architects. I have no qualms about this. But, this discussion of dissent and resistance demands something more. Can the specifics of a project itself—its form, its material, its organization, and the economies which realize it—facilitate that resistance? Examples or precedents for this type work are hard to come by. (For a tangential idea, one might look to the architecture of local building authorities in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, as shown in the OMA-curated exhibition Public Works —brutalist utopias, by and for the public.) Is there a way of juxtaposing uses in a project—as in a city hall or other large municipal building—to foster interaction between diverse communities?

Another idea might be to highlight the labor that goes into building. In many cities, certain building trades are predominantly performed by immigrant groups. How can architects make these contributions legible, and even central, to a project? In a related and widely discussed issue about design’s lack of diversity, architects also need to address our own internal disparities. We must seek to bring more immigrants and people of color into the profession and into leadership roles.

As several theorists and architects have noted, designers may also exert influence through participation with (and redirection of) systems of power. At the present moment, this seems unlikely at best, and grossly unethical at worst. In a recent piece for Avery Review, urban planning scholar Ananya Roy explored notions of resistance. Her essay addresses the unacceptable statements made by AIA president Robert Ivy after the election in which he offered up members’ labor on behalf of ‘infrastructural’ projects. Could architects participate in these projects, with the goal of steering them towards more just ends? Roy rejects this notion:

In previous work, I have examined the praxis of architecture and planning by invoking the concept of the double agent […] The double agent is one who is embedded in systems of power and yet is able to stage moments of rebellion against and within such systems. But I am not convinced that doubleness will suffice as an ethics of profession and personhood at our present moment. [2]

Roy calls for non-cooperation, quoting California College of the Arts Dean Jonathan Massey: “Withholding our labor is architectural agency in one of its strongest forms.” [3]

On Dissent

As Harkema points out, “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.”

Dissent, centered on communication, has two crucial considerations: audience and legibility. One of the exemplary projects which Harkema notes is the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program proposal by SCHAUM/SHEIH. “Blow Up the Wall” is a beautiful and poignant project. It proposes important work. It lands political considerations in our places of culture.

In reflecting on “Blow Up the Wall,” I eventually considered: who is the audience? Increasingly, Americans engage culture along political lines. Think of mid-century modern art and design: people of various ideological positions frequented galleries, collected work, and participated in its discourse. Since at least the culture wars of the 1980s, cultural spheres have become increasingly polarized, something that can only be exacerbated by the belligerence of the current administration. The art world is a predominantly liberal domain. As such, will anyone who does not already oppose racism and xenophobia be moved by the “Blow Up the Wall” project? Will they even encounter it? Is expressing dissent at an art museum, among a crowd of hip young New Yorkers out to hear dance music, substantially different than expressing dissent within one’s own social circle?

I ask these questions not to criticize “Blow Up the Wall” but to interrogate the limits of dissent through architecture: are we expressing solidarity with the like-minded, or are we reaching out with a show of conviction to parties who disagree? Both seem like important tasks. If one aim of dissent is the latter, then an art museum might not be the best venue in which to operate. But architecture has other options and is therefore well-positioned to make an impact. While people of varied political positions share less and less culture, they continue to share many of the same spaces. What does dissent look like in a retail environment, or a sports stadium, or on a downtown facade? Is it even possible in these places?

The strategies and techniques for this type of design work are not obvious. For a more general idea of how to approach this type of communication, it might be useful to take another glance at Postmodernism. Harkema notes, “Postmodernists turned architecture’s design focus inward. Interested in historical references, style, and consumption, Postmodernism backed away from the revolutionary ambitions which were critical motivations of Modernism.” But what is also true of postmodernism is an emphasis on architecture’s capacity to communicate, to tell a story or express a position. The work of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi comes to mind, as does the work of Stanley Tigerman. In Emmanuel Petit’s study, Irony, or the Self-Critical Opacity of Postmodern Architecture, he notes that, contrary to Miesian modernism, “Tigerman advanced an alternate, ‘inclusivist’ approach that consciously tolerated, and even promoted, the formal evidence of the simultaneous presence of conflicting ideas, opinions, and attitudes.” [4] In a 2011 piece on the potentials of “Radical Post Modernism,” Sam Jacob, formerly of the British practice FAT (and now heading Sam Jacob Studio), writes:

Architecture’s surface here is not something that acts as a camouflage behind which self-interest flows in secret, but rather a surface as the site where ideologies are acted out in plain view. By reengaging with explicit communication, architecture can develop its imaging quality as a tool to engage with the cultures within which it finds itself rather than simply in the service of culture. [5]

The communication techniques employed by Postmodernism were not always legible; the playful languages used by many Postmodern architects may not be suited to our current needs. But, if architecture is to express and amplify dissent, we might mine Postmodernism for ideas about communication and rhetoric. Since the early 1990s, most contemporary architects have eschewed these strategies. A few projects by the practices listed above demonstrate some useful ideas. None of these examples express dissent—but the means of communication which they employ might be put to work for more political purposes.

In the work of many Postmodern architects, part-to-whole relationships are leveraged for commentary or signification. At Tigerman’s Pensacola Place Apartment Complex in Chicago, the east elevation features a row of townhouses below a modernist glass high rise. The townhouses are set back slightly and gain a gable-roofed silhouette, which is actually the negative space in the grid of the high rise. A common icon for “home” is interlaced with a modernist architectural vocabulary. The individual and the collective are collapsed and interlaced. FAT’s Community in a Cube in Middlesborough, England, picked up on a similar compositional idea and endowed it with pop, graphic sensibilities: bright colors, silhouettes and patterns, and easy-to-identify figures. In both of these projects, imagery of one kind – the single family home – is playfully integrated into large multifamily housing projects. This is a technique of employing, referencing, and undermining signs and symbols. As a result, the viewer’s preconceptions about housing types are, in some small way, questioned or challenged. While it may be a tall task, can architecture challenge preconceptions about diversity, equity, or the environment in the same way?

For Scott-Brown and Venturi, architecture directly incorporated signs, in both the semiotic and literal sense. Their unrealized planning project for California City included large highway signage in the shapes and colors of indigenous desert flowers. The notion here was to project an image of the developing community directly related to its landscape; moreover, the design intended to encourage residents to take up native planting as a matter of civic pride, with direct ecological benefits. An interesting debate might be whether such efforts at molding public opinion change the way in which citizens think about the environment or simply change the image of a place — to seem more environmentally sensitive than it actually is. Either way, the project suggests that construction of civic imagery is something in which architects can intervene. Could such interventions be employed today, for instance, to underscore and accentuate the civic contributions of diverse peoples and cultures? Could this be clear and legible in our built environment?

These are simply a few examples of the myriad of Postmodern communication techniques. Admittedly, I am not an expert in the history of that work, but I’ve become interested in it as communication via architecture seems newly urgent. Further study of Postmodernism’s knack for communication, through the lens of contemporary culture and politics, may be helpful in developing tools for architectural dissent. [6]

Conclusion

The above conversation cites several practices which are expressly political, and several not normally associated with architecture’s political agency, at least in contemporary conversations. This is due, in part, to my specific interests and positions. I like monumental projects and enjoy exploring architecture’s rhetorical abilities. I also attempt to view the discipline from multiple perspectives, both inclusive and exclusive of overt politics. Surely, there are also pertinent examples of small-scale, improvisational, and ad-hoc methods of designing dissent and resistance into our spaces. I am, admittedly, not too knowledgeable about these diverse ways of working, and I look forward to learning more. One project which does spring to mind is f-architecture collaborative’s installation #icalled, which “establishes a public and mobile inside (a scene, a set, a stage) for hosting political speech against powers historically formalized by architecture.” [7]

Harkema notes, “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.” Architects will need all of our tools for these efforts. As we begin to build architectures of dissent and resistance, we should take stock of the field’s abilities, commitments, and limitations. We might find templates for political agency in unexpected places and projects. Often, the strongest acts of resistance are those that no one saw coming.


Jordan Hicks is an architect based in Chicago. He currently works for Studio Gang Architects. His independent writing and design work can be found in The Avery Review, MONU, PLAT, and Dimensions.

References:

1. Qtd. in Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Project of Autonomy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), 68.

2. Ananya Roy, “The Infrastructure of Assent: Professions in the Age of Trumpism.” The Avery Review 2017. http://averyreview.com/issues/21/the-infrastructure-of-assent (accessed April 07 2017).

3. Ibid.

4. Emmanuel Petit Irony or, the Self-Critical Opacity of Postmodern Architecture.  (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013) 79.

5. Sam Jacob “Radical Post Modernism.” Architectural Design 213 (September / October 2011): 29.

6. Charles Jencks and George Baird’s Meaning and Communication in Architecture and Jencks’ The Language of Postmodern Architecture are useful references for such a study.

7. f-architecture collaborative. “#ICALLED.” http://f-architecture.com/icalled.html (accessed April 09 2017).

 

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