Editors: Gustavo Utrabo, Juliano Monteiro, Pedro Duschenes & Hugo Loss
The year 2011 seems to have reconciled us with history. Of course, people of my age, born in the mid-1980’s, in less than three decades already experienced the end of the Soviet Union, the development of the Internet, the terrorists attacks against New York’s World Trade Center, but only the Arab Spring with the other social movements (Greek resistance, Indignados, Occupy etc.) which followed it worldwide appear as having put history back on tracks from where Francis Fukuyama stopped it in 1992. In many countries of the world, crowd gathered, learned to recreate the social link that once tied them together, and resisted against the oppression of authoritarian or capitalists regimes.
Our architecture peers did not miss the fact that those events brought back to public space its essence which seemed to have disappeared in favor of streets and squares’ circulation, sterilization and securitarian control. From there, one might observe the current impetus of politics within the architectural discourse from where it seemed to have disappeared years ago. Competitions are organized or won around the topic of democratic assemblies, calls for papers on this subject are also plethora and even several studios in architecture schools are dedicated to the public space and its participative characteristics. The question that thus cannot escape my mind those days consists in wondering what this impetus can possibly mean for the future or our discipline.
I think that we can make two hypotheses. The first one would consider this phenomenon as a form of trend, a wave to surf, an intellectual surplus value that would be used to bring a legitimacy that an architectural project would not be able to bring alone. When we observe the opportunism that seems to animate some elements of this recent cooptation, I think that it would not be unreasonable to predict that this architectural concern will disappear as fast as it appeared. A second hypothesis, nevertheless, would recognize this return of politics in the architectural discourse as a victorious achievement for those thinkers and practitioners who have been convinced for a long time that architecture cannot be possibly separated from its political origins and consequences. In that case, such return would prophetize the next architectural decade in which political statements will be considered as given, unavoidable elements driving the essence of each new project.
Of course, this letter will not bring any answer to the question of which of those two hypotheses is more anchored in reality and this answer lies somewhere in between them. Nevertheless, the very fact of wondering/wandering about this problem influences the latter within a productive process and that is why I wanted to write to you about it.
Recently, Patrik Schumacher wrote an article in The Architectural Review in which he was claiming that he doubted “that architecture could be a site of radical political activism” as well as that architects “are neither legitimised, nor competent to argue for a different politics or to ‘disagree with the consensus of global politics’”. Every argument affirming a voluntary detachment from the political debate often hides a conscious or unconscious discourse in absolute favor of the environing political conditions. P.Schumacher’s claim thus struck me as it constitutes the exact opposite of my own thesis. I believe that architecture cannot escape from being a political weapon, whether it has been conceived as such or not. In fact, when architecture is not conscientiously thought as such, it has all the chances to serve the means of the dominating ideology like P.Schumacher seems to recommend. It takes a lot of efforts and reflection indeed to reverse/perverse the violence and stability carried by architecture against the logics of its traditional means of production. The lines traced by architects contain the power of their future materialization and we must use them with great caution and concern. A line on a white page has the ability to split two milieus from each other in reality. That is why I think of the Funambulist (i.e. tight rope walker) as a strong symbol of freedom as he experiences the paradoxical freedom of his five centimeters wide world. By walking on those same lines of power, he is not imprisoned in any of the two milieus that the line delimits. The most famous photographs of November 9th 1989 do not show East Berliners crossing the wall to reach West Berlin after twenty eight years of separation, but rather shows the thousand of Berliners who sat or stood over the edge of the wall as an expression of its power’s obsolescence.
Whether they think of it in these terms or in different ones, it thus seems that many architectural projects are becoming aware of such political power. An important amount of those that we can currently observe around us are clearly lacking of a high level of criticality and research. What is nevertheless preferable for the sake of the political debate? Should we favor projects that systematically ignore the various political consequences of their existence and therefore embrace the dominant ideology, or rather should we encourage political statements, however ignorant and naïve they might end up to be? The second hypothesis could allow the formation of a new generation of architects who will embrace their social and political responsibilities by acquiring a high degree of criticality towards the systems of production of architecture. Of course, put it this way, the answer is contained in the question. Politics is not a discipline as such; it is present in all disciplines, even in its enunciated absence and a real democratic process cannot be triggered without consideration for the contribution of anybody who would like to take the risk of a political attitude.
In definitive, I suppose that nothing is predictable yet in order to know which one of my two starting hypotheses would triumph. Whoever is interested in a creative process which includes its political implications as a main influence for itself should work hard on achieving and distributing it within the Academy and the professional world. We will need to achieve it as architects, but also as citizens. This weekend was the 6th month anniversary of the Occupy movement’s birth and more people have been arrested and brutalized by the police for simply gathering in the public space and applying in vivo a democratic process and debate. The opportunity of change is here, for architecture and for society; we should not miss this occasion.
Léopold Lambert / Architect[e], Editor & Writer