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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster

IMPETUS / Approach (2012)

OWS - Leopold Lambert

“Impetus,” in  Gustavo Utrabo, Juliano Monteiro, Pedro Duschenes & Hugo Loss (eds), Approach, Sao Paulo, 2012

The year 2011 seems to have reconciled us with history. Of course, people my age, born in the mid-1980’s, have already experienced the end of the Soviet Union, the development of the Internet, the terrorists attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. However, the Arab Spring and other social movements (protests in Greece, the Indignados in Spain, Occupy in the USA, etc.) which followed worldwide appear as the only events that put history back on track where Francis Fukuyama stopped it in 1992. In many parts of the world, crowds gathered, learning to recreate the social link that once tied them together, and resisted against the oppression of authoritarian or capitalists regimes.

Our peers architects did not miss the fact that these events restored the essence of public space that seemed to have disappeared in favor of circulation in streets and squares, sterilization and securitarian control. Let us note the current emphasis on politics within the architectural discourse from which politics all but disappeared years ago. Competitions are organized or won around the topic of democratic assemblies, calls for papers on this subject abound and studios in architecture schools are dedicated to public space and its participative characteristics. The inascapable question these days is: what can this impetus possibly mean for the future or our discipline?

We can make two hypotheses: the first would consider this phenomenon as trend, a wave to surf, an intellectual surplus value used to bring legitimacy that an architectural project would not be able to generate alone. When we observe the opportunism that seems to animate some elements of this recent cooptation, I think 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 an achievement for these thinkers and practitioners who have been convinced for a long time that architecture cannot possibly be separated from its political origins and consequences. In that case, such return would prophetize the next architectural decade where political statements will be considered as an unavoidable element driving the essence of each new project.

This text will not bring any answer to the question which of these two hypotheses is closer to reality; I think that answer lies somewhere in-between them. Nevertheless, the very fact that we wonder about this problem influences the process and that is why I want to write about it.

In a recent article in The Architectural Review, Patrik Schumacher claims that it is doubtful “that architecture could be a site of radical political activism” and 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 favor of the existing political conditions. Schumacher’s claim struck me as 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. It takes a lot of efforts and reflection to reverse/pervert the violence of architecture against the logic 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 (tight rope walker) as a strong symbol of subversion as (s)he experiences the paradoxical freedom of her/his five centimeters wide world. By walking on lines of power, (s)he is not imprisoned in any of the two milieus that the line delimits. The most famous photographs of November 9, 1989 do not show East Berliners crossing the wall to reach West Berlin after twenty-eight years of separation. Rather, they show thousands of Berliners who sat or stood on 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 seems that many architectural projects are becoming aware of political power. A number of projects, professional and student ones, lack criticality and research. What is preferable for the sake of the political debate? Should we favor projects that systematically ignore various political consequences of their existence and therefore embrace the dominant ideology, or should we encourage political statements, however ignorant and naïve they might be? The second hypothesis could allow the formation of a new generation of architects who will embrace their social and political responsibilities.. Of course, put it this way, the answer is relatively obvious. Politics is not a discipline as such; it is present in all disciplines, even in its enunciated absence. Democratic processes cannot be triggered without consideration for the contribution of anybody who would like to take the risk of a political attitude.

Anyone interested in a creative process that includes its political implications should work 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 sixth month anniversary of the Occupy movement 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 for change is here, for architecture and for society; we should not miss this occasion.