Master's Thesis: 1. The failure of political philosophy and the failure of architecture

1. The failure of political philosophy and the failure of architecture

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière begins his book Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy with the question: “Is there any such thing as political philosophy?”[i] He argues that the Platonic and Aristotelian models of governance (the philosopher kings or political parties) as well as modern versions of democracy – which he would not label political, but an order of the police – are ultimately based upon deceptions of the people and a dislocation of people’s imaginative potential. For Rancière proper politics is not the agents of the politicians, the parliamentary debates or voting procedure, or the institutions of the state or departments of its operations. “Politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.”[ii] Political philosophy, Rancière argues, has failed because it falsely conceives the people and disguised the fundamental societal conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

Architecture has also misplaced its purpose at the expense of its content. The architect and sociologist Franco La Cecla points out that “architecture has nothing to do with the substance of true geography of the present;” thus, “one cannot do less than renounce architecture.”[iii] The geography of the present is a continuously changing and contested urban world, what Lefebvre called the everyday. Even some architects recognize this discplacement of their own purpose. Koolhaas writes:

An architect’s interests are ultimately determined by a series of random encounters with projects and clients that do not allow an independent investigation of issues or conditions outside their field of vision. Thus architects operate, by definition, with ulterior motives; the capacity for independent analysis, research or investigation is simply not within their repertoire. It is becoming increasingly important for architects to operate on a level independent of architecture, in order to understand, at the most basic level, the phenomena affecting the development of architecture and the city.[iv]

The philosopher, sociologist/architect, and architect, frame one of this project’s motivations. How can architecture integrate the intelligence of the people? What broader design tools are necessary to guarantee spaces or conditions of the people?

Berlin’s cooperative housing models illuminate contemporary alternatives to the developer, urbanist, market-architect, built urban world that follows a buy-off-the-shelf logic. The critique looks at three case studies and three different models of collective housing: Baugruppen (Building Groups), Neue Genossenschaften (New Cooperatives), and Mietshäuser Syndikat (tenement trust). The different models of are market-rate housing groups, limited equity housing cooperatives, and tenement trust with dual ownership.

The models must be analyzed in a specific time-space – in the time of now and in the space of Berlin. Before going deeper into the cooperative housing models, I will first introduce the broader scope of the project: my academic background, research questions, analytical framework and methodologies of critique. The project attempts to develop a balanced strategy between the ethnographer and the architect as two nominal agents, one analytical and one propositional. All people apply ideas to their daily lives, whether or not self-reflectively, as theories to their everyday practices. “There is no thought,” Adorno writes, “insofar as it is more than the organization of facts and a bit of technique, that does not have its practical telos.”[v] It might be a practice of categorization, deconstruction, or analysis (academics), or one of space proposition (architect, urbanist, or planner). The balance between analysis and proposition will propose feedback loops as tools to retain awareness of personal, disciplinary, or strategic shortcomings as a reflexive engagement of writing and designs. Other tools include ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation, interviews, documentary film, urban analysis, and a syntheses of critique within a critical urban praxis. What are the mechanics, tools, and steps of a critical urban praxis?

Architecture must be understood through its continuous evolution or trajectory,[vi] which includes a conglomeration of human and non-humans. Cooperative housing must be researched in the current constellation of historical, state, and cultural influences of Berlin: post-1989, withdraw of state programs, liberalization of the housing market for private purchase and speculation, and the transformations of the modes of labor within a post-fordist economy. What kind of dwellings do people want today? Live-work spaces? Self-designed? Community spaces? Purchased off the shelf? The evolution of a architectural project through concept, design, negotiation, and development must be interpreted within the broader city, including the communities and academics who dispute the progressive vision of the projects by arguing that they contribute to the displacement of residents from neighborhoods, increasing polarization between various groups, and legitimating the creative city branding campaign on the micro-scale in neighborhoods that are threatened by large-scale neoliberal urban development projects.[vii] The critique will be in comparison and eventually in strict opposition to the celebratory accounts, exhibitions, and publications, in order to broaden the discussion to the new housing need, which is in part a result of the roll back of state funding for social housing. The spike in wealth for the captains of industry – the 1% ­– is manifest and reinvested within the expansion of urbanization.

Space is no longer only an indifferent medium, the sum of places where surplus value is created, realized, and distributed. It becomes the product of social labor, the very general object of production, and consequently of the formation of surplus value. This is how production becomes social within the very framework of neocapitalism.[viii]

To unpack the controversies of the contemporary city and evolution of capitalism, I will draw on a mix of analytical frameworks and methodological traditions from urban sociology, critical theory, and actor-network theory, in order to oscillate between a critique of architecture and architecture as critique of society.

I will briefly sketch out my background to introduce the reader to my foundational influences, to reveal my intuitive interest to develop a sociology, philosophy, or theory of architecture. I have long taken this balanced role between ethnography and architecture. In 2006, I entered the architecture classroom at the University of Colorado[ix] to study and apply concepts of ecological sustainably to architectural projects. However, I transferred to Marlboro College to develop a project that broadened the architecture and ecological emphasis into sociology and community practice. I studied classical sociological theory and trained in participant observation fieldwork methods, which I utilized during eight months of ethnographic fieldwork around the US on so-called social architectural practices or design-build programs. This resulted in a 268 page sociological analysis; 28 minute documentary film; and 2 yearlong community design project to realize a farm greenhouse and community center.

After completing my undergraduate work, I wanted to enter a unique architectural graduate program where I could expand my empirical, sociological, and community-rooted architectural experiences into new models of practice. Architektur Studium Generale appeared to be a suitable place due to its presentation as an interdisciplinary architecture graduate program with the reference to engineering, sociology, and philosophy in the description. While my interpretation of interdisciplinary and the programs were not in synchronicity, the semi-flexible boundaries of workshops somewhat provided the opportunity to deepen my theoretical comprehension of space and strategies for political emancipation. My curiosity and inspiration was spurred by the so-called “spatial turn,”[x] proclaimed by Edward Soja in Seeking Spatial Justice.[xi] Yet architects’ pedagogy, design processes, and projects are largely empty of critical theory, only filled with their own distinctive characteristics – aesthetics – what Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital.[xii] This conundrum – perhaps a result of my Anglophone background in comparison to localized and disciplinary-focused European traditions in the workshops – became the central motivation for my research and projects, which ultimately led me to find a body of theory that mobilized an emancipatory analysis and politics of space: within the urban writings of Henri Lefebvre; the politics of aesthetics of Jacques Rancière; the political geography of Erik Swyngedouw; the transformation of policy for migrant communities by Teddy Cruz; and the Berlin-based journal An Architektur: Produktion und Gebrauch gebauter Umwelt. The intertwining of theories of emancipation and spatial practices was a central struggle that I grappled with during the workshops. I found one direct line from the theoretical explorations to the cooperative housing strategies in Berlin, where An Architektur editors are participating in designing various models of cooperative housing.

Along the way, I applied the analytical framework from actor-network theory[xiii] to reveal and explain some of the controversies that my previous empirical work had explored.[xiv] Other external projects explored the problem of architecture as object, the professional deficiencies of the architect, and the ambiguous navigations between professional and community perspectives.[xv] And more recently I suggested that the vulgate of conscious spatial practices (“ecology,” “social,” or “smartness”), ultimately lead to an ill informed methodology, obsession with the object, and inability to transcend preconceptions of practice.[xvi] Many of the themes were also explored in a pedagogical community that I co-organized called The City and the Political, which has seen over 60 visitors and finished its first set of printed papers this summer.

[i] Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, page xxi.
[ii] Rancière, 11.
[iii] Franco La Cecla, Against Architecture, San Francisco: PM Press, 2012, page 4.
[iv] Emphasis added: Rem Koolhaas, "Shopping: Harvard Project on the City,"Mutations, Ingoprint SA: Barcelona, 2001, 124-183.
[v] Theodore Adorno, “Marginalia to theory and praxis, “ in Theodore Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998 [1969], page 265.
[vi]  The concept of analysis developed by Yaneva will be expanded later, that of the projectile of the architectural object through concept, design, construction, use, and reuse. Yaneva, Albena, Made by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography on Design, Rotterdam: 010 Uit- geverij, 2009.
[vii] Erik Swyngedouw, Frank Moulaert, Arantxa Rodriguez, “Neoliberal Urbanization in Europe: Large-Scale Urban Development Projects and the New Urban Policy” Antipode, 2002. 547-582.
[viii] Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, page 154-155.
[ix] In Colorado, I had been encouraged to leave the architecture program to pursue a more rigorous academic experience by Joseph Juhasz, a psychologist who taught in the architecture school for many decades, and in whose class I developed experimental projects that involved performance, costumes, body painting, and nakedness, leading to a campus investigation. His academic writing I later found relevant during my balance between sociology and architecture: Juhasz, Joseph,  "The Place of Social Sciences in Architectural Education," Journal of Architectural Education, v34 n3 p2-7 Spr 1981.
[x] B. Warf and S Arias, The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London: Routledge, 2008.
[xi] Edward Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
[xii] Gary Stevens, The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction, Cambridge: The MIT PRESS, 1998, page 86.
[xiii] Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
[xiv] Paul Jones and Kenton Card, “Constructing ‘Social Architecture’: The Politics of Representing Practice, Architectural Theory Review, 16,3 (November, 2011).
[xv] Kenton Card, “In Search of a Democratic Production of Social Architecture: A Philosophical Anthropology of the Conflicts of Social Architecture or Experimentation on the Poor,” Design Philosophy Papers, “beyond progressive design,” 3/2011, http://www.desphilosophy.com/dpp/dpp_journal/cited_papers/paper3_KentCard/dpp_paper3.html, accessed on 14.08.12.
[xvi] Kenton Card, “The Fetish of ‘Conscious’ Architectural Practices,” Horizonte: Zeitschrift für Architekturdiskurs, 2012, page 112-117.

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