Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

It was at another conference some twenty-eight years ago, just before the moderator’s opening remarks, that the Rome-born architect and theorist Bruno Zevi pushed back from the roundtable and rose from his seat to declare, “I denounce the presence at this symposium of the fascist Philip Johnson.” The audience at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design shifted nervously in their chairs. Zevi was referring to the events of fifty year prior, when Johnson had left the directorship of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art to write a series of glowing dispatches from the parade grounds at Nuremberg. On his return, Johnson followed this adventure with a trip in a Chrysler touring car through the American Mid-West, on a mission to establish National Socialism in the US.

Of course, the conference-goers were aware of all this. Johnson’s politics in the period 1933-1939 had been—remain—the subject of as much speculation and opprobrium among Johnson’s peers as of evasion and oblique apology on the part of Johnson himself; no rapt auto da fé of Zevi’s that morning was likely to elicit any further contrition from the accused, nor reveal anything not already known to most of the audience. But it wasn’t supposed to. For Zevi, it had been a kind of ritual, a formality of opposition that legalized his participation in the Cambridge panel under the provisions of his own conscience. Having performed it, he sat down, and the symposium resumed as scheduled. Nothing more was said about it by either party.

Zevi’s gesture was part and parcel with a political commitment that defined his life in architecture. While others waffled, and as the rot set in on modern design with the encroachment of pastiche post-modernism, Zevi fixed himself in the attitude of the uncompromising modernist, a socialist of near spotless reputation. Near—because in the end he was prepared to sit on a panel with “the fascist Philip Johnson.” But more than that, the Harvard episode exposes a peculiar contradiction inherent to Zevi’s position as “architect engagé.” For him, it was a title of honor not to be split into its constituent terms: there would be no parting of the ways between architecture and political engagement, certainly no evacuation of architecture on any account, for Zevi was strong in the faith that good design was essential for social progress. The surprising (and discomfiting) flaw in this ethic becomes visible when seen against the background of Johnson’s career: of the two, Zevi and Johnson—the one so indelibly political, the other reputed to be without any political scruples at all—only Johnson was prepared to abandon architecture for the sake of what he felt, however briefly and regrettably, to have been a political imperative. Zevi would never go so far.

Few do. Architects-turned-politicians are thin on the ground. Towards the end of his life, Zevi actually served for a short time on Italy’s Chamber of Deputies—but this was regarded by most observers as something of a lark, and at any rate he never stopped writing and speaking about architecture as Johnson had in the ‘30s. Zevi’s great opponent on the left, the architecture historian Manfredo Tafuri, worked in city government in Venice and Bologna—but then he was an historian, not an architect. We may presume that President Obama is being perfectly honest when he says that he “would probably have been an architect” if he hadn’t chosen the law instead, but we’ll never know for certain. The American Institute of Architects recently completed a survey of architects in elected office in the United States; of the 850 counted, most hold positions (Member of the Zoning Board, Historic Preservation Commissioner, etc.) essential to their communities but  largely apolitical in character.

Now, many architects today would identify themselves as politicians, even radical politicians, acting in the role of architects. This contingent is responsible, among other things, for the “green” modulation in architecture, and for the recent renewed interest in public infrastructure; through them, the engagé tradition of Zevi has persevered, however mellowed, remaining more or less intact from the earliest days of modernist socialist utopianism a century ago. That it has persevered at all is one of history’s little miracles, since—and this was Tafuri’s particular gripe—it hasn’t succeeded in the least.

The evidence of its failure is all around us. Capitalism is alive, if not exactly well; utopia does not appear imminent, and in any case it is unlikely to be ushered in by today’s designers with their hydroponic urban gardens and low-carbon-footprint homes. Radical change is not on the design agenda. What Philip Johnson said (in his later, post-political incarnation) could be nailed to the lintel of every design school: “Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.” In other words: If you want political agency, be a politician. Be an activist. Just don’t be an architect.

Unless there’s another possibility. Could there be something besides a compromised and dated meliorism on the one hand, and the outright desertion of architecture in favor of politics on the other? Can there be a practice within architecture that is forthright about architecture’s complicity in the ascendancy of globalized neoliberalism—that can somehow abandon architecture as political imperatives require, and then resume it at will? These questions and more were brought to the fore by a series of lectures, panels, and impromptu bull sessions in Brooklyn in November. When the dust settled, it wasn’t clear whether “Ten Days for Oppositional Architecture: Imagining Post-Capitalist Spaces,” which ran from November 12 through November 21, produced anything like a viable, radical alternative to the earnest do-gooder greens, or even to the lamentable rise of “starchitects” like Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind over the last decade. On the whole, the symposia produced more light than heat. But then architecture could use a little light, especially now.

What exactly was being opposed, and what precisely was meant by “post-capitalist space,” varied with the program—and the program was a Mulligan stew. First there were the sponsors: In 2004 and again in 2006, leftist German design journal An Architektur hosted “camps” for oppositional architecture that featured academics and practitioners from around the globe squatting in former factory spaces near Berlin-Wedding, leading a series of lectures and workshops over the course of several days. In attempting to translate these more or less extemporized happenings to America, An Architektur’s Oliver Clemens and Sabine Horlitz enlisted the help of Joseph Grima of New York City exhibition space Storefront for Art and Architecture; Grima in turn contacted the directors of Performa, the city’s annual performance arts festival, which officially “commissioned” the event.

This array of sponsors represents a disparate field of attitudes, artistic and political. Performa is a well-established art world phenomenon, vital but hardly radical, and not exactly interested in architecture qua architecture; Storefront devotes itself largely to pragmatic questions of design, mounting shows that tend towards reflexive examinations of architecture’s history and practice; and An Architektur is a creature of an entirely different climate, one in which architecture is far less rigorously professionalized and “radical” is still a respectable calling. Additionally, the exigencies of life and money in New York were such that the semi-licit format of An Architektur‘s previous “camps” had to be nixed, replaced by a formal round of evening-and-weekend sessions. All told, it was a sort of intellectual “vision quest” cooped up in a vacant Dumbo gallery, run by work-boot Berliners and packed with penny-loafer Americans.

And then there were the speakers. The first evening featured James DeFilippis, geography professor at Rutgers University, in conversation with representatives from Chinese-American community group CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence). Three days later, University of Toledo historian Peter Linebaugh teamed up with Brett Bloom of Illinois’ Midwest Radical Culture Corridor and Rob Robinson from the New York homeless advocacy group Picture the Homeless. CUNY geographer Neil Smith spoke midweek with members of Baltimore labor group United Workers; next, geographers Janelle Cornwell and Julie Graham of UMass were paired with Max Rameau, director of radical reclamation activists Take Back the Land.

None of these speakers, it will be noted, was an architect. The only true designer to participate in the program was Teddy Cruz of Estudio Cruz, San Diego. Significantly, it was his presentation, which focused on efforts by his firm to assist impoverished denizens of Tijuana in the maintenance of so-called “micro-economies”, that was one of the few to create actual friction. Cruz drew fire from his co-presenter, UMass economist David Kotz, for the collaborationist character of his approach—the attempt not to change radically the social condition of Tijuana’s migrant underclass, but to mediate it by facilitating the construction of homes made of recycled debris from the illegal cross-border trade.

Kotz’s critique might be typified as an attack on the latter-day School of Zevi by the forces of an anti-architectural political camp; in the absence of any other practicing architects, however, such conflicts were few. Likewise, since actual space-makers were in short supply, the idea of “post-capitalist space” resolved to its most abstract construction: a mental space, a temporal space, a mood. The blockbuster session was, inevitably, the lecture given by CUNY’s David Harvey, who said nothing whatever about architecture, design, or space, except to mention that he’d once sat on a panel with a couple of architects whose formalist preoccupations he characterized as “an obsession with circles and squares.” (Advantage, Harvey.)

To the extent, then, that this was a summit mostly on post-capitalism, and not really on architecture, the whole ten days belonged less to the world of design conferences than to the continuum of left-leaning symposia on general topics of political economy, such as the one on the “Idea of Communism” that took place in London (and was chronicled in these pages) last spring. Like the London conference, much of the “Ten Days” was occupied with prophesy and posturing: there was the plan, announced by Picture the Homeless’ Robinson, to reoccupy 100,000 houses nationwide abandoned through recent foreclosures; there was Kotz’s attempt to articulate a revised critique of failed communist regimes in support of his idea of a “New Socialism” (which bore a distinct resemblance to the old one). Harvey diagnosed last year’s financial collapse as a symptom of a cannibalizing global imperialism: as fewer and fewer new markets for surplus capital materialized over the last decade, “asset investment”—based, as Marx predicted it would be, on the assumption of permanently rising rents—became the sole remaining alternative, causing the US housing bubble and all that followed it. In Harvey’s estimation, capitalism has reached its end game, having painted itself into a corner.

Scattered amidst the lectures and panel talks were evenings on which no formal programming occurred. Instead, outside groups, mostly architects, were invited to host an open bar and to distribute materials about whatever projects, mostly conceptual, they happened to be working on. The best of these, one which added yet another layer to the institutional millefeuille surrounding the “Ten Days,” was the “Public School for Architecture,” a project from downtown architectural think-tank Common Room. Members of the group handed out drinks along with broadsheets about the project: under the auspices of the Van Alen Institute, Common Room has been managing free classes on architecture in which everything, including the curriculum, is part of a collaborative, open-ended process. “Applicants” suggest classes via a sign-up sheet, instructors are found, and all are welcome to sit in. The school’s second session overlapped with the “Ten Days,” and featured classes, held in various marginal locations around Manhattan, on digital design software and the architecture of performance spaces.

On the evening that Common Room took over the bar, seven or eight attendees milled around the spare Dumbo venue and batted around ideas for the Public School’s next session, to be held in the spring, all the while tossing back tall boys of Budweiser. Said An Architektur‘s Clemens, “In Germany, the bar nights were usually the crowded ones. Here, it’s the lectures that get the most people.”

Two elements of the conference, occurring somewhat off and to the side of the main program, proved the most provocative. The first was an exhibition on display at the back of the conference space featuring the work of American architects dating mostly to the ‘60s and ‘70s. Through a wonder of archival research, members of the An Architektur team assembled photographs, drawings, and press clippings about architects operating as community activists in underprivileged sections of New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. In Manhattan in the late ‘60s, the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem dedicated itself to including local residents in the design process, in an attempt to decentralize and refocus the urban renewal process that had displaced thousands of Harlemites over the previous decade. ARCH, as it was called, aimed to upset the traditional role of the architect, and to empower the previously passive recipients of design. But the strength of the exhibition was not that it suggested ARCH’s methods and objectives as a way forward, a neglected strategy ripe for reclamation. No, the interest of the exhibition lay in its tragic character. All of the groups displayed had checkered success at best, and all disbanded or broke up due to external pressure and internal divisions.

To the degree that the position of those long-ago archi-activists was not too dissimilar from the one espoused by Cruz during the conference (not too different, that is, from the conventional architect engagé) the exhibition was an eerie reminder of the limits of design as a social praxis. The exhibition did far more, in that regard, to specifically indict architecture for its historical shortcomings than did any of the conference presenters—for ten days supposedly devoted to opposition, nobody spent any time confronting the problems inherent to architecture or suggested any way to address them. The consensus was implicit, and absolute: design, as such, could not produce post-capitalist spaces. In a workshop on the tenth day, a number of strategies for achieving a post-capitalist environment were put forward, most of them demands for community control of housing, public space, and so forth, more or less in keeping with the approaches of Take Back the Land and the other activist speakers. But then a special guest joined the workshop, and the second of the conference’s most intriguing moments happened, quite unexpectedly.

Damon Rich, an urban designer in Newark’s Division of Planning and Urban Development, mounted a surprise defense of design as a pragmatic, socially conscious discipline. Confronted (by the conference organizers, no less) with something like Kotz’s rebuke to Cruz—that is, with the accusation that he risked co-option by the forces of power and capital—Rich fairly bristled: “That’s just not something we have the luxury of worrying about,” he said. In Newark, where housing is desperately needed, where development has to be nurtured and jobs created, Rich maintained, in fairly explicit terms, that this business of imagining “post-capitalist spaces” was at best inessential, and at worst a total abdication of the designer’s political responsibility. It was a simple enough position; it was, in fact, the very position which the “Ten Days” was in opposition to, in so far as the speakers all insisted we look beyond the here-and-now to a possible post-capitalist world. And yet after ten days of speculative perorations, Rich’s statements felt like fresh air.

That, however, may be less a credit to Rich than a measure of the conference’s unique frustrations. Certainly Rich is not so naive as a Bruno Zevi—he is refreshingly unburdened by utopian illusions—but neither does Rich have any taste for directly confronting architecture’s political predicament. What Rich effectively provided, and Cruz as well, was the complementary but not the supplementary element to the proceedings: they offered an architecture; Picture the Homeless et alia offered an opposition; but neither side could formulate an architecture of opposition.

Again, An Architektur anticipated this reproach. From statements in their 2004 “charter” and in the program notes to the “Ten Days,” the group and its fellow “campers” suggest that oppositional architecture is, for them, primarily a conceptual and pedagogical enterprise. They call for architects to move beyond “the narrow boundaries of the profession”; they offer “advice and services” with the aim of getting social groups to reconsider their material conditions. As a “a critique of capitalist and authoritarian forms of production and use of the built environment,” this approach has definite advantages: it’s a para-architectural practice, which effectively uses architecture as a convenient vehicle when and where it serves the project of creating “post-capitalist space.” Perhaps, in this sense, the entire conference was an instance of oppositional architecture in action.

But what oppositional architecture cannot do, if so broadly defined, is use architecture itself as a polemical device. It can look ahead to the future—but not around and behind to architecture’s present and past. It gives agency to designers at the expense of design, and in so doing it not only casts away a valuable instrument but also exposes itself to the charge of being mushy-minded, positivistic, insufficiently critical. Ah, criticality: there’s that weasel word.

For decades, critical architecture has been a notional goal of the field. Whether construed as the response by design to critical theory—or, more provocatively, as a serious assault on architecture by architects, on the grounds of architecture’s inefficacy, political and otherwise—it has the virtue of abjuring Zevian architectural elitism, without simply abandoning the field to its most careless and most unscrupulous residents. It has also gone in for a terrible drubbing over the last decade, as architects have cast away the heavy ballast of reflexive thinking to jump headlong into the rushing currents of 21st century culture. As an answer to An Architektur‘s call for opposition, the idea of a critical architecture acquires new luster, especially as compared to some of the more tired prescriptions for post-capitalist space that floated around the “Ten Days.”

What would such an architecture look like? Well, one of the more recent and cogent attempts at a critical practice emerged in the 1990’s, with the Derridean-deconstructionist tendency in the work of Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind (ironically, in view of his subsequent travesties), and their fellow travelers. Although contemporary practice has managed to reduce it to a relatively anodyne aesthetic, the violence, the distortion, and the instability of this architecture still seem fresh today: Libeskind’s early sketched and collaged compositions appeared to implode, with all the violence of the 20th century, under the combined weight of architecture’s formal ambitions and social failures. This architectural moment retains its appeal as an instance of form responding to (not creating a false analog of) a body of critical thought, and it is all the more appealing for the confrontational aspect of so much of the work it engendered —confrontation being notably absent from the purely ethereal suggestions of the An Architektur group, focused as they are on the airy business of producing post-capitalist space.

Of course, the voguish deconstructionist theory of the 90’s that inspired the designs of the so-called Deconstructivists (an unfortunate portmanteau, popularized by none other than Philip Johnson) has long since been eclipsed. No one can seriously recommend the revival of Derrida’s word games, nor could the tropes of Decon (sliding planes, disjointed figures, emphasis on the diagonal) signal the kind of critique of architecture’s present situation we so urgently require. But a confrontational architecture, a jarring architecture, an architecture that manifested, somehow, the justifiable dissatisfaction of designers with architecture itself—that might come as some refreshment. Architects should be reading again, thinking again, and thinking critically. Their architecture should be the evidence of their thought.

And now might be just the right time. Libeskind and company did their best work during the economic downturn of the early ’90s, when, as now, there was little professional opportunity, when the shortcomings of global neoliberalism seemed starkly obvious, and when architecture itself appeared stalled and debilitated. Isn’t that our position today?

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