The LABOR LEED week at OfficeUS will bring together architects, software developers and academics — including participants from Autodesk and WBYA? — to discuss how we might conceive of new design tools for a more democratic world. Here are some guiding thoughts and speculations for the series of talks, workshops and charrettes that will take place at OfficeUS in Venice from September 18-20. All the events will be open to the public. MS
Can the architect speak? By which I mean, how do we speak and who do we speak for? Can we speak beyond techno-babble or market-babble? Do architects represent anyone other than themselves? Should we speak? (For others or for ourselves?) What constitutes meaningful speech in architecture?
All these questions blazed through my mind as I was hearing Rem Koolhaas speak at a recent event in the Biennale di Venezia, of which he is this edition’s Director. Koolhaas was speaking about the problem of Europe. About how the European project is in need of a new “narrative”––a comprehensive “story” that would allow politicians not to have to say one thing to their electorate at home while they enact completely different policies in the European Parliament. Such gross asymmetry is sundering Europe in two: between democratic sovereignty and financial autocracy. The European problem is, for Koolhaas, fundamentally one of rhetorical disingenuity. “Europe needs less poetry and better rhetoric,” he said, to patch over this gap between speech and action.
I had to gasp. After at least 6 long years of financial and social debacle, of hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures, of millions of jobs lost or displaced, I could not believe Koolhaas’s answer to the ongoing crisis is to formulate a compensatory narrative for Europe’s political impotence. A different story for things to stay the same way. I asked Ippolito Pestellini, Koolhaas’s smart young curator for the Arsenale, why there were no projects on Italy or Europe as a financial construct among the 50 selected participants. He seemed slightly shocked while he answered, “we received no proposals in that direction.”
This astounding absence at the world’s most popular architecture biennial––an absence made obscene by the inability of its constituents to recognize it––points, perhaps, to a fundamental responsibility architecture faces today: how to re-constitute itself in a way that can address––to speak to––the major and minor financial processes and contexts that are shaping its––and our––lives and cities.
As cities become more enmeshed with global finance, their politics are tinged with financialization’s signature opaque sheen. It’s all very clean on the surface, especially since neoliberal politics makes the transfer of public assets to private capital its explicit aim, not at all a backdoor operation. This technocratic context––the cultural and democratic poverty of which is only obscured by its enormous power––reduces questions of principle (i.e., what would truly universal housing be like?) to the management of disputes contained within the dogmas of economic competition and other enshrined parameters of neoliberal productivity.
Architecture is remarkably ill-equipped to address these issues meaningfully, preferring to dabble in rhetorical play. This focus on surface effects goes hand in hand with the depletion of valuable resources for other spheres of architectural practice and imagination that are in sore need of creative input. The establishment of neoliberal models of urban governance has generated a paradox for architects’ political capacities: the more we seek to participate in neoliberal urban development policies and projects, the more we become entangled in their messy and questionable politics––but the gamble of troubling compromise for positive influence rarely seems to pay off. Despite architects’ best efforts, the neoliberal city’s managerial class (real estate developers, financial brokers, PR agencies, and the whole massive industry of business management consultants) contain and lubricate planning processes within strict neoliberal parameters. This sphere of urban administration, masquerading as objective professionalism, has utterly replaced the politics of the city at the expense of democracy––and arguably, the expense of architects’ expertise for figuring what the forms of democracy can be. Fighting for a different city and architecture must also take place at this level of professional and political re-constitution––an epistemic re-wiring, a techno-political refurbishment of the discipline of architecture to enable the possibility of thought at any level of structural or infrastructural significance.
Architects seem to be the last to realize this. In other, more interesting contexts, “design” today is often mentioned to invoke a sense of agency––at least as tool of political struggle––within the vast and complex global processes defining sociopolitical conditions and its multiple horizons. The cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, for instance, has recently pointed to architecture, design, and planning as crucial realms for shifting our current “politics of probability” to a future “politics of possibility.” In a similar vein, Benjamin Bratton, speaking at The Politics of Parametricism conference on November 16th, 2013, began his presentation by quoting former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who has argued for “a new [institutional] architecture for this new world; more Frank Gehry than formal Greek.”
Clinton’s sleight of hand––paradoxically locating Gehry, an American architect, both in line with and beyond Greek classical architecture––was a rhetorical attempt to breathe new life into the old carcass of the Western architectural cannon. Yet, it was also a performative gesture of staying power––another band aid for the US’s diminishing hold over global power institutions. Like Koolhaas’s statement on Europe’s narrative flaws, these rhetorical statements can have very structural effects, too.
As these different examples suggest, architecture and design today are in a tense bind between being cast, or casting themselves, as aesthetic metaphors of sociality––rhetorical games––or, on the other hand, as actual tools for representing and re-articulating sociality itself. From the modeling of alternative financial systems to the whole planet’s climate, there is a marked interest in global, integrated, scalable design proposals that imply new powers and new problems––technical as much as legal, economic, and political––for architecture. The question is, will this be another merely rhetorical turn, or can the techno-political promises lead the way toward a different, “second modernity” for architecture and its multiple constituencies? What is the relationship between rhetorical flourish and structural change––if any? Given the proved importance of semblances and perceptions to global finance and architecture alike, this is not a question to take lightly.
Ultimately, the battleground as well as the prize of this contest is the epistemological disposition architecture will take as it confronts––or is confronted by––the current and forthcoming changes in cities and their politics, from global warming to inequality wars. As Phil G. Bernstein, vice-president of Autodesk (the largest architecture software developer in the world) said with surgical lucidity at the aforementioned conference, “We are in the epistemology business.”
The possible coming together of tools of architectural work and representation with normative––not merely aesthetic––proposals for the city is a new area of research where the sciences and the humanities can have a great impact, particularly given the reality of the scale and speed of urban development across the globe. In such contexts, architects must ask: how have the politics of the city shifted with architectural regimes and tools of representation? Is there any relationship between the political and the technical modes of representation architects use to “figure” democracy and other political forms? Do we have the tools to speak meaningfully on these issues? How can this kind of speech on calculation make a real difference?
Some examples of what this might mean can be seen in the ways the architecture industry is theorizing and practically redefining––primarily through digital design and logistics, but also through historical research––the financialization of urban development. Predictability, quality control, construction labor costs, techniques of exclusion and surveillance, are all in some way or another folded into this paradigm. Can this trend––financialization––be disconnected from the neoliberal contexts in which it was born?
Beyond paralyzing indignation and ironic cynicism, can we re-design a different disposition for architecture? How will architects––and architecture––speak?
 For an example of this problem, see the UK’s extremely conformist “Farrell Review”, 2014.
Arjun Appadurai, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. (London: New York: Verso Books, 2013)
Image: Morris Lapidus, Architecture: A Profession and a Business, 1967