Diary of Knowledge

interdisciplinary surgery by axe and blowtorch rather than scalpel and needle; reading, analysing, summarising and writing; trying to transform information to knowledge

Month: September, 2012

Architecture and Order

This is a short essay I wrote for the course “Architectural Theory and Critical Theory” at the Urban Studies program at EKA, Tallinn, Estonia. It was last edited by 2012-05-14, but could probably need some more working through. Exact references exist and can be provided upon request.

The essay is basically a critique of contemporary architectural discourse and the role of the architect. I am using Jeremy Till’s article ”Architecture and Contingency” as a base for the analysis of writings of architectural theory, focusing on discourses since modernism and onwards. While going through major architectural theorists I aim to discuss (and present a personal view on) what truly is the role of the contemporary architect or urbanist.
                                                                                                                                                     

Architecture and Order
– a short investigation in architectural discourse from modernism to today –

I have, during my last years of study, come to a rather straight forward conclusion; Architecture is self-deception. It has created, and is living, its own lie.

The architectural discipline today exists in a self-proclaimed state of autonomy, seen as a great art with its own intrinsic set of goals and problem definitions, totally disconnected from worldly issues and creating its own contextual domain. Instead of dealing with socio-spatial issues at hand, using knowledge from social science, architecture is mainly self-referential (or with slight input from (abstract) philosophical ideas).

Architecture has, since the writings of Vitruvius in the first century BC, preoccupied itself with the notion of order as its prime question.

In his ”Ten Books on Architecture” Vitruvius established the triad of ”utilitas, firmitas, venustas” (referred to by Till as commodity, firmness and delight) which became the main foundation on which architectural work is judged. This Vitruvian Triad forms a totality, where the three aspects rely on each other to create an ordered whole.

Vitruvius repeatedly used the architectural metaphor of ”the body”, i.e. the body seen as the human body, a totality or a perfect whole. The role of architectural production is thus to recreate this body, a symmetrical, autonomous and balanced singularity. This notion of order and a singular whole is not only predominant in architectural works but rather in the discipline itself.

Till here goes further in his analysis of the implications of the Vitruvian notion of order. It defined the architectural discipline and, more importantly, society itself as ordered wholes or bodies. ”The Vitruvian body, on which so much architecture still leans for support, is thus much more than a nice metaphor of coherence; it designates a ’closed, homogeneous, monumental, centred and symmetrical system.’

During modernism order and wholeness was aggressively propagated in architecture and city planning; as an example we can quote Le Corbusier himself:.”The engineer, inspired by the law of Economy and guided by calculations, puts us in accord with universal laws. He attains harmony”.

The engineer, from whom the architect should draw inspiration, is the constructor of order and harmony. The architect is (through the ordering of Euclidean forms) the creator of beauty.

In dichotomy to this, Le Corbusier places disorder and arbitrariness. Two passages in Toward an Architecture show Le Corbusier’s discern for disorder most clearly. When describing the architectural process he argues that ”The plan is the generator. Without a plan there is disorder, arbitrariness.” and continues to claim that ”The obligation to order. The regulating line is a guarantee against arbitrariness. It brings satisfaction to the mind.”

In a short remark on the contemporary dwellings of industrialists he states that they are riddled with “[…] clutters of useless ad disparate objects […] in all manner of styles and ridiculous trinkets.”

Le Corbusier’s architectural ideology is a perfect example for the conclusion Till made on the Vitruvian Triad and its implicit ridding of incoherent elements. Just as the city can be described as the body, civil disorder can be described as illness. This metaphor, in conjunction with Till’s conclusion, is perfectly exemplified in the following quote of Le Corbusier: ”in city planning ’medical’ solutions are a delusion; they resolve nothing, they are very expensive. Surgical solutions resolve.”

Robert Venturi seems to advocate an architecture more accepting of contingent elements. When comparing Crawford Manor and Guild House (in Venturi’s terms a duck and a decorated shed, respectively) he clearly seems biased towards the latter. He argues that the plastic flowers decorating the homes of the latter building are ”[…] pretty and ordinary, they do not make this architecture look silly as they would, we think, the heroic and original windows of Crawford Manor”. At a first glance, one could interpret this stance as tolerant and inclusive; architecture welcoming contingency.

The problem is that this is not the defining trait of the architecture proposed by Learning from Las Vegas. Izenour, Scott Brown and Venturi undermine their own importance by admitting their analysis to be solely on an visual plane. The matters of ”[…]process, program and structure or, indeed, social issues in architecture […]” are not included.

Furthermore, this acceptance of contingency is proved invalid by their elaboration on the typology of the decorated shed. Their prime example is the Las Vegas strip casino, a building comparable to the Guild Hall only through the visual and eclectic use of symbolism. The aforementioned social analysis is non-existing.

I argue the Casino to be a disastrous example, utterly negating the tolerance of Guild House. It is a totally controlled space, every corner monitored in order to extinguish unwanted elements. Or as the authors themselves put it: ”Henri Bergson called disorder an order we cannot see. The emerging order of the Strip is a complex order.”

Through this we can see that Till’s conclusion of architecture as withdrawn from social matters and mainly self-referential holds just as true for the postmodernist architecture as it did for the modernist era. It exists to establish and justify order, in this case a more complex one.

Bernard Tschumi claims society to have become, as a result of ongoing modernisation, fragmented and dismantled. The regulating forces of society have moved from the centre of the city to its periphery. In the pre-modernised society there was a direct ”cause-and-effect” relationship between rules and everyday life, a relationship that now is lost.

His conclusions from this statement are seemingly humble. He only states this change in power hierarchy to have happened; ”de-, dis-, ex-. These are the prefixes of today. Not post-, neo- or pre-.”

He doesn’t say whether it is for better or worse or give any direct proposals of how to deal with it. It is merely a problem formulation. I would however argue that he by doing so, implicitly rather than explicitly, makes this to the core issue of contemporary architecture, ie. How do we handle the transformation of order and hierarchical structure?

In another chapter of the same book, Tschumi directly addresses the notion of order: ”As in the theoretical project The Manhattan Transcripts [1981], and the built Parc de la Vilette, what is questioned is the notion of unity. […] The idea of order is constantly questioned, challenged, pushed to the edge.”

I would classify Peter Eisenman to be of the same line of thought as Bernard Tschumi, though maybe not drawing exactly the same conclusions.

In ”In Trails of Grotexts” he offers another angle of the same idea, initially presented as an argument made by one of his clients (I would here like to go slightly off topic; is this not the same as when we want to share something embarrassing about ourselves and project it onto ”a friend of mine”, efficiently freeing us from any responsibility or shame?).

”’Man overcomes nature through things that are rational, which are good, which are truthful, and ultimately these take on the characteristics of the nature itself, i.e. the beautiful.’ […] ’Today,’ he said, ’this is no longer the problem which science is addressing.’ […] the problem today for man is to overcome knowledge.”

Eisenman then goes back to the Vitruvian Triad and, with the invocation of Kant, reinvigorates the dialectic relationship within beauty itself; (natural) beauty and the grotesque. To address the displacement of objective from ”overcoming nature” to ”overcoming knowledge” he superimposes this dialectic to science instead of beauty (the word Grotext can be understood (not only as a play of words, but also) to fill the counter-role of (natural) science, much like Kant’s Grotesque in the case of beauty).

”The fear of uncertainty is now doubly present; the previous uncertainty of the natural, as well as the uncertainty of something other than the liminal, that is the uncertainty of knowledge that is within knowledge.”

In ”The Overexposed City” Paul Virilio writes on the same subject as Tschumi and Eisenman, there are obvious similarities (Tschumi even quotes Virilio in his text De-, Dis-, Ex-).

He argues that a fragmentation of society has taken place mainly through older, spatial relations in the urban context being replaced by virtual or technological relations. Technological advancement has brought along rapid cultural changes, changes for which ”Urban topology has, however, paid the price […]”

Virilio states that ”If a crisis exists today, it is first and foremost a crisis of references (ethical, aesthetic) […]”. Upon this statement he build a crisis of the Grande Narratives (rather than a crisis of modernity) and a transition to micro-narratives.

Tschumi, Eisenman and Virilio are all discussing the topic of order, the rapid displacement of order due to modernisation and ultimately what this means to architecture. If placed along an axis, measuring how to (physically) solve the problem the fragmented society, graded from more abstract to less abstract, I would put them as follows: Virilio (the most abstract), Tschumi and last Eisenman (most concrete).

Correlating to this axis is a second one; let us call it an axis of importance to (the discourse within) the discipline of architecture, measuring from more important to less important. Here the order would be the same: Virilio (the most important), Tschumi in the middle and last Eisenman.

There is a failure in how architecture tries to grasp this fragmentation of society and find architectural tools to interpret it. Let us here momentarily return to Jeremy Till: ”Contemporary architectural theory is thus littered with references to philosophical text with hardly a nod to current social theory.” This is the exact problem. As Tschumi and Eisenman tries to realise the implications of this newly emerged, displaced order, they stay in the self-referential realm of architecture. Even when Tschumi states that there is a constant questioning of order, or Eisenman argues that architecture must be more than simply a symbolic representation of displacement, they are truly superficial.

I argue that architecture, in the traditional meaning of the word, lack the tools necessary to deal with most contemporary problems. One narrative would be to say that architecture has lost the tools along the way, that architecture could not keep up with modernisation and that society evolved faster than architecture could handle.

However, I take it for much more credible that architecture never even had the tools to begin with. Architecture has never aimed for solving socio-spatial issues (solve should here be read as ”to create a beneficial solution according to utilitarian standards”).

”Remember: architecture was first the art of measure, of proportions.” This is a quote from Bernard Tschumi which I argue to prove me right (even though Tschumi (probably) would be of opposite opinion). Architecture was about proportions, end of the story. Socio-economic issues in the early societies were left to someone else, and as such has the world remained. We will soon enough return to this discussion, but let us before arriving at any final conclusion investigate another architectural theorist.

Most interesting of the (somewhat) contemporary architectural theorists might be Rem Koolhaas and how he discusses this aforementioned fragmentation of society. Quite interestingly he does not address the problem in the same fashion as Tschumi or Eisenman, but rather opts to redefine the problem itself.

What modernity truly created was not the modernistic, iconic buildings by Le Corbusier and so on, but what Koolhaas defines as Junkspace. When comparing this to either Tschumi or Virilio you realise that fragmentation does not consist of nothingness, as a first impression might suggest. Its matter is Junkspace.

”Junkspace is what remains after modernisation has run its course […]”

”Junkspace is a Bermuda Triangle of concepts […]; it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realisation. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition.”

Junkspace is explained as the commercialised and symbolic space of our surrounding, shopping malls, airports, subway systems and eventually the traditional urban city core. Koolhas introduces a second concept of importance to this essay; Bigness.

Bigness is the state in which a building generates such a huge mass that it can no longer be controlled by traditional architectural tools. Bigness creates its own context, it makes architectural honesty (as understood through modernism) impossible, it transcends architecture and even urbanity itself. It coexists, and competes, with the city.

My personal reading of Koolhaas is that he creates a dialectic relation within modernisation (or fragmentation if one so wants). The two components, together creating the synthesis of our urban space, are Junkspace and Bigness.

Koolhaas initially describes Junkspace as something ugly and problematic. He then, in what I would say is a typical post-modern manner, turns the problem up-side-down; he simply declares it ”not to be a problem”.

So what remain of his dialectic? Bluntly put; Junkspace is a problem generated by Bigness and Bigness is the tool by which we can handle Junkspace (a perpetuum mobile one could say).

Finally, Koolhaas creates a last dichotomy. In ”Bigness or the problem of large” he argues that ”Bigness = urbanism vs. architecture.” This is a topic which comes back in full force in his text ”What ever happened to Urbanism?”

Koolhaas describes an, almost parasitical, relationship between the disciplines of urbanism and architecture. Where urbanism creates opportunities, architecture abuses and drains them; urban interventions would be the nutrition on which architecture sustains itself. Of more importance to the topic at hand is the following quote from Koolhaas:

”If there is to be a ’new urbanism’ it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty […]”

No matter how seductive, playful and strong Koolhaas’ rhetorics and visions might be, I still find no comfort in him as a theorist. Even though I do agree with most of his analyses, I strongly disagree on many of his ideological points.

To create architecture and urbanism as a parasitic duo, where the first is a constant consumer and the latter the feeder is to me morally irresponsible (we could here argue that Koolhaas has made no claim of being responsible, but arguing from an utilitarian point responsibility is a necessity). Koolhaas argument is a psychological rationalisation, freeing the architect to pursue whatever goal s/he wishes, without any need for conscience or thought. I would even argue this split to be unfair; placing all responsibility on a the urbanist.

It should however be said that Koolhaas in no way tries to place any guilt on the urbanist either. ”In a landscape of increasing expediency and impermanence, urbanism no longer is or has to be the most solemn of our decision; urbanism can lighten up, become a Gay Science – Lite Urbanism.”

Also this paragraph I would simply argue against on moral / utilitarian terms. In an open lecture Slavoj Zizek discuss the meaning of morality and duty.He states that: ”For Kant, you are not only responsible to do your duty. You are also responsible to define what your duty is.”

Thus, the impermanence of urban environment is not a justifiable reason to forgo discussions on morality or duty. Instead of making urbanism less responsible, I would rather see architecture to actually become responsible.

Even though Koolhaas clearly states the ”new emerging urbanism” to be one of uncertainty rather than of ”order and omnipotence”, I read it differently than how I read Till.  If one is to promote contingency, one must question what contingency truly is. Uncertainty or contingency is not a goal in itself. In Till’s argument, order is the ridding of the Other, contingency is the inclusion of the Other. This is a dimension which is fully lacking from Koolhaas vision.

Finally, I would argue this to be the case in all texts analysed. Even where the topic of order is directly dealt with, such as in the deconstructivist discourse, the matter is discussed in a self-referential or highly abstract way.

On the level of the society we cannot leave the importance of order, to do so would be to propose anarchy. To truly refute order would be to refute reason and logic as well. This is clearly not what I propose.

Instead, we must redefine order. We must look at what power structures are in place, what they suppress and how they correspond to our ethical guidelines. Contingency is not the lack of order, but the critical rethinking of order.

Ultimately, for architecture and urbanism to deal with this issue they must become political and critical disciplines, and by doing so – truly becoming inter-disciplinary.

on politics, contingency and technology

.1) U.S and Europe seems to have some common trends in how they view each other and politics during the ongoing recession. In Europe a majority of the (interviewed) citizens were discontent with the last years of national financial politics. The only countries where people generally trusted how their politicians have handled the Euro crisis were Sweden and Germany. In Sweden 74% were favourable towards the reigning financial politics. Yet, according to the latest polls, Moderaterna are down by 4 percentage points since last year. So are we voting by the wallet or not? Or do we think to be able to get it even better with a Social Democratic government? Or, maybe the most probable conclusion, we shouldn’t care too much about mid-term political polls…

.2) I just started reading “Architecture Depends” by Jeremy Till. Ever since reading this (which is basically the second chapter of the book) I’ve been really interested in his writings. Here I will only comment on one small paragraph of what I’ve read so far.

On p.20 Till describes what still is one of the “criteria” for great architecture, namely autonomy. Great architecture is more than the life that surrounds it, it is untouchable by the taint of everyday life. What this is effectually doing is widening the gap between architects and non-architects. It’s a false division, in place to maintain power structures. Architecture is pure, people contaminate it, and great architecture defies this contamination. If we follow this line of reason, then great architecture is by definition inhuman.

Till is further arguing for this point by pointing out the (symbolical) relation between philosophy and architecture. Philosophy, trying to create the true/untouchable in the immaterial domain; architecture, trying to create the true/untouchable in the material. Till provides with ample examples of this relation.

Another example comes to mind. In “In Defense of Lost Causes” Slavoj Zizek argues that any ethics focusing on humanity itself by definition becomes subjective and thereby relative. The only set of ethics able to become eternal would thus be an inhuman ethics, ethics projected onto something else than humanity. Exactly where Zizek is trying to take this is somewhat unclear. We will have to wait and see. It is however basically the same argument as Till makes, just from the other side.

.3) Robert J Gordon argues that the time of economic growth might be over, that it was just a brief 250 year long period in human history. His argument is that growth is the byproduct of technological advancements, and that most productivity increasing inventions already have been invented. As written on “The Economist”, this might be a simplistic read of the latest decade if inventions. Some objections to Gordons argument:

1) The latest set of IT inventions are not per say productivity increasing, meaning that the benefit from them can not (yet) be counted in GDP per capita increase/year. IT is mainly about efficiency and streamlining, meaning chopping of the parts of production you don’t need rather than expanding production.

2) Cloudcomputing, crowdsourcing, digital layering of reality, 3D-printing and so on and so forth are still fairly new inventions. It might still take at least some more time before we can see their full potential.

3) Some (i.e. Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) follow Gordon’s argument to some degree, but claiming us to just have reached a new threshold; “autonomous vehicles, effective machine translation and voice recognition, and artificial intelligence are or soon will be deployable realities”.

.4) Google has now designed an online tool for you to create your own online courses.

CONCLUSIONS AND CROSS-FERTILISATION

Slavoj Zizek makes another point in “In Defense for Lost Causes”; we make a difference between what is natural (and thereby non-changeable) and what we can actually effect. For this, we don’t want the representational democracy to actually be a direct consequence of our (common) will, but rather something else. There is a need for discrepancy, for the unknown, for things to be non-fixed and even contingent. By not really being able to effect the outcome (except by ONE vote) we have to perceive it as decided, as “natural”. This is what gives representational democracy its legitimate power. Okay, Zizek is sort of a nut-head. But there is some sort of truth to it, the insecurity before each election, the polls and wagers. This could help to explain the strange relationship Swedes seem to have with our government. We applaud the financial politics during the Euro crisis, but we don’t want to feel responsible for it; we want someone to decide for us, we still want the enlightened despot.

We could add the Jeremy Till paragraph to this. We (as people in general) have an inclination towards the natural/eternal/true, but this perception is to 100% produced by ourselves. We are, basically, fooling ourselves; we want to lift “whatever” out of its dirty and normal context, creating something larger and holier to which we can belong. No matter how you look at it, it is a lie. Question, is it good to lie to ourselves? And can we still create, maintain and love the lie as soon as we know it is a lie?

A quick answer, once again following the reasoning of Zizek. In the end of his rant on Ecology Zizek states that “Love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points and nonetheless the person is absolute for you”. Following this train of thought, the only conclusion can be to search for “truth” and to embrace it (contingent as it is). It could here also be noted that lying to yourself might make you happier, but then there is of course the difference between happy and being right.

And to finally comment on the dystopian conclusions drawn by Robert J Gordon. Personally I’m not too interested in “growth”, and it might be true that the last decade of inventions are not as key as previous when it comes to accumulating resources (e.g. comparing the iPad with industrial farming). But IT has the potential of being equally revolutionary. Google’s “make your own online course” is just an example of it. Though probably seen as entertaining/commercial, the very idea of online education actually questions the whole school system; who is teaching whom what? Technology, created by capitalist giant Google, that could actually promote anarchistic ideas of education, where everyone is both teacher and student, on a global scale. I argue this potential to be equally revolutionary to the consequences of industrialised agriculture.

on exomologesis and biopolitical walking tours

.1) The Birth of Biopolitics – Michel Foucault. Foucault is defining and analysing Liberalism not as an ideology, but as a “principle and method of rationalising the exercise of government, rationalisation that obeys […] the internal rule of maximum economy”. Foucault then goes on to state that “governmentality should not be exercised without a critique far more radical than a test of optimisation”. Instead of asking for the economical optimisation of governing, one should ask for the need for governing.

Liberalism grew (from late 18th century) as a tool for criticising governments as: 1) a former governmentality one tries to shed; 2) a current governmentality one wish to strip down (to reform); 3) a governmentality one opposes and whose abuses one tries to limit. Foucault argues this to be the main aspect of liberalism, market economy and political economy are tools used for the fulfilment of this main goal.

Foucault then goes on to describe two different liberal movements, the (West) German liberal movement (1948-1962) and the American neo-liberal Chicago School. Both were born as a critique of over-bureaucratisation, state interventions and planned economy (i.e. Soviet Socialism, National socialism and Keynesian economy). They however differed in the conclusions drawn from neo-liberal market studies. German liberals argued the “natural” market price to be fragile and thus needed to be supported through careful governing of civil aspects, such as assistance to the unemployed, healthcare coverage, housing policies etc. The Chicago School went the other way around and proposed that aspects of life, such as family and birth policies, or delinquency and penal policies, should be governed solely by market rationality. Foucault abruptly closes, arguing biopolitics (as the strategic governing of the bodies of the population) to have been framed by the questions of liberalism (since the end of 18th century).

.2) Government of the Living – Michel Foucault. Exomologesis – to state/confess the truth AND to identify yourself with it. Originally used in christian circuits, both as an act of faith (proclaiming your faith and the conviction in your proclamation), and the slightly darker one; the confession of sins you have committed and the direct identification of yourself as a sinner.

.3) In Slavoj Zizek’s “In Defense of Lost Causes” (which I’m now trying to read for the third time) there is a short excerpt concerning this exomologesis of today:

“In the endless complexity of the contemporary world, where things, more often than not, often appear as their opposites – intolerance as tolerance, religion as rational common sense, and so on and so forth – the temptation is great to cut it short with a violent gesture of ‘No bullshit!’ – a gesture that seldom amounts to more than an impotent ‘passage à l’acte’. Such a desire to draw a clear line of demarcation between sane truthful talk and ‘bullshit’ cannot but reproduce as truthful talk the predominant ideology itself. No wonder that, for [Harry] Frankfurt himself, examples of ‘no bullshit’ politicians are Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and, today, John McCain – as if the pose of outspoken personal sincerity is a guarantee of truthfulness.”

.4) Helen Runting and Kim Trogal performed a walking tour through Stockholm, analysing spaces, uses and restrictions along the way. As starting and ending point two symbolically charged and restricted places were chosen, The Royal Palace in Gamla Stan and the Migration Office in Solna. Though the intervention could be criticised by its (lack of) direct consequences (Zizek for example often shows his distaste for this kind of “soft” thought), the analysis of the two places, and some of the spots along the route connecting them, is incredibly interesting.

CONCLUSIONS AND CROSS-FERTILISATION

Looking into the private business sector you find this exomologesis again. Airline companies promising that their cabin staff is “always (and sincerely) happy”; articles stating why you shouldn’t hire unhappy people etc.

You are no longer allowed to lie, a fake smile to your colleague or professional politeness is not acceptable. Today this simple lie is not enough, we have to lie doubly; both by word and act, both a fake smile and a fake sincerity behind it.

We can then go further and apply the term of exomologesis on Runting’s and Trogal’s walking tour; The Royal Palace is basically a fake that pretends to be real both by what it says and by the way it says it, it pretends the pretending to be real. It is the residence of the Royal family, without them actually living there. Still it hides this fact behind a facade of seriousness; the palace is guarded by the Swedish army (with live ammunition), there are rules and regulations as for where you are allowed to walk and not, what you are allowed to do and not. Finally, we have the tourists. The tourists in this place becomes an act of unmasking. By their mass, with cameras and guide books, they turn the Palace and its seriously pretended seriousness into a spectacle, unmasking it, stripping it of its facade.

This opened my eyes to the (marxist?) action of “touristing” something, an appropriation and inversion of ‘slumming’. Just by viewing something as an amusing spectacle, by stating it to be a spectacle, it becomes a spectacle. Secondly, can such an act of unmasking also take place in personal relations? I don’t mean to superimpose the (violent) act of ‘touristing’ onto individuals and personal relations, but the key concept might be the same. Irony as an act of unmasking?

on recession, prostitution and biopower

.1) So even if Swedish economy has recuperated rather well since 2008, the road ahead is bumpy. Swedish economy is at large based on a high export, and state economy inequality (such as caused by the Euro Crisis) has a negative impact on Swedish export and thereby on Swedish economy, employment rate etc. etc.

This follows basic macro-economy; further could be said that this is a classic Capitalist narrative, where nation-wide economy is described as a self-organising, self-controlling entity. I have no objections at large; what is interesting is not the entity on its own, but the two-way inter-dependancy of macro-economy and the parts, us, constituting it.

.2) The gap between wages and profit has widened considerably during the last 30 years. Instead of ending up in the employees’ wallets, it has gone to corporation profit and investments. Richard Murphy argues this to be the main reason for the ongoing recession; quoting Murphy “So that’s it in a nutshell: the recession was caused by not paying people enough for what they did.”

.3) Rental cars in Sierra Leone is provided by a (at least formerly) small scale entrepreneur. Apparently large car rental corporations, as Avis, have not dared to move in to the war-torn country. The concept of the business is security. Whenever the car breaks down a new car is sent to your location. In order to provide security the business has invested in a storehouse of spare parts and its own mechanic.

.4) Prostitution is often regarded as a highly harmful occupation. Suicide rates, drug abuse, child abuse, shortened life expectancy etc. are some of the factors strongly correlating with prostitution. Ole Martin Moen however argues the same to have been true for homosexuality far into the 20th century. People opposed to homosexuality (during e.g. the 20’s) argued the short life expectancy, the amounts of drug abuse and increasing venereal diseases (which all correlated to homosexuality) to be reasons enough to prove it as harmful and should therefor forbidden.

In the case of homosexuality, most issues (e.g. high suicide rates) were derived from the social stigma connected to being gay and not the the sexual orientation itself. Maybe this is true for prostitution as well? Maybe it is not the prostitution itself that is harmful, but the way we relate to it, condemn it, stigmatise it.

I have however one large objection to Moen’s argument. Nowhere in the paper is prostitution discussed as a part of a system. If we believe Moen’s argument to be sound prostitution is not per say harmful for the individual, but is it harmful for the society? Mainly women are prostitutes, mainly men are the buyers (just as in porn (though I have a feeling porn is (very slowly) getting more “equal”)). Legalising prostitution (and making it more socially accepted) might improve the situation for prostitutes, but would it at the same time conserve gender inequalities in society?

.5) Biopower is a term coined by Michel Foucault. Basically, it is power (in its social sense) used to command bodies, thereby being a tool for controlling other people. It is a tool to manage the bodies of the population, in contrast to “Discipline” which is a tool for making people behave. Foucault even describes as a “technology of power”; a (social) invention creating (/manufacturing?) subjugation of bodies.

In it’s most strict sense biopower is related to physical/biological aspects; birth, death, health, sexuality, life. Maybe it can be further expanded to basically include the control of ones body, how we relate to our own and others’ bodies, how we move and act in space. If biopower is a single ordering rule, biopolitics is the network or system of power, the formal and informal legislation of our physical bodies.

Foucault is one of the most often name dropped philosophers in Architecture/Urban Studies. A (sloppy) description as to why: architecture can be described as a knowledge of space, space is used/understood through movement and action, movement/action requires a body. Our relation to space is thus effected by our relation to our own body. Formal and informal regulations (based on legislation/society/social contracts) control how we move and act. By critically examining and redefining these regulations we change our relation to our bodies and thereby our relation to space.

CONCLUSIONS AND CROSS-FERTILISATION

Movement and reliability are key issues, both in terms of economy and politics. Rental services providing the reliability of movement are succeeding; the international market can not provide the reliability of movement of goods for the Swedish industry which thereby is in decline.

The movement of prostitutes has always been an issue for control. One of the main arguments for legalising prostitution is “in order to control it”. Red Light Districts to keep it maintained, STD control and condom-laws for public health etc. More seriously, even with liberal legislation the social stigmatisation of prostitution controls where and how sex is sold and how people involved are able to move or act. For some reason, porn is much more socially accepted, where an actresses can become porn stars.

The connection between biopower/biopolitics and prostitution might be one of the most obvious ones (one of Foucault’s major works is “The History of Sexuality” from 1976).

I’m further curious about how prostitution and economic backlash are related. Is sex a stable market or does lower general wages decrease the amount of money spent on sex? Apparently the recession has “forced” more women into prostitution. The Buckingham Post article describes the women as having no qualms (or enjoying) their occupation. At the same time trafficking and bottom scale (illegal) prostitution increases. Increased risk taking is one way to compete (e.g. moving into more dangerous markets or geographical areas). In car rental services this might be okay, but what happens in the field of prostitution?

Is this what happens with increasing supply (combined with decreasing purchasing power)? Price dumping? Increasing illegal (and poorly controlled) markets? And does biopolitical control (through legalisation) actually make any difference for the emancipation of women or is it simply adding further control mechanisms to an already existing systematic mistreatment and gender inequality?

The issue can further be expanded to deal with the biopolitical tool of (National) borders. One of the most insecure and shady sides of prostitution (and human abuse) is trafficking, directly connected to the immobility for most people over national borders. So in order to come to terms with trafficking, deregulating border control might be more direct and efficient than regulating prostitution.

The Question of Common Ground, or; Bernard Tschumi and Guerrilla Tactics

1/4 posters, Bernard Tschumi Architects, Venice Biennale 2012

The Venice Biennale of 2012 addresses the theme of Common Grounds, aiming to bridge differences within the architectural profession as well as between architecture and society.

Such a position is both alluring and dangerous; can we join forces, inter-disciplinarily and across political boundaries, for a common goal or is this naïve post-politic propaganda?

David Chipperfield clearly believes the first to be true. “[…] my Biennale will encourage the collaboration and dialogue that I believe is at the heart of architecture […]. The title ‘Common Ground’ also has a strong connotation of the ground between buildings, the spaces of the city.”

Opposed to Chipperfield stands for example Wolf D. Prix, arguing the Venice Biennale to be “[…]no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells […]”. He goes on to state that “While in Russia artists are stubbornly resisting the authoritarian regime, the current director of the Architecture Biennale considers these characteristics to be obstacles for our profession […]”.

It should also be noted that Common Ground, read through a lens of critical Marxism (as understood through e.g. Slavoj Zizek or Foucault), suggests any co-operation to always be on the terms of the stronger, thus assimilating the collaboration into the hegemony and maintaining the power structure itself.

2/4 posters, Bernard Tschumi Architects, Venice Biennale 2012

With this in mind, how do we frame the question of Common Ground? What do we mean by the term; who is included and excluded; bluntly put, is there even a possibility for Common Ground to exist?

In 1976 and 1977 Bernard Tschumi created a series of architecture advertisement posters. For the Biennale of 2012 “Tschumi has reconceptualised the series for the Biennale, tackling the theme of Common Ground head on and raising questions that the work in the show must answer”.

“common ground?
Concept, not form, is what distinguishes architecture from mere buildings.
commonplace”

This fragment of text is accompanied by two pictures, one depicting the canals of Venice, the other the Villaggio Mall in Qatar, an indoor shopping mall and symbolic replica of Venice, complete with canals, gondolas and gondoliers.

Are we to understand Venice as architecture, by the genuinity by which it was originally constructed, and the shopping mall as non-architecture, due to its cheap symbolism? This is probably close to Tschumis intention. Most architects would define Venice as architecture; few would say the same of a pastiche shopping mall enjoyed by common people.

Casa Del Fascio, Google Street View, screen shot taken 2012-09-07

Next to it hangs a poster with two pictures of Terragni’s Casa Del Fascio, one with the plaza in front of it empty and one with it fully crowded. Underneath it says: “Architecture is not about the conditions of design but about the design of conditions.” A quick analysis of the poster suggests that Casa Del Fascio is architecture because of its designed conditions, the design was what enabled the crowding of the square. Google street view unveils these conditions to have changed by today; time has re-designed the conditions. A square once filled by Fascist supporters is now surrounded by automobiles. Does this mean Casa Del Fascio has turned into less architecture than it used to be?

Let us now depart on a short thought experiment; let us simply switch the text between the latter poster and the first; Venice counter-positioned by Villaggio, framed by the text “Architecture is not about the conditions of design but about the design of conditions.” Can we really say that the designed conditions are so different? Though sprung from different reasons, both are today in similar states (of sustainability issues, of function, of symbolic character, of users and actors, of concept). The only conclusion can be that they are in fact the same. To support this thesis we can quote a third of Tschumi’s posters: “Architecture is not only what it looks like, but also what it does”. Venice and Villaggio do not only look the same, they are doing the same thing too, namely providing a global market with locations for exotic tourism.

The fourth poster in the exhibition, comparing a drawing and an aerial Google maps picture, states that: “Architecture is not so much the knowledge of form but a form of knowledge”.

If we still argue there to be a difference between Venice and Villaggio, the first celebrated by architects and the latter by non-architects, then Common Ground is to be found somewhere in between. If they are read as the same (taking the message of the fourth poster into consideration), Common Ground is the knowledge needed to understand architectural concepts.

The main question framed by Tschumi is about the understanding of architecture, something that is closely tied to the architectural profession. Just as the being of art is defined by the general artistic society; what is architecture and not is decided by architects (considered as a whole). Taken to the extreme, to reach Common Ground is thus to educate those of less knowledge (or rather those of different opinion); to assimilate architectural dissidents.

Wolf D Prix, with his spite for compromise, might be happy with such a conclusion. I am, however, not. If Common Ground is dictated by one part, in this case the small (elitist) architectural society, it is no longer Common Ground.

Tschumi’s work can also be seen as somewhat schizophrenic. The chosen pictures are in general discussing a scale larger than singular buildings. Yet in words he describes architecture, not urbanism or interventions or planning.

poster, Bernard Tschumi, 1976

Comparing this set of reconceptualised posters with some of the original ones from 1970’s a couple of striking differences occur. The new set is weaker both in the quality of the text and in the visionary of concept. If the old set is daring and bold, the new is cliché, based on truisms and void of meaning. At first I saw this lack of quality as a result of the discrepancy between Tschumi’s wish to comment on architecture and the topic forcing him to a larger scale. This dual scale is however something Tschumi manages quite well in his old posters; a shift of scale is not the problem. So in the end, maybe Wolf D. Prix is right; Common Ground might be a too nice (and compromising) topic for an architect who wrote about murder in the streets.

Let us now counter-position the, in my opinion, weak rhetoric of Tschumi with one of the strongest pieces from the biennale, the Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion.

The Biennale can in no way be seen as Common Ground. It’s closed after 18:00, you need to be able to travel to and stay in Venice, you need a 20 euro ticket to enter, the opening (and many events) are closed to the public, the Biennale is a socially homogenous event (where many would not feel included).

During the Venice Art Biennale of 2011 Anon Stateless Immigrants (A.S.I), connected to the loose internet collective Anonymous, performed a couple of guerrilla interventions. “Sold Out” was sprayed on the facade of the Greek Pavilion and “Free Bradley Manning” was written on the lantern roof of the U.S pavilion. By 2012, both interventions were since long removed. However, one intervention still remained.

Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion, graffiti by ASI, from the Venice Biennale 2011, photograph taken 2012-09-01

Due to the labyrinth-like street network of Venice small signs, directing you to main tourist spots or scattered Biennale pavilions, can be found all over the city. Among them one set of signs stood out, the signs leading you to the Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion, a pavilion that obviously doesn’t exist. The piece itself illuminates two important facts about the Venice Biennale: 1) the Biennale is based on the national state as the main unit for participation (probably a rest of its hundred year legacy, from a time when nationalism was of even greater importance), something that makes the stateless by definition impossible to represent; 2) even with the topic of Common Ground, none of the Biennale exhibitions touched upon the subject of refugees, refugee camps, trafficking, forced migration or national borders.

Guerrilla tactics was not an uncommon theme in the Venice Biennale, featured in e.g. the U.S pavilion. There is however a big difference between A.S.I the U.S pavilion, namely the difference between actions and words. The U.S pavilion is not an intervention itself, but simply a representation of guerrilla tactics; appropriation of space, neatly framed and wrapped to be exhibited within the conventional Biennale framework. This might be seen as a bridging of the conventional urban theory and planning and D.I.Y or anarchistic tools for urban alteration, a Common Ground. But note well that as soon as space appropriation is given space it ceases to be appropriation.

Plaque with laws for Piazzo San Marco, photograph taken 2012-09-01

Though it might seem superficial or naïve, the theme of appropriation is in this case of utmost importance. Not more than five minutes away from the A.S.I signs you can find Piazza San Marco, one of the largest public spaces of Venice. A public space that clearly is not very public at all. Sitting in places not designed for sitting, sitting in order to consume food or drinks, biking, skating and playing, causing wilful damage or defacement, listening to loud music and dressing inappropriately are all actions forbidden by local by-laws. Piazza San Marco is not a place for public use or interaction; it is becoming a heavily regulated museum or shopping mall. Venice is commodificating its public spaces; a city-scale form of autocannibalism; it is Villaggio.

Tschumi’s attempt to tackle “[…] the theme of Common Ground head on […]”, mainly serves to show that Common Ground is elusive even at a philosophic level. When taking the contemporary urban conditions of Venice into account, such as the state of the Biennale, the regulations of Piazza San Marco and the Anonymous Stateless Immigrants’ Pavilion, you might even end up with the conclusion that there is no Common Ground at all. Only Contested Ground.

reanimation III: on bureaucracy, price-gauging, war and elastic cities

.1) James Kirkup argues that part of David Camerons recent problems are due to the inefficient political infrastructure he has set up (or is the critique of the infrastructure just a hidden way to criticise the PM himself?). Slowly many of the important positions in the HQ have been replaced by civic servants, more gray bureaucrats than (conservative) policy advisors.

Maybe there is a need to, conceptually, divide the political structure. Gray bureaucrats are just as important as policy advisors, but they have different key roles to fill. The first is an integral part of any consistent policy execution, the latter the ”think-tank” for creation of the guidelines.
Aseem Inam’s book ”Planning for the Unplanned: Recovering from Crises in Megacities” focuses on the importance of functioning (bureaucratic) routines, which would put emphazise on the need for rigid delegating/distributing political systems. The ”apolitical” civil servants might be good for the system as a whole, but bad for Cameron’s government. Is the conundrum mentioned by Kirkup the effect of a mix-up of the two aforementioned categories, or just political secrecy and back-stabbing.

.2) Tim Harford discusses the benefits of more dynamic pricing. Basically it means that prices would be more directly connected to supply/demand, when demand is high and supply is low prices would sky-rocket (and the opposite). While cheap discounts of over-supplied goods are often welcomed, the opposite is seen as unethical. Harford argues that prices increasing with high demand/low supply would increase efficiency.

Personally I have a couple of points of critiques, none of them really dealing with the question at hand (as a concept I have no problem with dynamic pricing/price-gauging) but rather with the concept of the market itself.

Harford argues that with flat-prices (and lottery/queue systems during shortages) ”the goods may not reach the people who want them most”. But capitalism does care about who wants something the most only who has the ability to pay (but this is a minor slip I’d say).

There is a problem in where to draw a line for ”basic rights/necessities” and ”luxury goods”. Dynamic pricing of concert tickets is reasonable, but what about health care? Dynamic pricing further needs ”free (or even perfect) markets” to be justifiable. Now, is there even such a thing as a (practically functioning) perfect market? Are not inherited power structures too big an influence/regulator not to be considered?
And with acceptance of price-gauging, one of the easiest way to increase revenue would be to decrease supply, hastening companies spiral towards monopoly/oligopoly/cartel structures.

.3) American violations continue in Afghanistan. The (media) backlash might however have increased American willingness to negotiate and hand over more power to the Afghan (puppet?) government.

The effects might be mostly symbolical, but that doesn’t mean they are any less important. Increasing Afghan command over matter of national security will, hopefully, create less friction with the Afghan people. With less power to the US forces local rebellions/warlords might have a harder time rallying troops against a foreign invasion.
And, hopefully, Afghan forces will be less likely to burn the Koran or massacre villages.

.4) Imagining an elastic city – Diana Limbach Lempel. Informal and flexible structures should be given more space/opportunity in cities. The idea is basically taken from the chaos of (Asian) mega-cities such as Mumbai. What could ”stable” cities in the West learn from this?

There is a fragrance of something quite disgusting in this rhetoric. Entropy and community is, in many places, strictly because of necessity. Stick together or starve. Take space or see it be taken from you. To apply this on (somewhat more fluently) functioning societies is mockery and romanticism. You can not talk about the entropic systems of Mumbai without talking about the poverty, injustice and problems as well.
There is another problem in this (green-movement romanticised) elastic city. There is a narrative of a city functioning as a dynamic organism, growing and shrinking; transforming. But buildings don’t want to move. A heavily shrinking city will mean that work, effort and resources used for construction will be spoiled. There is no escaping this.
Actually, every city to have existed is/was organic by definition (the inhabitants functioning as the mitochondria of a cell). But this makes the metaphor shallow; it needs to be better redefined.

However, this is where the elasticity becomes interesting; not as a substitute to traditional planning, but as the web knitting it together and filling in the gaps. I reject all symbolic connections to ”green organic cities” and their narratives. What is truly great about elasticity is the possibility to directly change and re-create your immediate surrounding and what affects your life.
Informal, bottom-up planning, as well as temporary flexible structures, has the potential to circumvent big scale economical failure. The informal working as a test-site for what should be sedimented and what should not.

(originally written 120415)

reanimation II: on illusions, individual and en masse

.1) Indian scientist showed that a ”weeping cross” could be explained by capilar power and a nearby leaky drain. For this statement he was charged with ”blasphemy”.

.2) Classical psychology experiment from 68’ shows that teachers who believe to have ”good” or promising students actually makes their students better. In 68’ this was shown by the (randomly chosen) student’s enhanced results at IQ-tests.
Main explanations are teacher becoming more enthusiastic about teaching and treating their students with more respect.

.3) UK publication showing most religious (christians?) have more ideals in common with left-wing/liberals than with the right-wing (e.g. acceptance of immigrants, progressive policies, equality, politically active, volunteering, charity work and donations).
Still, the right-wing has claimed the religious group (just as much as the left (due to Marx?) has forsaken it).

.4) Women drinking lightly during pregnancy have kids which less problems than ”absolutists”. The latter is definitely NOT a cause of the first, rather a corralation. I would argue that it has to do with the intelligence and mind of the parent. A woman who can critically analyze scientific/medical advice is probably more intelligent/has a better self-esteem/independant, something that is genetically passed on to the children.

.5) Living conditions in Sweden, with different (social) classes spatially divided, has been in practice since the early 1900’s. Even in some suburbs with mixed social classes, the different building typologies (rental apartment blocks, townhouses, villas) were spatilly segregated.
Christer Björk argues this is due to the ideological idea that identity and meaning most easily is created in homogenous groups.
This can be seen as classical modernism architecture/planning.
According to Jeremy Till (and his, in my opinion excellent, article ”Architecture and Contingency”) this goes even further back; (bluntly put) ordering, establishing and maintaining the hegemonic power structure is the foundation of Architecture.
I’m also interested in neo-liberal arguments.
My speculation: buildings associated with working class people would reduce value (selling price/profit) of upper-class villas; on the opposite, upper-class villas would NOT increase the value of working-class building blocks. If this is true, there is an economical incentive for spatial segregation.

.6) In the Occupied Times, page 12, Jeremy Till argues that scarcity (and by it austerity) is a constructed concept and not a natural one. We are not running out of food, we are simply not distributing it well (overconsumption in north, starvation in south).

Scarcity and Austerity are used as a scare-tactic to keep hegemonic power structures in place (i.e. the capitalist ideology), e.g. how shrinking national budgets are used as an argument for privatization (even though costs are not cut but increased) or food scarcity is used to argue for large scale industrialized farming and genetically modifed plants (even though crop yield is not increased). Till counterposes this with ”natural scarcity”, which (I guess) might be environmental and ecological effects and peak-oil.

I would prefer him to stay consistent. In my eyes, all scarcities are constructed concepts, even those of sustainability. Slavoj Zizek has a great piece on Ecology as Ideology, scarcity and austerity is used in exactly the same way Till mentions, but for the Eco-Ideology instead of a Capitalistic. All issues of scarcity are dependant on our relation and use of resources. If we believe 7 billion people should be able to eat meat, then yes we will have scarcity. If we believe 7 billion people to eat potatoes (and vegetables), not so much scarcity.

Maybe: instead of austerity, we need reformation and reorganization. Or are scare-tactics a necessary tool for transforming society?

CONCLUSIONS AND CROSS-FERTILISATION

Do not underestimate the power of self-deception. If we truly belive something it might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This also goes into social and political (critical) studies. It is far easier to change the illusions than reality, by making people believe in certain constructed concepts, the concepts themselves become reality. Scarcity, austerity, freedome infringements etc. All can be implemented with sufficient illusions.
And maybe that is the crime of the Indian scientist, the crime of destroying illusions.

(originally written 120415)

reanimation I: on PSTD and architecture

Re-animating this blog with some old, unpublished, entries.
                                                                                                                                                     

.1) For every one US soldier killed in war, another 25 veterans commit suicide (e.g. due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

(All) armed forces of today are built on structural deception (on the level of society). The image and message communicated to those enlisting is not reflecting reality. Army culture is based on not showing any weakness/emotion/affection. It is a culture of masculine normative repression. This is truly a misconception, ”weakness” can not be eradicated just by claiming it ”not to exist”.
This structural deception (false initial information and repressive internal systems) is an exploitation of a few in the name of the nation. This system might be an effective way for a nation to create ample tools (read: soldiers) for securing its own interests, but it is a concept that cannot co-exist with the notion of democracy.

.2) Architect and art historian hates on new mirror-glass facade in central Uppsala. His arguments are highly modernistic.

The new facade is in itself not worse than any other facade. To refute it on the basis of architectural style is futile. Architecture has never been a critical discipline, it has just pretended to be so.

A question of more importance is what we think of the investment itself and how it relates to the city of Uppsala. Is it important to further emphasize the consumerist/shopaholic tendencies of our society?

CONCLUSIONS AND CROSS-FERTILISATION

Is there such a thing as an architectural Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? An overly simplistic interpretation would be the so-called ”failure of modernism”. As projects grew ever larger they became more engineering than architecture. Machine-houses only fitting for machine-people. This is a simplified narrative common in Swedish architectural circuits.

Let us instead go one step deeper; the root of evil is not the evil itself but the goodness behind it. Architecture was trying to establish itself as a critical discipline, re-evaluating how we lived and how we built. The goal was noble; housing, comfort, improved life quality for everyone.
Modernism turned from a criticism of Architecture, to the hegemony within Architecture; Modernism ruled supreme. From here on, Modernism decided ”the question” to be answered rather than searching for new answers.
The question is; if it is the system that is wrong, can change for the better truly come from within the system?

(originally written 120416)