Portugal magazine Arqa recently published its last issue about the notion of “New Collectives”. Part of this issue is composed of a series of interviews asking the same three questions to various architecture thinkers and practitioners, my friends Ethel Baraona Pohl and Iker Gil but also Markus Miessen, Pedro Brandao, Constantin Petcou, Doina Petrescu and El Campo de Cebada. I was also honored to be asked to answer these questions and through them, to try to articulate ideas that I have been writing about here. In that matter, some parts of the following text might seem redundant to some of my readers and I apologize for that.
NEW COLLECTIVES ///
Interview with Arqa Magazine (published in a translated Portuguese version)
ARQUA: Regarding your editorial activity and research in the blog The Funambulist, in what way are you specifically interested in the emergence of a new sense of the collective?
First of all, I would like to say that the editorial activity and research that you are kind enough to indicate here is done in association of the more practical activity that I develop through my design work. Informing the latter by the former and vice versa is something truly fundamental to me.
I am interested in the notion of collective, not in the way that we use it sometimes to describe a consensus, but rather in the formation of groups of people and ideas that share and construct together political ethics. What I mean by ethics here is not something that has to do with a transcendental moral as it is often inaccurately used. By ethics, I mean an individual or collective continuously constructed system of values which does not tend towards universalization, yet is determined to defend itself against its various antagonisms. The interesting thing to me is that this construction of system of values necessarily involves a cultural production, which, of course, involves architecture. We should not see ethics as a sort of supplement to this production, but rather as its very essence. There is no politically neutral cultural production and, by extension, there is no politically neutral architecture. The very idea of neutrality is a simulacrum of a production that embraces the dominant relationships of power that it emerges from.
You evoke the idea of a new sense of the collective. I am not sure that there is any novelty involved here; instead there might be a re-intensification of the sense of the collective that is historically recurrent in times of economic crisis; the same is true for ideologies based on every forms of reject and fear of otherness unfortunately. Using this historical impetus is important for two reasons: to prevent the supremacy of the ideologies I just evoked, and to use the energy gathered to contribute to the cultural and social production also evoked above.
ARQA: In the context of the crisis of the global development model, what are the current possibilities of active, social and popular intervention in the contemporary city?
My vision in that matter is not as much revolutionary than it is resistive. What I mean by this is that I do not necessarily believe in a sort of political redemption that would, ultimately, give the starting point to a true revolutionized architecture. I think that dominant relationships of power always manage to recompose themselves and re-capture the bodies that thought, for a moment, to have escaped from them. This is still an optimistic vision however, as it implies that a radical political architecture (by now you might have understood that the notion of political architecture is a pleonasm for me) can be thought and built right here (wherever that might be), right now. That does not mean that all people in favor of such architecture should leave the cities and go build it in the mountains; there is no escape and we should refrain from wishing for one. Resistance, just like in physics, consists in the collision of two bodies/objects without the (total) destruction of one or the other. The asymmetric dimension of such a “collision” requires us to know the ensemble of systemic mechanisms that surround us in order to set us up within their folds whose cartography is blurry or ambiguous. I understand that my discourse is a bit obscure so I will use an example.
For the last fifteen years, Seville-based architect Santiago Cirugeda has been creating public space facilities for local communities based on an opportunist reading of the urban legislation. The ill-definition of some aspects of the latter provides indeed a small space of what we might call a-legality, a concept invented by Hans Lindahl for ambiguous legal situations that seems to underwrite the law as well as contradict it at same time. In the case of the Santiago Cirugeda’s office, Recetas Urbanas, the architecture resulting from such an approach is manifested through different ways: temporary summer local playgrounds mounted on dumpster volumes as the latter’s presence had been easily authorized, a neighborhood center in an architecture legally considered as temporarily (and therefore tolerated) for not having foundations, temporary balconies added to houses for registering as scaffoldings etc.
Constructing a-legal architectures in favor of the collectivity is one of many ways to act. The idea of what we know as civil disobedience is another. A few years ago, I tried to apply it to an architectural project, inspired by the example of Max Rameau and Take Back the Land in Florida, who reclaims real-estate speculative land or foreclosed houses to give a roof to a homeless/evicted population. My own project consisted in the construction of a Palestinian building in the part of the West Bank (63% of it) where the Israeli army prevents the local population to build any structure. The architectural disobedience to the colonial law was both a way to deactivate it as well as to reveal the profound injustice it embodies.
ARQA: Regarding the changes in contemporary societies, what is the role of the architect in the configuration of new communities?
Very often, the architect (observe how we talk about him/her always as a singular), is one of the principal obstacle to the formation of a collective production. (S)he understands the strength that the lines (s)he traces have on the bodies subjected to it and enjoys “from above” (let us not forget that the plan is a representation from above) his divine power. The first role of the architect is therefore to humble her(him)self and accepts to consider the creation (s)he is contributing to, no longer “from above” but rather “from the earth”. By the earth, I metaphorically invoke the physicality of things. Architecture is for me the discipline that organizes the “arrangement” of bodies in space. It is inherently violent towards these same bodies (try to run into a wall and you will soon realize it!) and the way it is traced and built is therefore crucial. Acknowledging such a definition help us to think of the communities you are evoking as groups of social bodies. Each of us is only one body and I am therefore convinced that the location we continuously to place this material assemblage that composes us is a fundamental repeated political choice. In other words, where you are when you read those words constitutes the political choice you did for your body at this very moment. That involves the square feet you are occupying, the neighborhood around it, the city (I assume you are reading this in a city) and the country that include it. What it means is that forming communities of bodies is also part of this political choice repeated at each moment. The architect, as a body her(him)self, and helped by others, is in charge of organizing those bodies in such a way that these communities become politically empowered through it. Because of its violent characteristics I was evoking above, it is however much easier to disempower than to empower: here is the challenge we are confronted to as architects.