Few days ago I wrote an open-letter to Patrik Schumacher in reaction to an article he wrote in which he doubted that architecture could be a site of radical political activism as well as affirming that architects are neither legitimised, nor competent to argue for a different politics or to ‘disagree with the consensus of global politics’ . This letter was followed by an impressive sum of comments which, for most of them, participated to this debate as well as the problem of architecture education in the United Kingdom (which was the original topic of the article on Architectural Review). Three of those comments were written by Patrik Schumacher himself, and it seems only fair to publish them here as a response to my letter.
In a more personal note, I have to acknowledge that, despite our opposite interpretations of the problem, Mr. Schumacher responded very calmly and constructively thus disregarding the personal attacks that I opened my letter with, and I am thankful for that.
The following pieces of text are his comments and are followed to my own response to them:
Patrik Schumacher | February 10, 2012 at 6:15 am
the debate is productive … unfortunately some of you misconstrued my point. We all might participate in the political process as citizens, voters, party members, demonstrators etc. … however, in our capacity as avant-garde architects we are called upon to adapt the thinking and design resources of the discipline to those socio-economic and political tendencies that emerge as legitimately victorious from the political process proper. We are not called upon to second guess or sabotage the results of the political process. Architectural discourse is not the arena for a sophisticated political discourse. As professional architects we are also not called upon to undermine prior decisions. Who could give us this right? Self-appointed?
What would give an architect the right to second guesss for instance the decision to invest in a public building with a particular programme and represented by a legitimately constituted client representative. The attempt to subvert such legitimate intentions would be arrogant, pompous, unjustifiable. The politics of the new building has been defined already. It is now our job to translate its political intentions in a congenial, effective, sensitive way … innovative in terms of its architectural translation. In a competition setting we might try to reinterpret the political agenda of the project, in an open discourse with the legitimate jury. Thats fair enough. If we go too far we might loose our chance. Perhaps thats a risk worth taking. That level of subtle activism within the institutional processes is welcome.
Those of you who – like some of you seem to – have no trust and respect for the political process and who thus think that the political system does not deliver, who think that politics presents the bottleneck of progress, those of you should exit architecture and enter the political process proper in full force … or at least seriously engage in a political debate, perhaps join a (radical) political party … and become true activists within the political arena proper. Architecture and architectural discourse cannot substitute itself for this real political discourse where you do not have to convince or charm other architects or architecture students with imagery but where you have to win arguments in debates with seasoned political activists. … And only in the political process proper you can legitimately and effectively influence and change the constitution of the clients of architecture, for instance by nationalizing real estate development if you e.g. think private interests should be excluded from development. However, to try to subvert or sabotage privare clients where they are granted to legitimate rights over a site would be ineffective, as well unacceptable, would violate democratically constituted and confirmed rights.
Realism: the realism I imply for student’s creative work has nothing to do with banal dull pragmatism. I am looking for an original, skillful, sophistcated, creative engagement with contemporary design tasks that might become real briefs, perhaps high density, mixed use urbanism in urban brown field sites … interpreted in a progressive understanding of the dynamics of postfordist network society … where an intesification of relations and communicative interactions between the different programme components would be desired … The task here would be to device new repertoires that could facilitate the organisation and articulation of inceased communicative complexity, maintaining legibility in a dense, complex information rich scene. …
Patrik Schumacher | February 10, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply | Edit
I would like to ask Leopold about his political position and outlook. Do you have a clear political position? Is it far off the mainstream? Is it a vague sense of unease or is it a well developed, comprehensive, systematic, articulate political position? If not yet the latter, are you aspiring to achieve full, articulate clarity of conviction? If so, how do you intend to achieve this? In which discursive arena?
Patrik Schumacher | February 11, 2012 at 2:21 am | Reply | Edit
Is all power and all political power a negative force? Power is an efficient way to achieve social synthesis (integrated action). Political power is necessary to order society. The build environment has its own unique ordering capacity – this is per se neither hurtful, nor violent, it facilitates the structuring of social relations. (The absence of social order is hurtful and violent. Social order is fragile and society might degenerate/regress in the absence of ordering mechanism. … I wonder if you would describe yourself as Anarchist? … I myself have sympathies in the direction of libertarianism or anarcho-capitalsm … but my architecture can only be based on the assumptions of mainstream politics, the political agenda that is in fact empowered. A practicing architect can only decide in this way.) The political question is not power yes or no – or architectural order yes or no – but where the decision making and control capacity in relation to architectural ordering initiatives is located. To enter a democratic political debate about this matter one would have to assess alternative institutions in terms of their overall rationality and chance to enhance global productivity/welfare/freedom. And after the political question is settled (in the political system) there remains the question of the most pertinent, effective architectural solution to the ordering agenda of the legitimate (political, economic, social) power. This question can no longer be answered in the political system, nor in the economic system. This question can only be answered in the architectural discourse, according to its specific categories and criteria of success, i.e. according to the double code of utility and beauty.
thank you for your responses. You asked me about my political interpretation of society, what follows is an attempt to articulate an answer.
As you guessed, I am very suspicious about any forms of power that subjectivize the other. You would argue that those forms are necessary and, although I think that this is debatable, if that is the case, I think that such power has to be considered with great concern, awareness and care. Furthermore, each system that imply such forms of power should include in itself a part of its own contradiction to avoid the exacerbation of the power.
You wonder if I would call myself an anarchist and the answer is no. I find the law an interesting construction when it is built-up through the process of an immanent collective ethics rather than a transcendental moral. I am much more interested by the revolutionary process than the revolution itself. I don’t consider my political engagement as a dedication to the implementation of another paradigm but rather in the collective creation of moments of resistance against a dominant power (whichever the latter is) . It is thus problematic for me to be a practicing architect (which I am) as architecture, when not questioned for its political implications, would necessarily serve this dominant power.
You take the example of an architecture competition for a given city that you have been to participate to after that the political ‘spirit’ of this project has been already negotiated, and you say that architects have to consider this spirit as a given they need to work with. I could not disagree more. If this politics does not correspond to the architect’s personal ethics, I consider that (s)he should either refuse the commission or propose an alternative that would radically change this politics. Would (s)he design an office building whose construction would involve the destruction of hundreds of homes ? Would (s)he design a prison ? Would (s)he design an Israeli settlement in the West Bank ? Those are as extreme as ordinary examples but there is no reason that such questioning does not function for smaller political impacts.
As architects we are accountable for participating to the implementation of a politics centered on the bodies as, by its physicality, architecture is indeed inherently violent on those same bodies. In most countries of the world (the case of many South American countries is interesting as an alternative), one live either in the tyranny of an authoritative power or in the cogs of a capitalist system (sometimes both !); in both case, the body is captured, literally in the first case and for its production capacities and its desire in the second one. Architecture is deeply linked to this capture and I consider as the role of those who participate to its process of creation (architects, but also a lot of other people) to be aware of that. From there, I believe that a creative process can involve this violent power of architecture (which cannot be diffused anyway) as a form of political resistance against the subjectivization of the bodies by a dominating power. It obviously does not mean that those bodies will be liberated by architecture but simply that they would be able to negotiate a certain form of ‘sympathy with the obstacle’ (quoting Reza Negarestani).
I would like to finish this response by recognizing that it might be easier for me to affirm this list of principles than for somebody who is confronted to them on a daily basis as well as struggling to survive economically, nevertheless I think that one should simply not make concessions without being able to carry their responsibility.