‘Other’ Activism

Jacqueline Hall  (M.Arch & MEM ’18)

A brief moment of discomfort struck me during the panel discussion, “The Aesthetics of the Other: Alienation, Estrangement, and Unfamiliarity,” at the “Aesthetic Activism” symposium. Three artists, Gregory Crewdson, Caroline Picard, and Pamela Rosenkranz spoke about their work. It felt strange to be sitting in Hastings Hall, listening to lecturers invoke questions of identity and divulge deeply personal stories as the origins or content of their work. The architects who typically speak in Hastings usually only use personal anecdotes insofar as they contribute to their disciplinary identity or mystique. Perhaps this is because architects have a sense of responsibility to resist subjectivity in their work so that potential users of their buildings, the subjects, can be succinctly categorized or generalized to fit into the logic of a project. Maybe it is a defense mechanism against the unknowable to generalize social relations rather than seeking ideas in the messy, complicated, and contradictory specificity of people.  

However, many architects are fascinated with the potentials of messy, complicated, and contradictory specificity in the process and morphology of design itself. I am reminded of Mary McLoed’s critique of architects’ co-optation of Foucault’s lecture on “heterotopias.” She critiques the abstract and homogenous interpretation of the architectural “others” that architects look to create within the bounds of the existing architectural institution. McLeod is deeply critical of this attitude which she believes to be politicized without social content or clarity of purpose. For Foucault’s part, he does not explicitly invoke architecture. Cultural constructions and social relations are more important in the logic of heterotopia. McLoed writes of the very formal architectural reinterpretation of this idea, that the “spoken and unspoken assumption is that ‘different’ is good, that ‘otherness’ is automatically an improvement on the status quo.” But, she asks, “to what extent is this preoccupation with ‘otherness’ a product of critics’ and practitioners’ own identity and status? Does it elucidate or support groups considered socially marginal or ‘other’? Are there positions in architecture outside these two tendencies that address concerns of ‘otherness’ relevant to ‘ordinary’ people—those for whom the avant-garde has little significance?”

In Foucault’s lecture, the presence of a subject who interprets the existence and meaning of the heterotopia is invoked with clear biases and assumptions. If we consider that these “other” spaces are indelibly marked, even formed by society and culture, who, exactly, are the subjects which determine or interpret the “otherness” of design and further, how do (or don’t) designers engage with the subjects who use their spaces or with their own subjectivity? Perhaps it is worth understanding what makes certain activities or identities socially “other” before designing for some unknown, and generalizing “other” and leaving the interpretation of those spaces to chance, or simply crossing our fingers that they will give way to alternative social politics.  

Maybe a deeper interest in identity and subjectivity could help us analyze spaces that cause people to feel “othered” so as to de-stigmatize or make visible social conditions which are marginalized or not recognized and granted space. Perhaps a theory of an architectural “other” could be more akin to Lefebvre’s concept of “differential space” which accommodates difference rather than homogenizing relationships.