The Individual and the Common: A Conversation with Surry Schlabs

Surry Schlabs is a PhD student at the Yale School of Architecture.

Wes Hiatt: You’ve often referred to the Occupy Wall Street movement’s role in foregrounding the problem of public space in American popular and political discourse, noting with some pride that New Haven had the longest running Occupy camp in the country. How is the term “public” defined in this context and how has your work on John Dewey informed your interest in, and position on, Occupy and other, similar movements active today?

Surry Schlabs: Well, one very important aspect of public life that was set in stark relief by Occupy was the fact that very little of what we consider public space in this country actually qualifies as public at all by any reasonable metric. Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, for instance, where Occupy made its initial stand, is not a park in the traditional sense, but a privately administered open space, owned and maintained by a private company. Zuccotti Park is hardly unique in this respect, however, and considering the gradual disappearance of the country’s truly public spaces – places for people to assemble, not just to exercise their constitutional right to protest, but to participate in the construction of common meaning, and community, through real engagement with other people — it should come as no surprise that movements like Black Lives Matter have recently taken to highways to stage their protests. In a lot of respects, highways—the bigger the better—are some of the last real public spaces left in this country. They are—despite their effective inaccessibility, despite the essential danger in occupying highways as pedestrians—particularly well suited as places of encounter between individuals (and ideas) who might otherwise have nothing in common.

Regarding Dewey, specifically, I’ve always been taken with his definition of democracy, which he equates more or less with community, and where he emphasizes the importance of face-to-face interaction between people in space as the heart of the democratic project. For Dewey, the public can only come into being through this sort of face-to-face contact between individuals; there’s a physical, spatial proximity required in order to give the public form. Without that closeness, without a certain degree of intimacy, there is only distance and formlessness. In The Public and its Problems – a book I’ve returned to again and again over the last few years, regarding not only the structure and function of American democracy, but also the crisis in the humanities, and the aesthetic qualities of community – Dewey describes the public as being brought about “through the lasting, extensive and serious consequences of associated activity.”  It is, necessarily, an active phenomenon.  What’s more, for Dewey, the scope and the function of the state are something to be critically and experimentally determined over and over again; and while he may have had a great deal of faith in the institutions of American democracy, he did not equate them with democracy, as such. These institutions may have served the purposes and demands of democracy at a certain point in time — but for Dewey, they were something that could, and should, be constantly interrogated. And that can only happen in the public square, such as it is. It can only happen between people.

WH: And one could say that, with the emergence of Twitter and Facebook, social media is actually eliminating the public sphere, making it even more challenging to convince people that the physical space of engagement is necessary.

SS: I think that’s a really important point. As early as the 1920s, Dewey had already identified one of the essential challenges posed by technological innovation in communication to the continuation of the democratic project. In his day, radio and telephone had granted humanity a previously unprecedented capacity for long-distance communication, and were heralded, like so many forms of social media today, as the harbingers of a new, and newly energized, form of democratic engagement. Dewey, however, saw telephone and radio not only as tools of connection, but as devices of separation and distance, too. Despite our access to these tools – to the telephone, to radio, to Facebook and Twitter – despite our tendency to understand these tools as being more or less congruous with democratic engagement, the meaning and aspirations consistent with the ideals of democracy too often fail to be communicated at all. As a supplement to other, more tangible forms of engagement, these technologies have proven themselves to be quite valuable.  But their potential for good is left unrealized if we allow them to replace the public square as a physical space, a real place of encounter.

WH: We often use convenient binary pairings of words when talking about how architecture relates to its greater urban context, and how it affects the organization of people in space.  Two pairs, in particular, seem especially germane to this conversation: public/private, and individual/collective.  Is there a difference, in your mind, between notions of the “public,” as we’ve been discussing it here, and that of the “collective?”  How does the individual factor into this discussion and, beyond that, the notion of identity?

SS: So, whereas Dewey defines the public in the context of democracy and community in terms of encounter between distinct individuals (and ideas) in real time and space, thereby implying the importance of difference, as such, for someone like Hannah Arendt – whose work I’ve previously brought into dialogue with Dewey’s – the notion of individual differentiation is absolutely essential to the construction of the public.  For Dewey, the individual must always be considered in the context of a community, the notion of the atomic individual being more or less a convenient fiction. It may have proven useful – primarily in the realm of intellectual inquiry – to conceive of the individual as an autonomous subject, but for him, that premise is false, and potentially even dangerous, as it refuses to see the world as it actually is: a diffuse environment of interconnected and interdependent individuals, whose identities are neither static nor innate, and which come into being only when set in relation to a community.

For Dewey, then, the loss of communal activity and actual, experiential engagement with other people leads to social and political stasis, the sort with which I’d venture to say we’re all pretty familiar. Arendt, however, while not as fierce or explicit in her denial of individual autonomy as Dewey, pushes things a bit further, and views the closing of the public square as resulting not just in stasis or stagnation, but in tyranny and totalitarianism. And that’s because, for her, humanity is by its very nature plural, the constant exchange of ideas between a broad range of essentially different others being an assurance of our common, worldly reality.  Which is to say that Arendt – whose book, The Human Condition, comprises her most well-known meditation on the topic – defines the term ‘public’ in broad and remarkably generous terms.  Though she stops short of collapsing the distinction between public and private entirely, as Dewey tried to do, the two realms remain, in her thinking, mutually and inextricably dependent on one another.  The ‘public,’ in Arendt’s view, signifies nothing less than “the world itself.”  It is, she says, the “world of things… between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”  So where Dewey may have rejected the notion of a modern subject, set over and against the world, in favor of a distinctly Darwinian organism, embedded and engaged in a host of biological, social, and political processes, Arendt explicitly acknowledges the importance of the individual to her world view. At the same time, however, she insists that by focusing exclusively on individual difference — without acknowledging the necessity of a common world— the result is inevitably a sort of tyranny, whether it be social, cultural, political, or all of the above.

WH: Specific architectural practices and projects come to mind in their intention of offering the possibility of public interaction: Hertzberger’s schools, van Eyck’s orphanage, Rossi’s school at Broni, and Koolhaas’ Seattle Library to name a few. Do you think it’s worthwhile – or even possible – to try to judge the successes and failures of these projects in these terms?

SS: I think we can lay out whatever terms we want to judge the successes and failures of these projects. If you’re strictly concerned with the form of architecture, absent any social content or mutually constructed meaning, you can judge these projects in one way. If your concern is architecture’s relationship to a broader array of social, political, and cultural processes or relationships, you can judge them a different way.  I think it would be a mistake, however, to assume that by framing architecture – by defining the purview of the architect – in terms of form, you necessarily preclude a more social-scientific understanding of the way architecture functions in the world at large, once it enters built environment.  What’s significant about the examples you cite here, in any case, is that they are all public institutions. More than that, they are all examples of civic architecture.  That is, they are symbolic representations of collective identity, purpose, or endeavor. The school, being a place of education, has a certain publicly-oriented purpose. School buildings—not always, but at their best—are manifestations or realizations of that purpose, which we have in common. Buildings like libraries, likewise, are realizations of a certain type of community and its values. We all assume that modern cities should have libraries—that knowledge in the form of books and media should be accessible to all, and free—but that is not necessarily the natural order of things, and we should be very wary of taking it for granted.

I happen to think that in some of Hertzberger’s schools—especially the earlier projects—there’s a certain generosity of abstract form, acknowledging both human scale and action, which invites and even incentivizes a whole range of activities. Those activities, while hardly prescribed as such, tend to be communal. Likewise, in Van Eyck’s orphanage, one sees a formal emphasis not on individuated program spaces, but on a network of pathways, conceived to encourage certain types of encounter and engagement. There is a generous attitude at play here regarding the development and disposition of spaces in common and, likewise, a clear and assertive formal sensibility. But I don’t think these buildings are significant strictly because of their formal innovation. They are significant precisely because they position form relative to dynamic and socially constructed meaning.

WH: It’s interesting that you point out that they are all public institutions. Each of these buildings does a lot of the work to enable people within them, perhaps, to do more work, to resist tyranny. And that gets to Arendt’s point, right? She goes further and says that we have to come together at the table or in the building as individuals and do the work. In these projects, the form—I wouldn’t say that it overcomes the institutions—but perhaps supplements them and makes the institution accessible through the architecture. It’s still form that’s doing the work of enabling.

SS: I think that’s a very good point. I don’t think it’s enough just to provide space where bodies can congregate. There has to be an invitation to, or accommodation of, a certain type of active, even unpredictable, engagement. I actually think that this building, Rudolph Hall, and the current student body’s use of it provide an apt example. Today, and for a long time, the fourth floor pit has been opened up, becoming a void, which is in and of itself a really powerful idea: a communal, if typically empty space, to which everybody on the fourth and fifth floors has more or less the same formal relationship.  Yet its being a space for all does not preclude the individual, or group of individuals, from seizing it for a particular use, whether or not that use is common to everyone. So in the ongoing badminton tournament, we see an example of students making that space their own through a type of communal occupation and friendly, competitive engagement. In architecture school, we often hear talk of how users “activate spaces,” an expression I really dislike. I don’t think the badminton games staged in the pit “activate” that space.  Rather, I think they exemplify the realization of school community through the pursuit of common purpose, no matter how modest; in which sense this building – in its generosity of space, of view, of form – is a good example of what we might call democratic architecture; of architecture that, while not being prescriptive of use or value, can become the site of open-ended, even unexpected, communal engagement; a place where common meaning can be constructed, and ever re-constructed.

WH: I would like to move the conversation outside our own walls and into the world to touch on what I think is another important issue here: the accessibility of ideas. In the academy we discuss things at a level different than what the majority of the world would understand, which is of course necessary for a specific, informed, and nuanced discourse. However, this discourse may appear disingenuous and lofty, especially when we’re speaking about architecture and its relationship to the public. How do you believe we reconcile the need for a high level of discourse with a need for more accessible ideas?

SS: I don’t think these two ideas—the notion of a high-level intellectual discourse and the application of ideas in the public sphere—are, or should be, mutually exclusive. In part, the question comes down to how we construct the communities of which we are part. The problem here—as always with universities, and especially with universities like Yale—is how this institution conceives its relationship to the community at large.

In the wake of the election, I’ve heard from friends, family, and plenty of strangers outside of the Northeast that think we simply don’t understand America—that we’re in a “bubble.” The withdrawal of intellectual discourse and scholarly activity into a highly-disciplined, self-referential, and often self-congratulatory environment has certainly contributed to this vision of places like Yale as bubbles. But I still take issue with this characterization. The notion of a bubble, to me, implies homogeneity and exclusion. And while the community of students at Yale—whose broader community, we must remember, includes thousands of faculty, staff, and students engaged in a variety of activities, both academic and not—may be relatively homogeneous in some ways, like general level of education, in just about every other way, we – the members of the broader Yale-New Haven community – represent a greater diversity of individuals, a greater diversity of identities, than any of those places heralded by many on the political right as the ‘real’ America.  And we are no less American for it.  Indeed, New Haven was recently determined by fivethirtyeight.com to be the American city most demographically similar to the country as a whole.

WH: But—and I agree with that—with one reservation, and it’s going back to the idea of withdrawal. I know that the vast majority of my class, while from many different places, will be injected into the New York system, the Boston system, the Los Angeles system, and that’s in contrast to what used to happen in schools like ours: students would go back. J. Irwin Miller went back to Columbus, Indiana. Stanley Tigerman went back to Chicago.

SS: Yes and Paul Rudolph went back down South for a bit.

WH: Exactly. So while I agree that the characterization of the Northeast as a bubble is unfair, I do think that on our side of the table, again, we have to do the work and not withdraw: for the possibility of our architectural ideas to become accessible at all, we have to be at the table.

SS: Yes, that’s right. We have to be. I think that for much of our time here at this school, we are lucky to find ourselves at the table, both literally and figuratively, with a whole range of others. The testing, and continuous retesting, of ideas in the context of difference and disagreement lie at the heart of a liberal education, and exemplify the manner in which values in a truly pluralistic community come into being.  Absent any sort of thorough public and civic engagement with people who really disagree with us – absent the real proximity inherent in Dewey’s vision of democracy –  whatever value there is in sitting around a table, be it literal or metaphorical, is potentially wasted.

I’ll conclude with a quote from Bartlett Giamatti, former President of Yale, that I think makes a very Arendtian point. It’s taken from his address, in 1981, to that year’s incoming freshman class, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration and the rise and energization of the so-called “moral majority.” In that speech, Giamatti spoke of pluralism, which he associated with the values of both the university and American democracy more broadly. “Pluralism is not relativism,” he says.  “It does not mean the denial of absolutes or absence of standards.” Of course, these are things that, still today, the political right accuses universities and campus communities of being:  without principles and thoroughly relativist.  “It signals”, rather, “the recognition that people of different ethnic groups and races and adherents of various religious and political and personal beliefs have a right to coexist as equals under the law…” This much, I think, many people often take for granted, as today, more so than ever – at least in American politics and culture – those of us on the left have found it increasingly necessary not just to recognize, but to celebrate, the varieties of difference inherent in our society. But Giamatti doesn’t stop there.  Recognizing difference, he insists, is not enough.  Freedom isn’t a state, in this view, but an act, and those of us living in a free, democratic society have an “obligation to forge the freedoms we enjoy into a coherent, civilized, and vigilant whole.” Here, Giamatti speaks not just to the identity of the individual, but to the necessity of constructing an identity in common; of asserting not just individual, private rights, but those shared rights which only truly come into being in public. In that sense, he echoes Arendt’s assertion, in The Human Condition, that “only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.”

Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press (Chicago: 1998 [1958])

Dewey, John, The Public and Its Problems, Ohio University Press (Athens: 1988 [1927])

Giamatti, A. Bartlett, “A Liberal Education and the New Coercion,” A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University, W.W. Norton & Co. (New York: 1990 [1981])