- February 11, 2021
In Paprika! Issue 01, Eric Wycoff Rogers (MED ‘15) wrote passionately about Major and Minor architecture, seeking to liberate the “spatial monopolies” that “hierarchical and planned institutions” have imposed on our use of urban space.1 Almost 7 years later, Eric is completing a PhD in American History at Cambridge after experimenting with several projects aimed to change the public perception and usage of space. This Dispatch discusses how their aspirations, challenges and beliefs have changed after working on these projects and joining academia.
Do you still see architecture operating primarily within the “Major”?
In many ways, it does seem like the overblown concept of the Great Architect is still with us. But it’s also worth remembering that architects don’t really design most of the spaces that we inhabit. Architectural culture is pretty insular. My interest in the Minor is very much inspired by Keller Easterling’s writings on the various rules, dynamics and apparatuses that generate the built environment. So, in recent years, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the way that mainstream spatial styles and aesthetics (often witnessed on YouTube and social media platforms created by people who are not architects) dominate our imagination of what a desirable space should look and feel like, creating its own version of the Major. Here, Major exists not as architectural output, but as trends. Think, for example, of the “bohemian modernism” that, in the last decade, has replaced the beige suburban Pier-1 Imports look of the 2000s. This aesthetic of white walls, an excess of houseplants in pots with triangles on them, and the fluffy sheepskin throw or shaggy pillows can be found in bedrooms and apartments in Berlin, London, New York and San Francisco. It is the go-to look of furniture and clothing catalogues now; it is the background of people’s Zoom calls.
Notably, it perpetuates itself without architects. It’s a self-perpetuating style; an aesthetic; but also a shared ethos and sensibility. I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to think about what these pervasive spatial aesthetics of everyday life mean—as the setting or stage upon which we ritualistically perform our identities, aspirationally daydream about the future, and make individual choices that aggregate into a culture. I think a lot about how these aesthetics limit how we think of ourselves, and how we feel our present and sense possibilities for the future.
Have your views about the Minor changed? If so, how?
I think there’s something interesting and productive, and maybe something to be subverted in this whole influencer space. Perhaps, social media platforms can be used to influence how the built environment works and how we invest ourselves in it (without an architect’s license).
What were the successes/challenges of the start-ups/initiatives you created?
I left Yale influenced by Keller Easterling’s insights about how much the built environment is shaped by people and processes that have nothing to do with architects. I looked at the city as this infrastructural pattern composed of technologies and cultural scripts, which could potentially be hacked and modified by introducing clever mechanisms or modifiers that would slot into the existing spatial, social, cultural and even aspirational structures in the city, in replicable and scalable ways.
When I returned to San Francisco in 2015 from Yale, I split my time between three experiments: participating in the communal living subculture that continues to thrive in San Francisco and beyond; setting up an “urban hacking” events-based Facebook group called Spontaneum; and founding a space-sharing app start-up called Nookzy.
I have written a lot about communes, so won’t say too much here about it, but let me say that one of the successful forms of advocacy we did was to encourage and facilitate a handful of architecture schools to incorporate communal living design projects into their curricula, so that students would re-imagine the household, the dwelling, and the social and emotional ecologies they designed for.
The second project was Spontaneum, which was a great experiment in the contingency of meanings and functions of urban interstitial spaces. We were really inspired by Jeremy Till’s Architecture Depends, Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed, and Andrew Herscher’s Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit. We started inviting people to join us for communal dinner in alleyways in Chinatown and under freeway overpasses. We set up temporary plush evening lounges between stacked shipping containers on San Francisco’s deserted Treasure Island, and in the negative space in the center of a spiraling pedestrian ramp near Twin Peaks. We found little interstitial spaces that we could inject functionality, excitement and culture into. The goal was to emphasize the contingency of urban spaces, and to demonstrate the latent potentiality and abundance that saturated the city. In a world where anything can be anything, the drab, desolate scarcities and harshness of the urban environment suddenly appear as what they really are: contingent social constructs.
Lastly, Nookzy was a parallel experiment I did in collaboration with a friend, Justin Alameida. The idea was to create bookable micro-environments (which we called “nooks”), such as a small, tropical greenhouses; little sailboat hangouts; rooftop Zen gardens; waterfront saunas; tucked-away little hot tubs; little underground labyrinths that you can only access through an unassuming manhole; treehouses; etc (some of those are fictional). They would be created and “hosted”—much like Airbnb—by people who had formal tenure of these spaces.
The idea here was to make the user experience of the city more multi-faceted. We were finding with our spontaneous experiments that much of the city’s potential just never gets tapped into. We hoped that a digital application could cause people to look at the small spaces around them as potentially fun, usable, interesting opportunities to play with experimental aesthetics and placemaking, and for the city to become more porous, exciting, and multi-faceted. We initially set our sights on backyards, which are one of the least utilized urban spaces in existence, especially in the United States. This is especially so on the west coast where they’re usable all year, but just don’t tend to be used. So we rolled out a small campaign to get people to host bookable hot tubs with cozy lighting in a handful of San Francisco and Oakland backyards. The pilot experiment was moderately successful, but early on, (it’s a really stupid thing) we ran into the conundrum that we couldn’t get a modular insurance policy (without paying $100,000 or something) when we only had five hosts and were just trying it out. Without this, it became ethically dubious because we would be subjecting our hosts to liability (and we live in a pretty litigious society). And without hosts demonstrating in real life, it was difficult to demonstrate to angel investors that they should back us (so it was a chicken or egg problem), so we pressed pause on the project.
I should also mention that we had hangups about taking venture capital because we wanted the app to have true sharing functionality. We wanted our hosts to be able to lend out their little spaces not only for money, but for customizable bartered conditions (so you’d say, “you can come use my pool, but you have to mow my lawn in exchange”), or even to gift it out for free. For us, this was the radical modality that a sharing platform could enable: non-commodified, immanent urban abundance.
Unfortunately, as I realized how much of a commitment and compromise (and potentially ethically dubious) the venture was going to need to be in order to get off the ground, I leaned more into academia, but I’m still hoping some aspiring CEO with a radical vision for better cities will come take the reins. It’s going to take someone who’s not just spatially savvy, but also has business know-how, and is committed to experimental place making and true radical sharing.
I have also walked away from that experience feeling that it may be better to separate one’s income from one’s spatial practice, or to try to think about what spatial practice could look like that’s not about netting revenue, but about shifting culture, desires, and, especially, aspirations. Can we still call the person who does this kind of practice an “architect”? I suppose in my mind, I think of this as a “minor” modality of doing architecture.
I have my reservations about retreating back into academia, because it feels like a place that neutralizes and incapacitates many of our society’s critical thinkers. After a stint of activism or whatever, they’re like, “oh, being an activist is hard and now I’m going to just go write for the rest of my life.” But when done right, I think academic knowledge production can serve as one plank of a true praxis. In my case, as I chip away at my PhD, I do continue to be plugged in, with people who are doing stuff on the ground. I see no reason to write things that people aren’t going to use to change the shape of our society.
After the challenges of working on Nookzy, did it make “hacking” feel like a strategy that was fundamentally disadvantaged?
It depends. “Hacking” is the basis of startup culture in general. Startups have proven to go from zero to a million quite quickly. That’s what distinguishes them from small businesses. The hacker toolkit is a really valuable and scalable one. What’s harder is when you have an intention other than making a shitload of money. That becomes trickier—when you are building things because the world needs it or because it’s going to make the world more interesting, meaningful or fair. I think that’s always going to be a smuggling operation—as in: smuggling other goals into the business enterprise form; perhaps even using business to accelerate alternatives to capitalism. You’re always going to have to be creative and kind of scrappy about how you pull that off.
I was delighted, when I finally got back to San Francisco, to find that there are actually a lot of quite subversive, radical, interesting and out-of-the-box thinkers in Silicon Valley. There are tons of anti-capitalists who run companies in Silicon Valley and are trying to think about how to shift big structures. In a way that’s how I’ve justified my shift back to academia, because I feel like I can think and I can rub off on them (maybe hopefully a little bit).
What are some contemporary examples of “flying under the radar” or “active forms” that you see being successful? And how do you see being an academic playing into this?
I was really inspired by Peggy Deamer’s call to arms in her New York Times letter to the editor, where she says we are ready to “fly under the radar to infiltrate larger spheres of influence” (Peggy was my M.E.D. thesis advisor). This concept goes well with Keller Easterling’s writings about how you should develop expertise, be able to speak about yourself and leverage your skills, networks and education as a designer to influence broader power structures (rather than just doing one-off houses for your whole career). One way I see this being done successfully is by creating frames through which we might think about and view architecture, urban space and socio-spatial behaviors. I’m thinking about terms like “sprawl” or a song about “little boxes” made of “tacky,” that can catalyze a whole generation’s feelings about suburbia; or Alan Berger’s framework for thinking about the way we waste urban space, which he calls “drosscape”.
I suppose I have recently been seeking to introduce more frames that permit us to think and also feel our way into a different spatial existence: this idea of “urban hacking” (or its theoretical underpinning—immanent urbanism); the idea of nooks as these highly curated, stylized, hyper-interesting small spaces in unexpected locations and contexts; lately, I’ve also been interested in Mark Fisher’s idea of the “weird,” and imagining a spatial practice, based on the idea, that seeks to create spaces and experiences that “defamiliarize”—in a Situationist fashion—the everyday, habituated built environment by injecting unexpected and jarring events, occurrences, and/or scenery in them. Suddenly, the everyday becomes pregnant with latent, radically-different scenarios and potentiality, and one seeks pathways and portals leading between the ordinary and the extraordinary. I love contemplating this.
Another way I think academia can be quite productive is through creating design prompts. I’ve recently teamed up with my friend and collaborator Andra Bria to host what we’ve been calling the “Post-Work City Project.” It’s basically inviting artists, architects, designers and lay people to imagine/design/represent what cities can be like in a future where production is automated, and people no longer need to work to sustain themselves. The reason being that we’re still stuck in these same industrial cities, and we need to craft new aspirations about what cities can be. So we asked people what kinds of public spaces might exist in place of the offices, factories and stores that currently dominate the landscapes of our downtowns and central business districts. What facilities and attractions might exist to occupy the time freed from work? How might we relate to time? Would we all continue to sleep primarily at night, and to move around during the day? What about seasons? What would homes be like? Will people continue to have homes in the traditional sense or might they become sort of urban hunter-gatherers eating, sleeping and playing entirely in the public spaces, but never really claiming these spaces as their own because the entirety of urban space has become a sort of benevolent machine that provides all the material necessities functionality safety, comfort, etc.? By asking these kinds of questions, we’re less interested in planning a future than unsettling the obvious givenness of the present—what Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” which grips and limits our imaginations, and prevents us from feeling or believing that things could be otherwise.
We ended our conversation talking about the trailer park where Eric lives. Their unconventional choice of habitation seemed to be representative of their visions for a radically different spatial future. Their workspace was lit by neon lights and unsynced digital clocks, creating an aesthetic that was uniquely theirs. A variety of machines, monitors, cables and speakers surrounded them. It seemed suggestive of what the interiors of Archigram’s “Plug-In City” would look like. We jokingly made snipes at professors that have written critically (and wonderfully) about domestication and family, but have turned out to live in suburban houses with completely traditional gender roles. It made me wonder whether a different future—one that is more “interesting, meaningful or fair”—would first require architects and designers to examine how we perpetuate the conventions of today. Are we brave enough to go beyond the written and the drawn?