- April 3, 2021
I: Deconstructing the False Dichotomy
The premise put forth by the editors demonstrates the flaw of operating within an alleged dichotomy. A world in which the dichotomy between ‘form’ and ‘politics’ endures implies that there are architectural forms existing outside the reach of politics. While the word ‘politics’ can be widely interpreted and encompasses many things—for example social issues, political party affiliation, economics, the system of capitalism—and our collective understanding of systems of governance does change over time, I would argue there is no such example. Architects engage with ‘form’ and ‘politics’, cognizant or not. Politics manifest through form, and form manifests politics.
An alleged dichotomy might exist in select minds or circles of thought—e.g. Patrick Schumacher’s 2014 Facebook post about the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale1
—however, in actuality, a formal outcome cannot be fully manifested devoid of politics because architectural projects—be it paper architecture or built projects—are ‘of a context’ and ‘of a time’. To be a thing in the world is to be ‘of a context’, and to be ‘of a context’ is to be in tension, collusion, conflict, harmony, etc. with the politics of one’s situation. They are inextricably linked. In this way, an apolitical stance can be interpreted as a reaction to a political situation, and thus enacts a politics. In other words, there is no material dichotomy. As architects, we have a responsibility to the built environment, but we need the agency to act. Our education, institutions, and professional associations need to teach us how to engage with the politics of our discipline and support us in doing so.
II: Contending with Form and Politics
The editors’ prompt picks up on the ambiguity about whether or not the discipline of architecture will decisively acknowledge the inextricable link between ‘form’ and ‘politics’ or continue to skirt around it. Ignoring the politics of social issues or environmental justice does not free you from the influence of your context and time. The freedom to ignore certain issues and foreground others is a privilege, and, in the end, is still a political position and choice. Being unaware is also a sign of the times. It indicates that situated discourse is either non-existent or ill-equipped to critically address the ‘politics’ of the time or place, but the lack of discourse does not negate what has/is occurred/ing. The conversations today surrounding the #MeToo movement, for example, does not mean that sexual abuse and harassment did not happen in previous decades.
Engaging with architecture on a purely formal level requires the mental gymnastics of temporarily disregarding its context and, by proxy, its politics. This practice is useful in honing skills specific to our discipline, for instance, taking Peter Eisenman’s Formal Analysis courses as foundational to critiquing and understanding ‘form’. The formal projects studied in the course, however, still remain byproducts of our physical world, laden with context and political meaning. In this way, the act of studying ‘form’ prompts a lens we take on and off to zero in, but does not negate a form’s politics. Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s work at Princeton and critique on “classics” is relevant here in understanding ‘form’ as inseparable from ‘politics’.2
III: The Disciplinary Limits of Professional Structures
In Leijia Hanrahan’s article All Design is Political, Not All Politics is Design, she argues there are limits to the political efficacy of architects and architecture. This conclusion comes from responding to Jess Myers’ article How More Security Makes Women and Queer People Feel Less Safe in which Myers places the architect smack in the middle of conversations about security, safety, and policing as they relate to spatial design. While Hanrahan’s argument that there can and should be limits to the situations in which architects insert themselves is convincing, an acknowledgement of the expertise of other professionals and community organizations does not preclude cross-disciplinary work that approaches social issues, such as policing, in the context of space with those same professionals.
Beyond gaps in cross-disciplinary knowledge and workflows, there are certainly areas in which our political engagement as a profession can go from complacency—which is still political—to active participation. As architectural workers, we do not have complete control over all the political or ‘pre-desk’ aspects of our work. We interact with additional constraints on affordable housing design, zoning regulations, flows of capital, developers, building code, and policy, yet have little to do with making or understanding these directives. Clients come to us with concerns of value, property damage, and profit, but we have little leverage to critique, challenge, or reject harmful design approaches and remain employed on said projects. Refusal alone is not the answer. If the discipline of architecture took a more active role in ‘pre-desk’ work, our command of the inextricable link between ‘form’ and ‘politics’ would render us agile in responding to social and environmental concerns, and our only form of action would not be refusal. The profession needs to go beyond its current role as a service industry—e.g. rethinking the legal relationship between architects and clients—and work towards the organization of an actively engaged collection of interdisciplinary workers whose responsibility to the built environment is reinforced by the agency with which we are able to steward it.
IV: Disciplinary Revolution
Our education teaches us very little about the systems architecture operates within, and more importantly, how we can effectively engage with them. Additionally, professional structures lack codified avenues for critique. Should we engage? This question ignites a moral battle about responsibility. Can we engage? This question depends on the agency of individuals and collectives in the context of our educational institutions and professional associations. As architects we have a responsibility to the built environment, but we need the agency to fulfill those responsibilities. Where does this agency come from and who would do the work of deciding?
Kate Wagner suggests in her Letter to a Young Architect that agency will be created through collective critical intervention across scales, from the individual to the institution. There are already examples of what this might look like. Dark Matter University is a democratic network, straddling current and future systems of education, practice, and discourse. Colloquate is a multidisciplinary architecture and design justice practice which created the Design Justice Platform and a set of actions called Design as Protest. These examples start to suggest how structural change and collective organizing can command ‘form’ and ‘politics’. Fighting against siloed directives impacting the built environment, codifying channels for critique and change, and empowering workers can recreate the discipline. These practices should not be independent occurrences within current strictures, but rather how architecture is being practiced on the whole.