Emergency Brakes: An Interview with Elisa Iturbe

Out of Work // Out of Control

Volume 5, Issue 18
April 16, 2020

Elisa Iturbe is a critic at the Yale School of Architecture and the Cooper Union. She is a founding partner of her practice, Outside Development, and served as guest editor for Log 47: Overcoming Carbon Form. Deo Deiparine and Andrew Economos Miller spoke with Elisa over Zoom to discuss her current practice, architectural pedagogy, and the structural challenges facing the discipline.

Deo Deiparine (DD): In this issue, we’ve been focusing on the structural forces that place architectural labor within a restrictive context. We’ve been in conversation with others about naming the forces that hold architecture back, namely, employment structures and market-based development. One idea that has come up is how the professional structure of the discipline can move toward collective organization in order to reclaim some political agency.

Elisa Iturbe (EI): I think along with questions of the profession comes the need to think about architecture as a mode of knowledge. I’m interested in how architects can leverage our knowledge about space and how space and power interact to make proposals for the city. We as architects are replicating the existing system in the way that we make individually commodified units of space. Specifically, I see two problems. One is that we’re hired to do that. The typical relationship between the architect and the client often doesn’t afford space for the architect to say that there’s an alternative way of life that’s needed here. There’s also a problem with commissions and procurement and how architects find clients.

Parallel to that is the question of how architecture can be understood as a way to visualize and propose ways of living together and ways of living in the city. How do spatial and social form interact and how do we as architects conform to inherited models? You can address that through questions of the profession but you can also address that through architecture itself. We can do work as architects to visualize and think through what the nature of those problems are. Taking examples of pressing projects we have to take on today, such as the Green New Deal and climate change, we as architects need to make visible ideas and visions for the world that don’t currently exist. That’s a huge source of political agency that we have. Of course, that doesn’t always dovetail well with the profession because when you’re working in an office you’re not being asked to make visionary proposals. We, as architects, need to find ways to free our labor from the yoke of private development so that we can actually do work that helps us visualize society. Right now our work is captured in order to replicate the profits of someone else.

Andrew Economos Miller (AEM): In your practice’s work with a community land trust in San Diego, is there a difference in your process of making these representations of the future? Are you able to embed yourself in their political structures to widen your understanding of the context?

EI: The reason why I like working with this nonprofit is that it operates with a certain level of internal democracy. In general, a community land trust will have a board of representatives elected from the community. Any architectural representation we produce for this project will be discussed with this group. There’s some visioning that we’ve done verbally with them to figure out the ambitions of the project in terms of scale and site and how many of their properties they can bring into it. Our expertise on the built environment has contributed to that conversation.

Often the public’s experience with architectural representation is walking by a construction site and seeing a rendering plastered on a poster. That’s when we see the architectural representation of the project. We need to find different moments in the process to insert ourselves. Our representations can develop within the community’s decision making process to help them think about whether they like something or not. My hope is that this would be a long term relationship. And so, we would make drawings and then they would say, actually, we’ve decided that we don’t want X or Y and we would go back to the drawing board. But then there would also be days where we would show up and say, listen, we really think there’s an opportunity for you to have artists’ workshops in this building, because we noticed when we were doing our site study that you have people living in the community who are working with their hands—there are a lot of leatherworkers et cetera. My view is that the architect becomes integrated into the team and we deploy our research skills and our understanding of space and the way that social relationships play out in space and the way all of those things can then be embodied into architecture. We make representations, we distribute them, they get talked about, we go back to the drawing board rather than just slapping the rendering onto a fence and being like, “Hey everyone, this is what you’re going to get.”

Having the architect at the onset of a project is more akin to how we’re trained in school. But typically, when you go into the profession, the client will come to you and say, “this is what I want on this site. OK, now make it.” In school, we’re trying to now shift toward a stronger socio-political and ecological understanding. You’re trained to write your own brief for many of your studio projects. If we as architects start imagining that we don’t just show up to design an end product, but we show up to help visualize what a project could be, I think that’s some place in which we could reposition the discipline to affect positive change in the built environment.

AEM: It slows down architecture. I love looking at those quick renders in detail because you can tell that market forces and clients require them to have the quickest Photoshop jobs and it feels like a bad sign for the whole building.

Is the CLT project moving slower because of legal barriers or a planned slowness in the process?

EI: We always understood that this was sort of a long game because they haven’t formed the CLT yet. They also are an operating nonprofit that is involved in many projects, ours being one of them. So I don’t think that there’s any particular hold up. It’s just that it always was going to be a longer process.

Going to this question of slowing architecture down, if we look at the longer arc of the built environment’s history and if we understand the context of climate change and the ecological footprint of construction, architecture needs to slow down. It’s interesting to talk about this in the context of the pandemic now where suddenly all production has had to stop. It’s terrifying thinking about the economic fallout but it’s also foreshadowing a lot of the things that we will have to stop by choice and not because there’s an immediate health crisis. Climate change is obviously a crisis, but it is the kind of crisis that moves so slowly that the halting we will have to do will have to be by choice. How do we understand that kind of slowing down as something that we do on purpose? This, then, poses questions about having enough work when compared to typical firm business models. For myself, this is one of the reasons why it’s really important for me to stay in teaching. I would like my projects to go slowly. And I support myself through teaching so that I can do projects slowly. But obviously, not everybody can do that. It is a very big structural question for the profession.

AEM: Yeah, we’re going to be the coronavirus issue and it’s interesting how quickly even a Republican government comes around to something like UBI (Universal Basic Income). It’s insane.

EI: It is wild how quickly the brake can be pulled if it needs to. We never knew capitalism had an emergency brake and now we found out that it does. That’s really good for us to know and we have to figure out how we can keep a hand on that brake. Given the kind of economic fallout that we’ll see, probably there will be a huge push to return to production as quickly as possible and to try to compensate for the slowdown. But there’s a big question now about what we get to see now that the emergency brake has been pulled? What are the new organizations of a society that can happen now? Who would have thought that a Republican administration would be the first to implement any kind of UBI in the United States? I mean, that is crazy and not only a Republican administration, but Trump’s administration. It’s like, what in the hell?

DD: Hopefully it’s not just considered this good deed on the Republican side and lets them off the hook.

EI: Yeah, we have to be careful that they don’t appropriate projects that are otherwise really meant to bring to light the collective nature of society and actually use it to push a libertarian policy. There is a strange intersection between a collective awareness of UBI and libertarian ideas of using things like UBI to totally dismantle social services.

DD: Returning to the question of the Community Land Trust, do you see any continuity with examples from history or even examples from current practice that speak to how architects engage with communal interest?

EI: Working with a community land trust engages with questions of architecture as a way of thinking through social form. There are many precedents for how architecture addresses the organization of production and social reproduction, ranging from something very radical like the Russian constructivists to something that ended up being rather conservative, which is the modern movement. Modernism’s aims were as much about reorganizing social relations as much as it was about reorganizing space. In fact, you can’t really separate them. And of course, as we discussed in class last semester, a lot of it was just about reorienting toward industry. But I think that there are ways in which the architect throughout history has addressed these questions of how we live. It’s something that fell off the map a bit toward the end of the 20th century, as postmodernism kind of turned into whatever it turned into. You could say it fell off the map for a couple different reasons, not because architecture lacks the capacity to think through these problems, but in part because disciplinary questions took on other concerns, which in themselves I don’t think are bad or wrong or uninteresting.

AEM: Yeah, you can sort of map the changes in architecture against increasing ideas of neoliberal “freedom.”

EI: It also maps onto changes in the profession as well. The privatization of forces that make the built environment has had a big impact on whether architects feel like they can even address any of this or not. It makes a difference in the psychology of the architect if we feel powerless going into a design. And of course, the opposite of that is not to feel totally maniacal and feel like we have a ton of power. The opposite is to be aware that we are players in the formation of lifestyles and to take that responsibility seriously. I don’t think you have to think of yourself as a power hungry, top down architect egomaniac, or resign yourself to the existing forces. I don’t think that’s a good dichotomy. I think it’s much more about taking responsibility for the power we actually have which means being very critical of what we currently make and realizing that architecture is changing the world. Saying that architecture changes the world is sort of rejected as an idealist notion, but architecture is changing the world. The way in which mega-projects have totally transformed the surface of the earth tells us a lot that architecture has a lot of power and often it’s not for the better. We have to take responsibility for that as we consider how to reshape the profession. Through our knowledge of the built environment, we can make visible certain power relations, reveal how they’re embodied, and point toward ways of redefining them. Often, our work reifies existing hierarchies of power. Speaking of an emergency brake, we need an emergency brake for architecture too.

AEM: I’m wondering what that emergency brake could be, a union, a lot of infrastructures.

EI: I was actually speaking a couple months ago to a friend of mine who’s a labor organizer, and he’s never worked with architects before, but he was very interested to hear that I’m part of a group that’s interested in unionization of architects. And he was like, that’s very different from other kinds of organization projects because we’re not united by the same employer. Unlike other unionization projects and a lot of what union organizing is about workers that share a workplace. For us, it’s organizing through a sector, which is a totally different kind of organization project. But what he said that I was really struck by is that architects could stop everything. And that’s what union strategists think about. It’s like, how do you leverage your power to create stoppages. Architects could do that. If architects stop working, everything will fall apart. And I was like, you’re the only person that’s ever said this. Architects are so convinced of our complete powerlessness. And he was basically like, you can do it. You could stop everything. And I really was surprised to hear him say that.

AEM: Yeah, I’m pretty surprised to hear it also.

EI: We certainly don’t think of ourselves that way, in part probably because certain BIM technologies and a lot of the built environment goes up without architects. But not all of it. We still do a lot of stuff.

DD: It sounds like there’s this way that working with a client like a community land trust allows the architect to work in a more horizontal relationship to the client. Rather than being fed parameters by the client, the architect suggests things to the client in collaboration. I’m wondering, what would need to change in the profession for us to have a more socially embedded way of practicing?

EI: That question relates to the commodification of labor. One thing that I’ve been realizing right now with the Land Trust project is how important it is for me and my design partner to really think about the site context even before we know when the next phase of getting hired will be. This can put forward a dangerous dynamic because architects are very prone to do unpaid labor. But what happens when we only think of our labor as a commodified product is that we’re restricted in our thinking about a site relative to whatever the output needs to be for the client at that moment. I have been spending a lot of my own time researching the site to try to understand some of the dynamics and to try to understand what I can improve. So when they come forward with a need, I might have different ideas about what that site needs and requires that can enrich the conversation. We can start to think of architects as people who are embedded in a community and who possess a body of knowledge. The community would come to architects when they’re trying to understand something about their built space and we might respond with our repository of knowledge. Firms are not structured that way now. Research serves a particular end. It’s harnessed for a specific commission or for a specific goal or for the construction of a specific object that’s already been predetermined. I’m interested in how architects, architectural firms, or groups of architects can become repositories of knowledge. This goes back to this question of architects working in the public sector. One thing that’s been floated around in the Green New Deal working group with the Lobby is that we should demand that every city has a public architecture office. You know, what would that look like? And of course, I think we’re a little bit constricted with our definitions of public and private. We tend to default to saying, well, let’s have a city office for this. But I think it’s a first step toward thinking of architects as these repositories of knowledge.

I think it’s sort of taboo to say the word expertise, but I think we can hold onto that because projects have to be built and they have to be shaped. The kind of knowledge that we have of space and the form of the built environment can really help to enrich the projects that need to happen. It’s important to reconceptualize a bit who we are as a profession, as a discipline, and simply as citizens in a society under transition.

DD: Is there a different way that we need to think about the distribution of our visualizations or the way that we distribute our expertise. How do we put forward into the world these ideas that we collect within architecture?

EI: That’s a really important question, because one criticism that architects get is that architects only like to talk to other architects. Even if that’s true, I don’t think that’s a problem as long as we also know how to talk to other people. There are some things about architecture that are specific to architecture and they can remain that way. And I don’t think that that’s necessarily harmful as long as we also know that in other contexts architecture is perceived in a different way and has to be talked about in a different way. So I’m not necessarily sure that it’s important to talk about formal analysis at a community meeting. Those kinds of representations are useful for our own training and help us become fluent in our own medium. The way that they hit the ground or become an important part of public life is the way in which we are then able to make really wonderful and interesting spaces for the public.

Often we tend to reject our fluency in the move toward making sure that everything is democratized. But if we lose our own language, then we’re just not going to be making good space. And in the end, everything we make will have form. So we’d better be good at that. We shouldn’t assume that everything within architecture has to be accessible to every single person, because then we’re also foisting a lot of what we care about onto other people, maybe unnecessarily. There are ways in which all professions communicate with lay people. Lawyers have a capacity to explain esoteric legal ideas to their clients. I think architects have a way of explaining how space and form and light can affect the person who is interested in asking about it. One way is in being conscious of how architecture embeds itself into socio-political and environmental processes. If we understand that, then I think there’s a little bit less of a crisis of communication and more of a crisis of isolation. I think once we start working with communities and once we start working in cities in different capacities, and once we stop thinking that architecture is just decoration for a project that otherwise is just embodied capital; if we change that conception within ourselves, then I don’t know if it will really be that difficult to communicate some of the ideas that we have to the people who will ultimately be using and living in those spaces.

Given that I think a lot of people are gaining more political consciousness, I think we can speak of our architecture on political terms and people will understand it. In my experience working with the community land trust, when I first presented our document to them, I decided that I was going to present versions of the project that posed varying degrees of difficulty. I would say to them, “this is maybe the most far reaching option that I can think of.” And immediately they’d respond, “Great, let’s go with that one. The further we look, the better.” Working with certain constituencies, there is a desire to do the best possible project for themselves and for the community. The community might not be interested in listening to our esoteric internal discussions. But probably because my design partner and I understand those formal discussions as embedded into a politic, we would be able to talk about them on those other terms as well. Once we understand that everything is integrated, we can compartmentalize more easily without finding it disassociating.

AEM: Yeah, the idea of architecture as only decoration becomes a self-fulfilling and disempowering prophecy. I think it’s a trap I fall into. I look at my project and I’m like, oh no, there’s nothing else I can do.

EI: Well, it’s easy when we’re at the end of the line told to make something that we had no say in. For me, a lot of the project of leveraging the power of the architectural worker is about getting closer to the front of the project.

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Volume 5, Issue 18
April 16, 2020

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