Architecture as Political Practice

January 15, 2009

Roemer van Toorn in conversation with Markus Miessen

RvT The good news is that politics is on everybody lips, the bad news is that politics is about everything and nothing nowadays. Ten years ago a New York fashion line was born named Theory. Buzzwords of the cultural elite – like the return to the sixties – become the next luxurious Theory Icon project. Facing the crisis of Neoliberalism, Politics has become the next project of intellectual entertainment. Many contemporary artists, curators, philosophers, sociologist, journalists, critics and architects tap into politics, knowing that they can no longer celebrate their work on its own autistic terms. How do you read this current trend of politics as fashion in architecture?

MM Suddenly, architects tend to think that they are facing the urgencies of the world. What scares me a bit is when these proclamations are based on the realisation that, without stating them, their faces might no longer furnish the cover of magazines and journals. Recently, even the most formally driven protagonists have declared an interest in politics. Most architects who build are complete nerds in the most positive sense of the word. They know very well how to do certain things but are very bad at doing others. The Renaissance idea of the polymath is long gone and, unfortunately, is no longer on the agenda of most educational institutions, which has resulted in a situation where there are some amazing people who can do perfect drawings and wire-frame models, but when they begin to talk about politics, social frameworks or policy proposal, it reminds me of sitting in a pub with your best mate listening to a 70-year old at the bar, debating foreign politics.

RvT Do you mean that with the disappearance of the homo-universalis out of the equation of the role of architecture – in fact all theories of critical architecture as defined by Michael Hays and Peter Eisenman for instance – with their preoccupation for architecture itself, as act of cultural resistance, is futile?

MM Cultural resistance – hmm. If you resist, the most important thing is that you know what you are resisting against. There are not many seriously political architecture projects that I can think of. Some of Team 10’s projects are amazing in this regard, also the underlying notion of Buckminster Fuller, or, more recently Tomas Saraceno. If you think of Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, it has a vision that goes beyond the, mostly central European, idea of ‘this architecture project is to build a parliament’. Rather, it builds on the vision of community and forum without being colonial, patronizing or romantic about notions of inclusion versus exclusion. What I am slightly scared about is that many practitioners within the field tend to fall into the default romantic, leftist mode of politics as soon as they consider ‘the political’. This is not to say that I would rather not have them base their political ideas left of centre, not at all, but rather that project-making of an ‘alternative spatial practice’ kind should aim to go beyond small, well-informed audiences from the same cultural milieu, but try to address larger publics without becoming populist. This sounds great, or maybe not so great, but of course, I also haven’t come up with the project that can prove this yet.

RvT Do you agree with Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting[1] that instead of fighting reification with the indexical, the dialectic and hot representation, an alternative genealogy of what they call the Projective – linked to the diagrammatic, the atmospheric and performance should be developed? This assertion is more concerned with the visionary as opposed to the commentary, the innovative to the reactionary, addressing emerging issues such as contemporary mass culture instead of the classical language of architecture such as the one of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

MM I would like to try to make a really terrible generalization here: I would argue that, roughly speaking, one can divide the entire field of architecture and urbanism into two kinds of practitioners. Those, who I would call the ‘peer architect’, the individual or collective practice whose main concern is to produce work that will challenge the field of architecture and produce discourse within this field. And secondly those, who I would call the ‘external architect’, those, who are interested of course in architecture and its physical becoming, but are more interested in the effect that these interventions have vis-à-vis other fields of knowledge, and in particular, what kind of space/time relationships their work generates in terms of users. I have to admit I am much more interested in the latter. Moreover, I would argue that critical attitude always has to be projective, i.e. has to have a constructive attitude with optimism at its core. Without optimism, we can give up straight away. This is something that I tremendously admire about my great colleague and friend Hans Ulrich Obrist. He always attempts to turn any situation into something that is essentially based on optimism at its core. Consequently, any decision-making becomes projective and productive in an energetic way, rather than bitter and simply critical. Critique is not enough. Also, I am not sure if I would call it critique per se. We are in talking about different ways of doing things. That is also why I mentioned the idea of the nerd as opposed to the idea of the polymath. In order to take this conversation forward, we need to be pro-active, we need to put our views, ideas and actual proposals forward, and – most importantly – put our balls on the table. This sounds really testosterone driven, but if things are only ever discussed in terms of discourse or theoretical frameworks, they are of course very difficult to test. The default defence-mode of an architect is therefore always: ‘well, at least I am doing something’, i.e. I am not ‘just’ thinking. I think the binary opposition doesn’t help at all, what we need is a middle ground. This is what I am trying to explore through some of my projects.

RvT What we see – and the Projective is just one of the keywords trying to frame this new approach – is that a younger generation now coming into power – raised in welfare after the Sixties – no longer believes in any critique of ideology. In fact they want to move beyond the critique of ideology. Instead it is all about an approach that can effectively engage in the transformation of reality, that is – as Alejandro Zaero Polo says “to work politically – and simultaneously update the core of the discipline.” Alejandro’s observation is that we have to open up the definition of architecture to the market forces, its technical advances and operate as a critical agent. Alejandro looks for a political discourse of architecture producing effects “…that may actually destabilize power regimes rather than functioning as mere representation of politics, be it of the status quo or its resisting parties”. How do you read this sudden interest in politics, a resistance practiced through the discipline (materiality) of architecture itself?

MM To comment on the issue of ideology, I find it difficult to think along the registers of ideology, because I am a very curious guy, who gets easily excited. This, by default, means that I can take a particular (learned) theory, practice or experienced phenomenon only serious up to the point that I encounter the next, more interesting, smarter or more surprising reality. And I tend to assume that there is something more interesting waiting behind the corner. This is not to say that I do not take my own work serious, but, on the contrary, to say that I take it so serious that I have to know that I should not take myself too serious. This is, at least from my understanding, the exact opposite of ideology. As to your question about a sudden interest in politics, most architects use very hermetic language, which makes it difficult for me to figure out whether they are really onto something or not. Of course it sounds interesting to “destabilise power regimes”, but at the end of the day I doubt that this can be achieved with the help of an I-beam and a sheet of glass. What many architects forget is that space is a rather complex matter and that it rules are rarely governed by architecture itself. In case they are, physical barriers tend to be the most simple one to overcome. I would be interested in a constructive dialogue about political space, which in my point of view needs to allow for conflicts to be played out: spatially, socially, economically, and politically. I believe that the most interesting spatial interventions, constructed by the public rather than architects, occur, where polar opposites clash in a conflictual way. If you look at gated communities, or other extreme forms of space, they are – on the one hand – terrible, because they spatialize what our economy and welfare state has represented for a while, but at the same time the urban conflict it generates usually leads to surprising spatial and social results: it creates a momentum. Now, if one would be able to establish a spatial regime, which was as polarised without being harsh in terms of social realities, I think we would be witnessing an amazing project. Teddy Cruz’ work in many ways can be read along those lines, as he is one of the few people I know today, who manage to bridge the gap between an interesting constructive discourse on the one hand, and building and constructing reality on the other. To answer your question about resistance practice through architecture itself, I still believe that in order to challenge existing frameworks, the application needs to be more complex and go beyond the physicality and scale of architecture.

RvT According to me the problem is not to make political architecture, but to make architecture politically. This notion – how to make architecture politically – is not at the heart of Alejandro’s concern. He never talked, or developed a theory how the architecture discipline effects people; on an imaginary/theatrical, psychological or in fact public manner. He stops short at the level of the (super)functional[2] description of the architectural object itself, simplifying and avoiding the complex, unsure and difficult issue how architecture as disciplinary knowledge in fact produces specific sensations, narratives and new notions of the collective and of the private. You have had an ongoing conversation with Chantal Mouffe over the last year, investigating the potential of a move into a definition of architectural practice as a form of radical democracy, and how dissensus works in operation on the level of architecture (city and building)[3]. What is her definition of the political and how do you translate that into your practice?

MM Chantal has written extensively on the struggle of politics and the radical heart of democratic life, trying to understand why in the kind of society we are living today, which she calls a post-political society, there is an increasing disaffection with democratic institutions. Her main thesis, if I may say so, is that the dimension of the political is something that is linked to the dimension of conflict that exists in human societies: an ever-present possibility of antagonism. The reason why I have been very interested in this exchange was to understand how this agonistic struggle could be imagined and tested in spatial settings, frameworks, which would allow to envisage a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus, as Chantal says, a “consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation”. Democratic processes should aim to supply an arena in which differences can be confronted. Agonism as a constructive form of political conflict might offer an opportunity for constructive expression of disagreements. From my point of view, this becomes most interesting on an institutional scale, a microcosm that essentially could reflect society at large. The post-political society that Chantal refers to is one, in which we are constantly being told that the partisan model of politics has been overcome, that there is no more Left and Right: there is this kind of consensus at the centre, in which there is really no possibility for an alternative. This is precisely why there is a serious need for the creation of agonistic publics and public spaces. When I say public space, I do not refer to landscape architecture, but to the ‘becoming spatial’ of political forms of exchange. One could argue that any form of participation is already a form of conflict. In order to participate in an environment or a given situation, one needs to understand the forces of conflict that act upon that environment. How can one move away from romanticised notions of participation into more pro-active, conflictual models of engagement? And architecture is always political, as it is the result of a complex structure of decision-making processes, both public and private in nature. Therefore, architecture also always produces new social realities, as space structures relationships between people, be it in a positive or negative way.

RvT Is the old definition of the discipline outdated, and the classical object outdated?

MM­ I don’t think it has to do with whether something is outdated or not, because this would assume that we are talking about trends or particular issues that are either en vogue or not. Of course there is this recent phenomenon of ‘the political’ – everyone should be allowed to make up their mind about it. What is slightly irritating is if people claim it simply because it seems to be an “of the moment’ thing. I would suggest that we don’t think about issues or ways of practicing as outdated or en vogue, but rather, and this might sound almost hippyesque, that everyone should just be doing what they are most happy doing, what they are interested in and what they think they are best at. In regards to building, I am interested in designing spaces for social, educational and critical exchange of knowledge, such as small institutions, libraries or exhibition spaces. In order to facilitate these spatial concerns, involvement in content is crucial. I don’t think that designing containers without considering what it holds will enable us to question, challenge or develop any existing modes of operation.

RvT In an earlier conversation, you also talked about alternative forms of entry. Can you please elaborate on this?

MM What I refer to does not necessarily relate to forms of opposition but alternative regimes of entry. How does one manage to gain access into fields of knowledge and practices that one is usually not invited to take part in; I don’t think that negating will get you anywhere. It’s like opposition: very often it is a way for cynics illustrating their impotence. Maybe I am a romantic driven by relentless optimism, but I genuinely believe that change is possible. And in case this does not happen through a client, the client needs to be invented or self-generated. Constructive criticism through offering alternatives is always more fruitful than simply being reactive. There are think tanks and other collectives and groups that have of course been working on outsiders’ expertise for a long time – strategic consulting and so forth. One thing that I find quite problematic about conventional consulting though is that it takes almost for granted that things have to change, i.e. if you look at McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture or PricewaterhouseCoopers, these guys come into a company, city, or even country (like in the case of Bahrain) and tell them how to change things. There is this unspoken rule that if they do not alter existing realities, frameworks and customs, they are not worth the money. It is terrible, because often, even if something turns out to be structurally sound, they change things to illustrate that they represent a worthy investment. I like to think of it more as someone, who in the British parliamentary system would be called a cross-bench politician, someone with no ties to the political parties at play. AMO of course have tried that for a while now, sometimes with remarkable success, like in the Europe project, sometimes with less success, not because they haven’t done good work, but because it still takes sometime for others to understand the value of the architect’s strategic expertise as an outsider that can challenge and critically add to existing institutional, economic, social or governmental frameworks.

RvT You are also working on a project in the context of a fellowship at Harvard.

MM Yes, Joseph Grima, Director of Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and I are currently working on a project and proposal that sets out to investigate to ‘learn from’ rather than purely ‘acting against’. Energy shortages and climate change are bringing vast infrastructural projects of an unprecedented scale into reality. At the same time, private armies such as Blackwater have become increasingly influential actors on the international stage, with quasi-permanent outposts in almost every continent: fortified enclaves and de facto ‘geopolitical islands’ are proliferating on every scale from entire regions, such as the West Bank and Gaza, to single buildings, such as the new American Embassy in Baghdad. The project will start by developing an index of contemporary spatial strategies collected not only from contemporary architectural practice and theory, but also from military science, corporate policy, logistical infrastructure, the tourism industry and communications networks. Strategies resulting from the indexing of a substantial number of case studies will be distilled into a diagrammatic list of ‘spatial formulae’, the equivalent of the genetic segments of contemporary geopolitics. The objective of this index is twofold: first, it is intended to allow for objective analysis of individual strategies, disconnected from their origins, without the risk of moral prejudice induced by their current applications. Secondly, it will constitute a kit of parts that can potentially be recombined to create previously unexplored ‘spatial devices’, which would ideally manifest in a table of elements of sorts, through which new alloys can be formed. The ultimate objective of this list is to test possible applications and recombinations of these strategies in real-world scenarios. A checklist of ‘test situations’ will be created to learn from existing conditions and operations through critical reflection, analysis and the development of a set of projective tools. By testing the index of strategies against a list of contemporary geopolitical flashpoints, a series of hypothetical – and potentially fertile – design strategies will be developed.

RvT What becomes clearer than ever to me is that reality demands a theory; a new vision beyond the one of neo-liberalism. The excellent news is that the United States is increasingly exposed and weakened on the financial markets. The current economic crisis acts as capitalism’s moment of truth: it suddenly unveils the ordinary fetishezed real structure of society. The bad news is that both the Left and the Right in our 21st century have no theory left. Reality as found is now all that counts, and functions as the perfect alibi to get away with murder. This addiction to extreme realism, both on the Left (disenchanted) and Right (acting big), demands a new theory according to me. Excavating and curating the real, while advocating relational aesthetics and antagonistic platforms is essential – as you have shown in your work, but is that enough? Shouldn’t you also make your “hidden” ideology – why you choose certain topics and for whom you fight, create certain and not other freedoms – more explicit? Antagonism is essential, but don’t you think that your principles of consensus should be clearly stated too?

MM Speculative theories are the basis to develop projective matter. Most interesting projects start with a hypothesis that needs or wants to be tested. Sometime this can be achieved in a spatial or physical way, other times this can be developed through a series of curatorial test-beds first. What we attempt to do with the Dubai Winter School is to inquire how certain local frameworks and structures work. The last Winter School problematized the issue of the labour camps. But rather than simply blacklisting the practices that are at play, we tried to understand how some of the mechanisms function, how decisions are being made and how those realities can be altered in the future. My office also started talking to local developers and architects that are involved in the construction of the camps. We are now at a point where we might be able to intervene by proposing spatial alternatives, but things simply take time and lots of effort. At a similar scale, we are investigating the potentials through a Vietnamese NGO to get involved in a large-scale social housing scheme in Hanoi. At this moment in time, we are doing consulting on the project, but there is now a possibility to take this to the next level. These projects, at their core, are also educational projects in many ways. You are coming into the project from the outside and first of all have to unlearn your collaborators certain status quo practices, which they take for granted.

RvT Nowadays more and more designers are fearful of placing a particular antagonism or alternative above another for fear of choosing a faulty cause as already happened with Modernism, Communism and Maoism. They embrace pluralism and the endless relations that an intelligent system can generate. The danger is that their search for difference or the stimulation of the unpredictable is elevated to an absolute law, and the possibility of difference is fetishised. Many children of the Hippies generation produce nothing but an advanced form of entertainment, precisely because they in no way express their support for or opposition to anything, except a desire to be self-organizing and interactive. As we both know the feast of endless differences no longer guarantees liberation. Present-day capitalism has bid farewell to totalizing regulation. Digital capitalism has even turned Deleuzian. The carnivalesque character of everyday life now even guarantees high profits through the permanent revolution of its own order. In what sense could a political practice in architecture be different from the current condition I just described?

MM I am very fond of Chantal’s proposal to think both ‘with and against Schmitt’, referring to the political theorist and German jurist Carl Schmitt. This is a good example for how to operate: to no longer discuss and foster endless differences but to also move forward in a constructive manner. I think optimism and a constructive ambition is generally the way to go. You are absolutely right, to simply fetishize the possibility of difference, to crave for conflict and antagonism for the sake of it, does neither produce meaningful debate nor praxis. I really believe that architecture, as outlines by Volume a while ago, needs to go beyond itself. To be more precise, this could entail that instead of just trying to react against, we actually try to find the weak point of the system under debate, and try to work on them, not in the sense of a Modernist problem solving or social engineering exercise, but by altering and tweaking some of its variables. There is a certain naivety at play when some people talk about opposing capitalism. This also holds true for capitalism within architecture. To just say developers are the bad guys, is not only defensive, but neither propels discourse nor practice. I would be interested, for example, on working with a large-scale developer in order to rethink housing for the elderly, a project that we have been working on for a while now through a think tank at the Serpentine Gallery. One of the more general problems we are facing today is that most practitioners are no longer willing to take risks. This comes a long with a fear of making decisions, which – together – is a lethal cocktail. Capitalism of course is the one system that manages to identify, embrace and embody – vis-à-vis its own tactics – any other system and/or opposing force and critique rapidly. This is one of the reasons why our own positions, i.e. yours and mine, are very endangered. We could probably quite easily come up with more or less smart frameworks for alternative programmes, but one must be aware that they get eaten up very quickly by someone else, and I would strongly recommend to make sure that one is in touch with that ‘someone else’ rather than letting those forces hijack ones idea and misinterpret, develop and sell them themselves. If they buy into something smart it is simply better than if they buy into something stupid.

RvT For many the theory of Mouffe and Ranciere motivates an art and architecture of pure activism. According to me such an approach runs the risk celebrating activism only, without motivating or stating any alternative political direction. Disagreement (conflict) is no longer a tool but becomes an end in itself, with the risk of becoming anecdotic and sentimental. Questioning positions is not enough according to me. How do you see this? Shouldn’t we also address certain urgencies, come up with alternative solutions? Break the museum as temple, destroy the gated community, and reinvent the public sphere, work on new forms of welfare, as we will research at the Berlage Institute[4] after neoliberals’ bankruptcy.

MM I think the question of urgency is always a misleading one, because it assumes that certain things have value and others do not. I find it quite difficult to draw the line here. I guess the only hopefully meaningful thing that I can say about this is that, personally, I am very interested in a particular discussion about urban and social frameworks in relation to architectural scale space, how that can affect the design process and the way in which institutions might function. One of the reasons why many things in this world exist as they are is because of its spatial context. This holds true even for institutional procedures, habits and practices. From my point of view, a smart architecture does not deliver a sexy rendering, but a complex operational and curatorial procedure. I agree with you that questioning positions is not enough. One of the major problems of built architecture is that it is always delayed. The timeframe between initial becoming and realisation of a project is so immense that many changes can and will happen in the meantime. Going back to the example of Dubai, proposing something now, might mean that in two years from now the political and financial framework has changed entirely. However, this shouldn’t be a reason to give up, but rather to pursue ones objectives in the most productive and optimistic manner. We hope to be able to deliver something that can be interrogated and discussed as to its failure or success very soon.


[1] Robert Somol & Sarah Whiting. “Notes around the doppler Effect and other Moods of Modernism”, Perspecta 33, The Yale Architectural Journal, 2002.

[2] In search of a new Neufert, this time based on dynamic and not static data.

[3] See interview Markus Miessen with Chantal Mouffe: ‘Articulated Power Relations’, in: Miessen, M. (ed), The Violence of Participation, Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2007

[4] See also

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