Conflictual Participation

Featured in OPEN, 2008

In the 1930s the Danish landscape architect C.T. Sorensen found that children would rather play with junk and rubbish than in the playgrounds designed by him. The logical conclusion from this observation was that children find it fun to design and build their own playground equipment, and in so doing manipulate their environment. The ‘Adventure Playground’ was born: a place for children to indulge their creativity and create new spatial realities. In much the same way the editorial staff of the Berlin architectural journal An Architektur detected dissatisfaction, disaffection with built environments created in accordance with neoliberal principles, such as the Vinex location, the yuppies’ playground.

An Architektur was set up in 2002 by a number of members of the architects’ collective freies fach. On Friday 10 and Saturday 11 November 2006, in cooperation with Casco in Utrecht, they organised a second ‘Camp for Oppositional Architecture’, subtitled ‘Theorizing Architectural Resistance’. The occasion for this event was a growing dissatisfaction amongst young architects, detected by the editorial staff of An Architektur, with the dominant architectural practice which in their eyes took insufficient account of the political implications of the profession, and which neglected to pay critical attention to important subjects like globalisation and the progressive dismantling of the welfare state. With the aid of lectures and workshops, spread over two days, some hundred participants, from all over Europe, looked into the possibility of resistance and opposition within architecture and urban design in the prevailing neoliberal climate.

Henri Lefebvre – a source of inspiration
An important source of inspiration for An Architektur has been the French socialist philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991). During his lifetime Lefebvre, sometimes called the greatest Marxist thinker since Marx himself, published almost 70 books including the three-volume Critique de la vie quotidienne. He is probably best known for his book La production de l’espace (1974). According to Lefebvre, space is a social and political construct, manifesting itself in three different ways. The first is as ‘perceived space’, space that is empirically observable. This space is concrete and physical and belongs to the material domain. The second is as ‘conceived space’, an abstraction, belonging to the domain of idealism, a mental construct which could, for example, be mathematical or geometrical. The third is as what is known as ‘lived space’, where physical and mental awareness of space combine and space is understood as a social product, something that changes with time. When this space is used, when people live in it and interact with one another, it becomes loaded with symbols and significance. Thus a playground is only really a playground when there are actually children playing there, giving meaning to a piece of ground, giving a place emotional value.

As for the production of space, Lefebvre stated that every form of social organisation reproduces itself in the built environment, which is why our capitalist society produces an environment which is dominated by the fragmentary and the homogeneous. Instead of the things that a city ought to provide, things to which Lefebvre believed people are entitled, such as an urban fabric, interrelations, diversity and encounters – things that were once so typical of life in an urban centre – the influence of modernistic town planning has meant that what we get is separation, monotony and isolation. Think for example of Le Corbusier. For capitalism follows the law of reproducibility, repetition and mass production, even in building. ‘Small wonder all new suburbs look the same’. For Lefebvre it followed that if you want to change society you have to change space.

Options for opposition
During the first ‘Camp for Oppositional Architecture’ which took place in Berlin in 2004, Peter Marcuse, architect and professor at Columbia University, suggested two possibilities for opposition within architecture. The first option was for architects and town planners to choose their clients and their associated interests more carefully, on the assumption that you would be extremely unlikely to carry on an oppositional form of architecture if you were working for McDonalds. As an extension to this Marcuse also suggested that architects could go to work as volunteers, for example for neighbourhood groups, with lack of income as a possible consequence. The second possibility that Marcuse saw was to completely embrace the oppositional attitude and subsequently launch the revolution from within the architectural establishment.

It should be possible to add a third option, namely for architects and urban designers to demonstrate to a more general audience that they have the power to produce their own environment. This approach would avoid the public being presented the alternative as a given. Moreover in this way the public would come into possession of the critical instruments they would need to propose the alternative for themselves.

But what can be done when this public space too is seen as increasingly narrow? Where perhaps once there were road signs, signposting and later closed-circuit television cameras which directed, structured and recorded our everyday audible and visible life in the city, now there are walls and fences. Thus the city itself, its architecture and its ‘individual character’, seem slowly but surely to be becoming completely inward directed. Outside the wall public life goes on, encounters between individuals take place and thoughts and disagreements are exchanged. It is here that we must contrive to orient ourselves and maintain ourselves within the anonymous, unemotional, expressionless, that nonetheless knows in spiteful detail how to shut in, but more especially how to shut out.

In this respect it is interesting to consider the work of
the Louvain professor and philosopher Rudi Visker (1959). Visker’s thinking followed the lines set out by the Jewish German philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). Arendt drew attention to the problem of the traditional idea that a community consists of a group of people who share a particular property, as for example a religion, belief or race. This view of a community assumes a certain naturalness or unity and is characterised by a homogeneity which forces people into unification and unanimity. Difference, individual perceptions of reality and plurality become impossible. Arendt warned against both this ‘assimilation’ and an excessively liberal individualism. As distinct from the traditional idea of a community she proposed a communal world in which speaking and acting in the public domain constantly makes it possible to work on this construct. Here [spatie] speaking and acting is not so much a matter of understanding the other as a person, but more of understanding the other person’s perception of reality, in part because our own experience of reality depends on it. According to Arendt it is precisely within this exchange of perceptions that community is brought into being, but without differences being abolished. Difference and plurality need public space as a vehicle if they are to be seen, heard and enjoyed.

In his book Vreemd gaan en vreemd blijven. Filosofie van de multiculturaliteit [Becoming foreign and staying foreign. A philosophy of multiculturalism] Rudi Visker proposes no longer setting up public space as somewhere neutral, where consensus rules, but rather as somewhere where differences, even if irreconcilable, can take spatial form and so become visible3. He reached this view through an analysis of the term ‘individuality’. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, Visker focussed specifically on multiculturalism. This might also be taken more widely and applied to groups and individuals in society who distinguish themselves not only by race or nationality but also by sex, income or some other characteristic. Individuality, said Visker, is absolutely not something that we understand or grasp. We may for example identify ourselves as Dutch or female, but on closer inspection it is unclear what precisely that implies. Individuality is not so much something that we own, but something that has us in its grip, something to which we hardly have access, which we become confronted with in an encounter with someone else. Things that for some reason or other are significant to us may mean nothing at all to someone else. And it is just this encounter with differences that we do not understand, things that we can not cope with and find painful, that turns individuality into something oppressive or alienating; something that acts as an identification, but also as a annoyance. What Visker proposed was that we stop using public space as somewhere to make cautious attempts to resolve these differences by consensus, but as somewhere to deal with these differences spatially. ‘Spatialising’ differences keeps them apart, but does not push them away from one another. The intervening space – the space between good and evil, blue and black, individual and collective – which then develops provides a place where things become possible, where dialogue becomes possible, where people can unite with one another.

Conflictual participation
During the second ‘Camp for Oppositional Architecture’, London architect and researcher Markus Miessen gave a presentation entitled ‘The Violence of Participation. Spatial Practices Beyond Models of Consensus’. Miessen argued in favour of ceasing to regard participation as something based on romantic ideals of harmony and solidarity, but instead as a platform for the kind of critical engagement that he termed ‘conflictual participation’. In this connection ‘conflict’ should not be taken to suggest protest or provocation, but as a practice allowing the participant to play an active role which goes much further than that offered by models of consensus. Viewed in this way, conflict can also act as an ‘agent’ to achieve a productive environment. Here Miessen sees a role for the architect and urban designer. In his opinion, these people too often have to act as a kind of service provider delivering a product, rather than as a participant in an already established field of influence. A participant is in a better position to introduce friction and difference into already existing power structures because he or she is also an ‘outsider´.

Architects and urban designers who do not fight shy of conflict, together with a public which has access to the tools it needs to shape its own environment and its own individuality, may perhaps be in a position to free the public domain from the yoke of anonymity, repetition and introversion created by consensus. Perhaps they may be able to turn architecture round to face the outside world, to let itself happen in public and so give encounters, interactions and differences of opinion a spatial significance and expression. For to be honest, the gated community, the enclosing wall, the necessity of community, is really much too heavy and dangerous a burden. Let’s play!


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