Intervention Inevitable

‘The birth of modern town-planning did not coincide with the technical and economic movements which created and transformed the industrial town; it emerged later, when these changes began to be felt to their full extend and when they began to conflict, making some kind of corrective intervention inevitable.’

These are the opening lines of the preface to Leonardo Benevolo’s book Origins of Modern Town Planning (1971). The basis of this conflict he speaks of are the inequalities produced by industrialization and capitalism early nineteenth century; a moment in history that also witnessed the rise of the working-class movement and socialism. By exploring early experiments in town planning, Benevolo unveils that these are strongly embedded within an ideology of producing new – better – societies. The revolution in 1848 marked a turning point. Benevolo argues that town planning drifted away from politic discussion and became a tool in the hands of the establishment. Instead of creating new cities and improving societies, architecture simply submitted to the political status quo, and concentrated on making capitalist society run more ‘efficient’, thereby underlining its legitimacy. Today there is a growing opposition among young architects to the dominant architectural practice that is in their eyes failing to acknowledge it’s political implications and critically address issues such as globalization and the ongoing deconstruction of the welfare state. But what can they do? How can they operate within a pre given set of social, political and economical conditions for their praxis, and at the same time try to change this? Precisely this tension in architecture between establishment and ideology, and the possibility of opposition today is what the Berlin based architectural journal An Architektur explores.

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An Architektur was founded in 2002 by some members of the architects collective ‘freies fach’. They have published 15 issues up to date, dealing with a variety of subjects related to a sociopolitical architectural practice in the contemporary neo-liberal climate. In addition to producing the magazines, An Architektur’s editors initiated and organized the first Camp for Oppositional Architecture in Berlin, 2004. In a vacant factory and office complex, approximately one hundred persons from over sixteen countries participated in workshops related to possibility of resistance within the fields of architecture and planning. The organizers divided the participants in three groups, each dealing with a different aspect of opposition. The first was oppositional social engagement: how can we grasp and relate to contemporary social reality? The second dealt with oppositional design concepts: how can we imagine and design critical forms of architecture? The third was about oppositional strategies of intervention: how can we reflect on and intervene into the built environment? Next to the workshops, a series of lectures was took place with key speakers such as the architecture theorist Roemer van Toorn, Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands and Peter Marcuse, professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. The camp resulted in the dynamic preliminary charter of oppositional architecture, that will be the starting point for the second ‘Camp for Oppositional Architecture’ that An Architektur will organize November 2006 at Casco in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

The theoretical framework that An Architektur takes as a starting point are the writings by French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. The critical tool they make use of is cartography as it is understood of, and transformed by the British historical geographer John Brian Harley.

An Architektur’s interest in Lefebvre (1901-1991) was immediately made evident with the publication of their first issue in June 2002 entitled Material: Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Next to that, the infatuation also clearly resonates in the magazine’s subtitle; Production and use of the Built Environment. Lefebvre, who has been called the ‘greatest Marxian thinker since Marx’, has published nearly 70 books among which the three-part book Critique de la vie quotidienne. He is probably best known for his book La production de l’espace (1974), which has been translated to English only in 1991. According to Lefebvre, space is socially and politically constructed and, to use Marxian terminology, it is there that the class struggle is inscribed. Space manifests itself in three ways: perceived, conceived and lived. Perceived space belongs to the realm of materialism, it is a physical form, real space. The second is related to idealism and is the mental understanding of space, as expressed in for instance mathematics and maps. It is intellectually constructed. The third notion of space combines both materialism and idealism, and understands space as a social product that is modified over time. Through the use of space, it is embedded with symbols and meaning as individual bodies live and interact (i.e. a playground is only a playground when there’s kids playing). When it comes to producing space, Lefebvre states that every form of social organization reproduces itself in it’s built environment. Therefore, capitalist society produces a built environment that is dominated by fragmentation and homogenization, just like it does with all other commodities, following the laws of reproducibility and the repetitive. Subsequent to this: if you want to change society, you must produce a changed space.

With The Production of Space, Lefebvre hands his readers tools that might help them orientate through many of the questions regarding the production and use of space. As he puts it himself: ‘I speak of an orientation advisedly. We are concerned with nothing more and nothing less than that. We are concerned with what might be called a “sense”: an organ that perceives, a direction that may be conceived, and a directly lived movement progressing towards the horizon. And we are concerned with nothing that even remotely resembles a system.’ For those of us that don’t have Lefebvre’s ‘natural sense of direction’, luckily there are maps…

Cartography or mapping is an instrument that not only architects, but also visual artists use a lot these days to bring unexpected knowledge, unknown information, shocking truths, dazzling secrets and coincidental beauty to the surface. An Architektur too has successfully applied this method in many of their issues. For instance in the third issue published in 2002 in which An Architektur presents us with ‘An investigation within the context of European border security policies into the spatial structure of Sangatte refugee camp in Calais (France), near the entrance of the Channel Tunnel.’ Their research is made accessible through maps with textual comments on for instance the international coordination of video surveillance, the impossibility to cross the tunnel by foot and the huge fees refugees have to pay their smugglers before being dumped at walking distance from Calais. Another example dealing with cartography is the 13th issue, Philippe Rekacewicz: Maps for Globalization (2004). The reader is presented with a series of reproductions of maps exposing (the consequences of) a global market, such as international money transfers (hardly anything goes to the third world countries), the unequal distribution of resources, military alliances and pollution. It clearly illustrates An Architektur’s interest in understanding map making as a political action, a prominent theme in the work of the previously mentioned John Brian Harley whom they devoted their 11th issue in 2004 to.

Before Harley (1932-1991), map making was generally understood by geographers (and others) as a scientific discipline; assuming the possibility of a map (maker) to be objective and a hardly questioning the relationship between reality and representation. To be able to perceive a map a such, the history of cartography had to exclude many non-Western maps and also mediaeval Christian maps from it’s canon. Through the study of these ‘rejected’ maps and by introducing the notion that every map is a social product, including and excluding as well as reflecting political power, Harley came to the definition of maps as ‘graphic representation that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes or events in the human world.’ In his essay ‘Deconstructing the Map’, first published in 1989, Harley further elaborates on the concept of the map as a form of power-knowledge, ‘created and received by human agents, exploited by elites, to materialize as a world seen through a veil of ideology.’ He once and for all dismisses the idea of a map as a value free historical record, and states that through deconstruction, we can break the link between reality and representation and the true rules of the society that produced the map will surface from behind the mask of impartiality, objectivity and seemingly neutral science.

The 15th issue published in 2005, European Migration Geographies, Poland, is the one that, in my opinion, best succeeded in integrating both Lefebvre’s notions on the production of space as well as Harley’s concepts on making maps. It presents an extremely sharp, bitter analysis – through maps, legislation and personal histories of refugees – of the situation at the Polish / Belarus border, now that it has become Europe’s new external border. As An Architektur puts it: ‘Borders and camps are spaces of migration control. They both serve the supervision and organization of migrants and at the same time are used as rest and transit zones of migration. It is exactly in their juridical and spatial antithesis where a specific feature of the migration regime manifests itself. This aims less at the final stage of a hermetic sealing off, than at a strategic and disfranchisement and thus reacts on the independent dynamics of migration.’ With this issue, An Architektur shows that the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion plus the growing inequalities produced by late capitalist society in order to sustain itself, and the spaces we produce to hide and house these are painfully conflicting, just like they were at the beginning of the nineteenth century, making some kind of corrective intervention inevitable yet again.

Leaves us with the question: What can be done? In his lecture during the first Camp for Oppositional Architecture, Peter Marcuse proposed two possibilities for opposition: First option proposed to architects and city planners would be to choose their clients and their connected interests more carefully, stating that he thinks it’s hardly likely to do oppositional architecture when working for McDonalds. In this respect, he also opts for architects to offer working as a volunteer for, as an example, community groups, with the possible side effect of making no money whatsoever. The second option would be for architects to fully embrace the oppositional attitude and start the revolution from within the architectural establishment, going to their meetings etcetera. To be honest, I wonder if that in a way isn’t just the same as working for McDonalds. At this point I would therefore like to propose a third option. That is for architects and city planners to simply demonstrate to a more general public that they are empowered to produce their own environment, which would impact each individual life. Don’t just present the public the alternatives as a given, but hand society the critical tools it needs to be able to envision alternatives itself!

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2 comments

  1. Nice post of Henri Lefebvre. I found it’s quite interesting to view the space through a his inspiring lenses..http://wp.me/p3bwN9-2X

  2. Hi Gwen,
    Thanks for taking the time to read. Glad you enjoyed it. And allow me to return the compliment. I very much enjoyed reading your post ‘Maya Lin: Space vs. Place.

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