Too Much or Not Enough
Paco Mejias Villatoro
Andreea Cel Mare
Luca Maria Francesco Fabris
Dragoș Mihai Dordea
The prevalent answer to the rhetorical question of the invitation to this year’s issue of sITA — Politics. Too much or not enough? — seems to suggest that architecture has relinquished its participation in any critical appraisal of the polis, and instead indulges itself in designing ever more buildings that contribute to the proliferation of today’s urban environment.
In parallel, the social and political responsibility of building is being examined and tested, as alternative practices and unconventional topics have gained considerable ground in recent years. Participatory architectural practices, crowdfunding and “crowd-building” of the commons, housing for the very poor, temporary shelters for the refugees of natural or human catastrophes, ecological experiments, etc. have all yielded results, other than what may be considered the mainstream architectural production. Either assumed by singular architectural practices or taken up by non-governmental organizations, these stances have been catalyzed by the public debate and the new media, and even consecrated by established institutions of the profession, such as the Pritzker Prize or the Venice Architectural Biennale.
Architects have always been responsive to politics, polities and policies, liberal or authoritarian, by either complying or criticizing, opposing and reacting against them. Over the centuries, the buildings that have participated to the construction of the professional canon have almost always been associated with power structures — either spiritual or temporal. It is only in the more recent history that the relationship between architecture and politics was tensed by a vector that claims architecture’s right and duty in the decision-making process. It is on account of this professional prerogative that architecture has been accused of being weak with respect to politics, either on the grounds of architects’ subservience, or simply because of what is believed to be the inherent weakness of architecture. All these refer to architecture as an active political actor. What seems to fall between the lines of these assertions — the first criticizing architecture’s lack of agency on contemporary politics, and the second focusing on architecture’s socially and politically relevant positions — is an underlying faith in the definitive role that architecture should/must/ought to play in contemporary societies.
This belief is mainly grounded in a disciplinary history that reluctantly acknowledges having significantly influenced the shaping of the built environment throughout the twentieth century. Impersonating the modern artist — a seismograph of society’s deeper concerns and a visionary that shows the path to be followed — this heroic role of the architect and the subsequent importance of architecture itself may very well be attributed to the fantasy of professionals working in the beginning of the twentieth century and to the ingenuity of modern architectural theory and history. This narrative is rooted in the daring statements of the historical avant-gardes; it is confirmed by the endorsement of modernist theories in the post-war years, inflamed by the critical and utopian practices of the 1960s and 1970s, and finally fed by the postmodern alliance with the consumer society. But what if the better half of the twentieth century has only been an exceptional chance encounter between the larger political orientations of society and the architectural culture? What if architecture, as regarded from politics, has always been only a means to an end characterized by a power play, rather than by the “play of masses” that incidentally constitutes our daily living environment? In the end, if choosing between “architecture and revolution” was as urgent as Le Corbusier suggested in 1923, it took more than twenty years and the destructions of a devastating world war to decide in favor of the former. The attunement of the professional area of interest with the political imperatives and/or society’s urgencies is a seminal topic which will, unfortunately, have to wait for further explorations in the future. Yet the articles assembled in the current can also benefit from this preliminary interpretation in as much as it crudely discerns between exploring how political influence was exerted on architecture and, conversely, investigating architecture as a critical agent within society. However valuable this distinction could be for a methodical, systematic approach to the subject, it does not do justice to most of the contributions. Moreover, it does not seem to allow a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the relationship between architecture and politics.
What makes matters complicated is that the word “politics” may refer to an activity, a profession, a position, an opinion, a social science and also a complex of relations developed within a group. The two principal meanings of interest in this instance are (1) the one regarding the exercise of power, comprising the practice of politics (the activity of governing, administration, law/rule-making, policy making, etc.), the people invested in this and the institutional framework; and (2) the meaning referring to the wider set of relations between individuals in society and the ordering of that society, thus including the organizational forms it engenders. There is a third understanding of “politics” of topical importance, namely the political science. This meaning is also relevant in as much as ideas and concepts stemming from this field have permeated architectural culture (as it happened with the adoptions from other disciplinary fields). As such, this third meaning goes to how architecture perceives, criticizes and challenges itself and reminds us of the potential fallacy of concentrating only on architecture and politics.
What becomes evident is that architecture itself requires clarification when put in relation with the different meanings of “politics,” because the word in itself can point concomitantly to either a discipline with a debatable autonomy, a profession exercised in different historical conditions (political, economic, social, etc.), or a built work. The intersections between all these different understandings of the two terms of the binomial “architecture and politics” make any endeavor of looking for a comprehensive diagram of possible interactions idealistic, if not naïve. However, if instead of a complete chart one tries to highlight some of the more “travelled routes” between the two, the following preliminary topics stand out from the contributions to the current volume.
Architectural profession invested for the common good
This direction comprises contributions that tackle the role of architects and architecture in society, and those that concentrate on specific instances where professional practice has put forward new living environments specifically addressed for the betterment of existing conditions.
In the first category, “The socio-pol-ethical confluence of the architect: The Idiot, the Activist and the Dreamer,” Paco Mejias Villatoro and Tanzil Shafique’s article, unfolds, with certain irony, the different avatars of the architect as a political agent and elaborates on the respective social, political and ethical questions raised by the complex contradictory roles that this actor-architect plays. The three personas of the contemporary, politically invested architect that the authors recommend — the Idiot, the Activist and the Dreamer — each follow different, but complementary “scripts” relating respectively to political resistance, political engagement and political detachment. While all three instances oppose the architect’s effacement from the public arena, the contribution argues for a balance of role-playing that would allow the architectural profession to reclaim its agency on the contemporary built environment. Finichiu and Schoenmaeckers’s article, entitled “Architecture and Politics: the Ideology of Consensus Versus the Reality of Dissensus,” references contemporary relevant discourses of political science to point to the split political role of architecture within society: that of endorsing an established order, that the authors name “architecture as politics” vs. that of creatively introducing areas of dissension that challenge the hierarchies in place, called “political architecture.” Mirroring the engagement called for in the previous contribution, the authors continue by enquiring into architecture’s withdrawal from the political arena, thus acknowledging only one of its potential roles. The article goes on to argue that the pervasive condition of the current post-political, post-democratic era succeeds in confiscating the supposed dissident instances of architecture and disarms them through institutionalization, thereby exhausting architecture of any political agency.
The second category approaches two specific situations in the modernist period where design innovations significantly impacted on the built environment, through housing as a predilect program. Andreea Cel Mare’s contribution, “Henri Coandă's Prefabricated Dwellings between France and Romania,” retrieves valuable archival information that place Coandă between the professional and political national histories of France and Romania. The article focuses on an instance of the modernist revolutionary impetus that aimed to provide affordable dwellings for all through technological innovations, thus allowing the author to compare the French and Romanian milieus of the 1920s from the perspectives of mass housing public policies and of professional ideologies, as well. Semprebon, Ma and Fabris’ article, “The Shape of Social Policies. Architectural Experiences in London between 1964 and 1979,” tackles the conditions of the late 1960s and 1970s in London, a period that has witnessed the providential encounter of social policy and architectural production. This resulted in stimulating experiments on the built environment, where the collective aspirations fused with the themes of architectural modernism to generate a new shape for the city, played out at the level of the interface between the public and private realms. Both articles are based on the assumption that social housing — in the first case approached through technological novelty, and in the second, through typological innovation and aesthetic originality — is one of the fundamental ways in which architectural design has contributed to the social and political agenda. Nevertheless, both articles spotlight other aspects of architecture in relation with politics. For instance, Coandă’s case speaks of the resistance to innovation of a social and political elite absorbed by issues of national identity and, at the same time, points to the communist bias that erased Coandă’s contribution from the historical narrative of prefabrication after the second World War, simply for political reasons. In the second contribution, London’s public policies during the heydays of the welfare state are shadowed by the current issues regarding the appreciation of this heritage.
Governance’ influence on architectural works
While the different contributions that may be grouped under this heading refer to the impact of either political people, institutions of power or rules and norms, they each carry the subject further, thus opening up new perspectives linked to the very different circumstances under study.
Miloš Stanković considers the historical saga of the unbuilt orthodox church in Cetinje. His article, “1870-2018. Russia and the Balkans. The Case of the (Un)Built Design of the Orthodox Church in Cetinje, Montenegro,” recounts the way in which the successive political changes have rerouted both the design and the erection of this building during the last 150 years. Throughout that period, the symbolic character of the church has legitimated it as an important political stake at the local, national level of Montenegro, and representative for the larger European powerplay that links the Balkans to Russian influence.
Also departing from a situation of cultural colonialism, with Iran and Pakistan competing for the American support starting from the late 1950s, Niloofar Amini, in her article entitled “Modern Architecture as an Agency of Political Competition,” elaborates on the complex circumstances of the modernization processes of the Middle East, and its particular outcomes. As such, the article discusses the opposition between the official projects, politically significant, and smaller projects representing instances of “non-Western modernity,” professionally meaningful. Works of a generation of local architects trained in the West, these latter projects react to both the imposition of Western economic and political ideas upon a different cultural background, and to the exertion of top-down approaches, oblivious to the specifics of local communities. If these architects have defined their positions in an ambivalent relationship with the larger cultural trends of the late 1970s, using some ideas while refuting others, the built works also testify to the conceptual freedom that the architects could enjoy from the more general political directions, which allowed them to introduce their own agendas on social reform and to give shape to their own visions.
In the different political context, Liliana Iuga’s discussion of “Politics, professionals, and architectural debates in socialist Romania” brings to the fore the same issue of the architects’ agency on the urban political decisions of a centralized authority. Bringing important nuances to the main historical narrative of this not-so-distant past, Iuga’s contribution focuses on certain Romanian cities remote from the nucleus of power. The study focuses on two instances where projects decided upon at the center encountered significant reactions at the local level. Albeit with different final results, these particular situations point to fractures within what may otherwise be considered a single, omnipotent apparatus of power exertion, as well as to possibilities of resistance mounted either from individual architects, or from the local community. At the same time, the article acknowledges the methodological importance of oral and micro-history and emphasizes that the reconstruction of these narratives prompts a distinctive rewriting of previously considered “power constellations.”
The article is relevantly complemented by Celia Ghyka and Călin Dan’s contribution “Reverse-Engineering Political Architecture. The House of the People and Its Hidden Social Effects.” The immense ensemble showcases the disparity between the sheer size of the architectural object of the political demand, on the one hand, and the available resources (the short time span, the lack of competent workers and tools, the lack of management skills and operational abilities, the absence of a project etc.), on the other. This engendered similar fractures in the interior of an apparently monolithic power apparatus. These conditions resulted in bewildering landscapes of individual and smaller groups’ agency, that allow for the consideration of “a collective author” of the work, with all the moral implication thereof and the long-term effects on the development of both the Romanian society and its architectural body.
While upholding the geometry suggested for the whole volume, one should stress the fact that the majority of the contributions gathered under this heading rather point to the reactions against political influence and investigate the degrees of freedom that architects/architecture could maintain.
Professional knowledge reflecting on the polis
The topic of the city, either in its historical instances or in its contemporary multifarious forms, links across time two contributions of a different nature and scope. The first, Alioscia Mozzato’s “Colin Rowe and Aldo Rossi. Utopia as Metaphor of a New City Analogous to the Existing One,” stems from an in-depth analysis of both seminal architectural writings and theoretical projects. The article looks to the pivotal concept of “utopia” — more accurately understood through Rowe and Koetter’s text as a “possible social metaphor” — and relates it to Rossi’s “Analogous City,” in order to infer a potential synthesis of the two theoretical approaches. This synthesis promises a continuity with the common urban values as expressed in the built substance of the city, rather than expressly articulated in the ideological discourse. As such, it understands existant architecture not only for its cultural values, but also for its political ones, thus linking each of them with the other and both with history.
To the contrary, the authors of the second article placed under this heading, “What Light Can a School Project Shed on Politics?”, Andrei Feraru and Roberta Borghi use the vantage perspective conferred by the frame of a school project that immerses the students in the complex condition of a cross-border area between Bulgaria and Romania. This exercise offers the opportunity to question the local, the governmental and the European policies, along with the contemporary urban condition (either the existing or the envisioned one). The conceptual freedom of the school projects and the inherent provisional answers they offer are then confronted with contemporary discourses on politics and channeled to challenge our current understanding of these notions. In this way the article reinforces both the perennial political claim of the “right to the city” and incites to a continuous questioning of the role that architectural knowledge may play in supporting it.
It seemed appropriate to conclude this reflection contained in the volume with an article that brings to the fore the importance of the self-referential discourse for the disciplinary construct of architecture. Alexandru Sabău’s article, “Politics of Self-reference. Self-sufficient Discourses in 1980s Architecture,” explicitly investigates architecture’s “political dimension” and it does so by following three case studies that mirror one of the inaugural issues of this introduction — the possibility that the political condition of architecture is better framed by considering the crossroads between how the discipline of architecture defines itself from within and the apparently external discourses of political science. The author studies the late-postmodern discourses, from a period that expanded the contours of architectural culture by retrieving and incorporating its more distant historical instances. The article argues that architecture, understood as “creation of worlds,” extends to utopian drawings, “dis/continuous genealogies” and built manifestoes, thus emphasizing both the limitless resources of architectural renewal and the importance of the resulting discourse as an agent of a larger change.
Published with the support of the Chamber of Architects of Romania (OAR)
Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Identity (MCIN)