Counter-domains of architectural practice: The case of CivicWise
KU Leuven Department of Architecture Campus Sint-Lucas Brussels, 1030 Belgium
submitted to & accepted by June 4 -5, 2019, GSSI
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I define the architect of neoliberalism as a constructed subjectivity along the domains of managerialism, post-political, act and rule utilitarianism and ubiquitous workplace through a theoretical and discursive reading. Investigating into other ways of practice and deeper into CivicWise I propose 4 counter-domains: collective decision making & trust, politics of refusal, process-orientation and ubiquitous practice. Through understanding the potentials and challenges of these counter domains I seek for a new subjectivity for architects to produce alterities.
keywords: architect’s role, civic design, network, socially-oriented architecture
“Any moment called now is always full of possibles.” (Miéville, 2010, p. 116)
After the 2008 crisis, it became apparent that financial resources being poured to building projects as indications of the state or corporate power are limited. This has not led to cuts in only public spending for social, cultural projects but also in private spending, especially in cities where austerity measures were implemented strictly and private speculative investment was not expected to generate high profit in short-term. So with fewer jobs in the construction industry and more awareness of the social implications of the existing system -through global protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, 15-M, Arab Spring etc- the young architects found themselves in a challenging environment.
To understand the post-2008 situation, we need to clarify that it was also the crisis of neoliberalism. Considering the existing social, political and economical order as a way of constructing a new subjectivity as Dardot & Laval (2013, p. 8) discusses is crucial in defining what neoliberalism is. It is not only an economical system in favor of free market and deregulation but it is also a generator of norms defining our very own daily lives and habits, even when these occur outside our economic activity. Among with everything architectural practice has also transformed in the neoliberal world, and this cannot be thought outside of how the way architects work changed.
Architects of Neoliberalism
Taking Douglas Spencer’s (2016) seminal book Architecture of Neoliberalism as the basis I have defined 4 main domains the architects of neoliberalism are working in. These domains shall not be considered as categories as they intersect, are tangent to some others. I will articulate them in not the way architecture is shaped but in the way architects practice the profession. How the architect produces and/or reproduces the neoliberal subjectivity through their work is the main focus in this scope.
“Managerialism combines management knowledge and ideology to establish itself systemically in organisations and society while depriving owners, employees (organisational-economical) and civil
society (social-political) of all decision-making powers. Managerialism justifies the application of managerial techniques to all areas of society on the grounds of superior ideology, expert
training, and the exclusive possession of managerial knowledge necessary to efficiently run corporations and societies.” (Klikauer, 2013, p.2) Even though the traditional master-apprentice relation seem to signify the total control over decision-making processes, it was the architectural knowledge determining the power to decide, not the management knowledge. And the masters were supposed to transfer their knowledge, which in time would allow the apprentices to become masters themselves.
Managerialism affects the architect’s work in two levels, their role in the construction industry and how they operate within this designated role. Jeremy Till (2018) discusses the “radical shrinking of the role of and territory in which architects operate” today. The seven levels of architect’s involvement in the building process according to RIBA plan has been fragmented and reduced to only two: the concept design and developed design, leaving the other stages to real estate developers, insurers, contractors etc. This shrinking hand in hand with the managerial approach in architecture offices lead to over-valuation of specialisation. Outsourcing the labor intensive architectural services -eased with the high speed internet connection-, like rendering, model making, performative calculations etc has transformed the neoliberal architecture office to a management hub where all the information coming from outsourced parties are brought together. The alienation of the architectural office from the practice of building are also among the reasons for the post-political shift and normalisation of exploitation.
Michael Hays (1984) is the one of the earliest thinkers to define the post-political turn in architecture. He defines a duality in architecture’s relation with the culture: “architecture as an instrument of culture” and “architecture as autonomous form”. “Nevertheless, the absolute autonomy of form and its superiority over historical and material contingencies is proclaimed, not by virtue of its power in the world, but by virtue of its admitted powerlessness. Reduced to pure form, architecture has disarmed itself from the start, maintaining its purity by acceding to social and political inefficacy.” This voluntary self-disempowerment of the architecture was at the same time product and producer of the post-political. Drawing from Zizek and Ranciere’s theory, Erik Swyngedouw (2011, p. 21) defines the post-political as disbelief in seeking alternatives to existing social and economic order and trying to operate within the defined limits of the status-quo.
In the architectural profession the post-political is translated as service provision. The neoliberal architect is no longer a public figure with a political stance at a time even the governments have become instruments of “managerial function, deprived of its properly political dimension (Zizek, 2002) . The main emphasis is on the business related activities that would allow the architect and/or the architecture office to maximize its profit in the free market economy. The urge to practice architecture with mandate (Miessen, 2017, p. 129) required a clearly defined client. This notion is articulated very clearly by Zumthor (2009): “An architect has to build what is being ordered and paid for.” With no control or critical perspective over what is ordered by whom or how the project is financed, an architecture has to be delivered by any means. This myopic understanding of the profession not only ended up in more segregation in cities all over the world functioning as neoliberal subjectivity machines for the 21st century but also produced a more competitive market for architects in which anyone would be willing to serve. The urge to serve to the market is to be found in all levels of the profession: from the architecture firm owner to the intern.
Act and Rule Utilitarianism
In the post-political turn the consequences of the architectural practice is not valued in its contribution to socio-spatial dynamics or scientific innovations but rather in its contribution to market economy. The building as the end-product of the architectural practice shall be realised in an act and rule utilitarianist approach . “Act utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it maximizes utility; rule utilitarianism maintains that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that maximizes utility.” (Utilitarianism, n.d.). This perspective legitimizes all the unethical decisions and plays an instrumental role in normalising the exploitation of nature and labor in the building industry.
Neoliberalism accelerated the exploitation of nature in favor of human economical activity which in turn is leading us to climate breakdown (Randall, 2018). The post-political architect working as a service provider in the building industry has turned a blind eye to this reality. Through the artificial energy systems embedded in the buildings polluting the air and water, through the use of unethical materials without questioning the origins of production are considered the standard mopus operandi. On the other hand, we know that in the construction industry workplace conditions can be really poor; accidents and even deaths are taking place. It has been a common practice in the neoliberal order for architects to claim no responsibility over this. After asking for her comments on the deaths of construction workers in Qatar, Zaha Hadid had laid bare this notion of unconcern through these sentences: “It's not my duty as an architect to look at it. (…) I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.” (Riach, 2014). Considering what is happening in the construction site as an out-of-reach for the ethical stand of the architect is typical of the act and rule utilitarianisms in the practice.
Jonathan Crary (2013) defines thoroughly how neoliberalism (late capitalism in his own words) invades all aspects of life, including our sleep. For the 24/7 operating marketplace the time dedicated to sleep is unproductive, thus it shall be overcome. The competitive marketplace of architectural profession is no different. From the studios of architectural schools to cubicles of offices we hear the proud voices of lack of sleep. This is nicely polished with the love for the profession. “…architecture is a form of labor that masquerades as a labor of love. It contains within it the promise of fulfillment, of happiness. (…) But, as the figure of the dissatisfied ‘CAD monkey’ illustrates, the labor of architecture falls short of this promise. Conditioned to believe that fulfillment emerges from creative autonomy and expression, architects instead find themselves laboring over bathroom details or stair sections, and a sense of alienation emerges.” Adjustments Agency (2018). The extra hours in the office, working from home in the off-hours, domestication of the workplace and (mandatory) social gatherings with the colleagues generate this ubiquity of workplace, based not only on material but also on immaterial labor. (Spencer, 2016, p.82)
The Other Ways of Practice
The vanguards of socially-oriented architecture practices were already there for a long time but it was after the 2008 crisis when these became more visible and wide-spread. As the profession’s engagement with economy were getting closer, the critique on architects for being in “service of the construction of the built environment according to the managerial and entrepreneurial principles of neoliberalism” (Spencer) was emerging. This has not lead to abolishing of the practice as Ibelings (2012, p. 60) had called for but to redefinition of the architect. This expanded to the redefinitions of the client, the architectural production and implementation processes and public spaces. Assembly had “no client” at all in their first project in 2010 (Higgins, C. (2015). Many rehabilitation projects like Can Battló were designed and realised with the inhabitants’ material and immaterial labor (Ertas, 2018). And public spaces started to gain a new meaning other than state-owned lands for public use, designated by the state. Now these were spaces of commoning and self-management as seen in the case of R-Urban (About R-Urban, n.d).
This last decade has also introduced us hyperconnectivity that is also changing the way architects work and share their knowledge. The icon of the one-person master architect (like Rem Koolhaas as the “Flying Dutch”) has a new companion: architecture networks sharing local knowledge through global online connections. I will focus on one of them: CivicWise, an open network of around 600 people, most of whom are active in Southern European cities of Spain and Italy, affected by the harsh austerity measures after 2008 crisis. CivicWise brings together the idea of socially-oriented architectural practice and hyperconnectivity. CivicWise is founded in 2015 with the aim of “promoting citizen engagement, developing concrete actions and projects based on collective intelligence, civic innovation and open design” (What is CivicWise, n.d.). The idea was not to form another architecture office but a distributed network of architects and people from other disciplines sharing similar values. Collaborating on projects with teams located in different places or implementing the knowledge produced by the network onto local projects with local and/or diverse teams Wisers (the people in the network are called Wisers) work in a permanent beta mode, testing the limits of their reciprocal engagement. To strengthen, expand and sustain the network, once or twice a year they organise the Glocal Camp (Glocal Camp, n.d.), a physical gathering packed with workshops and social time. I have joined CivicWise at the Glocal Camp in L’Hospitalet June 2017.