Monday, October 26, 2015

Architecture and Democracy

In conversation with a person close to me, I was drawn into explaining some of my goals and ideals for an architectural education and what purpose it might serve. These ideas are always bubbling just beneath the surface of my every interaction. I've warned people before that I walk around with a Big Red Button on my chest with a label reading, "Push here for free lecture" -- on any of myriad intricately interconnected and idiosyncratically assembled notions I carry rattling around in my head.

This time I stumbled into the thicket of social or democratic architecture: that indigenous chimera of built form rising emergently from popular will invoked by Louis Sullivan in his feverish essays, not to mention any number of other designers and ideologues laying dubious claims to the same territory. What I seek is a "people's architecture" in the best possible sense -- though naturally the exact specifications and practice of such an ideologically loaded coinage are always culturally contingent (and best tabled here for brevity's sake).

The response: "What, you mean social housing projects?"

It would take another 3,000 superfluous words or so to contextualize, unpack and defuse this fizzing bomb of a question, so I'll stick with some liberal paraphrasing of the conversationally short answer.

By "democratic architecture," I mean the proliferation of the knowledge and means for every person to participate in the design of their own lives; that the power to build be socially, culturally, and pedagogically wedded, even down to the brass tacks of manual labor, to a meaningful free agency. In other words, that we must have some sensible capability as active and willed producers of our own preferred human environment, rather than passive consumers of someone else's predetermined version of The Good Life. Any lifestyle worth having cannot be purchased en toto; that's the same folly as attempting to buy happiness outright. Even when there's a social/market consensus that the sticker price is fair value, the experience of craft purchased through the medium of currency is a morally empty shell compared with the pride, appreciation, and multivalent profit of the spiritually invested creator of things of real utilitarian and aesthetic worth. And this is exactly why, even as U.S. society has gotten nominally richer and more technologically advanced, the old "creeping malaise" still advances unabated. If anything, the manifest unhappiness and psychic disease in American culture has advanced in perfect tandem with our unexamined extolling of "progress" as both means and end of the "highest and best" social good.

When I visit my wife's 4th grade classroom to talk to her students about architecture, I always make a point of explicitly cluing them in that the world they find themselves growing into did not take its present shape by accident or natural growth, as one would imagine the wild, slowly shifting but homeostatic biome of a prairie or forest. Unlike the worlds of animal, vegetable, and mineral, which develop according to no deliberation or thought that we'd readily identify as a plan (regardless of the coincidence that when left alone by humanity the natural world tends to function as an astonishingly sophisticated ensemble), the built environment is what it is as a result of the aggregation of so many collective-yet-individual human choices. This wall; that building; your home street; a parkway tree -- all stand where they do as a result of conscious human deliberation and investment of wealth via embedded energy and material resources. Nothing happens entirely by accident in the human habitat, and much of the underlying planning is done to reiterate and enforce certain predictable patterns of behavior deemed desirable by agency of actors powerful enough to build, according to logics for which they are eternally unaccountable after the concrete legacies of path dependence and acculturation react and resolve around their acts of potent will.

So: who can build? Who knows how? Who dares disrupt what others have wrought, or those fading, shrinking spaces in our world where nothing was wrought before, to raise an edifice in their own ideation of profitable order?

The powerful, of course. Which is to say, not the People as a whole, if we grant that a culture or spirit or popular will or collective unconscious, etc., might ever be precisely divined to indicate our manifold artifices as inhering with a natural pattern of organization -- e.g. as a form of poetry, as Sullivan so fervently and frequently proclaimed.

All of this strays from my original conversation and is circling around the point, which I will close with rather epigrammatically (to build suspense for the next irregular installment of this blog).

First, if the people are to build wisely and interact with meaningful agency in the built environment, they must all be taught the language of building, arts, and crafts with all the due seriousness now rationed solely for the dissemination of math and writing skills barely adequate to perform a menial post-industrial service job. My vision, my architectural project, has acquired inseparable integration with an educational project, rooted in manual and machine craft-work as common knowledge rather than a specialized preserve of any privileged or servant class.

Now to end it, a few postulates which will be woven throughout the work ahead, as experimentally guiding principles.

The act of building is inherently political, as it requires the dispensation of Power. 

Any educational project is a political project, since education determines the practical language and discourse of political contest, whose object is the acquisition and wielding of Power.

'Power' is control over resources. Any political program or ideological proposition of "empowerment" that does not fundamentally reckon with this material fact is simply wishful thinking.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Reasons Why This Poli-Sci Major Can't (Won't) Discuss "Politics" with You

Everybody likes list-articles ("listicles"), right? How about one that still qualifies for TL;DR status? No? Special bonus for loyal readers: pick one from the list you either don't get or would like to see elaborated and I'll spoil what little humor there is by expanding it into its own post.
  1. You think political thought comes in exactly two flavors: Red and Blue. Any criticism leveled against a person or idea identified with Team Red reflexively reveals a card-carrying member of Team Blue, and vice versa.
  2. Intractable social problem? "There's an app for that!"
  3. You're a left-leaning voter who's excited about Hillary's candidacy because having a woman [née African-American] president is all the proof you need that America is still on the road toward Progress -- as opposed to, say, an actually progressive agenda, which is just too far-fetched to be a "serious" idea.
  4. You're a right-leaning voter who's not excited about any of the 2016 Republican candidates at all, but you'll vote for one anyway because fuck the Blue Team.
  5. You can't envision a scenario where Bernie Sanders actually pushes Hillary further right: e.g. because "socialism" per se is such a poison pill in U.S. political culture that her optimal strategy will be to get as far away as possible from any intimation of it within the party. (This is what comes of identifying as "progressive" because you've ceded even "liberal" as a dirty word in the popular narrative frame. Great job holding the line there, Chamberlain.)
  6. You haven't the faintest real notion what "liberal" and "conservative" even mean, either historically or in contemporary context. Bonus factoid: Drug and alcohol Prohibition, Nazi eugenics, and cultural prejudice against rail transit all originated in the Progressive movement. You're welcome.
  7. Sanders, God bless him, will never have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Democratic nomination. This is about the only thing you do know.
  8. You still blame Nader for Gore's "loss" in 2000, not the fact that the latter was so signally uninspiring as a candidate that he lost his home state. And let us not even speak of Kerry -- or Romney, if Team Red's your flavor -- ever again.
  9. You think Rand Paul might have a real shot in 2016 if people would just look at his positions Objectively. (Tangentially related: If I mention that I'm into architecture, you immediately ask if I've ever read The Fountainhead, since it was so inspiring to you that you figure it must be on every young architect's list of inspirations. Sorry, no, I've only read Anthem and Atlas Shrugged, and the latter was more fucking reprehensible than the former in direct proportion to comparative page-count -- which is a terribly wordy way of saying that Ayn Rand has a terribly wordy way of being obtusely wrong about politics and everything that truly matters in life.)
  10. You think reading Marx, for any reason at all, turns readers into Communist Soviet pod people, while having Ayn Rand pulp novels bulk-dumped into public schools will magically generate job-creators. (Seriously everyone, stop pushing Ayn Rand on gullible kids, it's every bit as harmful as marketing tobacco to them.) The last non-fiction work you read yourself was either a thinkpiece read on a device made by Chinese job-havers, or else appeared on a syllabus, years ago.
  11. You think the first step to resolving America's deep-seated racial tensions must be for young black men to pull up their pants and stop being all gosh-darned angry and rock-throw-y over some imagined slight inflicted by society's dominant demographic group; i.e. You.
  12. You sympathize 100% with the Occupy movement (could probably use a little Jubilee yourself on the debt front) but never went to a camp, march, or meeting because you "don't do protests."
  13. You still think non-violent public protests significantly impact policy formation.
  14. You identify as feminist -- when pressed, which is never -- and watch The Bachelor(ette) with your girlfriends because yay, sisterhood!
  15. You diligently "check privilege" on people not in your own identity group who earn a measly five figures, or even less, per year, while oligarchs eat both your and said micro-aggressor's lunches before you even get up in the morning. So you don't understand the difference between "empowerment" and Power -- that is, between lip-service to self-esteem on one hand, and the control and allocation of resources on the other, which is the domain of politics proper.
  16. You've posted a "legal" content/privacy rights reservation declaration as a Facebook status.
  17. You'll readily agree that the most preeminently practical solution to unaccountable police violence is just to deploy better surveillance technology, i.e. body cams. So in other words, surveying the alarming post-9/11 proliferation of state and civil militarization, your choice ameliorative for a fraught street-level condition is to mandate an order for two million wearable cop cameras nation-wide and say, "Take that, military-industrial-security Establishment!"
  18. You often forget, or never realized, that entertainment is not ad-supported media's product -- you are.
  19. You think you're well-informed because you follow The News.
  20. You're far too sophisticated to fall for propaganda and enjoy verbally deconstructing the ads and entertainment aimed at LCD lumpenprole audiences. You love Apple's design aesthetic and shed actual tears over the death of Steve Jobs.
  21. When poor sourcing was exposed in Brokaw's "Bush AWOL" and/or Mike Daisey's "Apple-FoxConn" stories, you leaned back and thought, "Well, that settles that then."
  22. You either don't remember or never knew what Iran-Contra was, but figure since it's not 9/11 it must have been settled just fine too.
  23. You think that current levels of wealth inequality in the U.S. are just fine -- a good thing, really! -- because: a) rule by billionaire hegemons proves the validity of meritocratic, free-market competition; and b) their existence provides exemplary incentive for the poor to become successful.
  24.  You think electric cars and solar panels will save the extant American way of life, with no more negative environmental externalities or uncomfortable sacrifices, ever. Also, self-driving cars are the new flying cars, which are also maybe a still-viable thing in The Future.
  25. You think using mass transit is a great  idea -- for other people.
  26. You vote religiously because your biennial endorsement of Team Coke or Team Pepsi does make a difference, dammit. Your devout reverence for Election Day brooks no cognitive dissonance in the fact that this most sacred of democratic rituals takes place on a workday. You tut-tut about low electoral turnout, every time.
  27. You abhor voting because your vote doesn't make a difference -- and you, along with the rest of the ~60% of other eligible electoral no-shows, make this conclusion a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time.
  28. You're black (and/or "liberal") and voted for Barack Obama or Rahm Emanuel the second time around. You don't vote at all if there's not a black-identified candidate in the race.
  29. Same goes for all other identity-based electoral segments: you prioritize "visible representation" over actual representation. Elite theory be damned, you'll back the candidate you'd feel most comfortable chatting over drinks with, never mind their policy positions or track record. You're a fan instead of a constituent because you don't know the difference.
  30. Similarly, you don't feel the least bit put off by referrals to the public as "consumers" rather than "citizens".
  31. You have a serious emotional investment in professional sports. Go Team [franchise brand name]!
  32. You can talk for an  hour about why Obamacare is either a socialistic perversion of the American Way or Actually the Best Thing to Happen to the Poor & Uninsured Ever, but you can't name your own Congressional representative. The sausage is full of sawdust and your animus is entirely reserved for the brand pitchman or his heel opponent, not the slaughterhouse or the butcher.
  33. You never attribute to human incompetence that which can be misconstrued as partisan malice. The Other Side is 100% demonically evil bad guys who are out to get you personally and destroy America into the bargain -- not well-meaning and generally decent but bumbling and feckless idiots like yourself.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Ed-Blogging My Way to Unpopularity

Quick hit on this post by Diane Ravitchfrom a Facebook comment that got so long I realized it was almost an essay. 
Other writers have said
and from what I've seen as a math tutor and husband to a CPS classroom teacher, I concur that one of the biggest problems with Common Core and its associated "assessments" (irony quotes because the instruments & implementation are so flawed that it's arguable they're not effectively measuring anything) is that it was built "from the top down."
In political terms, of course, it's the idea of a federally mandated national curriculum: an illegal, unconstitutional power play that's been advanced and defended with the specious argument that the states must "voluntarily" adopt the standards (in much the same way they "voluntarily" raised the legal drinking age to 21, 
for example, when threatened with a shutoff of federal highway funding if they didn't).
The second piece is that the standards and assessments themselves are derived *NOT* from a core "basic skills" approach, i.e. building up from kindergarten onward based on education research of child cognitive development, but rather by setting the bar for an "adequate" high school graduate skill level from a best-case, exceptionally gifted, college-bound scenario; and then projecting backward to previous grade levels from there. So the metrics for learning "at level" were pushed up one or two grade levels for every grade to "catch up" lower-achieving students with the career-and-college-ready golden boys and girls (who IRL have innumerable advantages outside the classroom that account for high achievement regardless of whatever newfangled texts & tests Pearson et alia sell to their school district customer/hostages this year). The obvious pedagogical and statistical problems with this approach were just steamrolled with so much paternalistic bluster about "demanding excellence, no excuses," etc.
regarding students who in many cases struggle for daily security & survival, mind you, and don't have mental capacity to spare for bootstrapping ahead two entire grade levels, let alone thinking realistically about college. 
So in practice, it works out like this: 1) Move the goalposts so that "excellent" is now "average" and formerly "average" is considered "failing" (even down to bumping up percentages required for class A's and B's to 93% and 87% respectively and so on); 2) Administer assessments devised with a similarly opaque, unaccountable process to students who roll their eyes at bubble tests because they're now seeing one practically every week (Teacher/admin: "It's serious this time!" Student: "So what? You've been crying wolf about taking these tests 'seriously' for so long that now it's just background noise, like mom's nagging to clean my room."); 3) When the majority of students predictably "fail" these rigged and poorly written assessments, use the resulting "data" to condemn students, teachers, and schools to punishment, firings, turnovers and/or closures; 4) PROFIT!
for charters, publishers, and miscellaneous ed-industry entrepreneurs benefiting from this application of disaster capitalism to the public school system.
Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Who else is thinking that homeschooling looks pretty attractive these days?

[Grand, sweeping tip o' the hat to veteran teacher and education blogger Peter Greene at Curmudgucation, whom I leaned on pretty heavily for links above.]