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.