Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #2

When people ask me to sum up my recent research on urban planning, architecture and the politics of the city in Mexico, I usually put the argument like this: ‘architecture isn’t built, it’s written’.

It’s a statement that is both true and untrue, flattening and full of complexity. But the ambiguity of the argument opens up to multiple lines of inquiry concerned with the question of something like the limits of design to politics, or perhaps and in a similar vein, the seeming boundedness of politics to forms of visual representation. Equally, it suggests a debate into the location of architecture, or what it is we look at, or look for, when asking questions about the politics of architecture and urban planning. The building? The drawing of the building? The writing done before and after that form the brief, the specifications, the contracts, the justifications, the criticism?

We know that the history of the built environment is rife with writing: manifestoes, essays, thought pieces, policy documents, law, criticism, architectural justifications, statistical analysis, sales brochures, academic work, and the list goes on. From early metaphors of the city as a body (read illness, circulation, viruses, cancerous areas, head and heart and hands, etc.), to late metaphors of the city as nature (read open or closed system, balance, ecology, flows, etc.), to renewed metaphors about the city from a twentieth to a twenty-first-century machine (smart, connected, instant, digital, virtual, etc.), writing and its metaphors are as powerful as the materials that script our daily embodied movement.

I want to argue, then, that writing, language, metaphor, and rhetoric are as much fundamentals of architecture, urbanism, design (and politics), as are more formal, physical, or bodied gestures. This line of inquiry is indebted to scholars like Beatriz Colomina, Kent Kleinman, and more recently Jane M Jacobs, who are expanding the definition of what counts as architecture, as well as suggesting critical ways in which we can better understand the coconstitution of the built environment between these multiple mediums.[1] That is to say, to think the politics of design, or the relation of design to politics, must include a careful consideration of language, of translation, of genealogy and of the power and possibility of writing. We must move beyond the traditional and fetishist view of the material building, or material urban intervention as the prime location of political possibility.

A recent example of this demonstrates the power and the historically, pedagogically, and geographically embedded entanglements of a word: public. The past two years I worked on a project looking to compare public space design in London and São Paulo, both across geography, but also time. We looked at designs from both the period of high-modernism (1960-70s) and contemporary examples from 2010 onwards.

As a sociologist working in an architecture school there were many moments of challenge and learning across disciplines, but at least we were working on one core theme. Or so I thought. Months into the research, at a workshop in São Paulo, I presented an overview of some of the literature from Sociology, Geography, Anthropology and History on public space. At the end, I was asked a question by my colleague, an architect by training with a practice focussed on public space design in London, why every time I spoke about public space, I was always talking about political struggle, about contestation, about protest, about the defence of public space, and about trying to rethink its political meaning in a contemporary city? It was hard to give an answer, but I suggested it might be because of the way I had been trained to see and think this word ‘public space’ through a sociological lens.

In response, my colleague suggested that when they think of public space, as a designer, they are trying to maximise happiness. That is, in their words, when designing a public space, they were thinking about how to make it the nicest place to walk one’s dog, or to really be able to sit, breathe, relax and have a cappuccino, to create a space where everyone might be able to experience the affect of publicness and serenity in a difficult, fragmented and constrained city.

It would be easy to dismiss both our pedagogical lenses as delimiting, but it does point to the stark differences in our understandings of the core working language of the project: public space. We began without interrogating our precise meanings, definitions and working histories with the term, nor to think through our biases based on those histories.

While this is the beginning of a working group on design politics, I think it is essential to think about the politics of writing and the specificities of language. This will be important within our collective work, and equally within the way in which we structure, disassemble, and hopefully renew a language of thinking the limits of design to questions of the political.

[1] See Beatriz Colomina, 1994. Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, Woburn, MA: MIT Press; Jane M. Jacobs, 2006. ‘A geography of big things.’ Cultural Geographies, 13(1), pp.1–27; Kleinman, K., 2007. ‘Archiving/Architecture.’ In Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 54–60; Gillian Rose & Divya Praful Tolia-Kelly, 2012. Visuality/ Materiality: Images, Objects and Practices, London: Ashgate Publishing Company.