Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #9

Unusually, we find ourselves at a rare, feel-good historical moment, when we are supposed to be marking and (if we dare) celebrating 500 years of Thomas More’s inspirational text Utopia – an appropriate conjuncture to think ‘widely about the politics of design, and designing for politics’. And perhaps, with a little nudge, a gentle push, we can even realise Aureli’s ‘prophecy’ of a shift towards a repoliticisation of architecture, embracing once again the possibilities of radical critique.[1] This would of course require design to go beyond the mellow compromise of ‘radical realism’, a concession common in design as it remains caught within the vain demands of professionalism.  Practically, it also means that design needs to roll its sleeves up to occupy a central role in restoring the public investment programme in housing, infrastructure, health, education and other associated welfare schemes that are now nearly extinct. In this matter, design cannot be faulted for not trying. The primal role of design in New Labour’s Urban Renaissance Agenda in the UK is well known, especially in driving key schemes such as the Building Schools for Future, one that came in for stinging criticism. Given this scepticism, should design try yet again to influence socio-political agendas? Would its efforts be predictably limited to meddling gestures? If so, is this is simply (not) enough?

Swyngedouw’s cryptic statement, that architecture cannot be an emancipatory project but architects can, encapsulate best the limits of design in addressing the political.[2] While he follows Tafuri’s argument that architecture is removed from any larger critique of capitalism and its unfolding cultural logic, he draws attention to the emergence of insurgent architects who “may tentatively open a space for thinking through and acting on the necessity for a new socio-spatial order articulated around the disavowed signifiers of equality, freedom, solidarity and common management of the commons”.[3] The risk here is that the metamorphosis of designers into political subjects takes place amidst a post-political consensus that is not only reactionary but also forestalls the articulation of design as a counter-narrative to the facets of neoliberal urbanism. It is this context that frames Brenner’s scepticism of tactical urbanism and insurgent architecture where he cautions that even though such design defies politics as we know it, these gestures are unable to disrupt basic rule-regimes associated with market-oriented, growth-first urban development.[4] This is a tentative criticism which is cautious not only about these small-scale interventions but also fears about their wider currency rooted as they are in a localised politics of subversion.

And yet, the politics of tactical architecture cannot be so easily dismissed without thoroughly exploring its practical abilities to offer a robust interpretive frame for understanding a variety of emergent urban design experiments in cities across the global North and South, an exercise involving not just joining the dots but also discerning a more nuanced and complex pattern. It also means reaching a point where the tactics of insurgent design are a rule and not an exception, a difficult prospect when faced with the continued corporatisation of design. More than its ideological association with capitalism, our concern here is with the practice-dominated prioritisation of design as a technological fix. It means design as a process that is less concerned with social analysis (despite repeated assertions) or the larger questions of political economy, and more with the demands of developers, engineers and planners. A continued focus on the broader system of real estate-led development rules ensures that design remains caught within the entrapment of a ‘field’ with less chances of developing a sophisticated discourse as a discipline. For the latter to happen, we need to think of design not only as a meta-narrative but also in terms of its everyday practice. A first step is to loosen the rigid hierarchical impositions of scale where architecture, urban design and planning operate at distinct micro and macro levels. It requires a radical rethinking of design not as a spatially circumscribed intervention but as a multiscalar process cutting across multiple sites, places, and territories. This is an issue when design follows the conventional norms of project-based initiatives with a tightly defined redline boundary, one that does not interrupt the broader systems of property based investment and displacement. In order to overcome this challenge, we will need to return to the drawing board, or back to the classroom, i.e. reconsider the pedagogy of radical design as practice. In all likelihood, we will be opening a new can of worms, a confrontation that we unfortunately cannot avoid. 

[1] P.V. Aureli, The project of autonomy: Politics and architecture within and against capitalism (Buell Center/FORuM Project and Princeton Architectural Press, 2008)

[2] E. Swyngedouw, On the impossibility of an emancipatory architecture: The deadlock of critical theory, insurgent architects, and the beginning of politics, in Can architecture be an emancipatory project? Dialogues on architecture and the left (Zero Books, 2016)

[3] (n.p.)

[4] N. Brenner, Is ‘tactical urbanism’ an alternative to neoliberal urbanism? (2015)