Oct '11 - Dec '11
I'll begin with a super-quick introduction: I finished my Bachelors degree in architecture about a year ago, moved to China for a job and have been working in Beijing at a local firm since then. In about a year I'll be applying for my M. Arch, and hopefully by then will have a better idea of themes regarding architecture and advocacy and how I'd like to pursue them.
For my first post, I'll write a bit about my experience in China. This blog isn't intended to focus on China, but as a country with totalitarian inclinations it obviously speaks to the blog's themes. Tiananmen square in particular closely relates to one my preoccupations: the idea of space as the representation of social relations and ideology, a notion that comes from Henri Lefebvre's critique of space. I plan on writing more about Lefebvre in the future, for now I just want to refer to Lefebvre's idea of space as something that exists in tension with social practices, or as he puts it "at once both work and product - a materialization of "social being"'. Interpreting this through the marxist tradition of social relations, urban space is an expression of the dominant power structure drawn out through conflict.
If you don't look out for it it's easy to overlook this, even in China. My sister visiting me a week ago remarked that she forgot she was in a communist country until we visited Tiananmen square - (for the most part Beijing comes off like any other spectacle-crazed capitalist city). Tiananmen square though is unapologetically less a public space and more an embodiment of state security. The square is vast, monumental and imbued with unfriendly authority. Its latent hostility is underlined by the presence of numerous security guards and an enormous portrait of Mao positioned to gaze down on the square from the Northern entrance. The square is bounded on all sides, first by multi-lane traffic and then further by a fence. The access points are strictly guarded, with all visitors required to pass through scanners before being allowed into the square.
This systematic marginalization of public space is unfortunate not simply in terms of the poverty of urban experience, but also because of it eliminates the potential for dialogue between state and civil society within the city. Just think about how our civic values can be tagged to reciprocal space: the Roman forum, Tahrir square in Egypt, and of course Tiananmen square in 1989. Public spaces serve as important platforms for civic participation in part because they register as significant symbolic and experiential places around which communities can shape their collective identities. The treatment of Tiananmen square erodes this.
Ai Weiwei wrote an article in Newsweek recently after his release where he touched on these themes. He draws out how the manipulation of the state deters identification with the city because of the particular mental condition totalitarianism instigates. He ends with this observation, "This city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about your mental structure. If we remember what Kafka writes about his Castle, we get a sense of it. Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare."
I really liked his article, if you haven't already read it here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/08/28/ai-weiwei-on-beijing-s-nightmare-city.html .
Thanks for reading!
This blog is a way for me to think through an idea of architecture as a vehicle for advocacy. I want to be rigorous about this; to understand our everyday spaces as a product of dominant political orders, and then unpack notions of space and politics as a way to critique them. I adopt this method in order to establish a logical foundation from which to construct a model of critical architecture. This can play out in many ways, I'd like to use the blog as a way of structuring these ideas.