Architecture and politics have a long and sordid relationship. It has been said that all architecture is political. Typically architecture serves a subservient role in this relationship by merely representing the politics of the building’s patron—what Deyan Sudjic has described as the Edifice Complex. Nevertheless, at times throughout history architects themselves take on a political agenda and use their projects as rhetorical devices for the elucidation of these views.
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Rarely, though, do architects take it upon themselves to become actively involved in politics (Maurice Cox is one notable exception). It seems, however, that we are experiencing a sea change and you can now witness a growing interest in political advocacy amongst architects. The question still remains as to how we should get involved. The AIA suggests a ‘grassroots strategy’ that involves fundraising, contacting legislators, and ‘staying informed.’ This is all well and good but I believe we can do better. As architects, urban designers, and landscape architects we are trained to design a better world, offer suggestions and produce visions for how tomorrow can be better than today. On top of that our professions have developed exceptional skills and techniques for communicating these visions to a broader public. From Boullée to Superstudio to Lebbeus Woods, one common thread has connected all great political architecture – powerful images that evoke the political ideals of the designer; too often though these images remain within the confines of our discipline. I would argue that considering the current push for political advocacy we need to develop strategies to make our images more public. Taking into account the current political and financial milieu there is no greater time than now for designers to unite behind a collective set of issues, create more provocative images, and present them to the public for inspection and debate.
There already exist some precedents for this. Current media darlings MAD and BIG, the Shirley Temples of today’s design community, seem to have developed highly effective formulas for media engagement. Under the leadership of Ma Yansong (MAD) and Bjarke Ingels (BIG) both firms have demonstrated skills at making use of architectural media and the media at large; successfully igniting public discussion on important issues and even picking up a commission or two along the way. Through unsolicited design proposals MAD and BIG are able to put forth their personal agenda—for Ma it is the concept of a ‘high-density nature’ and achieving greater harmony between nature and urbanity, and for Bjarke Ingels it is the concept of an ‘ecolomical’ approach to design (economy + ecology). Additionally, through a grassroots approach, BIG have voluntarily proposed alterations to their native Copenhagen that have since gotten the attention of some important city officials and are discussing possible implementation. What is the key to their success? In my opinion it is an ability to create salient images that galvanize a fragmented collection of publics behind compelling visions.
I recently had a chance to meet with Ma Yansong from MAD when this topic unintentionally came up (which actually triggered the idea for this diatribe). I have to say I was struck by a project I had not previously given much thought to: MAD’s vision for Beijing in the year (2050). Their vision features three proposals: a giant cloud-like building which would hover over the CBD, the modernization of Beijing’s hutongs through blobby infrastructural interventions, and the forestation of Tiananmen Square, what we would now call ‘re-wilding’.
From a traditional architectural viewpoint the first two proposals might look the most ‘radical’ because they push the boundaries of formal experimentation. But in the Chinese context it turns out that transforming Tiananmen Square into a lush green space is actually the most politically subversive proposal. Why? Because it questions China’s unprecedented growth at the expense of the environment, it undermines the state’s apparatus of control through unimpeded surveillance, and it challenges the most fundamental ideology of the state itself – communism – by atomizing the collective space of the ‘citizens’ plaza into smaller chunks better suited for individuals and small groups. Ma claims that “it was important for encouraging normal people to talk about all these possibilities. …I think many people see it, and somehow it changed their minds...” Discussion about the project did indeed occur—so much so that the project is now banned from state sponsored media and exhibitions. But eventually Ma & co. would be redeemed. Two years later a mayor from a southern Chinese city approached MAD to build a new city hall and did not balk when they proposed a similar strategy, that the city hall be embedded into a heavily forested ‘landscape’, the antithesis of the standard Chinese strategy of using architecture as a representation of state power.
Before it was adopted by Walt Disney, imagineering was a term invented during World War II by combining the words imagination and engineering. It was originally defined as “the fine art of deciding where we go from here.” To me this is a beautiful mandate for designers and I believe we should adopt it as our own. I recently modified this portmanteau and coined the phrase ‘imaginUrbanism.” At first I used it as a satirical take on the privatization of public infrastructure, but in the context of this essay I see it transformed into a charge for all of us to keep imagining brighter futures and to work together to take our collective agendas out of inner-disciplinary debates and put them in front of the public at large—and rescue the public image of architecture.
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