Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: "Ethics of the Urban: the City and the Spaces of the Political"

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Mar 3, '12 5:25 PM EST

    Hi Archinect,

    I'm sitting on the floor in a very stuffy, very tiny room for the last session of this weekend's conference, "Ethics of the Urban: the City and the Spaces of the Political." Gerald Frug and Richard Sennett are speaking, moderated by Neil Brenner.

    4:45: Gerald Frug: "Richard Sennett has been the most important influence in my life."

    ..."I'm in opposition to almost everything."

    "But I want to talk about the spatial nature of governance. Representative democracy--elections for our leaders--is under threat in this most democratic country, but also around the world."

    Representative democracy is an enormous human achievement: one person, one vote. No property qualifications, men and women, black and white. I'm not prepared to throw this away so easily.

    We have two spaces for representative democracy below the federal level in the United States: the state and the city. Yes, Occupy Wall Street is political, but [voting is more important.]

    And I want to talk about the state. Not the "state," in terms of [theoretical blah blah blah]; I'm talking about Massachusetts and California. The term "state" has almost not been used in this sense at all today. People don't talk about the state because it's too big or too small; the real is the neighborhood, or the region, or the world. But we don't have neighborhood governments or regional governments.

    ...We shouldn't pretend that city lines don't matter. In America today, when you cross from a more prosperous city to a less prosperous one, your life is different. This matters.

    I'm worried about our discourse, but I'm more worried about what's happening in the world; we have privatized the government. We've privatized it in our own thinking about it, and once we've gone down that road...

    The Massachusetts Transport Authority that deals with our transportation, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority--yes, they're formed by the state. But they are run in a way that is not responsive to politics. These public authorities are not run by people who are elected.

    To what extent could a public-private partnership be subject to public accountability?

    Why do they always want to talk about "governance," not "government"? They don't care about "government" anymore. They care about "governance," and about "stakeholders" around the table.  "There's always a table." Why? Because they know that corporations will be there around the table, but the public may not. Not one person, one vote.

    The more we spread it out--postmodernism, spread it out, fuzzy, isn't it interesting feeling--the more things are under control of corporations.

    There's also been a lot of talk about the street. Well, let me tell you about the street. ...What is a business improvement district? It is run by property owners to decide issues of the public. Property owners, not residents, not tenants, not people actually on the jobs or on the street. What kind of street do property owners want? Is it the same kind of street that ordinary people and tenants want? If you're organizing the street through business improvement districts, and organizing city services and governance through public-private partnerships and stakeholders, you're losing the role of the government.

    ...Let's see, what else...

    Richard Sennett: I want to go to law school now.

    GF: Do we want to fix it or abandon it? That's our question. One problem is the ridiculous place of money in our electoral system. Another problem is the complete collapse of elected officials and celebrity. But I want to talk about one more thing you may not have thought about: the way we organize the electorate in city governments. There are people who are there who are not there, and there are people who are not there who are there.

    Municipal elections are based on who is domiciled. I asked my students where they're domiciled; they say Virginia, even though they haven't been there in eight years and have no intention of going back. This is who can vote. I bet there are some people in this room who are not here.

    In [the city] which has the highest income inequality in America--this is a big contest, and they won it--a woman sent her son to school and was arrested for stealing a free education. Why? Because she wasn't there. She didn't have a place to live and lived in her car.

    [end. applause.]

    5:05: Richard Sennett: ...[to GF], I could never match your eloquence, but bear with me.

    When I came here, I talked about edge conditions. I distinguished between borders and boundaries; a border is an edge which is more living, active, and interactive, and a boundary is where things end. It's a distinction that is based in the biology of cell walls, which hold things in, versus cell membranes, which are porous. It's not simply "open OR closed," but it manages what goes in and what goes out.

    A border is more like what you'd see in New York on 96th street, where one side is rich and the other is poor. The zone is ambiguous and unmarked.

    What's happening in the urban condition is that the boundary condition is becoming dominant. We're seeing in the United States but also in Asia and Africa, the deployment of the boundary in the making of urban form. The knowledge and experience of living with people who are not like oneself are sealed and lost at the boundary.

    I want to say something about what kind of politics marks a border condition. Here I think we're going to disagree a bit. ...I think many of you here have a lot of experience in the conditions of Beirut. The Green Line is a space--green because it grew in during the seige--separating west and east Beirut. After the occupation ended, and I had a small part in this, there was a space where people could experience a re-litigation about the border. A shifting seam and renegotiation. All border conditions have this quality of re-litigation.

    Saskia yesterday used the term "incomplete form" to describe this notion of febrile making. Perhaps she could have said [...] instead.

    SS: We can discuss this later. [laughter]

    The surprising thing for outsiders is that people who have lived so long together are suddenly at each other's throats. That's always a condition of the border. This is extremely demanding work. At this borderline space, at any time this mutual self-governance can implode.

    But--and here, Saskia, I thought you work was absolutely correct--this depends on presence. [laughter]

    ...We think of form as permanent. ...But think about chamfering a corner. I'm thinking about rebuilding in Sarajevo. We tried to remove buildings at corners so that all the corners were chamfered. You see what's ahead of you and what's coming.

    We think of a borderland as spontaneous, but it's not. It can be designed; there are many tools for designing informal spaces. It's something we should talk about in relation to the Boston Government Plaza.

    I want to say one thing about presence. Presence is a sensate, bodily condition. Particularly in cities. The experience we have of the other in cities is usually not verbal, it's corporeal. Three centuries ago in pre-revolutionary Paris, if you met a stranger on the street, there was a code where you would grab the forearm of the person to speak to them. If I came up to you on the street and grabbed your arm, you know what you'd do--run or use one of those high-powered whistles.

    It's a different kind of realm for us; mostly visual and non-tactile.

    5:20: Public realm theory. The difference between a discursive and a non-discursive corporeal realm was the subject of a huge debate in [urban theories]. Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas. For Habermas [...] For Arendt, when you go into public, you leave your selfhood behind. But for both, the sphere of the public is a sphere of discourse. In my view that's not an urban sphere. In the school that I belong to, which includes anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, this sphere is one in which you don't speak. It's a public sphere of gestures, and is suited to thinking about the design of cities. But it's not suited to thinking about the kind of exchanges that lead to democratic politics.

    What Gerry has taken us back to is that...the makers of public space...what we are better at doing is thinking about corporeal, mostly visual kinds of public space, through performative informative means in this borderland condition. It is presence but it sacrifices politics. So that's how this great drama, in my view, of publicness has played out. It's an irresolvable conflict in the public realm. It's about the design of the city versus the design of the polity, and those are two very different things, both in theory and in practice.

    [End, applause.]

    5:25: Question [from an MIT urban planning professor] about the relationship between capitalism and urban form.

    GF: Once you get going around the world, there's no government large enough; it's hopeless. I think we can get local governments to be empowered to affect local capitalism, but in fact we're influencing local governments in the opposite way. We've designed local governments to be disempowering.

    Question about voting and being in different places. There are people who own multiple residences and who have to choose which place to call home. There are also people who sleep in one place and work in another.

    If you ask "where do you sleep?" that's an odd way to ask about living. You're alive now. Where do you live? You could design a vote that took this into account. One idea: where do you want your children to go to school? Near work, not near home, because you can pick up your kids after work. [Reiterates his call to reorganize politics.]

    Question about the end of RS's presentation; disturbed by the segregation of public and politics. Reference to Hannah Arendt who tries to relate the political to the public. Example of [a few projects] and about protests around the world; they suggest that the public can be political.

    RS: Of course, there should be a borderline, but in practice it's more of a boundary. There was very little to be done in the Occupy Movement politically. People knew where they stood; they were there because they had views about capitalism, not questions. But they were there to rebuild the social, through demonstrations and discussions. These were dramatic events, being somewhere where you don't belong.

    RS: I studied with Hannah, we did not agree very much. The idea that the political realm is constituted by a disinvestment in identity--that's her phrase--that you didn't speak in the name of being black, white, woman, or man, but as a political subject. That was also a disinvestment in many people's immediate situations. The difference between homo laborans and homo faber. ...My sense about about this in public space is that it focuses on the task of making presence--which can be organized visually, more than making politics--which is much more difficult to make visually and physically. When we worked in Sarajevo, there was no way to reconcile Muslims and Serbs. But we could take steps to once again get them to at least be in each other's physical presence.

    Question about the use of laws in apartheid governments.

    Question about the economies of boundaries and borders, and about their maintenance rather than construction; it can be cheaper to build a wall rather than maintain a porous boundary.

    GF: The definition of private property is "keep out." We organize cities this way, and zoned suburbs. We build walls to keep people out, and also use boundaries and zoning to keep people out. We don't need to build walls; the legal system does it.

    RS: This is the biggest issue; how to turn cities that are "boundary" into "borders." Most cities don't have the resources to do what Boston did and put the highways underground as in the "Big Dig." And I gather that Boston didn't have the resources either. [laughter.] In Caracas, there has been discussion about how to make it easier to cross highways. In Bogotá, [a colleague] tried to get at this in another way, by slowing down the traffic until it becamse less "efficient," and colonized. The impulse is the same, to address the fundamental condition of segregation: to use motion to isolate people in space. This is the big story in 20th century urbanism.

    RS: I said before that if the Israelis left the walls--although I think they're appalling and should be taken down now--is that if they were left for 50 years they would become intense zones of urban activity. Over time it becomes a space for exiles; in Avignon it became a space for exiles, prostitutes, and Jews.

    RS: Periphery spaces are supposed to be abandoned, but they make it possible to do things that you can't do in other places. In cities, innovation occurs in abandoned spaces that have been abandoned by (capitalist forces). As a planner, those are the spaces I want to work with. I don't want to make Wall Street a more perfect machine for Citibank. I want to focus on those peripheral spaces which are more likely to matter to people who need our skills as planners.

    Diane Davis:

    1. Public space isn't automatically political space. Politics requires action.

    2. We need to problematize the public. It's a relational concept. Perhaps we should think about it in relation to the private. Does it vary city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood? And how does that relationality change over time?

    3. Designers love the idea of public space, but it obfuscates many realities and it is politically imprecise. I'd add the idea of state, civil society, and market.

    4. In what way way are the state, civil society, and the market, established by and constrained by physical space? And how does physical space give visibility and power to those domains? That brings us back to the political. Who is being empowered by the physical spaces of the city, and who is not?

    Neil Brenner:

    1. About Saskia Sassen's "endogeneity trap." In the realm of design, this would be to derive the social principles of a space just from it's design. But there could also be an "exogeneity trap" in which you try to derive this solely from the political or economic, etc. And we've been trying to avoid both, and have been dealing with this in different ways in the different panels, but that's a methodological trap that this conference opens up.

    2. The design of democracy, and democracy as a design problem. The literature of post-state capitalism describes the "design" of a political democracy; but as many of us in this room are trying to think about, democracy is also spatialized. Democracy is traditionally designed as a co-presence, in a Westphalian model of sovereignty; Gerry has shown how this is under assault. How can design open up perspectives for democratic empowerment, for institutional redesign?

    Krzysztof Wodiczko: It's not only an issue of urban or architectural design. People are wearing things, they are holding cell phones, use communications, act in a performative and media-supported way, and there is lots of design to be done to live along or move through these boundaries.

    Audience: I think the Occupy Movement is highly political, not just social; it is highly horizontal, anarchist, non-representational, but is a kind of politics.

    Richard Sennett: Fair enough.

    Audience (MIT PhD student): Takes issue with the characterization of OWS as a monolithic movement. We all--the academic left--love to be part of the 99%, in a self-congratulatory way. But the 99% needs to be taken apart a bit.

    Audience: Has design jettisoned social psychology?

    Richard Sennett: People like Georg Simmel imagined that the narrative of a life was shaped by a place. So we can frame it in a more positive way.

    Audience: I want to second the caution about how we talk about OWS. It was a theatrical movement. We can absorb it as long as it doesn't interact with official politics. There's a need to go beyond the enthusiasm of the theatrical moment to go to the problem of political rule by financial capital. The incapacity of 20 countries in the European Union to end the financial crisis--

    Neil Brenner wraps things up.

    Thanks for reading!



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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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