Architects, Architecture, and Activism? by David Jensen
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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“Architecture has sacrificed the street party for the private club.”

-Splinter, 1994

In a recent New York Times article, “Architecture as Social Action, and Vice Versa,” Herbert Muschamp interviewed Frank Gehry and discussed with him recent concerns that architects should be socially responsible in addition to discussing Gehry’s own socially conscious designs and particular brand of activism. In the article Gehry states, “Just being an architect is an act of social responsibility. Even the strangest concoctions of our imaginations have to do with humanist values-with people, society and context. We’re all part of the human fabric. And to have this backlash now is strange. I suppose it’s human. But I wish people would stop it.” It is clear from these comments that Gehry views himself as socially and politically responsible through his work, as should all architects as a result of their selected vocation. Muschamp questions Gehry’s ability to create socially relevant buildings when he quotes from Mike Davis’ book, City of Quartz, where Davis assails Gehry’s, “Hip Portfolio [of buildings] as a nostalgic evocation of revolutionary constructivism and a mercenary celebration of bourgeois-decadent minimalism.” At the same time Davis suggests that Gehry’s buildings do embrace a loose social agenda, because Gehry “clarifies the underlying relations of repression, surveillance and exclusion that characterize the fragmented, paranoid spatiality toward which Los Angeles seems to aspire.” As Muschamp continues, his discussion turns to the recent division of labor within the profession of architecture between designers and technicians, which leads him to conclude, ” … that formal innovation has lost a good deal of the luster it acquired in the 1970s and ’80s, when architects were busting loose from the restriction of the modern canon … Diversity of practices, not diversity of forms:  that is the news from the edge of architecture today.”

Editorial Excerpt Splinter #1, Antic Architecture

For link to Excerpt text, click here.

It is disconcerting that popular critics of architecture, when considering the topic of architecture and social activism, can only conclude that architecture and social responsibility in the ’90s leads to a division of labor in the execution of professional design services. There are many architects, designers, and artists whose work is engaged in the production of buildings that address the problems confronting society. The following is an attempt to outline some of the current work being produced by architects and activists who are responding to concrete social, political, and economic changes. I present here only the ground-work for a larger and more comprehensive discussion of the topic at a later time and offer some findings from preliminary research on some architects who are concerned socially and doing something about it.

The notion of social responsibility and architecture has been present throughout twentieth century architectural practice and discourse – from Bruno Taut in the first twenty years of this century, to modernist European architecture that reflected the social changes occurring between the wars, to 1960s radicalism embodied in Robert Venturi’s reading of Las Vegas, to the celebration of formalist architectural solutions through contemporary postmodernism, and of course recent guerrilla art and architecture activities. In this context, does so-called architectural activism stand the test when compared to other direct forms of political, social, or economic activism either expressed artistically or radically? Do architects and the buildings they create even fit this mold? Does architecture have a relationship to direct action activism as expressed in the struggle for women’s, civil, human, or queer rights, environmental activism, homeless advocacy, etc.? Are architects in a position of professional and class conflict vis-a-vis social activism?

Advertisement for Splinter #8, Virtues of Reality

In a recent computer on-line article, book, and dissertation search of the topic “Architecture and political/social activism,” the results were interesting. Out of 11 databases searched, more than 1136 entries were found, of which 35 were dissertations, 200 historical entries, 300 directly architectural related, and the rest resided in arts and humanities databases, making more than half of the entries found in sources other than specifically architectural. Where are the architects writing about the social responsibility of their buildings? If all architects, to a greater of lesser extent, are socially responsive, where is the dialogue?

There are many individuals, collectives, and groups working internationally who are concerned with making socially responsive architecture. The following gives some highlights locally, nationally, and internationally.

ARCHITECTURE AND DIRECT ACTION ACTIVISM

 

The Mad Housers, originally formed in Atlanta, reappropriate unused, abandoned land and erect small houses, called huts. All a prospective hut owner must do to obtain a hut is request one, then help build it. The Mad Housers don’t ask for permission from the system, they don’t get permits, and they have no legal right to land. Like the Mad Housers, a group in New York called Casitas, are taking urban “dead space” and reinventing programs and projects for numerous abandoned sites.

 

Casitas is a group of guerrilla house builders in New York who work with community residents, housing activists, and city and county governments to provide solutions that are generated by the residents themselves. Community members build casitas (houses) on city-owned land as part of gardens leased to community groups by the city or as pioneers appropriating neglected lots. When official approval cannot be given by the state, Casitas continue to occupy these discarded spaces, miraculously transforming sites overnight. Both Casitas and The Mad Housers are reimagining the streets and abandoned spaces of Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and other cities across the U.S. reusing discarded materials to assist in immediate housing solutions.

ARCHITECTURE AND INFORMATION ACTIVISM

“Zine culture” has now invaded the world of architecture publishing and not too soon. Zine’s, the independent magazine revolution, is being championed on the architecture front by a group in Toronto who call themselves “Splinter.” The zine founded in 1988 also called Splinter has provided a forum for architects, urban theorists, artists, and students who do not see architecture and urban planning interventions living up to the political and social standards they feel are necessary to confront the issues challenging society and the architect’s role in providing built solutions. Splinter has been effective in Canada and parts of the United States, to change local and regional planning decisions along the lines of housing, public art, public buildings, and planning policy. They have effectively helped sympathetic governmental officials and community groups to engage in dialogue around specific projects, while at the same time lobbying for their own brand of urban solutions and architectural expressions.

The alternative architectural publishing world does not stop with the printed page. The information revolution has found two computer on-line organizations providing information for urban social scientists, architects, and activists on a host of social, political, and related architectural topics. The two not-for-profit networks, Hands Net and Community Link, provide networking information and communication services for community organizations related to housing advocacy, urban planning policy issues, housing and legal rights issues, in addition to providing access to congressional forums and educational databases. Housing advocacy information and direct action housing activism have been facilitated by Community Link for the past twenty-five years.

LOCAL EFFORTS

A number of socially responsive urban planning and architectural collaborative projects have recently emerged in Southern California. Michael Dear, social scientist and Professor at the University of Southern California, has developed a working-homeless encampment just west of downtown. Collaborating with city officials, the group of professors, students, and community residents has been effective in providing temporary housing for the homeless, while assisting in building an interdependent community.

“Adobe LA”, a collective of four architects and two artist, are working on a series of interventions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) as part of “Urban Revisions: Current Projects for the Public Realm” examining the Latino community’s relationship to “negative spaces” in the city. In addition, Adobe LA is producing a video of the social mapping of cities. The group is also working in a collaborative installation with Mike Davis at the Wexner Center in Ohio that explores the point where cultures collide in the urban landscape.

The Design Professionals’ Coalition (DPC), formed after the civil unrest in April 1992, has dedicated itself to providing volunteer design assistance to neglected communities in Los Angeles. The DPC assists community groups and neighborhoods in land use planning, conducting design and planning charrettes, advising community organizers on planning and policy issues and is a conduit of information exchange with other community groups on architectural and design issues. Outreach programs include working with local residents and high school students to understand more about their built environment while encouraging design solutions that are community inspired. The DPC has quickly come to fill a void in Los Angeles with the interface between governmental, commercial, and community interests.

Glare & the Antic Architecture Cinema, Splinter #4

For link to Excerpt text, click here.

Muschamp concludes his article pitting practice (in a professional sense) against the generation of architectural forms. I believe that a diversity of practice (in every sense) will produce new types of architectural forms while reinventing architectural process. The aformentioned groups reflect a shift from this perspective in the conceptualization, construction, and production of architecture and urban interventions. Splinter editors Ken Hayes and Barry Isenor have called on architects to be socially responsive through the works they make while at the same time pushing the limits of design, theory, and social consciousness. Splinter believes architecture must act like a rupture to be effective, or in the words of Splinter’s manifesto, “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” More splinters, please.

Notes

Gunderloy, Mike and Cari Goldberg Janice. The World of Zines: A Guide to the Independent Magazine Revolution. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1992.

Hayes, Ken and Barry Isenor, eds. “Glare + the Antic Architecture Cinema,” Splinter, super zine #4, Summer 1991.

Hemmings, David. “Mad Housing: Protesting Homelessness Productively,” Art Papers, Sept/Oct 1992, pp 23-26.

Muschamp, Herbert. “Architecture As Social Action, and Vice Versa,” New York Times.

Feb 27, 1994, pg H40.

Whyte, lain Boyd. Bruno Taut and the Architecture of Activism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

 

David Jensen is an architect/media maker and curently works for the Getty Center for History of the Arts and the Humanities.

Back to May 1994 Newsletter: Los Angeles Urbanism