Action in the age of neoliberal pluralism: an overview of Bracket’s latest edition

In its fourth almanac on Architecture, Environment and Digital Culture, bracket explores the complex relationship between spatial design, the public(s) and the action(s) it contains.

by Aastha D.Published on : Aug 11, 2021

Ideas of leadership, agency and stakeholdership are continuously redefined in a world subjected to multiple crises—social, political, planetary, digital, technocratic—each of them urgent, severe and in need of action. The role of design, the designer and the public(s), and the complexities that arise from their overlaps (or the lack thereof) are the sites of examination in almanac 4 of [bracket]. [bracket] is a collaboration of Archinect and InfraNet Lab, and is composed of a collection of diverse editors and an open-source contributing membership. [bracket] is an annual publication documenting issues overlooked yet central to our cultural milieu that have evolved out of the new disciplinary territory at the intersection of architecture, environment and, now, digital culture.

Reflections on Action / CounterAction. Voronezh Sea revitalisation, Ecosistema Urbano, Voronezh, Russia (2014). Ecological reconfiguration and water-quality improvement of the reservoir. Plan CHA, Ecosistema Urbano, Asunción, Paraguay (2014). Masterplan of the historic downtown of Asunción discussed during a participatory meeting with citizens. Dreamhamar, Ecosistema Urbano, Hamar, Norway (2011). Public event during the participatory process for collectively reimagining the Stortorget Square | Applied Research + Design Publishing (ar+d) | STIRworld
Reflections on Action / CounterAction. Voronezh Sea revitalisation, Ecosistema Urbano, Voronezh, Russia (2014). Ecological reconfiguration and water-quality improvement of the reservoir. Plan CHA, Ecosistema Urbano, Asunción, Paraguay (2014). Masterplan of the historic downtown of Asunción discussed during a participatory meeting with citizens. Dreamhamar, Ecosistema Urbano, Hamar, Norway (2011). Public event during the participatory process for collectively reimagining the Stortorget Square. Image: Courtesy of Ecosistema Urbano

Bracket [Takes Action] contains over 28 essays and 15 design projects that are structured into six sub-themes: ReAction, CounterAction, InterAction, FAction, InAction, and RetroAction. These themes transgress a diverse set of issues, methodologies, scales, scope and conflicts and posit a reimagining of human life. The intent of the fourth almanac of Bracket is to unpack the contemporary possibility of action through design. With the contention that a democracy in deficit cannot be repaired without a deeper investigation in how actions can be designed, accommodated for, and encouraged. Equally, this is a call to action, for greater accountability and a provocation of spatial practice's potential to facilitate alternatives to how we live together. Neeraj Bhatia and Mason White, the editors, say, “The theme emerged through an increasing sense of dissatisfaction in the design world in regards to how design might participate more directly in politics, particularly as governmental and corporate structures from above felt (and continue to feel) more distant.”

ReAction Cover of FAS, Issue 03, which acted through love and Cover of FAS, Issue 04, which called for a union of architects.  |Applied Research + Design Publishing (ar+d) |Foreign Architects Switzerland (FAS)| STIRworld
ReAction | Cover of Foreign Architects Switzerland (FAS) Issue 03, which acted through love and Cover of FAS, Issue 04, which called for a union of architects Image: Courtesy of Foreign Architects Switzerland (FAS)

The brief for this issue was anchored in the sustained relevance of Hannah Arendt’s 1958 treatise, The Human Condition, which cites “action” as one of the three tenants, along with labour and work, of the vita activa (active life). Arendt’s pluralism necessitates the democratisation of the individual and the collective, and regimagines hierarchies, communication channels, authorship and social practices. In their opening Editorial note entitled Call to Action, Bhatia and White identify the fractures in an increasingly neoliberal world that is simultaneously undergoing a ‘democractic deficit’ (when an open society feels a collective sense of powerlessness and hopelessness in their ability to shift political systems, Noam Chomsky), while also demonstrating collective forms of action. Traditional forms like protests and marches coexist with action using digital tools like social media and GPS, both impactful and powerful in their imagery of collectivism, Arendt’s ‘space of appearance’.

ReAction: People Problems, Scale figures for Architectural representation |Applied Research + Design Publishing (ar+d) | STIRworld
ReAction: People Problems, Scale figures for Architectural representation Image: Scale figures available from www.skalgubbar.se. and www.nonscandinavia.com.

White unpacks the connotations and implications of the term ‘public’ when used by architects and urbanists in his essay People Problems: Empowering forms of Assembly. Questioning the architect’s self-assigned authority on human behaviour in response to spaces, White sheds light on the frailties that lie in architectural representation of human interaction with spaces; what and who is included and excluded (reinforcing sexist, racist, ableist and colonial tendencies), the obedient forms of assembly, an implication of control and predictability of people’s behaviours, an overestimation of the architect’s ability to gauge human needs of spaces, and a general lack of room for unpredictability, disobedience and agency of the public. These disempowering notions of the public are challenged by modern Italian architect, Giancarlo De Carlo’s Forms of Assembly where people get prioritised in photographs, their ‘misuse, disobedience and boundless free will’ creating potential for a project’s social argument by confronting the architect’s infantilising of users/clients/occupants/participants/people. 

Aastha D. (AD): Mason, from your essay People Problems, can you elaborate on the matrix of spatial obedience/disobedience, assembly, 'free-action', that is constantly reconfigured as it moves with human behaviour? How does one begin to truly confront and decolonise architectural representation, and what does people's participation in the process entail?

Mason White (MW): Recognising the profound people problem embedded within architecture is an important start. Suppression of citizens as spatial agents and the bias of spatial expertise as the domain of architects, over the past century, has produced a more self-serving practice. If architects recognise citizens as spatial practitioners, the bandwidth for agency and process can thicken, such as co-design and other participatory processes. This can foster new forms and formats for architecture. Disciplinary people-problems include lack of participation and inclusion, and body politics and public action as citizen expressions of spatial critique. It also relates to architecture’s tendency to see obedience and predictability as design successes. Decolonising design begins with process, inclusion, and the re-invention of hierarchies. Increased participation can be messy, as the projects in the essay demonstrates, but it can produce spaces that are already lived in and active.

InterAction: Within Generic Archetypes; Photomontage of “Glorious Victory” (Diego Rivera, 1954; photo: Secretariat of the Presidency, Republic of Guatemala) and housing units at Lafayette Park, Detroit (Ludwig Hilberseimer and Mies van der Rohe, 1956). Starting from architecture, Lafayette Park proposed a crossed subsidy model with market apartments and housing cooperatives.  |Applied Research + Design Publishing (ar+d) | STIRworld
InterAction: Within Generic Archetypes. Photomontage of “Glorious Victory” (Diego Rivera, 1954; photo: Secretariat of the Presidency, Republic of Guatemala) and housing units at Lafayette Park, Detroit (Ludwig Hilberseimer and Mies van der Rohe, 1956). Starting from architecture, Lafayette Park proposed a crossed subsidy model with market apartments and housing cooperatives Image: Courtesy of Acta by Roque Dalton

AD: Ocularcentrism in the attention economy has rendered complex meanings to the archive; imagery as tools of persuasion, representation, interpretation and manipulation; and action/activism. How do you see imagery, specifically design and architecture imagery, navigate and disrupt these spaces? What then becomes the action/interaction of the image with the gaze?

Neeraj Bhatia (NB): Instead of images, I would like to consider the role of representation in design. Representation speaks to how we depict ourselves in society, which implicates amongst other things, our politics. A role for representation can be to critique and expose the forces that organise particular forms of urbanism and their associated power relations. Implicitly and explicitly the forces of economics, politics, and culture are responsible for shaping the vast amount of our built environment. Beyond revealing these forces, representation is a powerful tool to highlight the contradictions of the contemporary world to engage and solicit the viewer into these discussions. Representation becomes a device for us to work within this transcalar and multifaceted space that is not easily digested by the attention economy.

InAction: What a body can do; Poster for the Tenement House Department of the City of New York advising that tenement house residents keep their fire escapes free of obstructions |Applied Research + Design Publishing (ar+d) | STIRworld
InAction: What a body can do; Poster for the Tenement House Department of the City of New York advising that tenement house residents keep their fire escapes free of obstructions Image: Courtesy of Federal Art Project, 1936/37

The editorial board for this issue included Pier Vitoria Aureli, Vishaan Chakrabarthi, Belinda Tato, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto. All practitioners and pedagogues reinventing the agency and priorities of the architect. The book, a compilation of essays, open letters, rants, manifestos, speculations, proposals, confrontations, criticisms, neologisms, satire, enquiries and theories, is like a compression of multiple robust calls to action. It serves as an excellent resource for all stakeholders of spatial practices to witness and participate in discourse that spans reimagining domestic spaces, city squares, design activism, imagery and representation, contemporary housing, zones of conflict, body politics, reforming collective memories, precarity, power, resilience and ideas of hope in the face of relentless uncertainty.

FAction: Housing Resistant Forms-of-Life; Islamic Revolution, February 1979. People occupied an unfinished building, waiting for Ayatollah Khomeini |Applied Research + Design Publishing (ar+d) | STIRworld
FAction: Housing Resistant Forms-of-Life; Islamic Revolution, February 1979. People occupied an unfinished building, waiting for Ayatollah Khomeini Image: Alain Dejean; Sygma/Corbis

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