Architecture as a function of agency

An(other) exhibition - Agir, by MVRDV and The Why Factory - confesses crises, projects solutions, and takes on the lamp of activism.

by Aastha D.Published on : Jul 11, 2022

When it comes to analogies, architecture has had its generous share, as if its all-pervasiveness deemed it more inexplicable, in need of frameworks that draw parallels to simplify what it is that architecture is and does. The building as machine, the building as organism, as theatre, as fabric, as automobile, as a factory, an outfit, container, vehicle, cuisine… the list expands, unfettering, losing its objective of simplification, and instead, embarking on a tirade of colourful derivatives. In all of these varied explanations, the one strand of commonality that runs through them is that architecture is produced one way, and consumed in another. Disobedience of bodies is a spatial practice. One that raises questions of ownership, time, place, participation, and exclusion. Architecture becomes an ever active site of transforming notions of power, shaping who we are and who we want to be.

The exhibition takes its name from the French verb meaning “act” | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
The exhibition takes its name from the French verb meaning “act” Image: Philippe Sarfati, Courtesy of MVRDV

An activist is a campaigner, a crusader against injustice, a protestor of the status quo, an advocate for a more just alternative; one that is reformative, democratic, and inclusive. Activism is disruption. Alastair Fuad-Luke, author of Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World (2009), says, "Forms of activism are also an attempt to disrupt existing paradigms of shared meaning, values, and purpose to replace them with new ones." What does it then mean for architects to be activists? When submerged in an ever-sinking world of ecological, social, political, and economic crises, how does one of the primary causes of these issues claim a subversion, a solution to them?

The exhibition is hosted in the connected spaces of the ArchiLib Gallery and MVRDV’s Paris office | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
The exhibition is hosted in the connected spaces of the ArchiLib Gallery and MVRDV’s Paris office Image: Philippe Sarfati, Courtesy of MVRDV

"Architecture and urbanism are calls to action" – that is the principle behind Agir, the exhibition by MVRDV and The Why Factory, hosted in the connected spaces of the ArchiLib Gallery and MVRDV's Paris office. The exhibition takes its name from the French verb meaning "act", examining the work of MVRDV and The Why Factory through the lens of activism and revealing its capacity to address a wide variety of environmental and social challenges.

The exhibition examines the work of MVRDV and The Why Factory through the lens of activism | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
The exhibition examines the work of MVRDV and The Why Factory through the lens of activism Image: Juan Jerez, Courtesy of MVRDV

The Why Factory is a global think tank and research institute, based at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment (Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands) and led by professor Winy Maas, co-founder of the architecture and urbanism practice MVRDV, who says, "I wanted something that was independent, so we could research without thinking about the immediate needs of an architecture firm, but which nonetheless could help inform the future. With this exhibition we want to challenge visitors in a way: what kind of future do you want to see?".

The work of The Why Factory, the think-tank established at TU Delft by MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas in 2007, forms a symbiotic relationship with the designs of MVRDV | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
The work of The Why Factory, the think-tank established at TU Delft by MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas in 2007, forms a symbiotic relationship with the designs of MVRDV Image: Juan Jerez, Courtesy of MVRDV

The press release for Agir says—

In a compact space, over fifty projects are presented, positioning the firm’s French work within their broader oeuvre of international projects and research. Each project is accompanied by a punchy slogan – inspired by the language of activism and protest – that captures the essence of the project, highlighting how each design paves the way for a better future.

This isn’t the first time activism in its sociological and political sense has been appropriated by architecture and urban design professionals to project the inherent saviour complex they wear on their sleeves, a fallacy taught in institutes and practised globally like a pretty façade treatment to a dilapidating building.

The exhibition shows each project as a manifesto with the ambition to improve people’s lives | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
The exhibition shows each project as a manifesto with the ambition to improve people’s lives Image: Juan Jerez, Courtesy of MVRDV

Ann Thorpe of Design Activism says, “…design activism should focus on how design processes and its outcomes can affect people’s perceptions and emotions. Not to be simply raising awareness for pressing societal issues without aiming to change people’s behaviours. Accordingly, design activism should, in addition to revealing social and environmental issues, frame viable alternatives to change public opinion and put pressure on those in positions of authority." Should, would, could… words of aspiration, sermon, possibility. Not of action. Projects listed by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford in Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, classify the design and implementation processes of urban projects of social interest and public impact, wherein design professionals are working alongside the community. Similarly, albeit expanded to non-architect and design practices, the database established by Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider, and Jeremy Till in Spatial Agency: Other ways of doing architecture, compiles several projects where design undertakes social and public action towards change.

Over fifty projects are presented, positioning the firm’s French work within their broader oeuvre of international projects and research | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
Over fifty projects are presented, positioning the firm’s French work within their broader oeuvre of international projects and research Image: Juan Jerez, Courtesy of MVRDV

Coming back to Agir, on the exhibition itself—

The projects are printed in chronological order on a 78-meter-long fabric curtain that is tightly folded into the gallery’s small floor plan. This density of information highlights the intensity of action required to tackle the challenges afflicting society, the environment, and the world at large. To magnify this sense of urgency, the exhibited works are accompanied by graphics on the floor that show the condition of the polar ice caps at various moments in the project timeline. At the back of the gallery, the exhibition continues into the ground floor of MVRDV’s own Paris office, which will be open to the public for the duration of the exhibition.

Interior view of the exhibition | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
Interior view of the exhibition Image: Juan Jerez, Courtesy of MVRDV

This exhibition is an extension of The Why Factory’s Future Cities Research Programme, which explores possibilities for the development of future cities by focusing on the production of models and visualisations. The results of this research programme are being presented in a series of books—the Future Cities series— published in association with nai010 Publishers in Rotterdam. One of these books is entitled (W)EGO: DREAM HOMES IN DENSITY, which posits the following questions, followed by a credulous set of utopian imaginations—

The projects are printed in chronological order on a 78-metre-long fabric curtain that is tightly folded into the gallery’s small floorplan | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
The projects are printed in chronological order on a 78-metre-long fabric curtain that is tightly folded into the gallery’s small floorplan Image: Courtesy of MVRDV

'Why are we condemned to live in mass cages, multiplied to towers and slabs? Why should we want to live in profit-driven spaces that reduce our options in life to limited variations of the same basic floor plans? Where is our freedom? How can we improve on this? Can architecture take on our egos and shape a future with more and more responsible options? (w)Ego investigates the freedom of designing and building our dream home in the dense city. (w)Ego explores the potential of desire-based design processes, prioritising residents' wishes in the process of constructing and adapting housing and the city itself. It expands the possibilities of individual fantasy in a dense world by means of negotiation with our neighbours and the environment. In short, freedom and imagination meet responsibility and collaboration.

Exhibition view | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
Exhibition view Image: Juan Jerez, Courtesy of MVRDV

The questions asked above seem a retrospective reframing of contrition. The keen awareness of the complicity in creating inequities is repurposed to sound like the earnest concerns of the design activist. Publications, exhibitions, and installations, certainly democratise conversation. In the process, they also platform ambient noise. Information dissemination through open source platforms—social media, web, e-conferences, panels, manifestos, institutional advocacy—coupled with community participation and mobilisation posits designers as agents for social and environmental change. It is however challenging, to say the least, to confront massive bodies of power and bureaucracy, while simultaneously being stuck in the vicious necessity of commercial work. Autonomy is a rare luxury, one that is earned by championing the very system that one strives to antagonise. To make activism a mode of operation, and not simply a polite form of conversation and advocacy printed on 'organic' cotton tote bags, professionals seek the support of administrative bodies (state, governments, municipalities, etc.) integrating change, ethics, reform and community participation, as a fundamental part of infrastructure strategy. However, it is also in the interstitial spaces, the abandoned land, the vacant building, that movements have thrived, and revolution stirred. These spaces of 'non-architecture' and 'ex-architecture' are spurred into action when they are occupied to foster resistance.

At the back of the gallery, the exhibition continues into the ground floor of MVRDV’s own Paris office, which will open to the public for the duration of the exhibition | Agir | MVRDV |  STIRworld
At the back of the gallery, the exhibition continues into the ground floor of MVRDV’s own Paris office, which will open to the public for the duration of the exhibition Image: Philippe Sarfati, Courtesy of MVRDV

That potent space between the individual and the collective, one of pluralism and equity, is where possibility lies. To work with the tensions between private owners, and the public, on the subject of the future economic and social value of land, is to create a framework through regulation and community discourse. Market and political trends have always determined the development of land, its occupation, displacement, extraction, and evaluation. For that to change, is to seek radical spaces of defiance and contestation, revealing systems of power and then dismantling them. It is only with prioritising social agency as a function of architecture can access to clean air, public space, local food, home, leisure, and health be made available as fundamental human rights, and not the luxuries they are today.

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