by STIRworldJan 07, 2023
Having been curiously conferred upon with the status of an artefact and a document, the manifesto, historically speaking, has been a document of unbridled passion and bravado. Its intention—to sway allegiances, to rally, or to beckon the arrival of a new status quo (in architecture or otherwise), and quite radically and spectacularly so. For all practical purposes, the 20th century form of the manifesto owes its literary paternity to Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Today, the manifesto assumes a form that is quite unlike itself—much less radical in tone, some even more abstract than commanding, speculative perhaps—but nonetheless advocating pliability for the increasingly complex living scenarios we find ourselves in today. Minus the pedestal, they seem to be self-aware of not feigning reliance on an all-altering movement, nor an architecture that upends—content to be working with alterations, however radical, to a plethora of the existent. They also seem to be observably limited in geography and even scope, as if nodding to the impracticability of a one-glove-fits-all solution to our current ills. The manifesto of today is barely a manifesto in the classical or modernist sense; it is a call to action that speaks to omnipresent challenges of simply co-existing amid escalating crises, and co-existing in a truer sense – with community – as we continue to redefine collective social bodies.
While manifestos have traditionally relied upon a sentimentality (often angry, pervasive, or dismissive, particularly of its predecessor) to cast their appeal, manifestos today are modelled as appeals themselves, focus less on the individual, irrespective of authorship, and vie for real-time change and on-ground action. Often faced with the question of their implementation, the current manifesto, even as a set of ideals, is intrinsically and invariably embroiled with authorities and bureaucracy. The irony happens to be that the need for radical solutions (and nonsolutions) in response to this mass of challenges couldn’t have been more urgent. That said, both are underpinned by an inherent need to drive change in the current order of things.
As a foil of sorts to that, my understanding of the manifesto, as both a time-worn artefact and a document, has been framed by Rem Koolhaas' statement in the opening of Delirious New York, a book he authored as a retroactive manifesto—stated in his own terminology—on Manhattan. “The fatal weakness of manifestos is their inherent lack of evidence,” he declares, remarking on the genesis of his retroactive manifesto wherein the work preceded the manifesto. The current form of the manifesto—somewhat amorphous, so to say, fluid, and definitively not singular or general—on the other hand, subverts that demand for evidence in a way, pointing to the current circumstance as evidence enough. An argument may also be made for that ‘evidence’, a manifestation if you may, to be in buildings, in exhibits, in national pavilions at Biennales—architecture itself, formal or not, as an unwritten manifesto of sorts, and for commissioning institutions and media to be purveyors of manifest narratives. An afternoon at the Design Museum, in attendance at their annual outing with the London Festival of Architecture for Manifestos: Architecture for a New Generation, made me pensively think about this ecosystem, its interaction with the audience it engages, an authorial agency in the manifesto, common strands in them as rather urbane aspirations, and the manifesto’s progression itself as a lens into architectural and city history as it were.
Designed on a recurring format, the collaborative symposium between LFA and The Design Museum, now in its fifth year, saw a decorated panel of nominators comprising four highly respected architectural professionals and practitioners nominating a young creative professional in architecture each, with a body of work veering towards potentially disruptive; individuals or practices they regarded “as being engaged with and committed to the act of progressive, inclusive placemaking in London." From a poem of empowerment to a visual odyssey, to an entirely textual reading, the manifestos presented tackled diverse issues with nascent pointed focuses, stemming from the nominees’ own work, underpinned by hopes of a more inclusive future for London, with bolder voices at the helm. The four nominees—Dis, a disability-led collective advocating for the value of disabled experience in space and culture; Edit, a feminist design collective working towards challenging gendered biases in the built environment; Poppy Levison, a designer, researcher, and disability activist using her experience as a blind woman to challenge notions of access and politics of spatial design; and Hamza Shaikh, an architect and artist working with exciting new paradigms in AI and architectural drawing to rethink public space—nominated by Jos Boys, Dr. Neal Shasore, Dr. Ruth Lang, and Shahed Saleem, respectively, presented their ideas for a radically reformed London in their manifestos, geared towards essential, palliative change. The presentations were followed by a short panel moderated by STIR’s Samta Nadeem, who raised essential questions and provocations on the curious nature of the manifesto, and how each of the participants responded to it.
A reiterant idea in the manifestos presented, interestingly so, was the use of language as not just a medium of communication, but a tool for resilience and a set anchor calling towards an inherent commonality. As stated, by moving away from the hardened language and mannerisms of erstwhile manifestos, a new paradigm of care was sought to be established. In this light, Ashley McCormick, Senior Curator: Public Programmes at the Design Museum, reflected how “practices of care such as allyship and radical generosity” were central strategies in redefining the Design Museum’s values and practice, “to determine not just what to do, but how to do it." She reiterated the Design Museum’s learning mission to “hold an open space for exploration, discovery and learning which nurtures creativity, radical thinking, empathy and collaboration,” aligning with the manifestos’ language of care. “It’s in this spirit, that we invited contributors to create their own Manifestos, as statements of purpose and scripts for action,” she stated. “In recent years, in the UK, very many party political Manifesto promises have not been delivered. Of 39 key commitments from the Conservatives' 2017 manifesto, only a third had been implemented or were on track to being implemented by November 2019. Perhaps the bluster and broken pledges of government Manifestos, have contributed to the emergence of a kinder, caring and more thoughtful generation. Creating a manifesto can help us to align our choices with what matters most to us, act as a compass to help navigate uncertain times and a reminder of our agency as changemakers,” McCormick further elucidated on the inherent political agency of the manifesto as a document, and how this language of care stems from that.
With a city-specific view on manifestos that doesn’t limit its potential reach, the project seeks to intensify ideas and learnings beyond urban or even national borders. “This project, and the wider Festival, have a primary focus on London and Londoners. However, the Festival is also a platform for dialogues with cities and countries across the world, around issues that are not unique to London,” states Eliza Grosvenor, Head of Programme at the London Festival of Architecture, on the mobility and relevance of the manifestos each year. “Although this event focused heavily on practitioners and their work in London and the UK, I believe there are huge learnings that can be taken beyond the city and questions that can help reframe certain ways of working or thinking about the future of the city,” she continues.
A deeper look at the individual manifestos below lends additional insight and dimension into the voices still missing from current policy-making and city planning, and urban aspirations representative of entire sects of London’s metropolitan, eclectic population. Each of the presentations and manifestos ended with a question, a provocation, to keep the conversation—an essential shift in the bearings of the manifesto—going post the event.
Oppositions, Dis Collective
Presenting their manifesto as a poetry reading—a conscious departure from the perceived staunchness of the manifesto and speaking to a language of collective care—Dis opened with reshaping notions of the titular prefix in their name, ‘dis-‘, as implying something apart from perceived normality and not against it. This charged zone of oppositions is where the practice, co-founded by Jordan Whitewood-Neal and James Zatka-Haas, places itself and uses that opposition as a form of pedagogy and as a tool for agency. For Dis, being in opposition meant “following the words of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha: “Our bodies are not liabilities, they are weapons"." Through the recited poetry, sensitively framed and brimming with volcanic albeit quiet dismay, the collective emphasised on language to describe what may be perceived as the ‘disabled experience’, based on qualities devised by Whitewood-Neal and Zatka-Haas, including weathering, incompleteness, reliability, discomfort, absence, and slowness.
Abolish the Car
Throw out Kerbs
Let the people Sit
Bring back Public Toilets
Practice Care and Maintenance
Scrap Air Con
Embrace Seasonal Living
Stewardship for the People (Let the Life in)
1001 Laundry and Drying Rooms
Abolish the Private Kitchen (Queer the Home)
– From the manifesto by Edit Collective
At once conventional in form—as a compendium of ideals framed in demands—as well as critically caring in the very nature of those demands—for better urban commons and enhanced livability—the manifesto by Edit Collective was perhaps among the most resonant ones presented. Taking a second, peering look at commonplace objects and systems lining our streets and our homes, the ‘demands’ exposed inherent biases and questioned established gender roles in the city’s architecture and infrastructure. Accompanied by seemingly normal visuals of people using public and private spaces, with an uncanny disruption, or through doctored visuals of well-known avenues lending to alternative usages, the manifesto outlined how within existing resources and infrastructure, change – including more space for walking and sitting around for pedestrians, passive design for homes, ridding ourselves of the excessive reliance on mechanical cooling at least, community-oriented, non-gendered kitchens and laundry rooms, adaptive reuse, or quite simply the public toilets that have all but evaded London – was possible and imminent. “What would our city look like if care work was made public and celebrated?”, the collective questions, calling upon the need for shedding gender and class biases.
Another radical approach in presenting a manifesto, Levison veered away from any visual modes of presentation, relying entirely on text and speech to not only offer ideas for multisensory inclusion of experiences and individuals, but to also question inherent biases drilled into our language and mannerisms, including in the Design Museum’s own brief presented to the nominees. In that, Levison was critical of the use of the word ‘vision’ in being perceived as something forward-thinking and of the future, while ‘blind’ may be used to mean ignorant to certain things. In the prelude to her reading of the manifesto, Levison touched upon architecture’s essential bearings, a near obsession, with the visual, reflecting upon her time pursuing architectural education as a blind person.
Her textual manifesto, read nearly as a sermon, doubling up as a provocation, focused on considering differences (and by extension, disabilities) as opportunities rather than constraints, on the use of language and our ability to listen as valid parameters for judging our environments—two factors she essentially considers underdeveloped, especially in the social media age, and finally, on the importance of tactility, the sense she feels is most ignored in our times, fuelled by social-media induced short attention spans, and the pandemic. “Can we, by embracing the disabled lived experience, make a new, more embodied multi-sensory architecture?”, she asks, leaving the audience with a provocation at the close of her presentation.
A New Common / Project RE, Hamza Shaikh
Rethinking Sacred Space For Inclusive & Revitalised Cities
Operating on the intersection of developments in artificial intelligence, art, and shared public and spiritual space and identity, Shaikh’s work deals with both creating and decoding the architectural image. His manifesto, A New Common/ Project RE, tackles UK’s multiculturalism and hybrid new religious identity, and the spaces—for calm, pause, or religious reflection—that new dynamic would birth. Shaikh proposes a shift in the essential community-forming aspects of religious practices, from theocentricity to anthropocentricity, alluding to more metaphysical concepts of meaning and identity now being found in alternative outlets, including one’s work.
Through a series of prompts along similar lines, fused with his own understanding of sacred spaces in cities as seemingly multicultural and diverse as London, Shaikh’s manifesto—an increasingly visual one—presents a series of images that speak to this new religious identity, one that is more widely applicable and unitary in say, younger professionals today than individual religious bodies. In doing so, Shaikh’s visions of a communing of London emerge as lush pockets within known pockets in the city, with a definitive proclivity towards nature, personal and social reflection, non-denominational inclusivity, and a community strengthened by a sense of belonging to history and heritage. “How can we create a city that fulfills our spiritual needs?”, Shaikh reflects at the close of his presentation.
Manifestos: Architecture for a New Generation 2023 was held at the Design Museum on June 24, 2023, in collaboration with the London Festival of Architecture, and with STIR as the official media partner.