Op-Ed: Architects Obsess Over The Goose

SMALL CHANGE

 

Nabeel Hamdi introduces us to the humorous anecdote: “The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from the common. But leaves the greater felon loose who steals the common from the goose.” From The Art of Daily Activism (1992). Reminding architects and designers that they are oftentimes a pawn within a larger game, even contributing the loss of the common. Thus the crime of the designer within the hypothetical global judicial system is not his intention but his innocence, his naivety to the larger scales of forces enacted by the very intelligent beings he hopes to help.

Architects obsess with the goose. Untrained in the ability to see networks of ontological and scalar relationships over a territory that can cause systems – such as Hamdi’s identified World Trade Organisation – to have consequences at marco scale neighbourhoods. The problem for urban designers is not always the intent of an action but the framing of the problem scenario. While we may be equipped with the right toolkit, we may be standing at the wrong operating table – and nothing good can come from performing brain surgery on the lady who has joint issues.

Although the designer is implicated within larger socio-political forces that tidally wrap the bio and noö -sphere we are not devoid of power within it. By mere fact that we sit within larger operations we are granted agency within it. Adam Curtis portrays a satirically framed but catastrophic example in his documentary Bitter Lake when describing American engineer’s building of a dam in Afghanistan in the 1970’s. The dam was intended to provide free power to the local areas but unpredictably caused the water table to rise, resulting in growth of poppies and widespread drug trade in the region. A subsequent series of political events in the Arab world caused Russia and the US to fight for Afghanistan’s favour in the region, and the American engineers who has initially intended productive use of the dam to help locals became locked in a bitter political conflict playing out in the middle east and ultimately contributing the formation of extremist culture by association.

Both Lerner and Hamdi outline the importance of articulating problems when intervening in foreign and unknown regions. Forming new ways of seeing and listening, Hamdi introduces a continued dialogue between planner and an agent with boots on the ground. Planning’s ability to engage larger timeframes of issues can often deter them from the socio-economic and politics of how the urban system currently operate in reality. Thus Hamdi conflates the terms thinking and doing, positing that each informs the other, a relationship that he states planning must bring to the field operative (designer). Designers must be aware of not only the hermeneutics of projecting bias from western perspectives and former experiences onto things but also the typical western critique of storming in head-first. A useful memento for the western designer is the etymology of the word “radical” which finds its root verb in the latin radix, which means root. Thus to be radical is to tackle the root of the problem. In many ways, being extremely radical could be doing something extremely small, precise and even novel.

Although designers are conventionally concerned with the implementation of hardware, over which software can operate, Nabil addresses what Vanstiphout also raises in his article Ditch Urbanism– the formation of “org-ware”. The designer’s plans for social change can come to be through complimentary bottom-up strategies of emergence and more top down infrastructural scaled designed systems. The enactment of org-ware is the designer’s awareness of his role in larger tectonic socio-political forces and taking a stance within it. These decisions of the urban interventionist, as Nabil points out, should be implemented in both the designed and emergent scales.

One of the key factors in the implementation of successful change is the appropriation by local people. If designers can incorporate locals into the design and implementation of a project or system then they can simultaneously teach people of its merit and usefulness while creating a sense of ownership over the thing. While working in the rainforest in 2013 our design teams largest challenge was not what to build and how to do it, but how to get local people on board with the project and carry it forward after we left. Hamdi outlines a similar set of questions is his four keys to successful change; what can you provide, what can it enable, what can be adapted and how can it be sustained. When language barriers are difficult community recruitment is oftentimes the best way to engage locals in securing the longevity of the program. Both Habraken and Lerner reprise the urban metaphor of a body to be autopsied but we must remember that in our surgical room we, and our ‘remedies’ are external forces on the so-called body. The most important factor in the success of any type of remedy or appendage is the bodies’ incorporation of it as opposed to ejecting it and reacting violently to do so.

What designers must learn quickly is to be mindful of their role within larger tectonic forces. In Borneo our team were building a structure, under a loose framework of the Global Diversity Foundation to help local communities have political power against government-imposed dams. However, we later started to reflect on the project and ask whether the dams were really so evil if they were providing power to the local cities at cheaper prices and whether the displacement of a few local tribes would matter in such a larger potential good. The solution when operating in the field for designers is not always apparent and often it is even contrary to initial observations and what one would assume. Nabil Hamdi points out that most of our potential solutions will be found in the ground between moral realism and the reality or relativism as we begin to discover the “realness” of what the problems really are.

1

The noosphere is the sphere of human thought. The word derives from the Greek (nous “mind”) and (sphaira “sphere”), in lexical analogy to “atmosphere” and “biosphere”. It was introduced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 in his Cosmogenesis. Here I use it from Etieene Tuprin’s Architecture in the Anthropocene when describing the pervasiveness of technological apparatus and deep reaching penetration of information

(political/social/data) systems into society

 

Journal Articles:

Lerner, J, “Urban Acupuncture” Washington: Island Press, 2014.

 

Vanstiphout, V. 2014. Ditch Urbanism Revisted. Harvard Design Magazine, n 37, Pg 6-12

 

Books:

Hamdi, N. “Small Change” London: Earthscan, 2004, part 1 and chapters 3, 7 and 10.

 

Hamdi, N. “The Spacemaker’s Guide to Big Change” London: Routledge, 2014, summaries at the end of each part.

 

Habraken, N. J. The Structure of the Ordinary: Form and Control in the Built Environment, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998, 1–8 (Prologue and Introduction).

 

Turpin, E, 2013. Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, 1st ed. Open Humanities Press

 

Documentary:

Adam Curtis, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace 2015, Documentary, British Broadcasting Company, London.

 

© Hayden White