In response to Lindsay Harkema’s lead essay for this series, “Design and Dissent: Architecture’s Political Agency,” Jordan Hicks raises an important question about the nature of current political projects by commenting on SCHAUM/SHEIH’s “Blow Up the Wall” competition entry to the MoMa PS1 Young Architects Program in New York.
Upon imagining the audience that would hypothetically receive “Blow Up the Wall,” Hicks poses a question that perhaps exposes a political flaw in the project: “Since at least the culture wars of the 1980s, cultural spheres have become increasingly polarized, something that can only be exacerbated by the belligerence of the current administration. The art world is a predominantly liberal domain. As such, will anyone who does not already oppose racism and xenophobia be moved by ‘Blow Up the Wall’?”
The polarization of cultural spheres that Hicks highlights illustrates the flaw in “Blow Up the Wall”: the project fails to achieve a discourse while operating in the closed feedback loop of MoMa New York. Perhaps a deeper source of the problem that decreases the political efficacy of this project, and architecture in general, is how the design community communicates—not just with ideological opposition, but also within itself.
An Issue Within
In the recent University of Toronto lecture “Where is the critical voice in architecture?”, Keller Easterling, Craig Buckley, and Kenneth Frampton discussed a potential issue of communication among architects in contemporary theory and practice that is worth exploring in this conclusion to the IDEAS Series surrounding the political agency of design. The subject of the discussion was today’s lack of debate and critical thinking within schools of architecture noticed by Frampton, author of Modern Architecture: A Critical History and professor at Columbia.
So, should architectural schools begin immersing their students in mock court rooms and improvisation classes? Architectural education is indeed a discipline that requires a highly nuanced level of critical thinking, but where these models of education fall short is that they do not train architects to do what President Obama, and other politicians, despite their faults, are so equipped to do: “to find a common ground and actually move solutions forward” while engaging with ideological opposition. Thus, perhaps a starting point for developing the efficacy of political design is to promote a more dynamic style of education that explicitly teaches architects to engage with societal counterparts and bridge existing divides between cultural spheres. Perhaps it is necessary to push back against a system that promotes the production of “masterpiece” works that in some cases may further reinforce polar forces by replacing it with a paradigm of more engaging studios where tactful improvisation, direct engagement with societal counterparts, and critical responsiveness is most important to the curriculum and resulting design process.
Where Do We Go From Here?
This notion of improvisation in architectural education is not unprecedented. Fantastic experiments that demonstrate the exciting potentials of improvisation versus “masterpiece” works took place at Black Mountain College in North Carolina under the leadership of Anni and Josef Albers, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, and several others.
Eva Díaz, author of “The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College” and a professor of art history at Pratt, has been researching the work that took place at the school for several years. In a 2015 lecture in Berlin, Díaz shared the philosophy of the first director of the College, radical German painter Josef Albers: “There are no masterpieces, there is only the idea of testing, and testing endlessly the possibilities of form.” John Cage, famed American pianist, reinforces a similar definition of the experimental as, “any situation where the outcome is unknown, creating indeterminacy.” 1
Díaz explains further what exactly the students and faculty of Black Mountain College were trying to do with their new approach to “form making” by saying, “You can think of an experiment as transformational because what you’re trying to do is actually change society . . . change the spectator’s ability to understand their relationship to the artwork and the world, and spectatorial participation might mediate this transformation.”2
What is most fascinating about this improvisational approach towards “form making” and “creating indeterminacy” is that the goal of these artists and architects was the ultimate transformation of society, something that they felt could only be achieved by eradicating the current understanding of “masterpiece” and replacing it with a more versatile and elastic approach towards art, music, and architecture.
The conceptual reframing of “masterpiece” that was executed by the likes of Albers, Cage, and Fuller, as a response to the hyper-complexity of our society, may need to be carried out once again by the contemporary design community and its own fundamental interpretation of “political architecture” in order to heighten architecture’s ability to establish a common reality between opposing forces in a post-Trump society.