Back in January, Yale Architecture professor Keller Easterling penned an article for The Double Negative titled “On Political Temperament,” which became the subject of heated conversation about the role of architecture theory in discussions of politics. In response, Marianela D’Aprile wrote “Not Everything is ‘Architecture’” for Common Edge. Our editors Michael Nicholas and Kevin Rogan spoke with Marianela for episode 16 of Failed Architecture Breezeblocks, about Easterling’s new book Medium Design, the role of architects as workers in the class struggle, and the politics of the architecture profession at large.
You can listen to the podcast here. You can also subscribe or listen to Breezeblocks on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts / Soundcloud, and all other podcast apps. The following text is a transcript of the interview, some parts of which have been edited to improve clarity.
Michael Nicholas: So Marienela, your article was formally a response to the Easterling article, but I think it was really about something a little more wide-reaching. Do you have any insight as to why the conversation about the relationship between architecture and politics resonated as much as it did?
Marianela D’Aprile: There is a way in which architects are taught to engage with the world which is primarily through their work and through their discipline, and I think that there is a growing sense among people in design and architecture that this is just insufficient, but not exactly a sense about exactly why it’s insufficient and what the alternatives are. So, I basically saw the hubbub around Easterling’s piece as an opening to talk about the fact that there is a hunger for architects to engage with the moment, and offer a way to think about this in a way that is not just: “how do we architect our way out of a situation or into a situation?.” And I think it was resonant, firstly, because people had been paying a lot of attention to Easterling’s piece already: that one clip from it was making the rounds on Twitter, people were defending her, people were attacking her, etc, etc. So people were already paying attention, and I knew that whatever I wrote, people were going to pay attention to. And secondly, it was resonant because I didn’t try to do a point-by-point rebuttal of her argument, I tried to identify what I thought her argument was a symptom of, and provide some alternatives.
MN: Well, not to do a point-by-point rebuttal, I do want to read a short clip from that article. And maybe we can talk a little bit about this type of writing, maybe what it means. So this is from Easterling: “Taking a political stance usually means taking a position on a left-right spectrum that gauges allegiance to a political philosophy or political party. But what if political stances were also placed on a spectrum that gauged their temperament – the degree of violence they induced? A political stance, whatever its content or philosophy can result in authoritarian concentrations of power. Any political stance can exacerbate tense and competitive binaries. The content of these left-right philosophies perhaps tells us very little. And maybe the entire left-right apparatus is a vestige of the modern Enlightenment mind – a set of philosophies and habits cobbled together to replace the certainty of a god but maintaining a quest for ideational monotheism and a Manichean binary struggle between oppositions…” Sorry, it’s tough to even get through this, because it is kind of silly too…
MD: I mean, to say that the content doesn’t tell us much… I’m sorry, what!?
MN: But I think there’s something to be said here: what purpose does this kind of writing serve?
MD: As I said, I do think that there is a certain pressure to engage with the political moment and a dearth of intra-disciplinary options to do that. And this is an attempt to stake a position in the moment, that is both edgy-seeming, but also ultimately status quo. To say that the content of left-right tells us nothing is just completely ahistorical. I also think that to talk about violence, as though any instance of violence is equal to any other instance of violence is, once more, ahistorical. I was trying to remember earlier if she makes explicit reference to Black Lives Matter or not, but I think even if she doesn’t, that’s the subtext. This was an uprising in response to the murder of a man by the police, which is, as I say in the piece that I wrote, state-sanctioned violence. To equate an uprising against that, an uprising that is also in many ways against centuries of violence committed against black people specifically in this country, in the service of upholding capitalism, I think it’s just completely ahistorical. There’s one side that has the power to carry out violence and that is in fact their mandate, that is their job, to carry out violence. And then there’s one side who’s trying to save their goddamn lives! So again, I think it’s ahistorical. It’s also obfuscation. I mean, this is in fact the clearest paragraph in the whole piece, because I think it’s before the part about bugs and sugar and whatever. And this obfuscation is a purposeful way to smuggle in a philosophy that tries to look or act transgressive but at the end of the day is about upholding the status quo through this parallel insistence that we are actually just thinking about things in the wrong way.
MN: Kevin, you’re the only one of the three of us who’s read Medium Design. Was Easterling’s article just a bad representation of her political philosophy? Is this something that’s explored further in the book?
Kevin Rogan: I cannot overstate how much this piece in Double Negative “On Political Temperament” actually pulls back from the heights of the book. I think Easterling may be doing herself a massive favour by keeping it short. Because in the book, again, there’s no explicit reference to the political, and I think part of how she pulls that off is by constantly referring to the political. But, it’s in this very strange way, which is, as you said Marianela, always in terms of “superbugs”; her favourite phrase is “binaries and loops”. So basically, the political for her is strictly ideological, and it’s very strange because that sort of standpoint gets rid of the actions of states and of institutional power in general. And by doing that, that violence that you mentioned and brought to the fore does not exist because there’s no actor to perpetrate it; you can’t have a class war if there is nothing on one side. And the funny thing is she removes the side that’s in power. So what that also does is it backs her into extremely funny and just really fucking depressing vignettes where she backdates medium design and claims that Rosa Parks is a medium designer. It’s unbelievably offensive. And I really can’t overstate the degree to which it is. So I’m just gonna read a really quick thing, just a tiny little blurb: “while it took just as much courage, Parks activated an undeclared urban disposition, and she shifted this potential in the spatio-political matrix to break the loop without intensifying a dangerous binary”. So in Easterling-speak, the binary in question is centuries of racist state violence versus a few 1000 local civil rights protesters, and Parks’ major contribution is to not actually respond to that pre-existing violence, because in the Easterling-verse, that violence does not exist. And that’s just one example. Just really quickly, some of the other good examples of medium designers are UN-Habitat, people that make autonomous vehicles, stuff like that. You’ve really got to see it to believe it.
MD: So what I would like to know, is, why is it worthwhile to develop this theory?
KR: Great question, because the blind spot to power also has the very, very convenient advantage that she can say stuff like, “the designer has to be the parent in the room” or “the designer is the person playing pool, it’s the person who’s trying to train their dog, blah, blah, blah”. But what is never addressed is the fact that a) designers don’t actually occupy that place, if we expand these metaphors to a social level; and b) if they did, they’d have to be at the head of either states or massive global organisations like UN-Habitat. But it just never comes up. And so it’s just a fable. Funnily enough, even though she talks shit about the Enlightenment all the time, she returns exactly to the very first ideas of the Enlightenment, Kant and the French sociologists, who say that we need a society run by engineers. Except, for her, it’s a society run by medium designers, she’s just too wishy-washy to say it explicitly.
MD: Kevin, as you were talking just now, what I started thinking about was, and I say this in the piece too, that I don’t think Easterling is fundamentally interested in understanding how the world works, as much as she is interested in projection of some theory onto the world. For what purpose, as I asked before, it is actually unclear to me, what the purpose is. I would love to know, from her, what she thinks this work is doing. The design of architecture is literally, physically and metaphorically a projection. And, if you go to architecture school, I was trained as an architect, that’s how you learn to do things: you learn to project from a vision that you might have, and also you learn that, in order to get there, you can borrow things, you can splice things together, you can collage, you can make all kinds of references, anything goes in design school, and often in actual design practice. And then so that mode of working gets grafted on to an engagement with theory or with politics or with history. But it just doesn’t work, because the facts of history are not rearrangeable (and it may be that Easterling would disagree with this).
KR: Oh, funnily enough, if I may, just really quick, she refers to historians as a discipline, playing chess with their pet concepts. So she would actually say, I think precisely that history is essentially meaningless.
MN: So I guess one motif that reoccurs among this type of work (and especially in Easterling based on what, Kevin, you’ve said about Medium Design) is a general scepticism towards or even outright dismissal of movement politics. And the practice of architecture is typically conceived as a solitary task, as you said, it rewards the novelty of projects, often over their social value. So are architecture theory and architecture practice incompatible with movement politics and collective action? Or is there a possibility of actually engaging in politics in a meaningful way?
MD: There is a role that theorists of anything have to play in the world. To my mind, the role is to clarify the stakes of any given situation. And I think, when we are talking about architecture, I think what gets sort of tricky for a lot of people who are really mired in the discipline is that the stakes that you are taught to understand as an architect are almost exclusively surrounding your own ability to practice in the world, and to project into the world. And I think that runs directly counter to the larger historical stakes that exist any time people rise up against a particular system. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of chafing against capitalism, and I think the stakes there, which are collective liberation, require an acceptance on the part of people who have to sell their labor to survive, that this is indeed the defining characteristic of their lives and that this is, indeed, where their power lies. Again, that runs directly counter to what people are taught to think and believe as architects, which is like: “the defining characteristic of my life is that I am an architect, the thing that gives me power is that I can make things in the world, and that is how I affect change”. Those two things are completely incompatible with each other, and I think that we need to eradicate the idea that the way that architects make change in the world is by making buildings or you know, in the case of Easterling and others, by thinking about how buildings or architecture or design work in the world and then talking about it. The project that I’m invested in is a project in which architects and other workers, all workers, recognize that their power lies in withholding their labor, and organising in order to be able to carry that withholding of labor as a source of power. There is plenty to be won in terms of winning architects to this particular way of thinking about themselves. Organisations like the Architecture Lobby have been doing that now for years fairly successfully.
KR: In your wider critique about the way an architect approaches the world, I think you’re also 100% correct. And, and I think this is actually Easterling’s big problem, where she can describe things as happening automatically, or describe things evening out and, describe things as an ecology or whatever. Ecology for architects, the creation of an architectural object, no matter how small, no matter whether it’s a stupid fucking park bench, requires production, requires labor, that does not enter into the architect’s consideration unless it fucks up and fails. So if lead times are too long, then the architect cares about labor. But if they aren’t, then architects don’t give a shit. And they can’t be made to either. And within that, there’s already a hierarchy where the architect implicitly views themselves above anyone who actually builds anything that springs from their demiurgic brain.
MD: Often architects confuse proximity to power with power, both historically and in retrospect. Architecture takes a huge amount of capital to pull off. So already we’re talking about a discipline, an act, or an intervention in the world, whatever, that is inherently and necessarily bound up with, and servile to, existing power structures in the world. Of course, making a community centre is fantastic. Yes, we should have beautiful community centres, love it! Is that how we’re going to change the rampant injustice and inequity in our world? Absolutely not. The only way we’re going to change that is through class struggle, which I say in the piece. But my favourite thing that I wrote in the piece is that Easterling can get away with not making sense because who cares? Who cares!? Is there a role for architects and designers? Absolutely. As workers. Yes. 100%. Is there a role for them in rethinking our current political paradigm, through architecture theory? No. What I want architecture theorists or designers to do is to make me excited and make me dream about the world that we could have, if we were unalienated, if capitalism didn’t exist, and if the buildings that went up in the world were actually for human need, and for beauty and not for the profit of developers.