Thursday, December 2, 2010

occupied territories

(Image stolen from)

A local irony of the protests about higher education funding* is that architecture courses are already taught along quasi free-market lines. This is most extreme at the Architectural Association which is, of course, a fee paying, private school. The AA is an inadvertent model for the Browne Report, which is not to knock it out of turn but to point out that versions of the self-financing higher education model proposed by Browne already exist.

Not only that, but the unit based teaching system, pioneered by the AA in the 1970's, and now adopted by most schools of architecture, is itself an example of market forces operating within education. There are many things to recommend the unit system and I'm personally a product of it. But, the unit system explicitly positions the student as a consumer, choosing a product that most suits their interests from an internal market of competing design studios. These studios exist as hermetic tribes operating a fierce rivalry with each other to produce the best work. Unpopular or unsuccessful units risk being unceremoniously dumped at the end of the academic year. 

The theory is that this pluralistic approach promotes diversity and encourages a wide range of study. A more centralised teaching model couldn't hope to cover the broad range of approaches active in current architectural practice, or have the space to invent new ones. Inadvertently though, this approach also marketises the teaching process by defining value through competition and a subtle form of commercial success. In other words, an eminently neo-liberal model.

As a commenter on a previous post here pointed out, the AA has also been the host of some of the most 'radical' architectural discourse of the last thirty years. Bernard Tschumi's speculative writing on the politics of space grew out of the unit he taught there in the 1970's and early '80's, for instance. Note though that the term radical in architecture is a largely hermetic issue, bearing no particular relationship to radical politics.

The Bartlett School of Architecture students who are involved in the current occupation of the University of Central London, have cited Tschumi as an influence. Now, this might strike you as radical chic masquerading as political engagement or, even, totally beside the point. But the activities at UCL (and other occupations around the country) also seem genuinely experimental from a spatial point of view. An initial, seemingly spontaneous, act of occupation has now evolved into a kind of parallel university, one both part of and outside of the host institution. A diverse range of speakers and visitors have become involved in an expanding curriculum organised by the protesting students. These seminars are interspersed by participation in wider protests and marches.

To be clear, this is interesting and important not because it fulfills the vague hopes of previous generations, or even that it might borrow bits of theory from them. It's important primarily as a protest against the Browne Report proposals. But a theory of space and the social and political territories involved in it seems central to any form of organised protest.  I'm not sure if I'm guilty - in the words of E&V's Douglas Murphy - of aestheticising protest here, but after a period when architecture has been utterly conventional in its understanding of space and programme (all those white walled galleries and bland public piazzas), these occupations pose provocative spatial/political questions?

I agree that the recourse to the radical posturings of previous generations may be of little use here. And may also seem beside the point given the larger issues of how education is funded in the UK. The possible eviction of the occupying students over coming days though might reinforce the issue of control and power over space in the most uncompromising and literal way. I also wonder how much the current way that we educate architects encourages a disengagement from the politics of space. This disengagement, it seems to me,  is being confronted in the most positive way by the current occupations.

* No apologies for a third consecutive post on this subject. 


Murphy said...

I know that I'm repeating myself here, but maybe this will help your readers...

I am wholeheartedly behind the occupations. And I'm not trying to deny that a student might get something out of reading Lefebvre (yes), Benjamin (of course!), Perec (sort of), Tschumi (meh) or Fournier (really ???)...

What I AM saying is that a lot of architectural theory, inc. stuff that has come out of the AA, has been a hijacking of groovy radical rhetoric in the service of careers that do not make the slightest attempt to challenge political conditions within the practice of architecture or in spatial culture generally. Even in more quiet times I would advise architecture students to be very wary of the seductions of what Badiou called 'potato fascism'.

Anyway - there are already a lot of excellent theoretical minds involved in the protests - Nina Power and Richard Seymour are both doing their best for example, but the students are really onto something at the level of praxis. The best work at the moment would be for the students to continue their energetic and somewhat spontaneous actions, especially around the 9th. There is a very strong chance that an early humiliation for the coalition will cripple them, a mere 6 months into their non-mandate.

This should be the No.1 goal.

The souixante-huitards lost, after all.

Charles Holland said...

I agree with you about that the architectural avant-garde. In fact, I make that point in the post. And in my previous one come to that.

I'm not sure I understand the rest of your argument though. Are you saying that speculation about space and spatiality always results in bad theory? Or just that right now it's not necessary?

But why is that? Surely the fact that architects don't have a sophisticated language or theory for discussing space in terms of political power and control is PRECISELY the reason why we should be trying to develop one now?

I also think you're making a false distinction between thinking and "spontaneous" or "energetic" action. Thinking can be spontaneous and energetic too, just as action can be predictable and lazy. And what you describe as praxis is surely a combination of both? You seem to be saying that now is not the time for thinking but this strikes me as potentially philistine.

Richard Seymour and Nina Power have written plenty of great stuff about the protests and occupations and I've linked to NP's blog in my recent posts. But what are you saying here? That that's it? No one else need bother trying to think about the current political situation? Is there no more thinking to be done here, especially from people who are from different disciplines?

Finally, is crippling the coalition the "No. 1 goal"? There is a danger here that minor concessions will result in everyone accepting the overall situation. Yes, defeat of the education cuts proposed by Browne is vital, but a minor capitulation of the coalition is not the end game. The occupations are interesting - spatially, politically, socially - because they propose alternative forms of organisation and value to the ones we have at the moment. They are also only beginning to formulate what they want and what their demands are. This suggests a much stronger agenda than resistance to cuts or even the coalition, but the beginnings of something much much better in its place.

I didn't mention 1968.

Finally, I referenced your comments on twitter more as a rebuke to myself than a criticism of you. Perhaps that came across wrong.

Murphy said...

Ok, well, first, I'm just a little upset that I've been experiencing all this pretty vicariously. I haven't even written a post about this situation by myself, for god's sake, what kind of critic am I?

Anyway; considering "Surely the fact that architects don't have a sophisticated language or theory for discussing space in terms of political power and control is PRECISELY the reason why we should be trying to develop one now?"

Perhaps you're right, and perhaps I am being a philistine. What I think that I am trying to put across here is the sense that existing 'radical' arch. theories are more about career progression within a neo-liberal environment. Unpacking this intellectual dissembling is a rigorous and perhaps slow process, one which I would like to think that I am engaged in with my own work. What it isn't is something you can do while running away from a policeman on a horse who wants to smash your head in.

However, I do genuinely think that crippling the coalition is the no.1 goal right now - if they can't put the fees through then they are FUCKED, and won't last another year. If such a blow can be landed upon them this early then it won't be a minor capitulation, it'll be lame duck time, and THEN a new agenda can be developed. People can and do propose alternative forms of organisation all the time, but opportunites like this one aren't common.

On a more theoretical level, perhaps I am being a vulgar Badiouian here - I do think that there might well be an 'event' in progress, and dwelling too much on previous defeats (68, 2000 etc) is only going to muddy the waters, when the 'new' might well be happening before our very eyes. If some kind of a victory can be achieved, then there will be a need for brand new theories to explain how it happened...

AND - I'm deeply suspicious of 'pop-up politics'. Student occupations can only work in connection with other, less glamorous parts of society & models of resistance. Say, for example, a general strike...

Charles Holland said...

Well, obviously I don't think you're being a philistine, it's just that I still don't understand why talking about/discussing the spatial issues at the heart of protest is forbidden!

Yes, it would indeed be hard to think clearly while being chased by a policeman. But one clear thing the occupations are doing is providing exactly that space for reflection, argument and discussion to happen alongside more direct action. As I said in the post, it is the combination of the seminars and the fact of occupation alongside participation in the day of actions etc. - coupled with their increasing media exposure - that is most exciting and, yes, NEW about this.

I am absolutely trying to talk about the here and now. At no time have I glorified 1968, or 2000 come to that. Quite the opposite I would say in the previous post, which may have been the one to get your gander up with its references to Tschumi. I make no apology for that although, looking back, it's not the most sophisticated of posts and I slightly regret it being posted elsewhere - I never intended it as any more than a personal comment. BUT, if you are accusing ME of co-opting student radicalism for my own careerist ends, well, I think that's a little unfair!

Finally, I don't think the coalition are necessarily fucked if the fee issue is aborted although I sincerely hope they won't last another year. But I fail to see why a new agenda can only be formed at some imagined point in the future.

Murphy said...

Charles, no, no! I'm not accusing you of anything! I'm effectively abusing your comment feed to try and work out my own ideas, seeing that I haven't managed to sit down and write my own post. Apologies. I certainly don't think I'm arguing directly against you, and I know you haven't mentioned '68, but many others have, and it's that that I'm trying to understand my own position against.

Considering that I actually I ended up giving a (very poor) talk at the UCL occupation this evening, I have no excuse now!