Design Activism: Expanding architecture as advocacy after #Occupy.

This last week or so I have been teaching a new intensive subject just at MSD, the Melbourne School of Design. As a subject Design Activism explores the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the politics of advocacy, activism and protest. The discussions in class linked architectural and urban design to critical theory, activism and community development. We discussed many case studies in class and the students themselves bought in examples in order to begin to understand the strategies and governing principles which guide activist campaigns.

The case studies included perspectives from both international and local contexts, as well as from the virtual world.

One of the most exciting aspects of the subject was that it bought together various activists, academics and practitioners involved in the interfaces between alternative architecture, protest and community organisations. This time around our guests included:

Bev Polzin and Dr. Wendy Salter of the AVP movement.  Who discussed non violent protest and alternatives to violence.

Peter Hogg  who discussed inner city urban planning activism in Melboirne.

Cathy Alexander who sketched out the mechanics and dynamics of the Australian media.

Lorel Thomas National Convenor of Safeground who discussed how to best lobby politicians.

Gary Muratore of Burger Off. Who discussed one of Australia’s most succsefu

Dave Phillips of Mccann who graciously explained the inner workings of advertising campaigns and the advertising industry.

Leandro Caputto of TOMA. A collaborative group of architects working in Santiago Chile recently represented at the 2016 Chicago architecture biennale.

and Derrick Jensen of the Deep Green Resistance movement. Derrick shared his own journey with students explaining his views on militancy.

Mirjana Ristic now of TU Berlin who demonstrated how concepts of spatial urbanism can be used to map conflict.

Design Activism goes against traditional models of architectural practice normally taught in architecture schools. There are usually two views of architecture as a career. In the first view architects graduate and then find a internship or find a reasonable firm to work in. Slowly but surely we gain experience and get to the decision point of staying in someone one else firm or starting practice yourself. Both of these career pathways are based on the traditional model of practice. In other words, the model in which architects are paid by clients to design and deliver buildings. As time has gone on this model has come under increasing pressure, from other competitors who claim to do what architects do, and the traditional model of practice, with all of its uncertainties and has been called into question as a viable and satisfying career path. Often the architects who subscribe to the traditional model of practice either as employees or owners of firms are confined and limited in their ability to act due to issues of patronage, politics and funding.

As a subject Design Activism was designed to explore the ways out of the above traditional nexus and associated conundrums. With the demise of the Occupy movement it is timely for architects to now reflect on architecture’s role as a vehicle for political protest. Thinking about Design Activism, in terms of both theory and practice, is a good vehicle to do this.

Moreover, in recent years, in architecture schools across the globe, community development or “global design” design studios have been all the rage. For many students and architects this has been seen as the prevailing way to make architecture more relevant to global concerns of injustice. These studios usually have a simple formula: Take a group of architecture students to an island or developing country and get them to do stuff. As I found during the studio I ran in Mexico these types of studios raise ethical concerns about the architects relationship in networks of colonialism. Sometimes a FIFO (Fly in Fly out) mentality reigns supreme and perhaps it is not effective. What happens after the architectural experts fly out? How do we as architects decolonise our practices? A recent book by Clare Land based on her thesis begins to suggest how we might begin to do this in relation to indigenous issues. Architects have along way to go.

The Design Activism course allowed the students space to explore and discuss the contradictions of power across the interfaces of urban infrastructure, architecture and the territories of political protest. In future blogs I will discuss and present more of their work. Design Activism is an attempt to expand the domain of architectural design into the realm of advocacy and political activism. Exploring where the interfaces and fault lines are between architecture and the politics of protest is important if architecture is to evolve as a discourse.

Of course, I don’t want to be overly critical of the FIFO studios; not all of them are bad; although I decry the often woeful design aesthetics produced by these studios; however, I do think we need to ask: how, as architects we can be activists? It shouldn’t simply be a matter of taking a trip, or as Derrick Jensen suggests putting a green roof on a building, and then feeling warm and fuzzy because as architects we are thinking that we are doing good. That may not be enough.


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