Design Activism and the Economy of Distraction: Do we need another pavilion?

Pavilions and urban pop ups are everywhere in the architecture cult. That’s great I suppose. I recently visited the Serpentine Pavilion’s 2017 summer pavilion designed by Francis Kere. Last year the Serpentine had the big man of  Danish architecture Bjarkey. Rem (or is it REM) is doing our latest M Pavilion in my city and I am polite enough to say that I am looking forward to seeing it.

So, it seems that as architects we all love the pavilion popsicles and these days these things are built and then the images, associated lectures, talks and events are distributed out through traditional media and digital media channels. Instagram and our digital feeds are full of this stuff. Pavilions are machines for creating digital content. Within the digital economy each pavilion seems to have a media half-life. But perhaps we can ask are these pavilions simply distractions in an economy where everyone is seeking to grab our attention for a few milliseconds? Are these things really architecture?

With the rise of Trump, and the celebritization of politics, there has been a renewed emphasis on researching the relationship between technology and politics. As some have noted we are in a different kind of economy now. This new economy is primarily focused on distracting our attention. Its kind of fun to think about data analytics and all the wonderful things that architects and urbanists might do with that data. But, perhaps the real question we should be asking as architects is: how does technology translate to the politics of architecture and how does it shape those politics? This is a critical issue that architects need to face and understand. To some extent, if not totally, the political landscape of architecture has already had the Kardashian makeover treatment.

This last week or so I have been teaching Design Activism an intensive subject 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. It seeks to look at the ways architecture can be linked to politics, spatial practice, critical theory, activism and community development.

This time around in the subject we had a number of invited lecturers who gave the class valuable insights into the mechanics of politics and design activism. Notable amongst our guests in the subject were those who through their own practice propose alternative ways to pursue architecture including:

Dan Doricic from OnOff design collective. A Berlin based network whose experiments examine the contemporary condition in order to question, tune into and to discover new urban realities.

Targol Khoram the president of Architects for Peace a collective seeking sustainable urban development based on social justice, solidarity, respect and peace.

Simona Castricum whose research contributes to our understanding of how architectural typologies are complicit in violence, displacement and erasure through its gendered programs.

Design Activism goes against traditional models of architectural practice normally taught in architecture schools. Media literacy, digital activism, transgressive spatial practices and queer theory is not normally seen as being part of archi-school curriculum. Yet this is what I think we need to teach. This is because the predominant mode of teaching architecture is too often focused on technology, urban techniques and policy “controversies” untethered from the politics of design speculation, aesthetics and lived experience.