Design Activism: Architects need to be a-holes and it’s time to stop being nice.

Architects need to be a-holes, and it’s time to stop being nice. We need to be more like sea urchins: prickly.

A few things this week have made me think that the lack of advocacy skills amongst architects is really putting our domain of knowledge, agency and economic sustainability at risk. But there are more ominous and insidious signs about the state of architecture in a way these signs may seem subtle, but they point to a continuing malaise that architects should try and reverse.

Firstly, there is the drama over the departure of the CEO of the AIA; and it seems to me that the AIA is caught between wanting to advocate for architecture and wanting to provide its members with actual services. Does the AIA actually effectively lobby government?

Secondly, and seemingly unrelated, is the move by the banks and the Housing Industry Association to cut architects out of the mix when it comes to building contracts. Warwick Mihaly of Architeam writing at the ACA about this here.

Thirdly, of course, there was the win for the anti-Apple people, many of whom are architects, regarding Federation Square and its Heritage protection. Of course, Heritage “protection” in my neo-liberal city can often mean very little, and I wondered if wins like this actually mean anything. Perhaps not if the 19thC as well as the mid 20th C city has been, and continues to be lost. Architects do not have the organisational and industry infrastructure in place to effectively advocate on a range of issues.

Meanwhile, the chosen few, those architects who manage to win the golden casket lottery of fame, tell us that all we have to do is say to our clients how well-meaning we are and that we are dedicated to “Authenticity, Generosity, Civicness and Beauty”, and everything will be ok. Niceness is too often a mask for the social systems that imprison architects. For me, this is a bit like taking a Bex or a Panadol, or smoking a bong-pipe when your house is burning down.

Sure, I am yet to go down to this year’s pavilion and check it out. But, I am sure it will be better than last year’s Pavilion (strange that REM had such a real disconnect with theory when he spoke about it). But again, I think we are smoking the crack-pipe of architectural delusions if we think M Pavilion, represents some kind of “optimism” about architecture in our city. Nice plans and beautiful diagrams aren’t necessarily going to be what saves us. The developers and the bag-men will keep eating architects for breakfast. More intense engagement with urban politics, advocacy and a return to critical discussion rather than nostalgia for “foundation stories” of the old student days or bland boosterism.

Design Activism. 

This last week or so we have been teaching the third iteration of Design Activism. The central tenet of the subject is to teach architecture student’s show to be annoying a-holes even if that means understanding civil disobedience. This year I taught the subject with the wonderful Simona Castricum;  She is a gifted teacher, and it was great to teach with a real activist.

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 numerous instances in class, and the students themselves bought in examples to begin to understand the strategies and governing principles which guide activist campaigns. We talked a lot about Trump–and who doesn’t talk about Trump this days-because Trump commands the air-waves and social media. It might be a shocking thing to say, but Trump’s use of social media is something we could all learn from.

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 year in the subject we focused on Federation Square (as a kind of contested brand space) and how it might be used in different campaigns. This time around our guests included:

  • Peter Hogg who discussed inner-city urban planning activism in Melbourne.
  • Cathy Alexander a journalist and expert on the Australian media and climate change.
  • Professor Donald Bates.
  • Tania Davidge  from the Our City Our Square.
  • Dr. Christine Phillips from RMIT and OpenHAUS
  • Ammon Beyerle of Here Studio
  • Studio ON-OFF collective in Berlin

I would argue that only through engagement with politics, intersectionality, real urban life and indeed civil disobedience will architects start to regain ground. The clips from the course presented here has not necessarily been aestheticised or given the cool graphics makeover, but it does at least point to what architects should be doing more of. We are crippling ourselves with niceness and we need to free the cucumber.