Where Do Politics, Architecture, and the City Intersect?

For architects, engaging politics seems inevitable.

Courtesy Shanghai Expo

Imagine the bubble architecture students find themselves trapped in while pursuing higher education: long hours cradling a mouse demote food and sleep, much less investigations of non-disciplinary theory. How wonderful, then, that the Roth-Symonds Memorial Lecture Fund supports lectures and small-group meetings to expose Yale School of Architecture students to speakers outside architecture; past lecturers have included sociologist Loic Wacquant, urbanist Saskia Sassen, and media and cultural theorist Thomas Y. Levin. This spring, Neil Smith, distinguished professor of anthropology and geography at CUNY, delivered “Toxic Capitalism: Neoliberalism, City Building and Crisis.”

The Scotsman touched on a lengthy list of topics during his stay at Yale architecture, from tracing the “dead and dominant” neoliberalism through acts of war and economic crisis to articulating the role of the welfare system as a means of attaining social security for a governing body, not the public. The problem, he insisted, is that “the left has been its worst enemy,” and there is no alternative in sight. “You need Marxists for the revolution, and anarchists for the new world,” he half-joked. “Knowing how to revolt precludes you from having the imagination to create the alternative.” Perhaps an easy out for a self-professed Marxist whose recent presence in Rudolph Hall raised more questions than it answered.

Smith’s talk remained in the realm of theory, never pausing to show a precise relationship between the Marxist politic and the built environment, in fact, evading this articulation at every step. So the questions remained: Where, exactly, are the intersections of politics and city making? And what role do architects play, passive or aggressive, in the definition of these interstices?

For architects, engaging politics seems inevitable. Like choosing your next cup of coffee, a seemingly straightforward material selection is infused with questions of origin, sustainability, and labor. The decision to work, or not work, for a client, is similarly nuanced. The 2010 Shanghai World Expo forced architects to ask themselves whether or not to align with their clients’ politics: if the built environment is a reflection of an ethos, and in this case, a propagandist strategy, to what extent can designers separate their contribution from the social positions of which their buildings are a reflection? The architect also stakes a political claim in choosing to build without aligning with a particular agenda, or in choosing to not build at all. If each building, then, is a reflection of the politics of its creation, does the city become simply a compilation of private political acts?

In some ways, Smith’s talk was positioned perfectly to pit Bepene’s lamentations on clumsy bureaucracy against Roche’s subversive tactics.  These recent lectures give rise to the question: Must there be a revolution to dramatically change city-making, or can that change come from a craftier source? While Smith would argue for the former, architects, in engaging politics without directly engaging policy, are positioned to operate within the framework of the latter. Through willful misreadings and sly reinterpretations, architects can reshape city-building from the inside out.

Amrita Raja is a Masters of Architecture student at Yale. She graduated summa cum laude from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2009, with degrees in Interior Design and French. At Virginia Tech, she was awarded the Phi Kappa Phi Medallion and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies Outstanding Senior Prize. Amrita has written for The Roanoke Times and The Washington Post and runs independent blogs on food and design.

Categories: Cities