Summer 2010 | ArteZine

Extra-Territorial Experience: Difference, Global Circuits, Amateurs and the Ethic of Design


In an observation about the city of London – as part of the ‘Urban Age’ initiative, the sociologist, writer and academic Richard Sennett noted that:

We need to better understand how to legitimise certain forms of conflict. We can only assume that we have the ability to resolve conflict, to get rid of conflict as a problem. That is when we assume that, ultimately, the interests of the city can be resolved into one solution that is best for the majority, that cities are not structured by irreparable differences. If that was ever realistic, it has very little to do with the kinds of cities that are coming into being. Our problem, therefore, is how to learn to dwell in constant conflict. How to have a political process which continually expresses differences of class and race, of ethnicity and religion, of different ways of life with unresolved conflicts? We have very few ways of thinking about dwelling in permanent conflict as a positive experience, but unless we start thinking about those ways of dwelling in difference, and about politics as a medium for permanent conflict, not as a resolution for it, I think we create essentially a frozen, static, dead city.[1]

For Sennett, and for other urban theorists, ‘dwelling in difference,’ is constitutional to maintaining an urban vitality and urban texture that is essential to ensuring the life of the city. His quote expresses the desire, cast as a necessity, to embracing ‘conflict’ as part of the political process of the city –and that once understood as integral to the lived experience of the polis, our cities can be experienced as dynamic and alive. Sennett’s notion of ‘difference’ should be read in contradistinction to what Deleuze articulated in the late 1960s with his privileging of ‘difference’ as a philosophical idea over ‘Identity.” For Sennett, difference is identity –or perhaps more accurately, is the grounding of identity.

In the same project, Saskia Sassen, writes:

…we can see, besides the inherited urbanities of the past, an urbanity in the making, arising from the fragments that are located in global circuits –these fragments can be immigrant communities whose households are de facto trans-national, they can be the financial centres which are deeply connected to other such fragments in other cities… London’s possibilities are not intrinsic, they will take work and participation, they will require making.[2]

Sassen’s idea of an urbanity in the making, paired with Sennett’s call for difference, form the central idea of this paper; namely that ideas of difference (and their political impacts) are synchronous with the global circuits and transits that cross through our cities. This is embodied not only in the heterogeneous cultural, religious and demographic make-up of our urban environments, in the (desired) multiplicity of the physical landscape of our landscapes –buildings, infrastructure, interventions– but also in the invisible loops and lines that intersect the somatic actuality of our metropolitan and cosmopolitan lives. These circuits are financial flows, ecological matrices, intellectual propositions, and perhaps, most importantly, the relational morphologies of our interactions with each other. All these are multiple realms; they are dimensional and hyper-dimensional constructs– layered, at once in isolation and multiplicity onto each other.

In his excellent text Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, the great philosopher, Michel Serres, wrote:

My body (I cannot help it) is not plunged into a single specified space. It works in Euclidean Space, but it only works there. It sees in projective space; it touches, caresses, and feels in a topological space; it suffers in another; hears and communicates in a third, and so forth, as far as one wishes to go. My body is not plunged into a single space, but into the difficult intersections of this numerous family, into the set of connections and junctions to be established between these varieties. This intersection, these junctions, always need to be constructed.[3]

Heeding Serres’s injunction that these spaces must be constructed, this paper takes the architectural and urban intervention as a kind of real and conceptual system for the active study and engagement of these notions. Inasmuch as design pedagogy is a delivery system for design theory, the contention of this essay is that pedagogy must actively engage with the provocation of the political and contested; it must, subsequently, make these interventions bind themselves to the necessary domain of an architectural and urban ethic. The title to Markus Miessen and Shumon Basar‘s book offers one of the best descriptions of this particular kind of provocation, Did Someone Say Participate? In the introduction to their text, they note:

[…]in the wake of 9/11 the relationships between space, politics and power have come to the fore in almost all zones of cultural activity. Today, the need to identify and instrumentalize “spatial practices’ becomes relevant due to the unprecedented visibility of what one might call ‘globalization at work’: from Iraq to Nepal, Dubai to Mumbai, a new atlas is being re-drawn for the 21st century… Rather that being yet another publication dealing with the state of contemporary architecture as a crisis of style or shape, this book attempts to dismantle the idea of the ‘architect’ being the one in charge.[4]

Constructing and negotiating the geographies of this spatial discourse must be the province of a diverse group of people. In addition to the architects, theoreticians, planners and artists –the ‘professionals’ if you will– are often foregrounded as being on the frontlines of these investigations. The ‘amateur,’ that is the design student, can, and should, become among this newly reconstituted group from the dismantled exclusivity of the ‘architect.’ Indeed, the usual connotation of the word‘amateur’ suggests nonspecialist and dilletante, a fumbling layman and maladroit greenhorn. This essay adopts the original usage of the term, in lieu of its more modern and accepted observance. The etymology of the word comes from its Latin source amātor understood to mean lover, devoted friend, devotee, or the enthusiastic pursuer of an objective.

The American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey writes:

Experience denotes the planted field, the sowed seeds, the reaped harvest, the changes of night and day, spring and autumn, wet and dry, heat and cold, that are observed, feared, longed for; it also denotes the one who plants and reaps, who works and rejoices, hopes, fears, plans, invokes magic or chemistry to aid him, who is downcast or triumphant. It is “double-barreled” in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in unanalyzed totality.[5]

If the indigenous local is the bearer of experience, in all it’s ‘un-analyzed totality,’ the professional, regardless how expert[6], will remain external to that experience. If the architect is the holder of expertise –which suggests a highly specialized and acquired skillset–, then the student is the ’amateur’. Design and architectural education are largely guided by expertise, and supplemented, occasionally, with experience. Accreditation requirements of schools of architecture –particularly in the United States– focus on student performance and are embodied by thirty-four criteria to be met at levels of either ‘understanding’ or ‘ability.’ Among these thirty-four, one is ‘Non-Western Traditions,’ another is ‘Human Diversity,’ and listed last ‘Ethics and Professional Judgement,’ that has more to do with professional practice as opposed to moral philosophy or Kantian ethics. In pedagogy and conceptualization of curricula, the ideal is a dynamic equilibrium between the connotative and the denotative, between poesis and techne, in a generative heterotopia; a kind of architecturalNataraja­Shiva’s simultaneous dance of creation and destruction.

In his excellent text Built Upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics Alberto Pérez-Goméz sheds light on the importance of (although usually less foregrounded) notions of philia and eros, and the wanting nature of ratio. A more deliberate relating of ethics to love, and consequently, to love what we do not know, as opposed to the idea of ‘expertise’ or the ‘un-analyzed totality’ of experience, should be the unspoken, embedded imperative guiding how we educate the‘amateur’.

For the purposes of engaging the amateur, the education of the architect, must be more than technical prowess, material sensibility, obdurate infatuation with style or shape. It must be guided and informed by amor and amare. Implicit in the very term itself is the notion that the amateur is a devotee of a particular idea or ethic. This ethical imagination, has to be grounded in the creative education of the student as extra-territorial to his/her work, both in structure and content, grounded as well in the local, but, equally important engages the global. It allows him to know the familiar line and have a hand (or mind) in the global circuit. For the amateur to be able to participate implies he/she has to acknowledge difference and distance, in context and space, the proximity and unfamiliarity can become a new strategy for a creative re-imagining of the questions and boundaries of what is considered feasible or practical. The creative imagination of the amateur –as a resolutely less jaded lens to be in the world is one of the greatest skills of someone negotiating the shifting geographies of spatial practice.

The degree of participation available to the student raises an important question about distance to subject and whether or not amateur engagement from 30,000 feet can afford valuable insight. Unreservedly, the response should be yes. Assumptions can be made and be problematic, possibly even dangerous, but when mediated by the expert and the experienced, and the creative lens, as in the work of the art collective, Skulpturenpark Berlin Zentrum, led by the duo Matthias Jud and Christoph Wachter. When guided by an ethic of philia and ratio, the amateur is best poised to become Miessen’s ‘provocateur of conscience.’[7] Choosing the distant in lieu of the local requires a different set of design lenses and strategies. Engagement is a realization that a broad span of geography can be opportunity, not necessarily disadvantage. ‘Not knowing” is reconstituted as an inventive potential, ‘immediacy’ as objectivity,’ ‘certainty’ as serendipity. Remoteness must not be an intellectual excuse for disengagement rather an incentive to engage more rigorously with what we don’t know (and what we know!) in order for participation to be active and engaged, rather than timid forays into the pseudo-ethical and pluto-political.[8]

Miessen elaborates:

With the growing specialisation of the discipline, one can trace an oft-repeated argument: there is specialists for everything – why does one need a non-specialist to approach specific issues that are in fact not covered by their portfolio of expertise? It is precisely the fact that they are not experts by trade that enables them to interact with situations and problems as professional amateurs.[9]

With the contemporary reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, the urban hyperbole of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, the social and cultural milieus of the Maghreb and Hijaz are replete with extra-territorial intersections that, as Serres noted, “always need to be constructed.” There is, therefore, a counterpoint to the immediacy of context and place often privileged in the education of the designer; it is an opportunity on the margins.[10] In this example just cited, the worlds of pan-Arab extra-territorality are constructed at once by the media who broadcast images to the public, and by the extra-temporal situations that govern much of life in the contemporary Middle-East, particularly that of the refugee or the displaced. Serres’ imperative, and resultant engagement of the amateur, offers the opportunity to assemble or forge new imaged possibilities for these liminal spaces.


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