by Curt Gambetta
Architects are asked to engage with an increasingly vast inventory of social and political problems. But where does engagement happen, and what does it involve? One need not leave the studio to understand that architecture is already embroiled in any number of worldly problems. The sense that architecture turns on small things is met with a growing consensus that even the smallest, most quotidian aspects of architectural design turn on large-scale systems and pressing ethical dilemmas. The line between system and architecture is itself increasingly blurry, and with it the role and responsibility of the architect. While the architect’s role in engaging large-scale problems is under debate, their political consciousness is remarkably consistent. In the face of climate change, the global debt crisis and myriad other dilemmas, architects seek to make invisible problems sensible. Research is an expression of their political ethos.
A growing number of architects dedicate themselves to research, listening for new idioms about space and design that are normally overlooked or refused in the planning and management of large-scale infrastructural systems. Consider the range of infrastructures that architects now bear witness to: waste, militarization, surveillance, energy, informatics and logistics, to name a few.1 Not only are these infrastructures large and geographically distributed, but they are also steadfast in their secrecy and resistance to public scrutiny. Architects and their collaborators enter into the fray in order to interpret the inner workings of a system for a wider audience. In the process, they also experiment with their role as observers, trading hats as writers, activists and teachers.
Waste is exemplary of the conditions within which their research now operates. It is a world whose mechanisms are intentionally shrouded from view, and is popularly associated with histories of pollution and subsequent political struggles over landfills, incinerators and toxic dumps. Its work and workers remain undervalued and invisible to the majority of society. At the same time, waste is under fresh scrutiny in design. Research about its spaces and systems seeks to make legible those things that society refuses to see. New architectural works follow suit, integrating visible aesthetics, visitors centers and other forms of public engagement into an architecture that until recently resisted engagement of any kind. The design of research and the design of new facilities coalesce around a shared ideology of bringing the consequences of waste-making into greater visibility.
Drawing on the example of waste and its spaces, I imagine the architect in the recycling facility and other infrastructural spaces as a provisional figure trying to make sense of his or her role in large scale, politically charged problems. When an architect sets foot in a recycling facility or landfill, he or she enters into conversation with protagonists of various stripes—not only clients, but also workers, management professionals, community groups, engineers and activists. Much of the insight and critical awareness of their counterparts in other fields remains strikingly absent from a great deal of design research about waste and other large-scale systems. All too often, architectural research creates a division of labor between the insights of the observer and those of the observed. The design problems that ensue are familiar: earnest efforts to make the invisible visible overemphasize the transgressive character of an outsider looking in, at the cost of understanding how insiders already look inward and around their environment. With the help of anthropological theory and writing, I explore other ways for research to be involved in its sites. What roles might the architect assume alongside those that they research and design for?
Please see the ARPA website for the full text.