Precarious architectures for precarious times? \ Pedro Bismarck

Precarious architectures
for precarious times?
Pedro Levi Bismarck

People in town made lots of jokes about these tarpaulin covers. To me, it just goes to show how dumb the authorities are. If they want the city to look better, they might as well do some real work instead of putting up these sorry decorations! It’s sad, because of course people would have liked Putin to see the reality of life here and do something about it, especially those who voted for his party.
A local remark about the large tarpaulin prints that covered the dilapidated houses of Suzdal for the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in November 2013.  [1]

Who does not know of Potemkin’s villages, the ones that Catherine’s cunning favorite built in the Ukraine? They were villages of canvas and pasteboard, villages intended to transform a visual desert into a flowering landscape for the eyes of Her Imperial Majesty.
Adolf Loos, Potemkin City

One cannot but recognize the important role that the so call temporary architectures have come to occupy in the map of current architectural production. A success that is usually grounded on two main arguments. First: the idea that those emerging practices are a rupture from the current architectural production system (the star system). This has to do with the fact that these architectures ground their practice in the rejection of one of the most basic Vitruvian principles, the firmitas, i.e., its solid, everlasting condition. Second: these architectures engage a political and social activism, along with a call to new ways of interaction with the city, filling a certain frustration regarding our relation with it and with its processes of governance. But, however fashionable these arguments may be, they are grounded in no more than generic misconceptions. That is, neither these architectures correspond to any operative strategy of questioning architectural production; neither this political/urban activism is in fact real. They are just conceptual apparatus seeking to validate those practices.  And it’s precisely this misappropriation that I would like to debate, placing three questions.

1. The critic illiteracy
First, the total indistinctness that reigns under this classification: temporary architectures. As if it was possible to put together such different practices, with such different strategies and purposes. There is an absolute illiteracy of the critic on this level, which is much more obsessed in the discourse of the generational rupture, of the creative exits from the crisis, than to understand what lies beneath them, what are their motifs and what makes them different. On failing to do this — and promoting practices without any critical discourse that do no more than repeating fashionable commonplace strategies — the critics shoot itself in the foot and in the future of the discipline. Ending up to neutralize the work of the very few indeed interested in problematizing architecture amidst the current crisis.

2. Firmitas interruptas
Now, it’s precisely this absence of a socio-political and architectural critical discourse that leads us to the second question. Indeed, we should see these architectures as being simply the result of a new configuration of the financial capital. As temporary architectures they are, indeed, precarious — precarious architectures, for precarious times —, light structures, low-cost, flexible, perfectly suitable to the new needs of the markets and the urban marketing that has turned the cities into thematic parks. They are the new shape of the financial capital (fluid, rapid, precarious) and not a critic to this politics of capital reconfiguration — with all its unbalances and injustices. These architectures have nothing of rupture or social activism. They will not be for sure architecture’s salvation army. And if they disturb the principle of the firmitas is only to adapt themselves to the new needs of the financial capital.

3. Architectures of enjoyment
This last question has to with the fact that most of this architectures place their strategy in a certain space of the enjoyment, of the ludic, which in some extent is in contradiction with any discourse on political or social emancipation. The slogans that they preach for a cool subversion of the rules of everyday life, the calls to the city as a playground and as a field for new and amusing ways of interaction give us the illusion that we are members of a community, that we are even active and responsible citizens. But they are no more than small toys capturing and amusing our free time. They turn the city into a commodity and us into consumers of any other product and not in political engaged citizens. The paradox of these architectures of enjoyment can be stated in the following way: the more they spread throughout the cities, turning them into cool places and playgrounds, more advances the privatization of public spaces, the violent gentrification processes, the real estate speculation and, finally, more advances the State’s privatization. The more they proclaim that the city is ours, more this one and the State become property of a few. These architectures of enjoyment are no more than fetishes, precisely, substitutes of a right to which we have renounced: the right to the city. And the enjoyment that they give to us is no more than a compensation for our alienation before the city, before those political processes that every time say to govern in our behalf, when, in fact, all they do is to put as pawns in the world’s debt market.

4. Architecture and (the aestheticization of) political life
Anyway, I would like to stress that I’m not including all the practices that in a way or another use these temporary architectures. But, precisely, the need to draw a separation line between the ones that are engaged in thinking a certain political and social role of architecture. And the others, that in their behalf, taking advantage of those discourses, are no more than empty marketing strategies of a power that while entertains the free time of that small discouraged planetary bourgeoisie, dissimulates the true nature of its neoliberal politics.
In short, the achievement of these precarious architectures is in its ability to address some of our current frustrations regarding the discipline (its lack of social/political meaning) and the city (our estrangement with its processes of governance) without giving, however, a proper response. Following a Walter Benjamin’s cunning formula (on the aestheticization of politics in Fascism): they grant us the possibility to express ourselves, but on no account to express our rights [2]. They feed themselves from our disquiets and concerns, but on no account they grant us our demands. And this is the reason of its ideological success as well of its danger, as watermarks of this endless process of aestheticization of political life.
In any case, in its small scale of intervention, they can be operative ways of disturbing our alienation before politics, promoting processes of participation in local government. And this should well be a decisive field for thinking the role of architecture in the next future. But this will be only possible if we are sure to understand who is doing what and in whose behalf. And most of all, it will only be possible if we address the question of how one can rethink the relation between architecture and the political. That is, how can architecture be a response to the true crisis of our time? The crisis of democratic institutions and of this violent reconfiguration of the financial capital.  But as well: how can architecture contribute to draw new ways of accessing to politics, draw new spaces for the common, promoting processes of social emancipation, while exposing, giving visibility to the ones remaining always in the edge of the dominant discourses of power?

1. According to “France 24” locals were told not to hang out in the streets with bottles of alcohol in hand. “Russian town gets fake makeover for Putin visit”. FRANCE 24, 11.12.2013.
2. «Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses-but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged. The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life». BENJAMIN, Walter; The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and other writings on media, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, London, 2008, p.41.
1. Large tarpaulin prints cover the dilapidated houses of Suzdal for the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in November 2013.
2. Frame from the movie Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks, 1974.
3. Frame from the movie Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks, 1974.
Pedro Levi Bismarck
Punkto Magazine Editor. Architect and Researcher. Porto
Editor’s Note
This article was originally presented in two roundtables on pop up architectures in Porto and London, in the Battle of Ideas event, October 2013. A debate with: Alastair Donald, Oliver Wainwright, Austin Williams and Cany Cash in London. Karl Sharro, Luis Tavares Pereira, Alastair Donald, Joana Varajão e Fernando Martins in Porto. Article also published in Revista Dédalo #10: “Who lives next door?”.