Sustainability remains the most vexing and critical concern of our time. Sadly, the political and economic order of today appears to be too impotent and undecisive to turn the direction of development toward a just and endurable future for all. Optimism dwindles as commitment to international goals and new green policies falters. In the face of growing frustration and bitter divides, future architects work inquisitively and creatively to develop site-sensitive architectural instruments for palpable change.
Political architecture does not rely uncritically on sustainability standards, certificates and green talk. It is important that architects become politically active through their profession, and that the profession realizes its political potential and responsibility.
The general approach we adopt toward political architecture is twofold: on the one hand practical, material and constructive; on the other analytical, conceptual, academic.
We raise our questions, individually and collectively, through courses, workshops lectures and exercises. Relative to the contexts at hand, we develop methods and tools pertaining to both domains, the scholarly and the practical. As the year progresses, the two perspectives become increasingly intertwined.
Even so, their dual capacities are kept separate, feeding into each other in a co-evolutionary process. A polyrythmic structure characterizes the program: lectures, individual tutorials, workshops, roundtables, fieldwork, networking, and seminars interweave to establish a type of project and research development practice that we call Co-evolutionary Project Work (CPW).
A special feature of the CPW environment is the “polysophicum”, a series of open discussion sessions devoted to singularly relevant texts and architectural examples. With these in-depth conversations, we meet the need to question architectural theory, philosophy and academic research papers with open-minded questioning and speculative rigor.
A defining feature of the Political Architecture program is the annual campaign of fieldwork. This mandatory excursion provides us with architectural complexity, urgency and a foreign political context. The fundamental purpose of fieldwork is: 1) to select and explore a concrete political situation of particular complexity, and urgency; 2) to discover and construct individual project contexts, rich enough to feed co-evolutionary project work throughout the academic year.
An equally defining feature of the study year is the return trip. In view of completing their projects, students return to the fieldwork destination and reconnect with stakeholders, local architects and policy-makers. Measuring the quality of one's work by its impression on those to whom it matters is of great value to students, but it is also a token of gratitude to the communities who have shared and helped us to understand. On the heels of the semester it is customary for students to collect and publish their production in a printed volume to beissued the following semester.
Our 2020 fieldwork destination is Yerevan, capital of Armenia. A number of circumstances, political and architectural, motivates this choice. The city is characterized by a unique DIY building culture which has turned Soviet housing blocks into a labyrinthine meshwork of additions, materials, scales and possible new functions. The city is also known for its Habsburgian city plan which, with its radial logic provides particular possibilities and difficulties for movement, gathering and dispersal.
In April 2018, Yerevan became an international focal point due to an uprising which soon was named the Velvet Revolution. Like its namesake, the 1989 revolution in Czechoslovakia, this one was entirely peaceful and imminently successful. Led and supported largely by young Armenians who were to assert the legitimacy of the new government in fair and peaceful elections soon after the fall of the old authoritarian and largely corrupt regime, the current political establishment still enjoys popular support.
Not only are new reforms and a transition to a settled polity underway; new institutions are created and new ways of life call for the creation of new spaces to accommodate it. The architectures of past misruling are giving way to a city worthy of the hopes of the newly liberated. The historical shift is physically making its mark on the city - architecture and politics are entwined in the crafting of a democracy to come.
But as so many similar events have shown, the newborn hope, the visions and promises declared may easily collapse and the ensuing disappointment then easily paves the way for backlash. The theme for the 2020-21 study year is Post-revolution Architecture. As of yet it seems that Armenia has made a robust move for the better.
The transition from revolutionary spirit to settled political structures appears fragile but mostly stable and adhering to the principles it embraced with fervor. We seem to be witnessing a major change in privilege. A new liberalized economy is envisaged with a new tax code which may have enormous effect on small businesses and entrepreneurs who, in turn, are likely to change the face of the city. Corrupt civil officies and law enforcement, nepotistic graft schemes and an established bribe-friendly administration are targeted for clean-up, which means that legislation can perhaps be trusted to have intended effect.
Housing regulations are underway and infrastructural projects are planned. There is talk of tackling environmental issues tied to the mining industry and some measures to battle global warming are being introduced. This, we imagine, is what the transition still to come looks like: vagarious, uncertain and sensitive to letdowns and exploitation.
What can architecture do here? We do not expect grand gestures, nor do we anticipate effective transformation. Yet students are encouraged to wield actual political impact at available levels of influence. It is not uncommon for a Political Architecture proposal to grasp a contentious issue at its very particular expression and offer a new, spatial way forward.
During fieldwork we will explore various spatial designs that act as preconditions and necessary conduits for particular instances of the new democratic government. Parliamentary buildings, public civil institutions and commercial centers belong to classic typologies as do public spaces, residential neighborhoods, symbolic buildings, industrial plants and infrastructural complexes.
Furthermore, if we open up the societal machinations in a particular place, say, a long-haul bus station, we may discover idiosyncratic practices and regulations that are complex and sensitive to spatial reconstruction. Relevant spaces are for example those directly associated with politically charged issues: fallen centers of power, privatized ownership, cultural value hierarchies, foreign investment schemes, urban-rural discrimination and the cruxes of liberal self-governing.
Furthermore, it might be fortuitous to consider the act of building as a political tool of connecting scales: larger and smaller scales of economy, organization and labor meet scales of tectonics, programming and aesthetics. We are likely to explore infrastructural agency; political urban engineering, material potentials, local building industries, cultures, histories and heritage being part of territorial identity.