Our political question concerns architectural sustainability. To question it is to not assume or take for granted the established definitions of what sustainability means, whether it is universally desirable, or what kinds of architectures are truly sustainable. Taking such a question seriously is to recognize the urgency of the matter at stake and the need to take imminent 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.
To raise our questions, we offer a number of courses, workshops and exercises that introduce methods and tools that belong to both domains, the scholarly and the practical. As the year progresses, the two perspectives become increasingly intertwined. Even so, their dual capacities are never unified. A polyrythmic structure characterizes the program: lectures, individual tutorials, workshops, roundtables, fieldwork, networking, and seminars interweave to establish a type of research development practice that we call Co-evolutionary Project Work.
A special feature of the CPW environment is the “polysophicum”, a series of open discussion sessions devoted to a singularly relevant text, artwork, film or other. With these in-depth conversations, we meet the need to question scientific and practical truths with 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.
For the 2019 fieldwork we have chosen the French city of Calais, yet recognized as a European center. It means that we extend our research site to include three major European capitals and political hotbeds: Paris, Brussels and London. All can be reached from Calais within a two hour train ride. Calais itself and the three metropolises make up the perhaps most apparent sites but smaller cities and rural areas are equally important. The fieldwork site is therefore loosely defined by what’s within a circumference through the three capitals with Calais as its center.
The theme for the 2019-20 study year is Disintegrating Democracies. We seem to be witnessing a major crisis of western democracy and a looming threshold beyond which fundamental values, practices, institutions and allegiances may no longer be taken for granted. A number of status reports issued in early 2019 confirm what journalists and academics have called attention to with increasing urgency during the past years: democratic rule as we know it is weakening. Signs are plentiful: polarized communities fail to find common ground and stop socializing at the peril of civic society; political elites detach from citizens, are often treated as nobilities when appearing in person but with disdain and contempt in media; Globalized economies and politics have connected people but also created unbridgeable gaps between the corporate and the public, the upper crust and the left-behinds. Migration, populism, alt-right, political power-gaming, social media addiction, post-fact news, extremist terror threats, tax evasion schemes, aggressive lobby groups and corruption plots, constant alarm, impending doom, im/omnipotent leadership and ensuing political fatigue; democratic rule is challenged on many fronts, its essential mechanics in a precarious state.
What can architecture do? We do not expect grand solutions, nor do we anticipate effective change. But we know students may wield actual political impact, if not very often on a general policy level. 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 democratic government. A parliamentary building, plenary hall and town hall belong to classic typologies as do public spaces, campaign booths, polling stations. Yet further, if we open the machine room in a particular place, let’s say the harbor of Calais, 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: migration, vigilante groups, radicalism, lobbying, peripheral semi-autonomies. 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 landscape engineering, material potentials, local building industries, cultures, histories and heritage being part of territorial identity. An overarching perspective is sustainability and its intimate, yet precarious relation to democracy.