My Lawnmower, My Enemy

Event: Ten Days for Oppositional Architecture: Towards Post-Capitalist Spaces / David Harvey Lecture
Location: Gair Building No. 6, Dumbo, 11.21.09
Speaker: David Harvey — Geographer, City University of New York
Organizer: An Architektur


Levittown, NY.

Courtesy Google Earth

The current recession served as a point of departure for the Ten Days for Oppositional Architecture, a workshop and lecture series founded in 2004 by the Berlin-based journal An Architektur. Pointing to the crisis as both sign and consequence of a fundamentally rotten economic and political infrastructure, the organizers posited that the only route to socially responsible practice is through conscious, active opposition to capitalism and the political systems with which it is entwined.

To bolster their case, An Architektur called on David Harvey, an academic and self-described “boring old Marxist” who has spent decades tracing (among other things) conflicts between capitalism and the social good in the development of the built environment. Case in point: suburbia. Although the American Dream — manicured lawns, paid-off mortgages — may seem like a natural emanation of the collective national psyche, it is largely the result of state and private-sector promotion of suburban development, often as a means to questionable ends. For instance, long-term mortgages were first made widely available partially in an attempt to subdue frequent strikes in the 1930s. “It was said that debt-encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike,” said Harvey. “This is very much about the social control mechanism and political control mechanism.”

This and related programs have had a profound impact on the nation, Harvey claimed, including leading to a political shift to the right, and to environmental degradation brought about by sprawl. America may love the suburbs, but that doesn’t mean that the suburbs are good for America. Therefore, offering alternative visions of the American Dream offers architects one possibility for meaningful “oppositional” practice.

Harvey declined to offer specific tactical guidelines to would-be activists, saying that people on the ground were best placed to develop intelligent solutions to particular problems. However, he cautioned against what he identified as a common tendency toward oversimplification and overspecialization. Architects, like sociologists, feminists, and economists can and should play an integral role in transforming society; to do so effectively, however, they must be willing to step outside their area of expertise to form a comprehensive understanding of a given situation. Design is important, he said, but “the problem is when you start talking about the silver bullet and say when you change the space everything changes. Well, it doesn’t.”