Representing Context as Political Strategy in Architecture

Newark Planning Office Director Damon Rich and Jae Shin, principals of Hector, Rafi Segal, principal of A+U, Quilian Riano, founder and principal of DSGN AGNC, and Alejandro de Castro Mazarro, program coordinator of the Latin American Laboratory at Columbia GSAPP, gathered at the Center for Architecture on 06.17.15 to exchange ideas about how architects can create both buildings and images that tell a full narrative, while simultaneously reflecting an urban context and communicating that context to policy makers and the public. Rich pointed out that controversies such as “poor doors” have become the site of public moral outrage, yet reflect an already existing economic disparity. Rather than answer to current social and economic inequity, how can architecture serve as a platform for resistance?

In his presentation “Elbow Room,” Segal drew upon minimum-space legal codes to expose how context registers the political status of a form. In an example from Israeli law, Segal plotted the minimum space requirement per person in a restaurant (1.2 m2), a school cafeteria (1.0 m2), an army cafeteria (0.8 m2), and a prison dining hall (0.7 m2). Yet this same minimum space in a different context – in a phone booth or a micro-unit, for example – can be experienced as a luxury. Segal called for the expansion of “the scope of the architect…to have an educational role, not in the sense of educating, but exposing the context – what we call research. The more meaningful architectural project is the one that relates to its context…We are asked to provide an image, but really what we want is to tell a story.”

Shin contended that “the issue of image representation, the medium specific to our discipline, is where we need to engage and interrogate our role as architects as we deal with this issue of policy-making and public policy.” Drawing from an example of her work in Newark, Shin recounted her attempts to persuade policy makers to remove an eight-foot fence around a proposed office development in downtown Newark. In recreating the image of the tower without the fence, as well as drawing greater attention to the building’s context in downtown Newark, Shin gave “the policy makers specific tools to suggest an alternative…[the image] makes it easy to imagine the building without a fence.” Shin ended her presentation proposing an image-based approach to argument-making: “As architects we find ourselves in the position of generating a lot of images, promising a possible future, but what if we as architects depicted the kind of images that are promised by policy makers?” De Castro Mazarro argued further that architects’ and critics’ use of images generally asserts a project’s intended effect as its outcome, and that more evidence is necessary to make political claims.

Shin’s partner Rich recounted how the City of Newark built a public waterfront park for the first time in 100 years through community organizing and collaborative, community-oriented planning. The park incorporates pieces that articulate the 25 years of organization and policy that enabled its creation, inscribing the park’s narrative in the landscape and enacting a place-based political practice. As Newark’s planning director, Rich has also used images and workshops to educate the public about city operations, including where the garbage goes, what zoning laws mean, and why certain buildings are empty. Rich called for the reorganization of architecture’s respondents, and for architects to look for “unexpected coalitions in order to create the city that we want.”

On the faculty of both Pratt and Parsons, Riano has also used both images and workshops to broaden the reach of his practice. The first of two projects Riano presented from his teaching practice, #whoownspace, utilizes maps and walking tours to make visible the privatization of public space through POPs (privately-owned public spaces). The second creates alternative visions for development in Jackson Heights makes the streets cleaner and safer by showing the everyday practices of people living there, and creating a public alternative to privatizing forces. One of the proposals was a piece of infrastructure on the street that would serves as a gathering space, “a political body that begins at the level of the block and grows.” Riano ended his presentation with a call for the politicization of architecture from within: an architecture lobby founded on a pledge to respect the education and practice of architecture and to demand fair wages. He argued that, before architects engage in policy, they must first see themselves as political beings.

Event: Soap Box: On Politics, Policy, and Architecture
Speakers: Rafi Segal, Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism, MIT, and Principal, A+U; Jae Shin, Principal, Hector, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, NJIT; Quilian Riano, Founder and Principal, DSGN AGNC, Part-Time Faculty, Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design; Damon Rich, Principal, Hector, and Director, Newark Planning Office; Alejandro de Castro Mazarro, Program Coordinator, Latin American Laboratory, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; and Peggy Deamer, Principal, Peggy Deamer Architects, and Assistant Dean, School of Architecture, Yale University
Organized by: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee
Sponsored by: Thornton Tomasetti