GEOGRAFIKS Twelve Fragments on the Nature of Urban Practice
Architects and planners have always claimed space and its production as their privileged, autonomous domain. It is strange that if they now want to present a pertinent attitude regarding urban intervention, they must literally invade space and claim it back from the grip of social sciences. They must also acknowledge and infiltrate the everyday practices that have meanwhile been asserted as an integral part of the cultural production of the city. On the other hand, this is only possible once architecture, following the example of contemporary art, has overcome its strictly autonomous role and distinctions of high and low to enter the generic flow of urban culture.
Over the last decade the international architecture media has consistently pointed to a succession of architectural productions centred around the notion of national identity. If one now thinks of ‘the Dutch’, ‘the Spanish’, ‘the Swiss’, to name just a few, it is not too difficult to conjure a number of idiosyncrasies which combine to form an archetypal image of those productions. Together with the more individualised ‘star’ system, and cast against formalist categorisations that organise tendencies across frontiers, such cataloguing helps to keep track of style and fashion in the world of architecture after high modernism lost its compelling aura. As early as 1997, Blueprint was identifying the emergence of a new ‘Brit pack’ referring to ‘interdisciplinary collaboration and a fresh source of references’ as ‘bringing new meanings to British architecture.’ Could this be considered a tendency to be added to the index of national styles, even though its practitioners are characterised by very different approaches and a consistent blurring of boundaries?
Where in other landscapes it is the commonality of a shared national or regional identity that gives coherence to the group, for this generation of British architects it is the notion of diversity itself that is the common denominator. As it is no longer possible to speak of the city as a single coherent entity, many have argued that “it is diversity itself – of publics and modes of settlement – which characterizes life in cities today.” In embracing such a condition, diverse ways of operating correspond to as many ways of understanding the city and its demands. It is also implied that the question of difference is an essential and accepted part of the specific context in which one is operating. As a founding member of the experimental architecture group, NATO, Nigel Coates was one of the British architects who first brought such discourse into the realm of practice when he proposed that a “city ought to be a place which encourages the acknowledgment of differences, not necessarily addressing particular bits to particular people, but at least asking questions, being playful enough to permit the other.” What effect has this diversity on the nature of architectural practice and the formal vocabulary architects employ? Does it produce a predominance of image, style, collage and the ephemeral? At the very least, it serves to undermine the authority of a given autonomous discourse.
In this context, diversity reveals itself as the sum of undeclared tactics. It acknowledges and translates a cultural hybridity which Homi Bhabha describes in The Location of Culture, as giving rise to “something new and unrecognisable, a new area of meaning and representation”. As Bhabha further suggests, this “may open the way to conceptualising an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism, or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity”. In the context of such diversity, one can recognise amongst the practises shown here, practises that are in fact traditional and global, even if their languages may be apparently radical or if their cultural origins mix several roots. Others have recognised that a particular research strategy can hype up their otherwise banally market-oriented practice. But it is those who work in the interstices of specific identities and take their inspiration from the sampling methods employes by urban popular culture, that offer new and unrecognisable insights.
One would have to trace a complex graphic in which different threads of recent British architecture would cross and mingle with facts and figures from popular culture, developments in contemporary art, economic trends and more generally, changes in the global politics of representation. Curiously, the most typical ambassadors of British architectural culture – whole tendencies, in fact – would be left out. Instead one could identify specific moments in which the conventional role of the architect has been questioned. This would have to include the anti-modernist stance taken by Alison and Peter Smithson within modernity itself during the Fifties, or indeed the ways in which, from the Sixties onwards, Cedric Price pushed against architectural boundaries, defending a new degree of performance for urban architecture. Ultimately though, the most important influence has come from beyond architectural quarters, from the collage city in which these practitioners are operating. After Colin Rowe and his influential conceptual break, the notion of ‘collage city’ came to stand for the post-modern condition, a context which for this generation of architects became a point of departure to new areas of visual and cultural sophistication.
It is compelling to track down where these architects are working, either within London or outside. During the nineties the East End of London entered the process of gentrification that had earlier changed the face of Soho. Only this time the protagonists were different. Rather than the creative industries, such as advertising agencies, it was artists, designers and architects who led the process of change. If some of the architects represented in Space Invaders are not located in the peculiar landscape of London’s flows of inner rearrangements and immigration, they have instead chosen an alternative tactic, fleeing to other metropolitan centres, such as Paris, Amsterdam or Tokyo.
Space Invaders in Lisbon, exhibition design by Urban Salon.
Most of the practices included in Space Invaders were entering the market at a period of major economic uncertainty. As is well known in economic circles, a situation of crisis often demands and provokes new and clever answers. Such can be said to be the impulse of this generation. Instead of entering the mass-production system of the institutionalised architectural office these architects chose to do it for themselves, creating their own offices, identities and markets. This required finding new survival techniques and economic strategies for occupying the city, such as the ones the artistic community had already been using in their colonisation of poorer city districts. Later, and as the economy flourished, opportunities arose for young practices to redefine and focus their goals. As service economies took over the shape and the space of the city, architecture – as a form of public art – came to serve more and more the aesthetic urge which Sharon Zukin recognises as being at the core of such type of urban change. In London, particularly, the creative industries needed to produce high impact images and corporate identities. The desire for design and architectural originality welcomed a generation that like no other before had bred on the teachings of pop culture. Architects, like artists, “are attracted to the symbolical economy of global cities”. And, as Zukin suggests, “their presence helps the symbolic economy to continue growing.”
Fundamental to city life is the easy geographical availability of social and cultural networks. These are vital for the interconnection and mutual influence of different areas of creativity and cultural production. In global metropolises like London such a process has accelerated over the last decade, becoming a focus in itself. “Artistic communication still must have a place somewhere – not imaginary but tangible and visible. Metropolises need such places, where the cultural discussion workshop-style institutions and people belonging to various social milieux and cultures can meet.” Informality itself is a key feature in a city characterised, since the sixties, by a strong youth culture. It serves to oppose rigid forums of exchange that tend to keep things in place, such as academia or institutionalised practices. Most significantly it brings with it flexible attitudes towards alternative ways of reading and producing discourses.
Not unlike other urban dwellers, the architect begins to allow him or herself to accept personal motivations and intimate references as valid tools for urban intervention. Strolling around the city, gathering and interpreting intuitive data, making up strategies, evoking disparate memories, all become alternative modus operandi to be cast against a broader collective discourse on language and style. As situation-specificity, rather than site-specificity, has become the flexible norm, architectural practice aligns itself with ongoing preoccupations located outside architecture’s historical and disciplinary locus. The origins of this approach can be traced to the radical methods of working pioneered by the Situationists and their inventive and playful attitude to the city. Though less legitimised by theory, the appropriation of street culture by the style magazines has also been historically significant in allowing new references to become acceptable within architectural practice. Above all, it is this generation’s self-critical and ironical attitude towards the traditional role of the architect that has allowed for a more radically creative urban practice.
Tactics & Strategies
As Michel de Certeau has shown, it is through tactical thought that a position may be devised towards the urban context one inhabits and constructs. As opposed to the strategies of institutionalised powers, tactics are the only tools which can give the solitary practitioner a means of leaving his own imprint on the city. Within a metropolitan spirit that offers a diversity of available tactics, the focus of practice may therefore range from the creation of visual identities for illustrated style magazine to the harnessing of local community ties into the very core of the work. In the same way that artists and designers took a closer look at the built and social fabric of the city and re-used materials and images taken from the streets, architects too, have embraced collage and visual displacement, adopting a DIY approach to industrial and mass-produced materials, as well as taking on conceptual strategies with which to deal with clients and commissions.
Whilst tools from other disciplines have been imported into the tissue of architectural production, quite traditional architectural tools have also been subverted and delightfully abused to invade creative territories that are close at hand. Thus General Lighting & Power export traditional forms of architectural representation to the fields of advertising and graphic illustration. FAT, on the other hand, appropriate familiar icons which are then “altered and collaged together to create new environments, in which the elements are recognizable yet uncanny”. Are these architects still architects? On the one hand, it is the very domain of practice that is being ostensibly stretched across its carefully maintained professional boundaries, on the other, these undermining activities can also be read as the unrepressed results of new and well-defined market niches.
What spaces are these groups trespassing with their particular tactics and strategies?
They have drawn on the spaces of everyday life which in turn they aspire to transform. But they are also trespassing the space of the disciplinary in architecture. They disturb when they put forward their alien tactics for practice. They upset when they refuse to affiliate into easily recognisable categories. Every claim on new ways of operating constitutes a territorial claim regarding existing practices, traditions and institutions.
Pedro Gadanho, Lisbon, August 2nd 2001
(Originally published in the Space Invaders catalogue: British Council, London, 2001 | Last copies available through Amazon)
 See Michelle Ogundehin and Marcus Field, ‘Redefining Architecture’, in Blueprint, n.138, London, April 199, p24-29.
 Malcolm Miles, Tim Hall and Iain Borden, ‘Introduction’, in idem (eds.), The City Cultures Reader, Routledge, London/New York, 2000.
 Nigel Coates, ‘Brief Encounters’ in Iain Borden, Jane Rendell, Joe Kerr and Alicia Pivaro (eds.), The Unknown City, Contesting Architecture and Social Space, the MIT Press, Massachusetts/London, 2001, p319.
 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London / New York, 1994.
 While the gentrification process of East London is practically starting, a sketch of its impact in London art and culture in the last decade can be discerned in Emma Dexter’s ‘London 1990-2001’, in Iwona Blazwick, Century City, Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, Tate Publishing, London, 2001, pp.72-93. A rendering of the Soho gentrification process during the 80’s can be found in Frank Mort, ‘Boulevards for the Fashionable and Famous,’ in Malcolm Miles, Tim Hall and Iain Borden (eds.), op. cit., pp.180-184.
 Sharon Zukin, ‘Space and Symbols in an Age of Decline,’ in Anthony King (ed.), Re-presenting the City, MacMillan, London, 1996, p43-59.
 Joost Smiers, quoting Thomas Flierl on Berlin, in ‘European Cities – First Sow then Reap’, in Malcolm Miles, Tim Hall and Iain Borden (eds.), op. cit., p115.
 “London’s style magazines of the period have an important contribution to make (…) with a radical imagery depicting a dynamic multi-cultural London in which numerous borders and fixed identities are transgressed and reordered. (…) We can see the style magazine as a venue where Max Weber’s notion of the city as a space of freedom is acted out, outside of bourgeois values and codes.” Emma Dexter, ‘London 1990-2001’, in Iwona Blazwick, op.cit., p76.
 Fat, ‘It’s Not Unusual: Projects and Tactics’, in idem, op.cit., p342.
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