The Urban Project of Plurality

The director of InfraNet Lab observes that architects are once again taking on the urban project, and asks whether they will reawaken the political project too.

"Can architects meet society's plural demand? … If society has no form—how can architects build the counterform?"
–Aldo Van Eyck, in Alison Smithson (ed), 'Team 10 Primer 1953–62', Architectural Design (December 1962), 564

The recent political demonstrations transpiring in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya have been inspiring in their ability to gather a collective political force through the grouping of individuals. I find it inspiring because of the dialectical nature between the individual and collective, which are the essential components in the political concept of pluralism. Simultaneously, I was reminded that such a discussion of the politics of pluralism has not occurred in design since late modernism. Not only does this particular political project remain unresolved today, I believe it is also one of the most critical investigations in contemporary urbanism.

First, let us be reminded of what is at stake here and why the concept of pluralism was so important to the modern urban project. One of the main questions for CIAM, Team X, and their megastructuralist successors, was how to design the city for both the individual and collective as they were confronted with an increasingly diverse metropolis. While most people think of pluralism as simply meaning diverse, different, divergent, etc., it is in fact much more complex and political in nature. Political theorist Hannah Arendt has one of the most refined definitions of pluralism, calling it the dialectic of our "distinct-equality," and positions it at the core of the public sphere:

Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them. If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will every be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.[i]

Arendt's characterization of this complex and seemingly contradictory public sphere is perhaps best summarized through her analogy of a group of people sitting around a table. For Arendt, the table is the common world—it simultaneously connects and bonds those sitting around it while preventing them from falling over each other and assimilating belief systems. The disappearance of the table would leave strangers in a space that lacked a common bond—this would be the fall of the public realm and its associated reality and stability.[ii] Both Arendt and Van Eyck, in essence, were attempting to reconcile the individual (distinction) and collective (equality) by providing a political form to a city that was now a sprawling metropolis and a public that was now a grouping of various constituencies. The issue of pluralism is even more pronounced today, with more than half the population of some cities consisting of visible "minorities." This growing situation prompts a design interrogation of how one can provide unity in diversity, reconcile the individual and collective or allow for distinction and equality. In its avoidance of such questions, contemporary urbanism has been reduced to a grouping of constituencies that succumbs to the mere whims of market urbanism.

It is useful to look at when this "almost" project of pluralism went dormant in late modernism to shed light on pieces we should pick up and develop. Arguably, the last fight of a political urban project of pluralism was embedded in the megastructure. Le Corbusier, who repeatedly stressed the importance of the individual and collective in the CIAM Athens Charter, planted the seed for the megastructure in his Plan Obus in Algers. In his project, a continuous linear form merged infrastructure and topography, while subdividing into several dwelling units. Within such a framework, Corbusier left the dwellings "open" to be designed by their individual occupants and revealed the diversity that he envisioned in his sketches. Thirty years later, in the 1960s, the megastructure had fully bloomed and its basic characteristics were exemplified in Yona Friedman's Ville Spatiale. The Ville Spatiale presented a vast frame of infrastructure that was permanent, deterministic, and provided order to the collective (it also just happened to hover over the city). Within this frame, a series of indeterminate, mobile and flexible pods were to empower the individual. The megastructure oscillated between control and choice and was eventually critiqued for being a mere illusion of choice disguised behind controlled variations. This dramatically shifted the discourse in favor of "choice," and refocused energy on the counterculture projects of the soft pod. While this seemed like an innocent move, the disappearance of the collective frame eroded the frail dialectic of pluralism as well as the city as a political form.

After an extended vacation from the urban, over the last two decades architects have slowly reengaged with the city. The erratic global economy has privileged XL and XS projects, sparking the reemergence of the megastructure and soft pod in contemporary discourse. These terms are taboo however, as they are laced with too much baggage from late modernism. New projects such as MVRDV's Rødovre Skyscraper, OMA's Interlace Residential Complex (Singapore), BIG's Mountain Dwellings or Steven Holl's Vanke Center are just a few of the new megastructures that take on formal justifications that typically center on ecology and sustainability. While their pods don't claim to move, neither did any of the built 1960s megastructures. The difference, however, is that the theoretical agenda of the megastructure, and its technological ability (not to mention economic investment) was at odds during the 1960s. While the late modern "megastructuralists" yearned for a performance-based system, the failure in their constructed projects was that they were only representations of pluralism.

This is not to say that to escape the representation of pluralism, contemporary megastructures need to simply make their pods move. Instead, this is a call to reinvest in the discussion of the politics of pluralism, rather than reappropriating the hollow forms of late modernism. Let's be honest, the constructed megastructures from the '60's were never as powerful as the goals to find new forms and organization for a new type of public. As architect-urbanists gain a bigger stake in the urban once again, let us not be imprisoned by our own formal project and instead reexamine the relationship between form and pluralism. Without such a political project, we are just a grouping of unrelated people in the space that was once known as the city. While we may be in need of a revolution, are we able to form one anymore?

[i] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958. 175–176). [emphasis added]
[ii] Ibid., pp.52

Neeraj Bhatia is a director of InfraNet Lab , a non-profit research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics. Neeraj also the founder of The Open Workshop, a design office examining the project of pluralism through the design of openness. Neeraj has taught at the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto and is currently the Wortham Teaching Fellow at Rice University. He is co-editor of Arium: Weather + Architecture (with Jürgen Mayer H., Hatje Cantz Publishing, 2009), Bracket 2: On Soft Systems (with Lola Sheppard, Actar Publishing, 2011), and co-author of Pamphlet Architecture 30: Coupling (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).

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