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New Territorialities

Conversation with Nader Tehrani

Our contemporary world has been marked by the indisputable presence of neoliberalism since the 1970s. Do you think the coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity to question the current form of neoliberal globalisation?

The neo-liberal turn of events has had forty years to cultivate its roots; with a significant shift in politics under Reagan in the early 1980’s, it also gained momentum over the years, and ironically equally supported –actively and tacitly, under later democratic party leaders. Thus, challenging its foundations will not be as easy as overturning one or two policies; it might require paradigmatic changes in the connections that have been built between democratic practices and corporate culture.

The erosion of public responsibilities that were once part of the burden of governance have long been privatised and with that, a new structure whose fundamental challenges are evident in the conflicts of interest that have arisen between corporate profits on the one hand, and the three pillars of governance on the other. This erosion has been incremental, but also systemic: in various sectors including health, education, defence, housing, and infrastructure among a range of other responsibilities once attributed to governance at the federal, state and municipal spheres.

What we are looking at right now is a very vulnerable economic situation, where corporate induced policies are taking advantage of the ‘pandemic’ moment to reinforce the asymmetries already at work in neoliberal tendencies –whether through monopolies, the mobilization of massive investment by those who maintain capital liquidity, and the entrapment of a captive audience whose physical and economic mobilization has already been compromised in tandem. With less than 1% of the population owning more than 50% of the global economy, the process that neo-liberal doctrines has unleashed will make it virtually impossible to turn around, outside of radical political change. To this end, a mere vote will not suffice, but rather a sustained process over many years to reframe public responsibilities, and governance at large.

Curiously, despite the inevitable roller coaster the economic market has seen since the pandemic, it has also proven itself to be ideologically agnostic, and somewhat indifferent to the ethics of investment, if such a thing existed: for years the market has thrived despite significant instability in the executive branch of power; the success may be attributed to Obama’s policies and the immediacy of his actions after the economic collapse of 2008, or alternatively a euphoria of laissez-faire policies unleashed thereafter under Trump. None of it actually captures the gravity of a longue durée of economic investments, where the equation of the environment, agriculture, education and health are brought into conversation around a planet that has seen its limits for human occupation.

The rising gap between wealth and poverty is not sustainable, not between countries, nor between people of a common nation; and yet all evidence shows that current policies do not reinforce basic access to what we might call human rights: clean air, water, food, education, health, etc. And yet, despite this, or maybe precisely because of it, there are moments of hope. The ultimate fissure that was produced by the killing of George Floyd finally broke the camel’s back: a single death with the power to represent the millions of others whose lives have been compromised for four hundred years has become the crying call for social justice in general. Bringing together other such movements revolving around climate change, the LGBTQ movement, decolonization in education, among other things, we are beginning to see sustained resistance growing to the naturalization of the status quo. The challenge, as always, is the same: since the people that excel at revolution are often not the same as those in governance, it will take a systemic translation of this moment of revolt to coalesce people of varied orientations towards a common policy cause.

Beyond that, the pandemic has produced a crystal understanding that policies at the national scale no longer suffice: we operate as a multi-national globe, and turning that around will be difficult. In the same way the virus knows no borders, nor do economies and markets. It is true that the pandemic has halted a good amount of trade, and with it a destabilization of prices on certain products, but its impact has primarily been felt by the very people who have already been most impacted by the pandemic itself: those with less economic reach, people of color, and those most vulnerable. In turn, the re-growth of local industries, the result of the pandemic has had an equally promising implication, alas also accessible to those who have profited from the pandemic in the first place. Thus, even the transformations that are the result of the pandemic have only reinforced the structural asymmetries already at work. Behind them is the promise of an alternative: a vision of a global collaboration, and in turn a parallel vision of local remobilization, alas both a distant dream.

Do you see a possible evolution of this current economic model?

The current economic model –what I have outlined above, has effectively privatized all aspects of public life, claiming benefits to the economy, while in fact infringing private investments onto the public domain: there are no checks and balances left under such a system. To this end, I see little room for evolution in a system that has already brought our understanding of public rights to its knees. Democratic processes and the public domain stand to be at complete odds with the dominance of an economic system of capital, whose only value system revolves around expansion and profit. The former requires an investment in values, ethics, and a process that ensures due process, all of which have been eroded under neo-liberal protocols. And what is worse, is that these tendencies have become naturalized such that most do not see the problem. If the democratic process requires an ethic in governance, the capitalist model thrives on loopholes and loose ends around the very frameworks that governance builds as its ethical base.

I think that the larger question is what aspects of this current moment may serve as a sustainable lesson, something around which to model priorities in the coming future. I am seeing evidence of that, less in my generation, but in the next one. The next generation is not flocking to L.A. and New York but seeking alternatives in smaller cities, building new economies rather than relying or adopting old ones as a crutch, no longer looking to get a job from well-established firms but rather creating new jobs the result of both technological and ideological changes, something the baby boomers have lost in both aspiration and vision. The new generation is also able to see the future in present terms: massive educational debts, environmental catastrophe, and other such radical differences from prior generations has brought them to the understanding that the future is not out there as such, it is here and now.

Do you think that the current situation might impact in turn the evolution of architectural discourses and practices, especially with regard to environmental issues?

Yes, but to some degree this may require a paradigm shift in the discipline: the centrality of the human would need to be displaced with the environment at large as its center, including the various species and flora that it sustains. And it poses a very difficult existential question: If humans have the intellectual power to conceptualize a model of sustainability for the globe that were to be to the detriment of human life, would they elect to support it? Could they support a model that prioritizes a center outside of the self? By extension, would they be able to support decisions that seem inconvenient to the moment, while advantageous for a time in the future? Among a myriad of other things, that may lead to a completely different model of farming our lands, it may lead to a fundamentally different control of populations, and how they extract resources from the earth, and it would lead to a fundamentally different approach to our tapping into energy. In all, it suggests a very different framing of the discipline, at least from the environmental perspective.

How may the lockdown and the sudden acceleration of the virtual in all private and public spheres impact the way of envisioning housing, specifically in the USA context?

First and foremost, it is important to underline that housing design, as a discipline, has not been supported in the United States to the same measure as it has been in Europe –neither in academia nor in the public domain. For those of us who teach housing in schools, I would say that most curricula maintain a healthy gap between pedagogical prompts and market forces – the latter which is most often defined by developers and private investors. My collaborations with the Department of City Planning in New York has indicated that the changing demographics of the household, whether conceived of as families, individuals, or co-habiting partners has radically changed in the past few decades even if the design of housing typologies have remained relatively stagnant. Housing today in the USA has revolved around the model of the nuclear family, with the assumptions of how they live and work. But the realities are very different: models of co-ownership, of live-work spaces, of in-law units, of shared co-habitations and infrastructures, are all beginning to take shape despite the lack of ample research in academia or the arena of development. For this reason, much research and engagement is still necessary.

The lockdown has been extraordinary in clarifying the housing inequalities that underlie the differences between those who have and have not. Most of the working class labor forces that maintained their regular schedules during the pandemic, from street-cleaning crews to supermarket cashiers among other basic services, were exposed to far greater vulnerabilities, not only because of their repeat-exposure to the virus, but because of the congested living conditions they were confronted with on the home-front.

Beyond the physical attributes that differentiate housing typologies, we also discovered other forms of infrastructure that underlie the inequities experienced by the inhabitants of housing projects: among them access to clean air and water, health and education, and the very services that allow for families to sustain their economic base. The pandemic turned all prior models upside down. For one, less economically endowed households, being composed of fewer spaces and smaller square footages, experienced a traffic jam of familial activities as their spaces became accommodated for live, work, education and leisure programs. Second to this, while wealthy families were able to sustain live in ‘help’, even middle-class families could not gain access to day care and child care infrastructures, effectively disallowing any of the parents –those who had not been furloughed—to work and maintain the necessary income for the family. The overlap of activities was often unsustainable and in full evidence in the various ZOOMs that recorded the new normal life. Third, the implicit connection between education and the internet became exposed as a fundamental infrastructural problem: with all classes, research, and collaboration turning to the spaces of the internet as a foundation, the basic question was whether free access to WIFI was a civic right, or only a bonus for those with economic means. Those with limited or no access to WIFI effectively dropped out of classes, and this underscored the innate inequalities already at work in our system.

All of this has also prompted a series of other questions. One, the question of flexibility in housing, of upsizing and downsizing, such that units may transform over time. Great housing may serve as an intelligent infrastructure for resilience. The second has to do with the home as a microcosm of our attitude towards urbanism, with gradients of public space. Houses may often have semi-private outdoor spaces, semi-public courtyards that are shared by multiple units, or even public plazas shared by buildings and their neighbouring buildings, all of which places the individual in a social contract amongst the collective. With privatization, that social contract has been broken, because the necessity of public spaces –and the nuances that underlie it—are not held as a priority. In turn, joint-venture public-private models of development often turn towards negotiated models of public space, whereby developers encourage franchises like Whole Foods to reinforce the brand of the development, while offering limited areas of open space for the public to convene, most often lacking in any sense of inclusion, diversity or true public access. This negotiated model of development is a de facto acknowledgment of the death of public housing in the same way that the government has sold off many arenas of public responsibility to “private contractors”—and here, I will use the term more liberally as do they: it also refers to the myriads of other service industries that have been privatized over the past four decades in the military, health, and transportation sectors just to name a few.

Indeed, the challenges of privatization are no longer circumstantial, aligned with one political party, or the result of “a few bad apples”; they are fundamental and part of the political infrastructure that defines the United States. Consider the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the way in which it has built a direct political infrastructure between the interests of private corporations and public policy. Though launched by Republican party members, ALEC’s direct impact on policies in the United States has seen its imprint of influence on democratic party leaderships with equal strength. The conflict of interest represented by this evolution cannot be understated, because it has also demonstrated the degree to which the city is no longer defined by the ethos of a polis and its requisite alliance with principles of democracy. Consider the lengths to which ALEC has gone to over-determine the political outcome of élections, limiting public participation in the formation of communities. The very urbanism that is implicated by mapping procedures as witnessed through “gerrymandering”(1)  and “redlining” (2) in the American city is exemplary in its embodiment of social injustice. The design of housing, access to ownership, and the public role of housing in the city has all been directly impacted by nefarious protocols of questionable governance.

In this context, which could be the role of public space in the definition of new urban paradigms for the American city?

Interestingly, the pandemic has demonstrated a renewed use of public space that was often taken for granted: the sheer volume of people amassing outdoors to gain access to light, air, nature and open space during the first months of the pandemic –sometimes with a density of dangerous volume– showed the irreducible need of the public realm. The use of Olmsted’s parks, spaces that were conceived over a hundred years ago, and took decades to cultivate, have become core spaces of leisure and necessity for both New York City and Boston, where I live. And though these spaces were conceived in different times, and for different purposes, the rhetoric of health, space, and open air was nevertheless part and parcel of the same era that defined the notorious development of tenement housing, with all the problems of health they unleashed.

But I think that the question of the public space now resides in a slightly different place. Since Olmsted, the 20th century brought many other forms of urban challenges, and indeed the post-World War II period brought an epoch of unprecedented suburban expansion, supported by Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (3). This decentralization has only been exacerbated in the 21st Century, with the role of transportation and infrastructure further taxed by emerging global climate problems that are unable to sustain privatization as a model of governance. At the same time, given the sheer enormity of funding that goes into infrastructure and transportation networks, it begs the question of where the public realm is nested within that budget, if not within its spaces of imagination. The funds that go into them are not in the millions but in the billions of dollars. And therefore, their scale of impact on the urban environment in which they occur will invariably impact the quality of human life. For instance, projects like the Big Dig in Boston, or the transformation of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in New York, both transportation projects of significant might, implicate the possibilities of public space, amenity and community impact with heightened resonance, and to overlook that would be a radical wasted opportunity.

As we look towards the future, we may also need to revisit urbanism through the lens of territory, region, or even larger, at the scale of the globe. The knowledge and data we are able to gather at the macro scale can no longer be considered inconsequential. Consider that New York City has over five hundred miles of coastal water front, all of which will be impacted by sea level rise. To understand, internalize, and address a problem of this magnitude, it will require, short, interim and long-term thinking, all of which are existential in nature. Considering the fact that many areas will be under water in 100 years, long term planning would suggest a completely different public investment in high elevation zones of the city, to secure them as part of the public domain, and to underscore the civic importance of their collective position. The interim, or mid-range period, defined by our actions over the next 50 years is possibly the most complex and contradictory: because it precisely entails investments in new high elevation zones while maintaining the social, economic and cultural vitality low lying areas still above the water line. In the short term, the contradictions become even more vivid, because even with the tacit acknowledgment of the eventual radical changes to come, we must yet do justice to thriving communities in need for social services, jobs, housing and spaces of congregation, all of which stand to become obsolete. And yet, there is no discussion about urbanism that can escape this scale of temporal consideration. Public space can no longer be defined only in urban terms, it requires regional and trans-national thinking in order to be meaningful.

As Dean of the School of Architecture of the Cooper Union, do you think that these issues are being addressed in the education of the future generations of architects?

If you consider any of the significant architectural programmes in the world, they are commonly defined by clear categories of architecture, landscape and urbanism; some also have planning programs, whose emphasis stems from policy, and its relationship to the built environment. The problem is that many of the phenomena that we are citing here operate at a scale that is geographic, trans-regional, and almost global in nature. Our access to data today spans a myriad of phenomena: traffic, meteorology, global temperatures, sea pollution, the migration of other species around the world, among many other things, all information to which we would not have had access in prior epochs. To better understand the architectural and urbanistic implications of this scale of information, we will need to form environmental studies at the planetary scale, with an emphasis on design issues, and how human impact has and can transform the world in significant ways. It is the urbanism that has not to do with the city per se, but with trans-regional interrelationships –all of which will reverberate at local scales as a consequence. The pollution that Japan unleashes today is the same that arrives onto the shores of Seattle; the Pacific Ocean, while not defined by urbanism as such, has the capacity to impact so many cities, regions and territories. Nuclear waste, the accretion of plastics in the ocean, and other such phenomena are all impacting cities beyond their strict borders.

I think that architecture has not found a way to mitigate these two scales as a disciplinary question. And certainly, mapping strategies of the past 500 years are wholly inadequate in relationship with the documentation of newly forming information. Part of our challenge today is how to internalize that information, how to prioritize once having analysed that field of information, and even more difficult, how to give form, space, and materiality to that information; no matter at what scale, there is always an architectural dimension to that question.

30.Jul.2020 2599 views
Nader Tehrani

Nader Tehrani (London, 1963). For his contributions to architecture as an art, Nader Tehrani is the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ 2020 Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize. Nader Tehrani is Founding Principal of NADAAA, a practice dedicated to the advancement of design innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, and an intensive dialogue with the construction industry. He is also Dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union. Tehrani’s work has been recognized with notable awards, including the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture, the United States Artists Fellowship in Architecture and Design, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Architecture. He has also received the Harleston Parker Award and the Hobson Award. Throughout his career, Tehrani has received eighteen Progressive Architecture Awards as well as numerous national and international design awards. He served as the Frank O. Gehry International Visiting Chair in Architectural Design at the University of Toronto and the inaugural Paul Helmle Fellow at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He also recently served as the William A. Bernoudy Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome. His office, NADAAA, for the past seven years in a row, has ranked in the Top eleven design firms in Architect Magazine’s Top 50 Firms in the United States, ranking as First three years in a row. The work of NADAAA has been widely published and exhibited at various venues including the MoMA, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

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