Introduction —careless architecture and care practices
We live in a society where carelessness has become a distinctive feature of how architecture is practiced and experienced. As stated in “What care has to do with it?”, architecture and urban planning are responsible for providing the environment in which we live together. But a look at our surroundings today seems to tell everything but a story of care: dramatic climate changes are unfolding a biodiversity crisis under our eyes, public spaces are being eroded by privatization, violence manifests in spatial architecture of confinement and planning of oppression. The practice of architecture and planning today appears to overtly promote a narrative of carelessness. Profitability motivates every decision about the built environment, and this does not even need to be kept hidden anymore, as we all seem to have accepted that financial sustainability is a necessary condition for all interventions at any scale. In the Care Manifesto, the Care Collective brings our attention to how this systemic carelessness has been coupled with the narrative of the “other”, which legitimizes it and “rearticulate[s] and reorient[s] our caring inclinations towards ‘people like us’”. In addition, emphasis has been shifting more and more towards the individual. In most countries, the responsibility of providing a safe environment falls on private citizens and on their ability to pay for it, as the Covid-19 crisis most recently showed.
Yet, while carelessness has certainly become an integral part of our society, this criticism often fails to account for the endless practice of care that is abundant in our cities. While governments fail to take care of life in all its forms, many people fight in their everyday life to promote a built environment that supports care. Even in critical discourse about the discipline, care-centered practices are often reduced to exceptional acts of resistance towards the neoliberal rules that dictate the boundaries of the profession. The assignment of this year’s Pritzker Prize to Lacaton & Vassal has been received by the media as the recognition of an exceptional act of care for the environment, rather than the acknowledgment of a way of practicing architecture that is gaining more and more support. While, as stated by The Guardian, “It is a fitting moment for a prize once reserved for flamboyant sculptors of icons to be awarded to a practice that would prefer you didn’t notice their presence at all”, the discourse around the Prize seems to reiterate a very well-known paradigm in the world of architecture criticism. Zaha Hadid, who was the first woman awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2004, has come to identify a very specific way of thinking about women in architecture, at times denying the inequality of treatment and at times embodying a necessary—but not inclusive enough—fight to recognize women at the top. Similarly, Lacaton and Vassal Pritzker Prize narrows the discourse around sustainability in architecture, presenting them as the living proof that another approach is possible, if only all architects were that good.
The selection of books presented in this fair aims at countering this narrative of carelessness. While we agree that it’s important to recognize its role in the current issues that affect society, we argue that it’s even more important to look at the practices that are searching for possible alternatives.
A phase of transition
We are witnessing a historical moment of transition and change. While neoliberal tendencies have paired up with the most conservative forces in most western countries, in the last couple of years we have witnessed a proliferation of movements that aim to defend the rights of categories often at the borders of political discourse. Not only that, there is also a growing interest for our interdependency with non-human natural species, as well as different forms of artificial intelligence. In this perspective, it is worth reflecting on the choice of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 to focus on the question “How will we live together?”, posed by curator Hashim Sarkis in relation to human and non-human entities. This question is revealing of widespread recognition of the role of the built environment in mediating the interconnectedness of human and non-human entities.
One of the aims of this book fair is to acknowledge the phase of transition in which we are right now in the way we inhabit, design, criticize and write the built environment. This is not a call for the revolution, as much as a way to bring attention to the fact that the revolution is already happening. The selection of books wants to provide recognition to the historical importance of this transition, while attempting to guide through it the built environment and the related professions.
A built environment that supports care
The framework of landscapes of care seems particularly fitting to encompass different practices that help usher humanity into a more sustainable phase of their existence. Putting care at the center of spatial practices means pursuing a built environment that supports care, in all its forms. In her book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Saskia Sassen draws a connection between different forms of expulsions that characterize our current societies and our current built environment, arguing that there are systemic logics at play that influence all aspects of our environment, from the financialized economy, to the growing inequality and the exploitation of natural resources. It is possible to argue that care is an equally overarching concept to frame positive change. In particular, applying the notion of care to the built environment means to embrace in all planning related disciplines ideas of care towards all human and non-human species. In addition to that, it means creating a built environment that enables humans to care for each other and for the planet.
The architecture book
A similarly critical approach can be extended to the book of architecture. Although it can’t be considered a genre, the architecture book usually falls into one of the following categories: the architect’s monograph, the architect’s manifesto, the building study-case, and the handbook—the last one can serve different purposes, ranging from the most practical to the most theoretical. When it’s not framed as a celebratory object, packaged into the sleekest coffee-table accessory, the architecture book tries to provide answers and solutions. But a book can be more than this. In these times of transition, the most interesting aspect of architecture books lies in their capacity to challenge the dominating narrative and open up discussions. For that to happen, what counts is not the answer, but the question the book poses. This ongoing transition does not need innovative answers to old questions as much as it needs innovative questions wherever the old ones have become obsolete. For instance, presenting innovative solutions to the old problem of the imbalance between city and countryside is not as important as challenging the very dichotomy between urban and rural, asking what are the condition that created this divide and allow its persistence, and figuring out how to overcome that with new systems of measurement, new terminologies, and new approaches.
Starting from the notion of care, the first aspect that needs to be challenged in the current framing of the architecture books is a tendency to focus on individuals. Whether it is about famous architects, star-buildings, construction techniques, or architecture theories, the focus on the individual often fails to account for the system of which they are part of, as well as for the less shiny individual architects, buildings, or aspects of the profession that significantly contribute to the totality of the built environment. Examples can include manifestos by communities, case-studies on stories and systems, handbooks on system building as well as what’s behind the architecture. In addition to that, we have welcomed all books that challenge the current borders of the architecture discipline.
The three categories we propose (imagining, reporting, and guiding) will bring to the forefront practices that relate directly to this struggle by imagining a different system, reporting from the frontlines, or guiding others to partake. To some extent, all the selected books contain elements of imagining, reporting, or guiding; the borders between the different categories are therefore fluid, and possibly different for each person reading the books. Yet, this organization aims to communicate the perspective in which the books were chosen, and the sense of urgency that the curatorial selection recognized in each of them.
The proposals included in this category have to do with the possibility of “imagining” a different future. As many thinkers today agree on, one of the main features of the current form of capitalism is that it has become so pervasive that we are usually incapable of imagining possible alternatives. We might argue that the same applies to carelessness, that, as argued in the Care Manifesto, is a distinctive feature of the current neoliberal capitalism, where inequality is “not an accident, but a structural feature”. Yet, we would like to argue that architecture and spatial practices might have the potential to counter this lack of imagination. Not only designing requires an act of imagination, as you are envisioning something that is not there, but often architects and urban planners, especially some of the more utopia-oriented ones, have been imagining environments that would only come to life years, sometimes decades after their times. By imagining different environments, utopian thinkers have been able to imagine different societies and different practices that might take place there. In addition to that, the possibility of visualizing a different world is a crucial aspect of allowing other people as well to believe in the possibility of alternative realities.
In a series of contributions by several authors, Design Struggles tries to explore possible answers to the question: “How can we reimagine design as an unbounded, queer, and unfinished practice that approaches the world from within instead of claiming an elevated position?” A diverse array of design histories, pedagogies, and theoretical and practical perspectives, presents possibilities of reimagining the role of design in the 21st century.
Under the “reporting” category, we have included a selection of titles that demonstrate how spatial practices have been transforming in response to the systemic lack of care shown by governments. While the focus is often on the critical aspects of this lack of care, the emergence of new forms of spatial organizations in response to this provide a much needed perspective to ground this discourse. As recent projects have demonstrated, urban design strategies can create a built environment that actively supports gender equality; spatial activism has proved a fundamental tool to fight gentrification and segregation between different segments of society; spatial organizations that supports different forms of housing have been providing a much needed alternative to obsolete modes of living and supporting based exclusively on the nuclear family model; architects have been carving our new roles in order to provide new tools towards more inclusive forms of design and spatial criticism. By highlighting examples of how the notion of care has become a key feature of innovative ways of producing, discussing, and challenging the built environment and the related professions, the category acknowledges a world that is often ignored or underestimated.
In Feminist City: Claiming Space in the Man-Made World, Leslie Kern investigates what it means for a city to be inclusive of all bodies, and it offers several examples of spatial practices that support this aim. In addition to a thorough critical reflection of how inequalities are still ingrained in the way cities are designed, built, and thought of, the author reports a wide range of inclusive and care-centered spatial practices, from the feminist cooperative housing projects emerged in the ‘70s, to her own experience of sharing her motherly care work through alternative forms of kinship.
The aim of the books selected here is never to provide solutions or answers, yet we have recognized in some the potential of “guiding” spatial practices in these times of transitions. While the reporting of new practices and the imagining of possible alternatives are essential to guide us through, in the guiding category we have included publications that specifically advise on new ways of thinking about the built environment. By challenging current models, these works offer insight on how to step in the mindset that will allow us to build up new practices and imagine possible alternatives.
Among others, Keller Easterling has measured up with the task of uncovering the tools we might need to transition to a different reality. In Medium Design, Knowing How to Work on the World, she explains how design can intervene in the interplays and spatial relationships to activate latent potentials. Instead of telling designers what to do and how to do it, the author offers insight on how we already use these tools, albeit involuntarily, not only in our practices but also in our daily life. By becoming aware of these latent potentials and interplays, design can become a powerful tool to exert agency within the “social, political, financial, and environmental economies of space.”
— Chiara Dorbolò, Curator of the Architecture Book Fair 2021