Architects are asked to engage with an increasingly vast inventory of social and political problems. But where does engagement happen, and what does it involve? One need not leave the studio to understand that architecture is already embroiled in any number of worldly problems. The sense that architecture turns on small things is met with a growing consensus that even the smallest, most quotidian aspects of architectural design turn on large-scale systems and pressing ethical dilemmas. The line between system and architecture is itself increasingly blurry, and with it the role and responsibility of the architect. While the architect’s role in engaging large-scale problems is under debate, their political consciousness is remarkably consistent. In the face of climate change, the global debt crisis and myriad other dilemmas, architects seek to make invisible problems sensible. Research is an expression of their political ethos.
A growing number of architects dedicate themselves to research, listening for new idioms about space and design that are normally overlooked or refused in the planning and management of large-scale infrastructural systems. Consider the range of infrastructures that architects now bear witness to: waste, militarization, surveillance, energy, informatics and logistics, to name a few.1 Not only are these infrastructures large and geographically distributed, but they are also steadfast in their secrecy and resistance to public scrutiny. Architects and their collaborators enter into the fray in order to interpret the inner workings of a system for a wider audience. In the process, they also experiment with their role as observers, trading hats as writers, activists and teachers.
Waste is exemplary of the conditions within which their research now operates. It is a world whose mechanisms are intentionally shrouded from view, and is popularly associated with histories of pollution and subsequent political struggles over landfills, incinerators and toxic dumps. Its work and workers remain undervalued and invisible to the majority of society. At the same time, waste is under fresh scrutiny in design. Research about its spaces and systems seeks to make legible those things that society refuses to see. New architectural works follow suit, integrating visible aesthetics, visitors centers and other forms of public engagement into an architecture that until recently resisted engagement of any kind. The design of research and the design of new facilities coalesce around a shared ideology of bringing the consequences of waste-making into greater visibility.
Drawing on the example of waste and its spaces, I imagine the architect in the recycling facility and other infrastructural spaces as a provisional figure trying to make sense of his or her role in large scale, politically charged problems. When an architect sets foot in a recycling facility or landfill, he or she enters into conversation with protagonists of various stripes—not only clients, but also workers, management professionals, community groups, engineers and activists. Much of the insight and critical awareness of their counterparts in other fields remains strikingly absent from a great deal of design research about waste and other large-scale systems. All too often, architectural research creates a division of labor between the insights of the observer and those of the observed. The design problems that ensue are familiar: earnest efforts to make the invisible visible overemphasize the transgressive character of an outsider looking in, at the cost of understanding how insiders already look inward and around their environment. With the help of anthropological theory and writing, I explore other ways for research to be involved in its sites. What roles might the architect assume alongside those that they research and design for?
GETTING INSIDE INFRASTRUCTURE
The architecture of waste management is reliably opaque to its urban surroundings, shrouded behind hastily constructed corrugated walls and barbed wire. In North America, its off-the-shelf skin and bones of Butler Building parts and rusty enclosure systems are cobbled together in order to keep the machines and the people who sort waste hidden from the public. In spite of this, a wave of recently minted facilities shed new light on trash. Projects such as Annabelle Selldorf’s Sims Municipal Recycling Facility in Brooklyn bring garbage into view for an architectural audience2 —not to mention, introduce architecture to the manifold audiences that come together around garbage: community groups, environmentalists, design review boards and the ever-influential if politically expedient “tax-paying public.”3 Architectural design is front and center in wider efforts to make waste disposal more visible to society, but its ability to question the terms and consequences of waste’s invisibility remains circumscribed in a number of important ways.
Architectural authorship of waste management facilities is a relatively new phenomenon. In the United States, for instance, amendments to the Resource and Recovery Act in the early 1980s and subsequent state-level legislation laid the groundwork for greater investment in facilities such as landfills and recycling centers. In time, increased investment and civic consciousness about waste prompted the industry to clean up its image, mobilizing architects as service providers in the design and construction of facilities. Though high profile projects by Selldorf, Ennead and Steven Holl herald the entry of elite architectural firms into the waste industry, regional practices such as J.R. Miller and Associates in the Southwest United States have been working in the industry since the early 1990s. In spite of promises of greater visibility and civic engagement, architects in the United States remain compromised in their ability to radically reinvent the contact between waste infrastructure and the public. Requests For Proposals, design competitions and other modes of solicitation demand that architecture be vested in maintaining the relative invisibility of waste management facilities in American cities. Most new facilities continue to be sited on the periphery of cities, occupying urban blind spots such as industrial landscapes and hinterlands.
When involved, architects seek to leverage “better design”: a modest effort to draw attention to the industry and its responsibilities to workers and customers. Better design is a concept that I draw from multiple interviews with the architects of these facilities, such as materials recovery and water treatment facilities. Unlike historical, moralistic notions of “good design,” better design is expressive of an architecture of partial, specialized authorship. In its most prosaic sense, better design is typically limited to those things that the public sees from the outside: landscaping, cladding and coloration of buildings or signage. It also incorporates public access to facilities. Visitor’s centers are a common feature of many new MRFs (materials recovery facility) and water treatment facilities, featuring vantage points for the public to bear witness to their inner workings. Facilities such as JR Miller and Associates’ MRF for the LA County Sanitation District run an elevated walkway through the heart of the recycling facility, lining the passageway with canted windows on either side. Other facilities communicate to a more wide-reaching external public. Bjarke Ingels Group’s Amager Bakke Waste To Energy Plant in Copenhagen, Denmark, envisages the architecture of a waste facility less as a decorated shed than as a broadcast system, producing smoke rings that communicate the plant’s carbon emissions to an unspecified regional public.4
Still, projects of this order are exceptions, not the rule. The ordinarily understated architecture of better design is enlisted to assure that companies and regional sanitation boards appear as good neighbors to surrounding communities—an effort to produce a public, branded image for an industry that is subject to increasing scrutiny by community groups and municipalities. With the exception of visitor’s centers and other educational spaces, most of the inner workings of a facility are off-limits to architectural design.5 Systems for sorting recyclables, for instance, are sold by engineering firms as a proprietary kit of parts. Transportation specialists design connections between the interior of a facility and external forms of infrastructure such as roads and rail lines. The architecture of flow is thus the provenance of an increasingly fragmented cadre of specialists, relegating architectural expertise to their interstices.
But the architect’s role as a service provider does not preclude his or her ability to be critical of a system like waste management. Rather than debate the quantity or quality of architecture as a design corps for the industry, why not question the nature of its commitments altogether? Undoubtedly, architectural practice and education are committed to fulfilling a responsibility to the public through the provision of professional services. Research is an important, if often unacknowledged, aspect of its service. But the architectural discipline’s commitment to research positions it to undertake a more independent role in accounting for political, social and environmental problems. As a matter of fact, architects already position themselves as potent observers of dilemmas that resist social accountability. In doing so, they undertake the politically charged task of making the invisible visible, a mantle whose ideology has received little critical reflection.
To make the invisible visible assumes an inner world into which an outsider, such as an architect, enters into and makes visible. But waste is not easily confined to an interior. Contemporary design research encounters phenomena, such as waste, that resist clean demarcations between inside and outside worlds. Ubiquitous, dispersed and categorically leaky phenomena challenge the ideology and role of an outsider/researcher who bears witness to foreign and hidden worlds. By assuming the role of an observer, the architect today encounters a series of epistemological concerns that share considerable precedent—and shared histories—with the social sciences. In particular, insights in contemporary anthropology about multi-sited research and collaboration provide a language for reimagining how design research is implicated in the dynamics of large-scale systems. Drawing on the theoretical writings of anthropologist George Marcus and others, I propose that the ideology of “getting inside infrastructure” be joined by other ways of being involved with one’s research site and subjects.
The idea that research is a form of social involvement has considerable precedent in the architectural profession and discipline. Avigail Sachs observes that in mid-twentieth century America, for instance, research was a platform for architects to undertake “service to society” apart from their commitments to “competition and business.”6 Its many subsequent uses carry valences of social engagement. Think of the academically inflected “techno-social” experimentation during the 1960 and 70s and its attention to social perception and behavior, or of the ascendance of program in practices such as OMA.7 At its most rudimentary level, “design research” is comprised of systematic inquiries that seek to establish a social, programmatic, political or environmental context preceding the design of a building, landscape or urban system. Its status as an emerging area of expertise independent from the professional and artistic expertise of architectural and urban design reflects a growing demand that architectural work be legible in new institutional settings—that it be recognizable to both the research university and a market for design, which demands that architecture be evermore “socially engaged.”
Of its many tools of social engagement, the analysis and management of information is tantamount. The management and translation of data about social groups and quantifiable phenomena into diagrams, animations and other forms of visualization is arguably as fundamental to contemporary architectural education as basic drawing, and is part and parcel of how the profession communicates itself to its clients and the public at large.8 Though forms of information gathering and analysis are everywhere in the profession, the interpretation of data in contemporary design education is better documented.9 The pedagogical format of the “research studio” is emblematic. In his short but insightful genealogy of the research studio, Kazys Varnelis suggests that contemporary research studios such as Rem Koolhaas’ Harvard Project on the City draw “on the processes of information gathering, analysis, and synthesis that an architect undertakes in the early phases of design, utilizing the architect’s skills in structuring visual and verbal information into a coherent whole.”10 Privileging analysis over architectural design, the research studio uses uniquely architectural sensibilities to translate data into a rhetoric of interpretation.
Information is also mobilized as a political “front” for architectural practice, an ethics of “being informed.” Architect Alejandro Aravena’s recently penned manifesto for the 2016 Architecture Biennale is illustrative of this ideology. He implores architects to engage more and better information about society, arguing that “architects have a responsibility to engage in broad conversations that ensure we are properly informed about all the parameters of a given project.”11 Aravena stops short of calling for more immediate forms of engagement, such as direct observation or collaboration, preferring that architecture itself operate as an “open system” for the inclusion, transmission and analysis of information. More inputs into what informs design will, he hopes, generate greater inclusivity for underrepresented populations and problems.
Architectural research is here faced with an old problem, well known to earlier debates in social science and design discourse about managing the complexity of information.12 Recalling anxieties over the proliferation of information about cities and society during the 1960s and 70s, architects are today placed in the middle of a tangled, ever expanding web of specialized knowledge about social problems. Aravena’s recent remarks are further emblematic of how socially engaged practices seek to participate in the overwhelming fog of information about social services and groups. According to Aravena, merely being informed about issues and problems is important but insufficient. Instead, he proposes that architecture’s capacity for social engagement hinges on “speaking the language” of other disciplines, rather than simply engaging with them.13
Aravena’s call glosses over the significant degree to which architects already utilize the language and methods of other disciplines such as geography, sociology or anthropology. Drawing on the long history of engagement between architecture and the social sciences, university and professional design studios utilize social-scientific sensibilities and data to establish the needs of a client, community or user group. Common examples in contemporary architectural education include spatial mapping projects (ranging from experiential, sensorial mapping to GIS data), rudimentary statistical analysis and behavioral user studies, as well as proto-ethnographic description and interviews. Social-scientific methods and imagery also transcend the grind of everyday practice, propelling deeper forms of introspection about the architectural discipline’s boundaries. David Gissen argues that architecture’s recent turn towards geographical methods and images, for example, unveils a longer history of shared concepts about territory in both fields—opening architecture up to urgent “geographic” conversations about difference, rights and citizenship.14
Wittingly or not, architects and design students who engage in such research practices inherit the problems of social science when they adopt its methods. Geography is one such example. Anthropological concepts are less acknowledged, but equally salient. Notions of complicity in ethnographic fieldwork, for instance, are especially helpful in refocusing ideas about research in architecture away from information gathering to the complicated work of site-based observation.15 Complicity is essential to any research project, architectural, anthropological or otherwise. Consider the example of waste management. At minimum, researchers must make concessions to the concerns of a company or municipal agency in order to gain access to a recycling facility or landfill. They might further participate in its forms of work or representation in order to learn more about its workings and workers. They are also responsible to the community or advocacy groups that they solicit for perspectives on the same facilities. The researcher might further align themselves with the priorities of advocacy and activist groups. Whether inside or outside the walls of a facility, research about infrastructural systems demands that the researcher be complicitous in the codes and procedures that mark the system.
In recognizing its epistemological affinities with social scientific practices such as anthropology, architecture might also inherit its critical perspectives about the ways in which research becomes involved in its sites and subjects. It can learn from how anthropology writes its involvement with people and institutions into its forms of narration. In her ethnography of sanitation work, for instance, anthropologist Robin Nagle reveals a world of institutional regulations and social codes that are hidden from public scrutiny. Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (2013) tells the stories of workers in an effort to counter what Nagle calls “the invisibility syndrome” associated with sanitation work, and delicately exposes the inner world of waste to a public that does not understand or respect it.16 Recounting the many compromises and authorizations entailed in observing and participating in sanitation work, Nagle remarks that her field became one of permissions.17 Her frustrated requests for permission to conduct fieldwork and participant observation rehearse an ethnographic dramaturgy, involving indifference, resistance and rapport building with her research subjects. Getting inside facilities and into uniform involved tense meetings with unsympathetic bureaucrats, physical tests to measure competency for sanitation work, and negotiations within a predominantly male world of “sanmen.”
The image of a researcher entering into a foreign context—in this case a waste management facility—presupposes an inside and an outside, and that an outsider enters into an inside world in order to understand it better. Anthropologists and cultural theorists have for a number of decades questioned the structure, motives and efficacy of this ideology of fieldwork, even if many aspects of it continue to be upheld.18 Anthropology’s historical alignments with colonial power and ongoing paradigms of socioeconomic development were scrutinized in the discipline’s methodological introspection that occurred during the 1980s and 90s, which reflected on the many complicities entailed in developing a rapport with research subjects and the institutions that granted access to them.19 What kinds of value systems and structures of power, for example, made it possible for a researcher to travel and conduct research about “primitive societies,” or for the sociologist to enter into spaces of urban poverty? Moreover, what relationships of power did fieldwork posit between the anthropologist and informant, and how were such relationships articulated or glossed over in ethnographic texts?
While many of these critiques are by now second nature to anthropology and cultural studies, introspection about complicity endures in the face of new conditions for site-based research. Marcus argues that “being there” encodes a deeper spatial and cultural metaphor. Even critiques of complicity in anthropological practice, he writes, “sustain the sense that the symbolic and literal domain of fieldwork exists inside another form of life—entailing crossing a boundary into it and exploring a cultural logic of enclosed difference.”20 Marcus contends that this model of boundary-crossing and subsequent translation of cultural difference was out of sync with the objects that anthropologists were observing in the 1990s: financial networks, scientific research, transnational advocacy and so on. In its place, he argues that the fieldworker and his or her informants simultaneously sense that what is happening is tied to what is happening elsewhere, the uncertain causality of which is felt by both figures: a shared sense of being outside.20 The anthropologist and the informant share a mutual curiosity and desire to make sense of the forces that impinge on them—an equivalence that stands in marked contrast to the inequitable power relationship between a researcher and their informants that is endemic to histories of social science.21
Like anthropological fieldwork, design research about porous, large-scale issues such as waste complicate the assumption of a conceptually and physically bounded space within which research is conducted. Certainly, facilities are difficult for “outsiders” to access. But the people that work inside these facilities are also outsiders. Changes in their environment and conditions of work are not experienced uniformly—they are felt by different actors across different places simultaneously. In this context, architects, managers, workers and engineers may experience a shared sense of being outside, of not knowing the sources and causes of large-scale shifts in the value or toxicity of trash and other forms of waste. Who is an insider in a company like Waste Management, a company that is large enough and geographically distributed to approximate the workings of a state bureaucracy? Furthermore, the notion that there is an inside of waste infrastructure is difficult to uphold given that toxic chemicals, smells, unwanted trash and myriad other forms of glut bleed outward into transport networks, aquifers and other vectors. It is everywhere, even when you don’t see it.
Much as Marcus reflects on what he calls the changing “mise-en-scene” of anthropological fieldwork, the changing conditions and objects of architectural research behoove us to question the ideology of site-based research. To do so, it may be useful to begin by recognizing another form of complicity, one that Marcus suggests is defined by a shared sense of being “complex or involved” that is opposed to commonplace definitions such as “partnership in evil activity.”22 Given that research problems in design are increasingly multi-sited, as well as spatially and temporally dispersed, how can design research experiment with its involvement in “being here and there,” rather than merely “being there,” to again borrow from Marcus?22 If not the outsider working to get “inside,” what roles might he or she assume?
BEING INVOLVED: COLLABORATION AND ADJACENCY
In assuming the role of an observer, architects witness and document phenomena alongside others who scrutinize their circumstances. Representing and reflecting on their insights introduces voices that are otherwise written out of design problems about new facilities, urban landscapes and infrastructural design. It attends to the concepts that informants use to describe the spaces that they work in and their problems. It listens for alternatives that workers, managers and activists already speculate on, and their spatial idioms. Recognizing their insight demands that architects listen more to voices outside of the field, not less.
I suspect that my call for architects to listen more to others will raise concerns about the identity of architects and their work. They are questions redolent of a discipline trying to figure out its place alongside problems that are foreign to it. I will rehearse a few here: does listening more mean architects will be faced with too many voices, most of which are distant from their expertise? By observing problems that are not immediately architectural, do architects stray too far from their disciplinary commitments and into the terrain of disciplinary ventriloquism or amateur social science: the “architect as anthropologist?” Does the architect engage with experiences of alterity outside of her institutional and disciplinary boundaries at the expense of engaging critically within them, in the here and now, recalling Hal Foster’s well known caricature of “the artist as ethnographer?”23
What these concerns share is a fear that involvement with extra-disciplinary actors and problems compromises the integrity of architectural knowledge, co-opting its ability to be critical and objective. On the contrary, while many of the waste industry’s most potent observers establish positions that are proximate to its workings and spaces, they preserve their independence from the industry’s forms of knowledge-making and representation. Artists, authors and scholars such as Nagle, Elizabeth Royte, William Rathje, Mel Chin and Mierle Ukeles work hard to maintain independence for their work, even as they collaborate and give voice to the expertise of actors within the industry. We might imagine their presence in spaces of waste disposal as adjacent to the waste industry: the artist, author or architect may be in contact with industry protagonists, but are by definition “absent of anything of the same kind in between.”24
I borrow the concept of adjacency from anthropologist Paul Rabinow, who envisages it as a virtual space wherein an observer observes observers.25 Think, for example of an anthropologist like Rabinow, who studies a scientist conducting research. Rabinow asserts that occupying a position of adjacency allows questions to emerge that would otherwise be unimaginable if the researcher were to constrain herself to the obligations and representational genres of those she observes.26 The observer, in this case an anthropologist, tells a different kind of story, he writes: one parallel to but entirely different from the plot line of journalism or the representational strictures of scientific papers.27 One’s adjacency to others upholds the differences between their institutional, intellectual and personal commitments and his or her own. According to Rabinow, the researcher asserts objectivity by remaining disinterested in the research subject’s obligations and career paths, even where and when he or she observes them.
If the researcher is not beholden to the goals of its subjects, what role do their insights play? Rabinow suggests that this independence lends a freshness of voice, curiosity and critical insight that the researcher’s subjects might not have time for, or simply overlook.28 As an architect, my role in spaces of waste disposal is similar. In ongoing research about the architecture and urbanism of waste disposal, I interview advocates, architects and others about their perspectives on the design and spaces of facilities. The questions that I raise draw out problems about space and design that are already at play in the industry, but which are impermissible or marginal to the day-to-day imperatives of the industry and its critics. Labor activists in the waste industry are, for example, diligent in their attention to issues of worker safety and welfare. Space and design are not prominent concerns. But advocates and workers are deeply versed in spatial problems. As a researcher who is independent from their advocacy, my role is not to speak on their behalf, but instead to approach their questions, concepts and insights in a different way. I leave room for my own curiosity about their work, and their curiosity about my research questions and motivations
Consider further the spatial idioms of advocacy. In an interview in 2014, a number of labor activists in Los Angeles associated with the Don’t Waste LA coalition relayed a number of troubling observations to me about labor conditions in the Southern California waste industry.29 They described how companies rely on temporary and undocumented workers, and how bodies are treated like cogs in a machine—an old but sadly urgent dilemma. Laboring bodies, many of them female, are accorded minimal space in sorting lines. Workers often feel trapped and overwhelmed by the bins of waste they are asked to fill and push. They are denied any space to congregate and rest: bodies in motion, without space. Our conversation underscored the imbrication of space with problems of dignity, inequality and safety. My questions about the architecture of facilities were met with curiosity and interest. Together, we imagined the possibility of advocacy about space and design in the industry, a yet unexplored zone of experimentation.
Our conversation was convivial and creative. But counterparts in other fields do not always welcome independent research about architecture and design. Conducting observation alongside informants is inherently open ended, engendering a play of curiosity that also risks misappropriation of research and conflict over the incongruity of an architect’s research with an informant’s priorities. Such risks might constrain research, but can also raise unanticipated questions and possibilities, an unresolved tension that I wrestled with during a research project with architecture students at the University at Buffalo during 2011-12, titled “Infrastructural Research.”30 The yearlong seminar examined how small, individual acts of waste making and disposal, such as backyard composting and outdoor trash cans, were tied to bigger ideas about public space in Buffalo. Research prioritized interviews and first hand engagement with waste systems and byproducts over data-heavy evidence gleaned from secondary sources. We learned from embodied forms of recording, measuring and witnessing waste, including Francis Alÿs’ walks in Mexico City (The Collector, 1991-2006), Stanley Milgram’s studies of dispossession (Lost Letter Technique, 1965) and Mel Chin’s collaborative experiments with phytoremediation (Revival Field, 1991-ongoing). Research culminated in the exhibition and publication of a series of broadsheet “Assembly Manuals” (http://assemblyoftrash.net/), which described a number of new rituals about waste disposal and the social and spatial problems that motivated them.31
In part, our research made use of conventional techniques of spatial analysis. We learned from interviews and site visits with urban gardeners, farmers, civil engineers, a regional waste management company, lawyers and advocacy organizations. Our informants painted a different picture of waste than official explanations of its containment and disappearance. Instead, they described a porous landscape: matter, smells and toxins escaped many of the legal, social and physical thresholds that were designed to contain them. Our drawings indexed this porosity. We analyzed, for instance, how dangerous particulate matter escaped from landfills, arguing that, when seen through the lens of particulate matter, the aerial boundaries of the landfill were much bigger than the soil, plastic and fences that contain it. Students also mapped the circulation of organic waste in Buffalo, representing a network of reciprocal exchange between organic waste producers and composters in the city that was independent of municipally-sanctioned forms of waste management.
Our informants’ stories and concerns informed our maps and diagrams. But they also made their own maps of urban space. A great deal of our informants’ work involved the identification of otherwise invisible boundaries associated with trash, ranging from toxicity and smell to value and conflicting definitions of land use. Much like the architect’s sketchbook, measuring tape and camera, or the planner’s survey, instruments play an important role in observing the byproducts and consequences of trash. Instruments such as the air quality monitoring bucket are critical to advocates mapping air pollution in the absence of adequate regulation by the state. The bucket, which is an adapted plastic restaurant storage bucket manufactured by an advocacy group in California and distributed to partner groups such as the Clean Air Coalition in Buffalo, uses negative pressure to inhale outside air. Affected communities are trained by advocacy groups to monitor their own air—opening up the act of monitoring to individuals and assuring basic expertise in the production of evidence. Once collected, air quality sample bags are sent to an independent laboratory for evaluation. The lab results are used to lobby the EPA to more accurately identify levels of pollution for use as evidence in legal proceedings.
While our research documented observers of air quality, compost and other phenomena related to waste, we also sought to speculate on the margins of their work. In empirical studies, drawings and the design of a prototype, we experimented with how air quality might involve other publics and spaces. Inspired by the aesthetics of vapor monitoring badges worn by toxic clean up crews, scientists and workers, one student imagined colorful membranes that would register otherwise imperceptible changes in particulate matter, VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and other airborne byproducts of landfills. Other studies were empirical, staging sticky surfaces in different urban settings in order to analyze the prevalence of particulate matter in the air. Following these studies, the seminar constructed a prototype for a “Window Lung:” inserting the mechanics of the air quality monitoring bucket into a domestic window. Imagined as a typology for houses that are sited near landfills, the project was unabashedly experimental and open to failure. Connecting the space of advocacy with the space of domesticity raised more problems than it solved. How would expertise be assured? Would a fixed expression of monitoring undermine the spatial and temporal agility of the activist’s bucket?
Though some of our informants were enthusiastic about our work, and in some cases eager to appropriate it, others were cautious and outwardly critical. Our research resisted immediate functionality for industry or advocacy efforts, a fact that was troubling to some of our counterparts. We sought to learn about air quality monitoring in Buffalo, but our work was not oriented towards advocacy-based imperatives of training and mobilizing community members to monitor air quality. One of our primary informants, a local air quality monitoring activist, was unconcerned by our autonomy from their work, expressing interest in our architectural studies of air quality as a potential advocacy tool. On the other hand, another national level activist was disturbed by our relative distance from the air quality monitoring movement—communicating his disdain for the project as a waste of time for advocates like himself. In hindsight, given our de facto alliance with air quality advocates and other self-proclaimed “grass roots” work in the city, should we have been more involved in their priorities?
Our unease was unresolved. But it reminded us that research conducted in close proximity to others’ work is an experimental practice whose outcomes are unpredictable and, as Rabinow suggests, untimely: out of sync with what is urgent and pressing, but no less incisive.32 In contrast, much of research in architecture is currently undertaken in the atelier, behind the comfort of a computer screen—insulating architects and students from the risk, surprise and play of observing the ways in which others make sense of new spaces and systems. It renders potential intellectual and creative counterparts as objects and statistical information, effacing their stories and language. If architects and designers were to, on the other hand, think of their informants as what Marcus and anthropologist Douglas Holmes call “intellectual partners,” disciplinary ideas about space and social life in architecture would be joined by concepts and developments outside the field—subverting the idea that intellectual traffic issues solely from elite cultural spaces in the academy, profession or architectural vanguard.33
First hand observation also opens design research to the concerns and imagination of its informants. The questions that it raises can, in Rabinow’s words, “pique the native’s curiosity,” a transgression from the day-to-day imperatives of the system at hand.34 But it goes further. Marcus and Holmes, for instance, envision a collaborative relationship between the observer and the observed, wherein the informant, also a researcher or inquisitive subject, is not only curious, but also invited to appropriate and redefine the observer’s research agenda.35 Here, collaboration is not equated with consensus building, a frequent conceit of collaborative and participatory models of social engagement. Free of common institutional and intellectual goals, it preserves the uniqueness of its participants’ expertise and background, while introducing the potential for disciplinary problems to spin off into new milieus. Collaboration of this order invites experimentation with ways of being involved in the work of others, rather than shrugging off involvement as a necessary evil.
Still, who has time to think their context anew, and who does not?36 It is, without a doubt, the luxury of the expert, and it bears reminding that the mutual inquiry that Rabinow, Marcus and Holmes have in mind is largely a meeting of equals: other experts. Establishing a conversation with intellectual equals may well be the most productive space for design inquiry to make a difference. But I have something more in mind. Waste disposal is colored by histories of racism and inequality, disproportionately burdening vulnerable populations with sanitary labor and proximity to incinerators and landfills.37 In bringing waste into view, we are also bringing into view the life experiences of people who are asked to do dangerous work on behalf of a public that sees their bodies and lives as disposable, dirty and invisible. Granting these individuals greater dignity through visibility is an architectural trope, but it begs to be asked: do those who work in facilities desire this kind of exposure? Opening up architectural research to appropriation allows our counterparts to define their own priorities, leaving open the possibility that research and design is refused, or that its work will be appropriated to other ends.
Collaboration opens up knowledge about spaces and systems to constituencies outside of architecture, expert and non-expert alike. But, unlike anthropology and other forms of social analysis, collaboration in design research enacts new protocols and procedures. It experiments in the register of knowing, apart from the world of knowledge. Our best example of this kind of collaboration may not exist in architecture or in anthropology, but in art. Consider the work of artist Mierle Ukeles. In her lifelong appointment as artist of the NYC Department of Sanitation, Ukeles has, among other things, shaken hands and thanked every sanitation worker in the Department (Touch Sanitation, 1977-80) and enlisted a tugboat captain to perform a garbage barge ballet (Marrying the Barges, 1984). She describes how her “handshake ritual” adopted some of the characteristics of sanitation work: “I modeled my performance work on work shifts, constancy, endurance, all virtues that didn’t have too much value in culture…”38 She adds of her routine: “At 6:00 a.m. roll calls, I started making fiery and fiery-er speeches. I would say, ‘I’m not here to watch you, I’m not here to study you, to judge you, I’m here to be with you. That’s the art, and I want to say thank you.’”39
Elsewhere, Ukeles writes that she wanted to avoid the sound-byte mentality of journalism and social-scientific research.40 Her work resists the performance of objectivity, even as it asserts her role as an artist. I take her work as analogous, not equivalent, to research. In displacing and redistributing roles, Ukeles dons many of the codes and procedures of sanitation workers. Her participation in sanitary practices is joined by an invitation to her counterparts to participate in the structure and play of artistic labor. Collaboration extends the responsibilities of maintenance and art to actors who are by definition independent of the activity that they are participating in, as when the tugboat captain lines his barges up in the service of aesthetic play. Indeed, Ukeles leaves the tugboat performance open to appropriation by her counterpart boat captains, which can be understood as a radical relinquishment or deferral of artistic authority.
Much as Ukeles questions the division of labor between work and art, might architects and designers also question the division of labor in their research? The division of intellectual labor between architect and informant is also a division of spaces, a distinction made between the studio and the research site. In contrast, the involvement of architects in complicated political and environmental problems render such distinctions porous and untenable, even though they never fully go away. The distanced, bleary-eyed labor of studio-based research is joined by the messy, surprising world of first-hand experience, opening design problems up to the insight and imagination of others. In the process, novel inquiries about space and design are introduced to systems and actors who are unfamiliar with architectural concerns, but also to an architectural profession and discipline that has until now largely ignored them.
- 1. Recent advocacy-oriented projects include, but are not limited to: Demilit’s collaborative examination of security and military infrastructure (Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers and Javier Arbona, http://demilit.tumblr.com/); Janette Kim and Erik Carver’s recently published research about energy and architecture (http://e-alloftheabove.org/) and the research of Closed Loops about pneumatic waste in NYC (Juliette Spertus, Benjamin Miller, Albert Mateu http://www.closedloops.net/). ^
- 2. See “Trash Talk with Annabelle Selldorf,” Swiss Institute, NYC, October 20, 2015. https://www.swissinstitute.net/event/conversation-annabelle-selldorf-with-felix-burrichter/. ^
- 3. Mariana Mogilevich. “Monument, Landscape, Museum? Waste Spaces and their Publics” (Paper presented at “How To Make Waste Public” symposium, WUHO Gallery, Los Angeles, California, April 19, 2014). ^
- 4. realities:united, “Big Vortex—A Building-Site Art Installation by realities:united for Amagerforbaending, Copenhagen,” https://vimeo.com/40229132. ^
- 5. Facilities here include Selldorf’s facility in Brooklyn, Abalos & Herreros’ materials recovery facility (MRF) at the Valdamingomez landfill in Madrid, and JR Miller and Associates’ MRF at Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles. ^
- 6. Avigail Sachs, “Research for Architecture: Building a Discipline and Modernizing the Profession” (Phd diss., University of California Berkeley, 2009),11. ^
- 7. Arindam Dutta. “Linguistics, Not Grammatology; Architecture’s A Prioris and Architecture’s Priorities,” in A Second Modernism; MIT, Architecture, and the ‘Techno-Social’ Moment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), 2. See also Sachs, “Research for Architecture.” Regarding program, see Anthony Vidler’s essay “Toward a Theory of Architectural Program,” October 106 (Fall 2003). ^
- 8. “A Question about Thesis,” in Everything Must Move: 15 years at Rice School of Architecture, 1994—2009 (Houston: Rice School of Architecture, 2009), 185. Albert Pope suggests that the quantitative was left behind in the wake of postmodernism, though it may not so much have been left behind as reconfigured. He states: “The separation of quantitative discourse from the objects it presumes to inform underwrote the entire postmodern reaction to modernism. The reaction did not result in solving the problem, however. It simply tipped the balance back in favor of the phenomenal object, privileging (again) design qualities over quantitative research. Thus we are still left trying to define that relation. The difficulty of relating quantitative analysis to the qualities of space and form has deep epistemological roots that cannot be underestimated.” ^
- 9. The growing role of information management cannot be understated, especially in university education. Recognizing its pervasive role in architectural education and the need for critical perspectives about the acquisition and translation of data sets, Jonathan Massey, Dean of Architecture at California College of the Arts, recently suggested that design students should also be educated in statistics. Jonathan Massey, lecture, Princeton University School of Architecture, March 25, 2015. https://vimeo.com/123729362. ^
- 10. Kazys Varnelis, “Is There Research in the Studio?” Journal of Architectural Education (2007): 11. ^
- 11. The role of research in managing complexity is an important artifact of Postwar design education and professional practice, and its breathless invocation today is worth considering in light of this legacy. See Sachs and Dutta. ^
- 12. Alejandro Aravena, “It’s time to rethink the entire role and language of architecture,” The Guardian, Friday November 20, 2015. Accessed December 7, 2015. Emphasis mine. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/nov/20/rethink-role-language-architecture-alejandro-aravena. ^
- 13. Aravena, “It’s time to rethink.” ^
- 14. Gissen, 67. ^
- 15. George E. Marcus, “The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-Scène of Anthropological Fieldwork,” Representations, (Summer 1997): 85-108. ^
- 16. Nagle, Picking Up, On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 18. ^
- 17. Robin Nagle, Picking Up, 34. ^
- 18. George E. Marcus, “The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-Scène of Anthropological Fieldwork,” Representations, (Summer 1997): 85-108. See also much of James Clifford’s writing of the time. ^
- 19. Marcus, “The Uses of Complicity,” 96. ^
- 20. Ibid., 96. ^
- 21. Fennell, Catherine. “Emplacement.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, September 24, 2015. http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/716-emplacement. ^
- 22. Marcus, “The Uses of Complicity,” 100. ^
- 23. Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), 302-309. Foster’s critique of quasi-anthropological artistic practices anticipates a number of risks entailed in site-based observation. He draws an analogy between Walter Benjamin’s call for the artist to assume a position beside the proletarian and contemporary artists that place themselves in proximity to cultural others. With Benjamin, he concludes that their position alongside the subaltern was a Trojan horse: the artists occupy a position not on par with the subaltern but instead one that “sits in the place” of the bourgeois patron and the institutions that mobilize the artist—a form of complicity. In effect, Foster argues, ethnographically inflected artistic work inoculates the museum that supports it from critique. But complicity, as I have shown, can also be redefined to take account of one’s involvement with a number of different protagonists, not just a cultural other. It can engage with proletarians and cultural institutions. Its engagement is not exclusive to either, especially if we think of research as being multi-sited. Rather than protect the museum or gallery from scrutiny, why can’t the museum be included as yet another site for the artist’s observations and critique? ^
- 24. “Adjacent,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adjacent. I draw the definition from Paul Rabinow’s book: Marking Time: On The Anthropology of the Contemporary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). ^
- 25. Rabinow, Marking Time: On The Anthropology of the Contemporary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). ^
- 26. Ibid. ^
- 27. Ibid., 44-47. ^
- 28. Rabinow, Marking Time, 47. ^
- 29. Interview with Jackie Cornejo and Francisco Azru, August 15, 2014. ^
- 30. The project was conducted as part of the Peter Reyner Banham Fellowship, in collaboration with Bryan Lee, John Geisler, Whitney Van Houten, Timothy Boll, Christa Trautman, Adam Feldman, and Mark Nowaczyk. ^
- 31. See Assembly of Trash: http://www.assemblyoftrash.net. ^
- 32. Rabinow, Marking Time, 39-40. ^
- 33. I borrow the concept of “intellectual partners” from Douglas R. Holmes and George E. Marcus, “Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter,” Collaborative Anthropologies (Vol. 1, 2008): 81-101. ^
- 34. Rabinow, Marking Time, 47. ^
- 35. Holmes Marcus, “Collaboration Today,” 84. Marcus and Holmes see this as a function of a number of new paradigms for anthropological research, paradigms that I would argue also resonate with design research: the research of researchers (ie: anthropologists doing research about scientific research or finance) and figures who conduct what they call “para-ethnographic” work, inquiries into social worlds that resemble ethnographic sensibilities, but which are undertaken by people outside of the field. ^
- 36. Jacques Ranciere, Proletarian Nights: The Worker’s Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (New York: Verso, 2012). ^
- 37. David Naguib Pellow, Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014). ^
- 38. Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 314. ^
- 39. Ibid., 315. ^
- 40. Ibid., 314. ^
Curt Gambetta is an architectural designer and PhD student in the School of Architecture at Princeton University. He was formerly the Peter Reyner Banham Fellow at the Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning in New York and a teaching fellow at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in Los Angeles.
The author would like to thank Michael Powell, Hanna Garth, George Marcus, Neeraj Bhatia, Carson Chan, Keith Murphy and the editors of ARPA Journal for their gracious reading of earlier drafts of this paper. Research for the paper was supported by the Peter Reyner Banham Fellowship at the University at Buffalo and the Woodbury University School of Architecture.