Reality in the Balance

The era of Trump and Brexit is opening up new obligations, new opportunities, for architectural activism that blends the professional and the political.

Women's March, Washington, Jan. 21, 2017.
Hundreds of thousands took part in the Women’s March in Washington on Jan. 21, 2017, to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump. [Kyodo via AP Images]

What humans have done, humans can undo. I do not accept that we have reached a point of no return. … While hope is still alive, writing obituaries for humanity is sorely premature. And I am unable to rid myself of the belief that hope is immortal; just like God, it can perish only together with humankind.
— Zygmunt Bauman, Of God and Man, 2015

Make Facts Great Again.
— Protest Sign, Women’s March, January 2017

I knew that I had been fully anointed as a member of the “metropolitan liberal elite” when I appeared in the lead story of the Daily Mail, the tabloid that has been instrumental in first constructing and then vilifying this tribe. In a convoluted story about Brexit that attempted to smear the U.K. Supreme Court judges, I was criticized for having “emailed students on the day after the EU referendum to say that the Leave vote ‘breaks my heart,’ adding: ‘I make no apologies in sharing my shock and dismay.’” Well, I had actually emailed my colleagues at Central Saint Martins and not my students, but when did a small matter of accuracy get in the way of the new populist propaganda?

So how could I — as a member of the myopic left wing that not only did not imagine as possible the presidency of Donald Trump or the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union but is also now widely associated with the causes that led to these two votes — say anything useful about architecture and activism in this new era? Can the “liberal elite” who are part of the problem — the social and economic polarization that prevails in both the U.S. and the U.K. — truly contribute to any constructive solution? It is this sense of impotence that runs through many Trump/Brexit think pieces, with the liberal authors self-identifying with the woes of the situation and feeling trapped by their own anger and despair. Such an impasse, however, simply plays into the binary division that both sides built up in the presidential election and Brexit referendum campaigns, and which the victors now perpetuate through their taunts of “bad losers.” Despite promises of conciliation and inclusion, it’s clear that both Trump and the Brexiteers will pursue policies that reinforce the divide; just look to the former’s cabinet selections and the latter’s treatment of civil servants. In both cases power is being wielded in an effort to overwhelm truth (or as one of Trump’s flacks recently put it, to offer “alternative facts”).

Both Trump and the Brexiteers are wielding power in an effort to overwhelm truth.

Though I was indeed shocked and dismayed, this is not a condition conducive to making productive sense of these appalling new realities. This essay is, then, an early attempt to make sense; and also to suggest action. I do so not as a paid-up member of any liberal elite, but as a citizen. The former term has in fact been rendered almost meaningless by the mistaken conflation of liberal with the left, and by the disingenuous dismissal of one type of elite (the intellectual and the political establishment) by another (the corporate and the libertarian). Meanwhile the role of citizen has been given vigorous new urgency by Barack Obama in his moving farewell address. How then might we think and act as citizens in these politically uncertain and socially volatile times? What roles might we play as citizen-architects?

In trying to answer these questions I’ve found new relevance in a quarter-century-old book: Anthony Giddens’s The Consequences of Modernity. I’m especially interested in what Giddens describes as four “adaptive reactions” to the turbulence of modernity, to the risks it’s thrown up. Giddens describes modernity as a “juggernaut — a runaway engine of enormous power which, collectively as human beings, we drive to some extent but which also threatens to rush out of our control and which could render itself asunder.” 1 All these years later the runaway engine has gained still more speed and less control as multiple forces — globalization, human migration, climate change, the astonishing rise of the cyberworld — have accelerated the pace of change. Giddens’s four adaptive reactions — sustained optimism, cynical pessimism, pragmatic acceptance, radical engagement — remain a useful and adaptable set of templates by which to measure our various responses to the ongoing juggernaut. In each case I’ve sought to relate Giddens’s reaction first to our political landscape, and then to apply it more directly to the context of architecture. As you’ll see, only with last category, only with radical engagement, does the relationship become really productive; but bear with me — it’s necessary to work through the first three to get there.

Sustained Optimism

“Sustained optimism,” writes Giddens, “is essentially the persistence of the attitudes of the Enlightenment, a continued faith in providential reason in spite of whatever dangers threaten at the current time.” Sustained optimism is vital to any successful political campaign, whether or not the campaign is rooted in any sort of “providential reason.” Obama promised new hope, Trump renewed greatness, the Leave campaign a reclaimed sovereignty. None of these campaigns offered much evidence or policy to support the delivery of the promise, but each presented a gilded version of a fresh and better future. And while the Trump and Leave campaigns descended to unprecedented (or “unpresidented,” as the case may be) levels of negativity, each somehow maintained the illusion of positive spin. One of the signal failures of the Remain campaign was its absence of optimism. Widely castigated as “Project Fear,” it offered weary U.K. voters merely the least bad option.

But if contemporary politics employs sustained optimism as one persuader among others, contemporary neoliberal economics has gone all out for it. Our prevailing economic systems are premised on the promise and delivery of endless growth, with increased Gross Domestic Product presented as the primary measure of economic strength and the fundament of human progress. No sacrifice is too great to achieve this progress. Hence the current imposition of rules of austerity in many national economies, justified on the basis that we must endure temporary hard times in order to reclaim the good times. In The Architecture of Neoliberalism, Douglas Spencer argues persuasively that these propositions about growth and progress are offered as de facto truth, ballasted by providential reason. “Neoliberalism constructs and disseminates its beliefs about the world in order to have them accepted as commonsensical truths,” Spencer writes, and “it is through these truths that neoliberal thought argues that its rationality — presented simply as the natural way of the world — should govern the conduct and the mentality of the individual.” 2

Although the effects of neoliberal economics are deeply political — ranging from rising inequality to the state defunding of public programs — its proponents claim to be pursuing the higher “truths” of reason and hence to be beyond direct political motivation. This neutrality is a mirage, but a brilliant one; for it allows the neoliberals to sustain the optimistic rhetoric of individual freedom and collective progress and remain seemingly above the messy contingencies of political life.

It is just this sort of removal from the political sphere that allows architecture to maintain its own form of sustained optimism. Consider, for instance, that with no apparent irony, Wired published a piece that trumpeted “25 Masterpieces That Prove 2016 Was an Incredible Year for Architecture.” First up is OMA’s Faena Forum, in Miami Beach, which even at this early stage hardly seems likely to rank among the firm’s top buildings. The list continues, each project described in breathless prose that concentrates on formal and material attributes. Judged on the basis of these measures, perhaps architecture did have an incredible year; though it’s hard to see that 2016 differed much in quality from any other year of architectural aesthetics and tectonics.

As presented in popular media, architecture does not emerge from or exist within the social complexities of politics, culture, and nature.

Judged on the basis of other measures, however, 2016 was not so incredible for architecture. In the U.S. the Architecture Billings Index indicated a “rare downturn” in November 2016, and in the U.K. architectural practices reported palpable nervousness and loss of work following Brexit. Needless to say Wired viewed their choices in no contexts — political, economic, environmental — that would disturb the cheeriness of the coverage. (Here we might recall that Miami is increasingly endangered by rising seas; or as Bloomberg News asked, in its own less optimistic reporting on the Faena District: “Why are developers still pouring billions into waterlogged Miami?”) As presented in Wired — and in other design outlets such as Dezeen, Arch Daily, and Inhabitat, to name just a few of the most popular — these shiny happy new buildings exist almost entirely on their own terms. The unmistakable inference is that architecture does not emerge from or exist within the social complexities of politics, culture, and nature. (Is this perhaps an architectural version of a “post-fact” world?) Thus do we sustain our optimism.

It is easy to mock Wired and Dezeen, and all the proliferating websites in which features about architecture usually consist of photographs and press releases (reworked lightly if at all) provided by the architecture firms themselves in a self-fulfilling (and self-promoting) prophecy of excellence. But it is also necessary to critique such publications; not just because they are eagerly consumed and widely influential but also because their dazzling surfaces displace attention from the underlying circumstances — which inevitably are political, economic, environmental — of spatial production. As Spencer notes: “Architecture has, of late, undertaken [a] post-political turn. It appears … unconcerned with, even actively hostile to, changing the ‘framework that determines how things work.’” 3 This “post-political” mentality is reflected in Donald Trump’s cynical attempts to explain away assorted hostile positions — misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia — as down-to-earth avoidance of “political correctness.” 4 Trump’s repeated use of the term “politically correct” to self-righteously dismiss anything outside his world view is echoed by one of the main protagonists of the architecture of neoliberalism, Patrik Schumacher. On the one hand, Schumacher has written that “those who want to debate architecture should keep their political convictions to themselves.” 5 On the other, he’s argued, at a recent forum on architecture, that the valuable real estate of central London should be cleared of all social housing tenants. This proposition is only possible if one submits to an ideology wherein architecture is wholly subjected to the logic of the market, which in its purported rationale is perceived as apolitical.

Cynical Pessimism

Giddens defines “cynical pessimism” as “a direct involvement with the anxieties provoked by high consequence dangers” and “a mode of dampening the emotional impact of anxieties through either a humorous or a world-weary response to them.” 6 If at the moment there is a prevailing mood, at least among those on the losing side of Trump/Brexit, it is one of cynical pessimism. Or at least, that is the dominant atmosphere on my Twitter feed, where initial waves of shock and fury have yielded to black humor and resignation: a recent post from Justin McGuirk captures the feel: “My Twitter these days is 50% Trump and 50% left-wing intellectuals dying. Sad symmetry #2017.” Sometimes Twitter can feel like a consoling therapy — reassurance that I am not alone. But such mirroring is precisely the problem of social media, particularly in the echo chambers — or bubbles — of the left. Twitter doesn’t constitute, in Giddens’s phrase, “direct involvement.” It’s a placebo for action.

Twitter is a placebo for action.

Looking up from my social feed, I find a more challenging world. The right generally does not suffer anxiety; meanwhile the left is often anguished to the point of paralysis (witness concerns that the energies of the Women’s March would dissipate once the rallying was done). Back in the early ’90s, Giddens could describe cynical pessimism as “an outlook with practical implications.” But the dangers and risks are now so much higher that cynical pessimism is neither adaptive nor productive. Therefore it has few lessons for us in terms of either political action or architectural production. If cynical pessimism puts up any fight, it is only in reaction to the last battle, when what is needed is preparation for the coming one. Let’s consign it to the consolations of Twitter.

Pragmatic Acceptance

“Pragmatic acceptance,” says Giddens, “involves a concentration on ‘surviving.’ What is at issue here is … a pragmatic participation which maintains a focus on day-to-day problems and tasks.” 7 Within hours of Donald Trump being declared president-elect of the United States, Robert Ivy, the CEO of the American Institute of Architects, issued a press release in support of the incoming administration. It is worth quoting in its entirety, not only because the language and sentiment are so revealing but also because the AIA has apparently scrubbed the document from its site:

The AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s aging infrastructure. During the campaign, President-elect Trump called for committing at least $500 billion to infrastructure spending over five years. We stand ready to work with him and with the incoming 115th Congress to ensure that investments in schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure continue to be a major priority.

We also congratulate members of the new 115th Congress on their election. We urge both the incoming Trump Administration and the new Congress to work toward enhancing the design and construction sector’s role as a major catalyst for job creation throughout the American economy.

This has been a hard-fought, contentious election process. It is now time for all of us to work together to advance policies that help our country move forward. 8

The storm of protest that this aroused was well articulated by Michael Sorkin in his fierce “Architecture Against Trump.” “We are dismayed,” he wrote, “at the temperate, agreeable, indeed feckless, statement that the director of the AIA has issued on behalf of although clearly without any consultation with its membership on the election of Donald Trump.” The AIA sought to mollify its critics with mealy-mouthed written and video apologies, which appeared only to make things worse. But think about it. Was the AIA’s statement, with its thinly veiled opportunism, its agreeability, all that surprising? Sure, the sheer speed of it, suggesting at once a smooth, boilerplate operation and an extreme and sycophantic eagerness to please, was distasteful. But the content was utterly predictable given a professional organization that in recent decades has lost its claim on ethical credibility or leadership. The press release was the epitome of pragmatic acceptance.

Was the AIA’s statement, with its opportunism, its sycophantic eagerness to please, all that surprising?

It was also yet more evidence of the confusion — the political and moral ineffectuality — of our professional organizations. Although founded to function as the gatekeepers to disciplinary knowledge and professional standing, and as arbiters of the ethics that should govern practice, the AIA and the Royal Institute of British Architects have devolved to become part trade organization and part industry promoter. The latter function, largely a matter of awarding honors and prizes, provides the gloss, the sheen of prestige, the obligatory nod to ideals of excellence; but it’s the former that is the core business. The primary task of the AIA and RIBA is to protect the economic livelihoods of its members, and the surest — most pragmatic — way to do this is to align with the axes of power. Hence the AIA’s readiness to commit to working with Trump on national infrastructure — even if the first order of business is to construct the reviled Mexican border wall. So compelling is this will to survive that it stifles any inconvenient sensitivities around a membership with diverse politics and ethnicities, and overlooks Trump’s disdain for professional knowledge and expertise. (As Belmont Freeman wrote in this journal, in the final weeks of the campaign, Trump has long been notorious for his disrespectful treatment of architects.) Worse, it turns a blind eye to Trump’s positions of climate change denial, racial intolerance, and sexism. The most damaging effect of the AIA’s statement was that at a stroke it accepted, and so normalized, Trump’s rhetoric; that this normalization was initiated with such undue haste shows how far our professional bodies have strayed from their initial mission.

In this light, pragmatic acceptance becomes indefensible and indiscriminating complicity with ruling structures of power. The RIBA capitulated to this accommodating posture some time ago, as was made plain by its “Plan of Work.” In the most recent version, from 2013, the first stage of work is “strategic definition,” which sounds important until you read that this means: “ensure that the client’s Business Case and the Strategic Brief have been properly considered before the Initial Project Brief is developed.” That’s it. No matter if the “Business Case” is corrupt, or would produce environmental damage or social inequity. With this priority established at the start, the rest falls neatly into line. Take the third stage, “concept design,” which would seem to open up imaginative possibilities, conceptual possibilities. But these are quickly shut down when we read that this means: “outline proposals for structural design, building services systems, outline specifications and preliminary Cost Information along with relevant Project Strategies in accordance with Design Programme.” This is hardly the sort of description that gets the creative juices going, and one fears that even introducing it to students will flatten their hopes about the aspirations of their profession. But this is the language that inevitably follows once the system has been delimited by the instrumental demands of the business case, and more widely by the parameters of capital.

One might expect to find resistance to this uncritical collusion in the university. Yet the dominant strands of academic theory in the U.S. suggest a similar pragmatic acceptance. I refer to the so-called “post-critical turn,” catalyzed by the 2002 essay “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism,” in which authors Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting advocated a move from the critical to what they termed “the projective.” Here is their conclusion:

Within architecture, a project of delivering performance, or soliciting a surprising plausibility, suggests moving away from a critical architectural practice — one which is reflective, representational, and narrative — to a projective practice. Setting out this projective program does not necessarily entail a capitulation to market forces, but actually respects and organizes multiples economies, ecologies, information systems, and social groups. 9

That “necessarily” is telling. It can be read simultaneously as an admission of guilt, as a warning, as an invitation. Subsequent iterations of post-critical theory are more clearly market-immersed; as  Spencer argues, “Theory has been worked over until it can be put to work for and within new-liberalism.” 10 “Theory was interesting … but now we have to work,” ran the title of an article in which Michael Speaks bemoaned the obscurantist tenets of late 20th-century architectural discourse and called for a “return to common sense.” 11 It was entirely predictable that Rem Koolhaas — the master of balancing on the tightrope of theory and practice, politics and power  — should have pivoted from his earlier rapier-sharp critiques of cities and culture to the resigned pragmatics of later books including Content and the Harvard Guides. “Maybe some of our most interesting engagements are uncritical, emphatic engagements,” Koolhaas argued at a conference in 1994, “which deal with the sometimes insane difficulty of an architectural project to deal with the incredible accumulation of economic, cultural, political but also logistical issues.” In a 2015 opinion piece in The Architectural Review, OMA partner Reinier de Graaf is more emphatic, or perhaps more world weary: “Architecture is now a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its erstwhile ideological endeavor.” 12

Pragmatic acceptance was perhaps an inevitable reaction to the exhaustion of theory and the enticements of the boom. But now Brexit and Trump, and the extremity of the forces they’ve unleashed, demand that we look to other positions, other tactics; that we confront the realities of this moment and advance brave new alternatives.

Anti-Trump Protest, Trafalgar Square, Jan. 21, 2017.
Anti-Trump protest, Trafalgar Square, Jan. 21, 2017. [Chris Beckett]

Women's March, Washington, Jan. 21, 2017.
Women’s March, Washington, Jan. 21, 2017. [Mark Dixon/Wikimedia Commons]

Radical Engagement

Giddens describes “radical engagement” as “an attitude of practical contestation towards perceived sources of danger. Those taking a stance of radical engagement hold that, although we are beset by major problems, we can and should mobilize either to reduce their impact or to transcend them. This is an optimistic outlook, but one bound up with contestory action rather than a faith in rational analysis and discussion. Its prime vehicle is the social movement.” 13 The rapid succession of the one-two punch of Brexit and Trump, and the threats of profound disruption, have left many feeling anxious and scared, wondering what to do, how to respond. Some days the “juggernaut” seems truly out of control, fueled by disturbing new sources (Russian hackers, alt-right white-nationalist media, post-reality posturing). The sore-winner jibes of “bad loser” and the demagogic triumphalism of Trump and the Brexiteers (so terrifyingly conjoined in this photo-op of Trump and Farage in the gold tower) further reinforce the sense of impotence and dampen hopes for individual and collective agency.

But wait. Look past the surface, past the photo-ops and campaign slogans, and it becomes fast apparent that neither insurgency has much capacity to implement its agenda. Trump is already back-pedaling on key campaign pledges. Many months on, the Brexiteers are still floating platitudes like “Brexit means Brexit” without fleshing out what the hell — what hell— that means. In both cases simplistic ideologies are crumbling in the face of hard, complex realities.

Which is to say that much is still in play. But we need to act, and fast. The late, lamented John Berger put it perfectly:

The production of reality has never been finished, its outcome has never been made decisive. Something is always in the balance. Reality is always in need. Even of us, damned and marginal as we may be. 14

Reality has never been more in need than now; it’s being assaulted by falsehoods and duplicity; reinvented by manipulators of new media; and ignored by political leaders. But as Berger reminds us, it’s also always in the balance. Things are not set. Portents of the decline of democracy should in fact be read as prompts to engagement. For architects, as a call to action as citizen-professionals.

Look past the photo-ops and slogans, and it’s clear that neither Trump nor Brexit has much capacity to implement its agenda.

Indeed some are already taking action, chiefly via the establishment of new, mission-driven organizations that seek to blend the professional and the political. In Australia, the web-based group Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture is dedicated to promoting equality in design academia and practice. Founded in 2012 by a team of women led by editor Justine Clark and scholar Naomi Stead, Parlour operates in various modes. The non-profit has published research surveys, scholarly articles, and opinion pieces; created a series of Guides to Equitable Practice; cosponsored Wikipedia workshops with the goal of writing women into the online encyclopedia; and started Marion’s List, a “public register of women in Australian architecture and the built environment disciplines. 15 In the United States, The Architecture Lobby is a “decentralized network” of architects “advocating for the value of architecture in the general public and for architectural work within the discipline.” Founded by educator and architect Peggy Deamer in 2013, the group has organized “think-ins” around the country, cosponsored installations and competitions, and published pamphlets and a manifesto. 16 Most recently it participated in the Women’s March in Washington. In England, a group of architects recently launched Concrete Action, a web-based platform focused on addressing the “housing and property crisis in the U.K.” Its members remain anonymous, with the aim of serving as whistleblowers who receive and publicize information (for instance, about potential tenant evictions) and in this way make redevelopment more accountable.

These are just three examples of a broad-based and growing emphasis on social action in architecture practice. One challenge of the coming years will be to strengthen these efforts, which for the most part remain lean operations, dependent upon donations and grants and upon the sweat equity of their founders and volunteers. There is an urgent need for the major professional bodies to learn from, and support, the energy and ethos of such organizations.

Much is still in play. But we need to act, and fast.

And we all need to act in order to invoke new potentials. In academia through a realignment with the real, and the revitalization of theory as a form of grounded critique. In practice through a reconsideration of what it means to be a citizen-architect. In our daily lives through a re-engagement with empathy, a human quality sorely trounced in both campaigns, and through a reintegration of the personal and the political in the belief that there are opportunities there to be seized. Because as the late Mark Fisher argues at the end of his seminal Capitalist Realism, “The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. … From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” 17

  1. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1990), 134–136; 139.
  2. Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Compliance and Control (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 161.
  3. Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 48. The “framework that determines how things work” is a reference to Slavoj Zizek.
  4. As Moira Weigel wrote, in The Guardian: “Trump drew upon a classic element of anti-political-correctness by implying that while his opponents were operating according to a political agenda, he simply wanted to do what was sensible.”
  5. Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol 2 (London: Wiley & Sons, 2012) 472.
  6. Giddens, 136.
  7. Giddens, 135.
  8. A search in mid January 2017 for this statement on the AIA website produced a 404 Page Not Found result.
  9. Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting, “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism,” Perspecta 33 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
  10. Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 46.
  11. Michael Speaks, “Theory was interesting … but now we have to work,” Architecture Research Quarterly, September 2002.
  12. Reinier de Graaf, “Viewpoints, The Architectural Review, April 24, 2015.
  13. Giddens, 137.
  14. John Berger, Sense of Sight (New York: Knopf, 1985; 1993), 275.
  15. Disclosure: Naomi Stead is a columnist for Places.
  16. See the booklet Asymmetric Labors: The Economy of Architecture in Theory and Practice and The Architecture Lobby Manifesto.
  17. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Winchester: 0 Books, 2009), 80-81.
Jeremy Till, “Reality in the Balance,” Places Journal, January 2017. Accessed 14 Aug 2022.

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