[This discussion is the conclusion of a series of talks: Design and the Green New Deal; Labor, Architecture and the Green New Deal; After Comfort; and Projecting Change: Extended Realities & Sea Level Rise]
Ijlal Muzaffar: I’d like to invite all the speakers as well as our discussants Amy Kulper, Head of Architecture at RISD, and Johanna Barthmaier-Payne, Head of Landscape Architecture at RISD to come up on stage and maybe we can start our discussion and you can you can respond initially, but we can also quickly open it up to questions and answers from the audience.
So, Amy would you like to begin by responding, or should we open it up to the audience as well [inaudible].
Amy Kulper: [inaudible]
Muzaffar: Okay so perhaps you and Johanna can respond to…have initial comments and then they [inaudible]
Kulper: So first thank you. It was such an incredible offering of ideas and ways to think through these issues. And as I was thinking about today, I was remembering an article that I read last year in The New York Times that I suspect many of you read as well, that was about Bruno Latour. And the title of the article was The Post-Truth Philosopher Mounts a Defense of Science. And in it there’s a kind of discussion of Latour, who’s an advocate of constructionism, or the belief that scientific facts are culturally constructed. And the author of the article began with an anecdote that talked about about Latour being approached by a developmental psychologist who asked the question, “Do you believe in reality?”
And so I’m not going to ask you that question. [laughter] But Latour spent his career, or has spent his career arguing that scientific facts need to be seen as a product of scientific inquiry. In his terms that they’re networked, meaning that they stood or fell not on their strength or inherent veracity but on the strength of the institutions and practices that produced them. And so, in a panel session that’s discussing architectural futures, I wanna ask how we can address roles of our institutions and practices in shaping these future realities. So, Billy I think your example of ASLA Adapt is one version of that. Or Peggy, the CBIP Studio and Quilian Riano or… Daniel, this notion of discomfort as a growth industry. Or Liliane, you know, the questions of lollypopping or blue streets as possible cultural practices surrounding these. And I wonder if you could maybe help us expand our vocabulary about what social practices designers, architects, landscape architects, interior adaptive reuse architects might use in these cases.
[long silence; laughter]
Billy Fleming: That’s a really hard question. I’m gonna try and…answer it, by not answering it. So, rather than getting into specific cultural practices I wanna talk about maybe trying to place say like, ExxonMobil, McKinsey, and AECOM in the same conversation. And I think it’s been really interesting to watch the sort of comeuppance of McKinsey, including just this week in a long New York Times piece, but I think people who didn’t know a lot about the consulting firms sort of conspiring activities with sort of the worst actors the world has ever produced, and that sort of chase of capital and the sort of accumulation of wealth and prestige that McKinsey and other global consultants are known for. And I think about them, I think about Exxon, I think about AECOM… For folks who don’t know AECOM or are not designers in the room, this is the largest architecture and engineering firm in the world. They work in every country, in addition to building like parks and waterfronts, they build private prisons, they build detention centers, they build all of the worst things that humanity produces.
And they all engage in a similar set of practices in the pursuit of capital, right. So Exxon, AECOM, McKinsey are also all giving money to universities to launder their names, to produce research, to produce all of these other things that help them continue the sort of hegemony that they’ve sort of been welcomed into and helped create and helped perpetuate. And I think you know, the lobby has done a really good job about sort of framing the way that we might begin to refuse work? And I think in the academy, there’s a very active discussion for people who are as extremely online as I am, in the energy and climate world about fossil fuel-funded research. And you could extend that to AECOM and other sort of funded research that often schools like this are asked and invited to do.
And I think there’s a really disingenuous set of arguments that, coming from the folks who take that kind of money, that we’re producing valid research in like, the very social science conception of the word “valid.” And so it shouldn’t matter that it’s funded by Exxon, it shouldn’t matter that it’s funded by AECOM or whoever. And in fact like, that’s one of the most either disingenuous or naïve framings I could ever imagine because who the fuck cares if it’s socially, scientifically valid, if the movements and the political world that you’re trying to serve don’t trust you or the research? And David Victor has become like the person in that world that everyone points to as you know, helping to lead the Paris talks, helping to produce all of this other very I think influential climate research with industry money. And I think many of the folks who are very ardent supporters of doing that kind of research, are also looking at him as maybe the first domino to fall…in a long set of dominoes that includes them, whose work will no longer be considered the sort of elite, prestigious kind of work that we all point to.
And so I think anyway, going back to the lobbyists like, I think…really compelling point about how we might think about refusing work in practice. I think we all have some work to do think about how we refuse to conspire with that kind of money in the work that we do, and it’s often very invisible, quiet money. It flows into university energy and sustainability centers. And I think you know, it’s easy to say that we can only produce certain kinds of work if we take that kind of money. And that’s just fundamentally not true. We’ve been approached and have routinely turned it down, because we don’t feel comfortable doing the bidding of companies like McKinsey and Exxon and AECOM.
Peggy Deamer: That was such an elegant response. So I feel like we should stop there. You know, I think that gives the big picture.
What I think about in relationship to your question but also this responses is, it’s not only that those organizations—including the scientific organizations—are interested in funding in how they operate within a market-driven economy and all of those things, but embedded in that is their own self-preservation. How do we as an organization make sure that we continue. So they’re not asking the big questions, they’re asking for self-preservation. So, even if they start out with good intentions, you know, in the end you build up the institute, you build up the…pay for all those things. And then just to say you know, my feeling is that the AIA is an organization whose main job is one, to make architects feel good about a bad situation so that we’ll keep paying our dues and keep doing the thing that we’ve done, beginning and end of story, and that’s really self-preservation.
But also I think, you know that not just AIA but these other institutions that we’re thinking about go beyond their own work to produce ideology, let’s just say it. And so ideology in some way…capitalist ideology is the thing that makes us as subjects feel like when we are doing something that doesn’t have our own rational and subjective [indistinct] in mind, that we will do it nevertheless, you know, the reason that we will do things that we just know aren’t good for ourselves. And so, that…you know, I think the part of what we’re talking about here is how institutions play into an ideology where we for example…absolutely we don’t question we have to be comfortable, that is just part of being human. No questions asked. We don’t go beyond it. And you know, no questions asked that I actually have to have that second car or the top [indistinct]. I mean just we…we don’t ask, you know. Or no questions asked that I as an architect will take that job. Don’t really believe in it. I shouldn’t be doing prisons but my god, I have to feed the staff and do like—you know, all those things. So the insidiousness with which all these things operate go beyond the institutions themselves.
Daniel A. Barber: I’m gonna go back to your first question. Which is to say that I don’t really believe in reality, right. And I think that— I’m trying to kinda riff off also what was just being said, but I think part of what climate justice broadly framed has brought to the fore is the stratified nature of lived existence around the planet, right. And I mean these are these are things that I’m assuming everybody in this room knows quite well, and whether we sort of fall back to the kind of endless repetition of William Gibson’s notion that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed, right? And of course, in the moment it was said, that was more about kind of someday everybody will have cell phones. And now it’s more about kind of when do you start to retreat from the coasts, right. So it’s a different sort of future that’s being imagined.
But I think to take really seriously that sort of premise that…and you know, kind of riffing off Latour of course, right, I mean, bringing that into the discussion and his fabulous new book Down to Earth, which kind of encourages some of this thinking. You know, which is to say— I mean this is Negri too, this is so many of our important thinkers of the past few decades, that we are in the process of producing reality, right. And so this is not some external notion that we will then kind of shake hands with but that we in this room and certainly “we” is as pedagogs and participants in design education, are in the process of constructing the reality of you know, not kind of the next couple decades but tomorrow, right.
And so I think that kind of militantism as Negri calls it of sort of recognizing one’s role in the production of history, right, and the kind of stream of historical events I think is an important way to sort of conceptualize reality and our capacity to in fact articulate and enforce and defend and you know, even kind of fight for a specific version of reality, right. Which is to say that the Green New Deal and the conflicts that have emerged around it are in effect arguments about sort of whose reality is more real, right. And I think that you know again, we’re sort of presumably most of us in this room kind of on the same team there. But you know, it’s a pitched battle. And it’s going to get more and more intense, right. So I think that kind of recognizing that we are kind of part of that process of the production of real conditions will be increasingly useful.
Muzaffar: Would you like to follow [indistinct]
Johanna Barthmaier-Payne: Thank you all very much. And I really appreciate all of the examples of what your students are doing in your academic settings and how you guys are starting to approach these issues. And something that I will hope to hear from you all is how do you see our students being able to execute these systems that you’re putting in place at a larger scale? How do you see our students being able to be educated to do that in the future?
Barber: Well I’ll just do briefly. I mean I love being embarrassed by my students, right. I mean they’re always…I mean—you know it’s kinda become a trope for that— And what did somebody call it, the Greta Generation or something, right? That they are all kind of implicitly so much further ahead in a lot of this thing— I mean quite directly on this question of reality, right, I mean the kind of terms that they are kind of accepting and rejecting often exceed all of the kind of careful thought somersaults that we try to do to sort of get somewhere.
But I think you know…in the kind of straightforward way of…you know, a lot of what my pedagogical project has been over the past decade or so is effectively articulating a different history of the field of architecture in particular and it’s tendrils around landscape and elsewhere, to just reconstruct a notion of what that history is, what that past has become so as to conceptualize different futures, right. And so, placing ourselves again in the present across this broader stream of historical developments and giving students the conceptual tools and also the sort of historical database, if you will, in order to construct a different sense of identity of what a designer does?, right, and how that has changed over time and will continue to change over time.
Muzaffar: Liliane, would you like to, in a few short—student work more directly? Would you…
Liliane Wong: I think given the experience we’ve had in our department with quite a few sponsored projects where we’re working right on the ground, it is a huge leap for our students to step away from the thirteen-week semester that we have and those twenty-six classes that we have in studio with them to focus on other questions. So for example with Projecting Change, we spent an enormous amount of time not trying to cut another section, which is probably incomprehensible to those who we hope would see our designs, but rather asking them to do something that I think that a typical architectural education would not necessarily focus on.
But I think that to—and from my own background, it was a huge leap, it was a gigantic stumble from academia into the real world when my employer said, “Well. You know, you didn’t learn a single thing we really need you to do.” Which was great. But I think that because we have an issue of great urgency, design education is going to have to grab that challenge of how those thirteen weeks and the twenty-six studio classes that we have take on a different way? to get our students out in the same amount of time and jumping right in on the ground.
Muzaffar: Peggy, you showed us as example of Columbia’s studio which was sort of spread out over… So I was thinking perhaps, I mean these studios—we think in studio terms. Could there be other models of continuing in that stretching and…you know, the curriculum, along different years, a student themself developing expertise and knowledge?
Deamer: Yeah, I mean just to focus on the fact that they had to break through that first year, second year, advanced studio model, you know. And institutionally what that took for the three organizers of that to do that in and of itself is an indication of how we need to break through institutional rigidity around these things, whether that’s the curriculum within architecture or breaking across in an interdisciplinary round. But I think you’re asking about how that actually then continues beyond education.
Deamer: And in some way that has to do with two things, I think. With other kinds of… Oh I hate to say this word but, degrees, you know, where you can continue to do this whether that’s construction management, or whatever, or whether that’s interoperability or IPD, BIM expertise, so that one can continue that. But it also means that we need to change practice such that when you go into practice you’re still learning. This divide that we all feel like, between academia, which is the only place we can do research into it and where we can do these experiments, and then you go into the real world and it’s implemented, is a real problem. And I’ll just say Sweden is an example where the government gives grants to firms so that within a firm people can continue to do research that is in some way independent of that firm’s work, but still is in some way understood to further the firm in terms of their breaking out of their own habits and whatever in terms of how you relate to contractors, in terms of how you procure the materials you’re doing. So we need to have a whole different government system, I think, in order to really effectively answer that question in a good way.
Fleming: Yeah. So I would say I get asked this question a lot, these days, by like the various education and scholarly institutions that kind of like, oversee all of us in some way? And it always strikes me that it’s typically— I mean I love my senior colleagues but it’s like a room full of senior colleagues asking their senior colleagues like, how to do the things the young folks in their program are demanding of them.
And there are many answers to that question, probably the first one is to like ask the young people in their program what they’re missing. Which is…I think we’ve tried to do. My students are back there, they’ll tell you the studio been kind of a hot mess, so it’s not like perfect. But one of the things that we’re often asked to do in the MLA program especially at Penn, because there’s almost no reading, no accountability for reading and discussion, is to spend a lot of time in a sort of joint seminar studio environment where we spend the first six or eight weeks of the semester doing close reading and discussion of history, of sociology, of political theory, of all things—all the tools—they feel like they need that they don’t get in a typical studio environment and maybe even in the entire curriculum, at least at Penn.
And the other has been I think through the studio, through some of the programming we’ve chosen to do, because I get to put on a couple of events every semester through the McHarg Center and some of the other things we’re involved in, is to force us into spaces with people we would like, normally not be in spaces with. And if you look at the lineup for the Designing a Green New Deal event in September, I think Peggy is right, one of the things that urban designers sort of said after they left was like, “Oh, there’s no design work. Where’s the urban design brief,” which is like, the most annoying comment I could ever imagine because urban design, and design in general, tends to put itself at the center of every conversation. And so of course the first question they ask is like, “Where’s the work for me in this? Like, what do I tell my business development officer?”
But for us, we were far more interested in putting people who were actually plowing the terrain that’s allowing a conversation about the Green New Deal to be possible on a stage. And if we didn’t talk about like, the specific design instruments and operations, and like the contract negotiation process, that was perfectly fine with me, if only because it forced them to I think develop relationships and have a conversation with movement leaders that would otherwise never be a part of an elite design school who were also very wary, rightfully so, of elite design schools which have treated people and places like that like shit for a really long time.
Muzaffar: I’m taking the segue away from young people…towards young people, I mean. I’d like to open the questions to the audience if— Especially the students.
Audience 1: Hello. Thank you. One of the throughlines through a lot of discussion has to do with actually transparency, in my view. And I’m curious how in these various projects that you’ve talked about and these various framings that you’ve talked about, how you can engage people you know, like…me. I work on the ground in low-income communities around the world. And a lot of what you’re saying has two kind of problems for me. It’s like you know, there’s the trope of you have now developed and now you’re telling us we can’t. Which I guess I don’t need to explain. And the other…you know, a lot of the stuff that you’re talking about is inaccessible to us in terms of the technology, and even the language. And so…I mean, I think I understand what you’re saying. But you know, there are a lot of people I work with who I worry that they don’t. And so I’m worried about that too. Thank you. Could you address that?
Muzaffar: That’s an excellent question. And it’s open to— Yeah let’s take one or two others.
So the question of translation in some sense, but also to me sounds like…it’s not a question that the people on stage have knowledge, there’s also knowledge on the ground, right. But then we don’t have means to intercommunicate, or to find a common language one can say, but also to translate back and forth, right? One more, please.
Audience 2: Speaking about like, realities and different versions of reality, we all… I think it’s very easy to speak about this work within this context where we’re all here due to shared values, and we can to a certain extent I agree and support each other’s work because we understand it within this reality. But speaking to people beyond that and to corporations and industries that already exist, how do you have those conversations and invite them into your reality? Or is that even possible? Or does your work have to exist by itself and like, work as an example?
Muzaffar: Okay, both hard questions. So, go for it.
Damian White: A quick wrap-up.
Muzaffar: Who wants to…
Barber: Hook in quickly on the first question, which I think is a crucial one and really in a way kind of the question of our contemporary challenge, which is you know precisely how to model a future, a sort of conception of “development,” which I’ll put in quotes, right. That it tends to…precisely the dynamic you played out, that kind of the North has developed but now the South can’t, right. And so part of why I’ve been trying to work out through this research is the sort of framework of design for discomfort, which is precisely to suggest that kind of comfort becomes its own sort of currency that can be redistributed, right. And so precisely to begin to gain knowledge, and there’s a sort of broader grant proposal out there that you know, may or may not get funded, but to work with individuals, designers, and others in non-industrialized areas to understand the terms by which they have defined and developed modes of living that are relevant beyond those specific regions, right. So it’s in effect to bring knowledge from the “South”, if you will and I’m not being too schematic here, bring knowledge from the South to the North, right, in terms of respecting those forms of knowledge and understanding how those forms of knowledge will transform the lives of all of us in places such as Rhode Island, right, while simultaneously understanding how that kind of redistribution of thermal currency or sort of carbon currency can be redistributed back down South, right.
So it’s to say developing a different sort of knowledge network that respects that type of knowledge base and kind of on-the-ground work in a very different way than we have heretofore on historical terms and contemporary terms and beyond.
Muzaffar: Anyone else would like to jump in on that, or the other question? Whichever.
Deamer: Yeah. Just quickly I mean, kind of around the second question if I understood it correctly is like, how do we invite other institutions that aren’t necessarily our own into the conversation. And my feeling isn’t inviting them in, it’s like, we need to make sure that we’re invited there. My feeling about architecture is that even though I said at the end that the communities are saying “architects help us,” the general sense is that the world thinks that architects are self-serving, expensive, limited in their ability to listen, and aesthetes and effete, you know, and…rich themselves.
So we have to do a lot of work to prove to the public the we actually should be allowed into those doors. And that’s a whole rethinking probably what this talk is about, about what we represent as a group of designers. That we deserve… No…don’t deserve. That’s wrong. That we want to do more than we are now institutionally constructed to do. And so, there’s work before that work.
White: Okay, should we leave it on that beautiful note? Yeah? So can we have one more round of applause, please.
Okay, so for reasons of time, as usual. We can’t keep anything to time here. Could we have a five-minute break, and then we are coming back to talk about racial capitalism and designs for energy transition, with the amazing Myles Lennon, Shalanda Baker, and Jacqui Patterson. So, please come back. It’s going to be full of good social science.
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