A thinktank at the Architectural Association considers the potential and paradoxes behind this polemic research project
What happens when the ideals of Chairman Mao meet the theories of David Cameron? The most compelling nugget of the British contribution to the Venice Biennale was Daryl Chen’s New Socialist Village, a provocative project fusing British neoliberal capitalism with Chinese collectivist localism. Rather than present a single installation, the 2012 British Pavilion’s Venice Takeaway hosted 10 research projects each exploring a different nation’s urban conditions in relation to the UK. Now reconfigured for a new exhibition at the RIBA, a programme of public events which use the ideas of the research to challenge British architectural and planning conventions.
Chen’s work draws from the Chinese phenomena of urban villages, hotbeds of artistic culture unable to flourish within the city-proper’s Special Economic Zones, deriving a set of lessons with which existing communities in the UK could be transformed into prosperous deregulated neighbourhoods unburdened by state control. The vision of happy citizens eagerly self-governing while channelling their new found liberty in to lucrative digital and physical products sounds like a libertarian’s paradise. Like Occupy-activists-turned-Randian-heroes, the workers would contentedly juggle self interest with community vision. According to Chen this condition quickly leads to a new vernacular of cheap copy-cat extensions and repurposing until the village has its own democratic morphology, distinct enough to draw tourism while open enough that all citizens can participate.
The centrepiece of Chen’s exhibition is a 9m scroll, an epic drawing playfully imitating a traditional Chinese Gongbi painting. In it, workers move between commercial and residential zones as Big Society carnivals are held in the streets. The Socialist Village can be read both as critique and champion of the so-called localism agenda being rolled out by 21st century neoliberal governments. On the one hand it is a humorous farce that juxtaposes the insincerity of faux Communist Chinese literature with the strikingly similar British governmental rhetoric. On the other it is a serious radical proposition agitating for a dramatic realisation of Localism.
Scrutinising the project were a panel including architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout, director of UK Regeneration, Paul Evans and others cast as expert consultants who quickly turned their critique on Localism’s much-touted claim that communities are best placed to control their urban development democratically. Today communities do not hug a particular geographic area but are both fragmented and overlapping. Digital communication has exacerbated this and the assumption that conventional borough boundaries have a significant meaning on the communities they contain is increasingly problematic. Finn Williams, Deputy leader of Croydon’s placemaking team, argued that expecting populations to neatly collaborate positively was naive and that the only thing capable of bringing a geographic neighborhood together is something negative to strive against as in the aftermath of the 2011 English riots.
At the heart of Chen’s work there lies a paradox, articulated by Evans, Vanstiphout and others; Localism and deregulation are, in reality, mutually exclusive. A naive assumption when we talk of Localism is that by handing power to local communities architects and urbanists may enjoy a liberation from stifling regulation. In reality locally-empowered communities rapidly concoct their own micro planning laws and tightly adhere to them.
Vanstiphout pointed across the Atlantic where small town Americans enforce rigid conformity to a set of aesthetic and structural norms while Williams highlighted new research revealing that in neolithic village communities from a supposedly pre-regulatory age there were in fact numerous rules governing the urban realm. It was only when social trust that the rules would be upheld was broken that such unwritten regulations began to be recorded, thus spawning early forms of planning legislation.
The most clarifying insight came from the floor, probing the underlying assumptions of the working village and the widespread consensus of macroeconomic growth as objective of society. Chen argues that the Village could be a new form of ‘Urban planning in the service of the economy’ but when the gatekeepers to investment are multinational banks unwilling to gamble on peculiar startups the challenge facing the Socialist Village is thrown into stark relief. Ironically to activate the entrepreneurial driver of the New Socialist Village Chen must again borrow from Occupy and advocate the dismantling of the financial sector.
Many of the organisational ideas behind the Occupy Movement can be traced to L’insurrection Qui Vient, a french socioeconomic manifesto, authored by an anonymous group going by the rather pompous pseudonym, The Invisible Committee. It is a damning critique of urban life in 21st century neoliberal nation states but it is also refreshingly realist, condemning with equal vigor the failed institutions of the left. Rather than calling for complete revolution via some far-fetched Marxist uprising or state orchestrated masterplan the authors suggest that the liberation of the citizen is possible only through the establishing of collectives within existing urban environments. Bit by bit those collectives wean themselves off dependency on the state until they are independent self-determining communes. It is an approach that is neither top-down nor bottom-up but instead middle-out and it is perhaps here that the New Socialist Village may yet take root.
The Working Village Live Thinktank
The Architectural Association
Thursday 14th March
The Venice Takeaway
More information about the Venice Takeaway project including upcoming events and other research projects can be found at the Venice Takeaway Website
The project was curated by Vicky Richardson and Vanessa Norwood with Alastair Donald