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‘We are seemingly immune or knowingly blind to the possibilities architecture can claim for rewriting the world’

Gordon Shrigley

How Gordon Shrigley plans to unleash the political power of the profession

This month I am standing in the UK general election. The story begins in the RIBA library where, whilst thumbing through dusty tomes I discovered to my surprise that the architect John Slater had once served as an MP. I was intrigued - why weren’t more architects involved in parliamentary politics? Clearly the long tradition of architecture has had valuable and sometimes startling things to say about social justice, forms of living and ideas about the future - all politics albeit with a small ‘p’.

After the global banking crisis and the Arab Spring I traced the social protest movements that had grown out of both. I wanted to see if new political narratives would be forged by these groups such as Occupy and Syriza but all I could hear was a series of nostalgic throwbacks to very didactic forms of either Marxism, Anarchism or its green, authoritarian corollary.

Failing to discover anything new I published a manifesto in the art magazine Monaco, an attempt to think how we could create emancipatory ways forward that did not employ either the hackneyed language of the left nor right but instead explore the radical space of the imagination that we all share.

‘Architecture is a fundamentally cultural practice that bridges the gaps between fine art, philosophy, the social and physical sciences, construction and Capitalism’

I am staging a political intervention using the existing democratic structures and rituals associated with a general election as the basis for a political art project - I will not evangelise for a particular way forward but challenge others to think for themselves, to make sense of the present and perhaps point to the future. I have founded Campaign, a political party that asks: How are we to think of the future? Why are we surrounded by a paucity of new ideas? And what can we do about it?

Architecture is central to answering such questions - I am thinking here of our profession’s contribution to the heroic human project, of devising of new ways to ask what it is to be human which are exemplified by how we build the city. As practitioners our monumental actions are some of the most significant artifacts human culture creates yet since the financial Big Bang of the 1980’s, the profession has been happy to hawk itself around the world as a form of amoral neocolonial precarious worker. We are seemingly immune or knowingly blind to the possibilities architecture can claim for rewriting the world. This has resulted in an infantilised profession that is seemingly unable adequately address traditional professional modes of ethical enquiry that would ask for instance: should we be legitimating clearly tyrannical regimes through our professional skill and labour? Is it important to consider if a client is associated with torture and the arbitrary imprisonment of political activists? Do I care if construction workers live and work in conditions of modern slavery? To counter such ethical inertia we need to remember that architecture is a fundamentally cultural practice that bridges the gaps between fine art, philosophy, the social and physical sciences, construction and Capitalism.

Sadly however, since the heroic period of early 20th century Modern movement, when the more experimental architects practiced as politically-inspired mixed media artists, the discipline of architecture has been subject to the murderous influence of the social scientists. Such groups have managed to convince a whole generation of designers that their role is to re-engineer the human soul, not through poetry, painting or the conflagratory rhetoric of the manifesto, but via the dead hand of the clipboard and the market place. This has resulted in a profession that is hollowed out and more technocratic in nature than artistic, that values the grey horizons of the middle manager over the wild anarchic free play of the avant-garde and that thinks everyday life is something to be mapped, observed, analysed and ultimately controlled for profit.

Why is this important? Why the rhetorical melodrama? I believe that we need to find ways of wrenching our profession out of the grip of laissez-faire Postmodern aporia, that would have us listlessly dwell on the inevitability of it all, never to see anything beyond contemporary capitalism.

I ask therefore that we all claim today, a higher calling for architecture, so as to engineer a practice that is able to command and explore the radical space of possibility, to think the future anew and to campaign for a wider human dignity. Real politics is the possession and distribution of possibilities. I’ve seen the future and it doesn’t exist.

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