Re-published from Issue 7 of PNYX
15 October 2015
Architectural Association, London
THIS is Issue 7 of PNYX, our maiden issue for the academic year 2015/16. PNYX was established last academic year as a free, weekly paper published and edited at the Architectural Association. We feature content written and drawn by both students and tutors from the fields of architecture and visual culture. Our aim is to spark an international, intergenerational conversation that reaches beyond the narrow milieu of the academy and college to include anyone who is willing to speak.
Last week we launched PNYX with a roundtable discussion at the AA, where the editors will discuss with future contributors and the audience the three broad themes that we are looking to tackle this year. These themes will be PNYX’s rudder, allowing us to focus more rigorously on the issues facing our disciplines and better place us to form a response.
This year’s three themes are, in ascending order of scale: 1) the architectural institution, be it a school, a statutory body, or a charitable organisation; 2) the city (lower case c) of London, that is the inadequately defined metropolis that either ends at the M25 or includes the entirety of the South-East of England depending on one’s point of view, and; 3) the territory of Europe, and how in the face of three major crises it will continue to constitute itself.
Below, we will outline in brief our thoughts concerning each theme:
This week will see thousands of students across the UK either beginning or returning to their degrees. Their school, especially if in London, might very well feature the ‘unit system’, the educational model by which one or two tutors are given a sub-group of students to instruct for the entire academic year, each with its own individual program.
For these students, the last few weeks will have been spent poring over unit briefs, Googling the bios of tutors, looking up the project site on Wikipedia, and incessantly talking it over with colleagues in a bid to figure out which unit they would most like to apply for.
This system was first properly applied in the UK by Alvin Boyarsky of the AA, in the wake of the school losing its state grants in the 1980s. But as Murray Fraser notes, it also had the effect of containing the pedagogical impact of several high profile tutors of the time, among them Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi.
During the first week of term the unit system heaps huge amounts of pressure on students, who have already been asked to part with their fees. It pitches students against each other, as each scrambles to charm the tutors to win one of a few scant places in their ideal unit during an interview process not unlike that for a job. But it also pitches tutors against each other, all of whom must first present their unit’s brief to the school’s head, and then to the students, who may just as easily react with derision, bewilderment, or indifference.
The unit system is part of how the British architectural educational system has been able develop what Alan Powers recently named an ‘impenetrable and dizzying intricacy’. But the championing of high creativity as a function of competitiveness, an axiom more familiar among proponents of neoclassical economics, betrays a wider trend in the British educational sector, viz. the slow inward creep of the market.
Should architecture schools reject this marketisation? What other architectural institutions are dealing with this phenomenon? And how do alternative models of education, such as that offered by STORE, or think tanks and collectives such as REAL approach it?
London is PNYX’s home city, and boasts a number of the types of architectural institutions mentioned above. But of the groups having the most profound effect on London’s architecture, few are either charitable organisations or schools. They are instead the likes of the Qatar Investment Authority and Sellar Property Group, the latter of which became the junior partner in its own project with the former to produce the Shard, or state institutions such Southwark Council. The multinational developer, and the local authority who fails to either mitigate or fully exploit their pursuits (depending on one’s point of view), are the players properly impacting the city’s architectural landscape. And as the city faces several ongoing crises, to which PNYX will turn its attention this year, the relationship between these players and the architecture of the city needs a critical eye more than ever.
First among London’s crises is the acute housing shortage, due in part to arch neoliberal Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy initiative of the early 1980s, and inadequately addressed by subsequent governments ever since. As explored by the Housing London lecture series held at the AA over the past academic year, the crisis effects us all, not least because if the capital’s extortionate rent prices continue to rise, architects, designers, artists, and others involved in the creative industries, let alone those on society’s margins without even such platform, will no longer be able to afford to stay here.
Pushed from the city, but still expected to service it, the experience of London’s poor is compromised, their voice is silenced, and London itself becomes a less democratic city. Even if architects and designers manage to stay here, is this the kind of city for which we want to design? What place do architects have in working with developers and local authorities to ameliorate or mitigate the effect of runaway gentrification, and its displacing effects on existing communities in London? Beyond jargon and platitudes, how do each of us, each with a stake in London, work critically and co-operatively to prevent the city becoming polarised before eventually emptying altogether?
Beyond the scale of the city, London occupies a node in a much larger network: that of the EU. And much like London, Europe continues to face several major crises that threaten the ideas to which it aspires.
Following the catastrophe of WW2, the central powers of Europe adopted supranational tendencies and formed organizations that sought to form a united political body that would assure peace and mutual prosperity. For post-war Europe the steps to unity would be start with the intercontinental resource market.
In 1952 the Treaty of Paris signed by Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC was created in order to consolidate the coal and steel industries of the member countries into one unified market that would in essence prevent both the need for resource allocation to ammunitions and fractioning forces of competition. In the decades to come, further commercial and political unions would come into being, forming the complex of legislative bodies that would merge into the European Union. By 1992, following the collapse of the Eastern Block and the USSR, the Maastricht Treaty, or the Treaty on European Union, established the European Union proper, leading to the creation of the Euro currency, to be fully adopted and put in circulation a decade later.
Left to right: the arms of the Greater London Council, the RIBA crest, the EU flag
Underlying the European project was the general assumption that the objectivity of economic growth and its attendant rise in the quality of life would give Europe a solid foundation for unity. The stakes of each country’s market were to become the stakes of a European market. This ethos would guide the development of the European project from its inception to its present day form.
From past to present, the European Union in all its various configurations and Venn diagrammatic representations aspires to an almost paradoxical goal of a union of self-interested sovereigns, many of which have not been self-ruling since the early 90s. But through a critical lens, the political, economic and cultural ideas that underlie the unity and execution of the European Union and its ongoing European Project propose a myriad of architectural possibilities. The questions facing Europe are questions of scales, territories, contexts, communities, and markets – all major factors of the production of the architectural environment.
In the context of a greater European unity, the capitals of countries begin to moonlight as nodes on a complex international and inter-European network. Flows of money, people and legislation begin to break open and challenge the more static notions of state-building and national politics.
Over the last 5 years the European Union has dealt with the aggression of ‘non-European’ states just beyond its borders, financial collapse within its interdependent markets, and the surge of refugees, each a different challenge attacking the main pillars of the European Union – its economy, security and identity.
Where, within this new integration of nations does architecture apply? Is it a traditional gesture playing to identity politics? Is it a grey, infinitely smooth space formed by a neoliberal regime for its economic flows? Can it bare a European identity? Can it act as the physical infrastructure to support the idea of a European Union? Can it sit within the tensions of Europe and become a curatorial act? What can architecture say to the European crises of today and tomorrow? And which of the new European institutions, if any, holds the most responsibility for the built environment?
We hope that this editorial becomes the beginning of a dialogue. As always, we maintain an open call for submissions, whether drawn or written. Everyone has a position. We invite you to declare yours. ⭐
For more information:
Visit the PNYX microsite
PNYX can be picked up at the AA Bar and around the rest of the school, Store St Espresso, Tender Books, and various other cafes in and around Bloomsbury.