Architectural practice begins with a set of expectations—what the client wants, what the architect requires, what different parties anticipate when they work together towards a collective outcome. All too often the accepted expectations of architecture are defined by a conventional notion of “problem-solving” so that the process of producing architecture is one that is goal oriented, linear, and one-directional. Only through a discursive process of questioning and redefining these expectations can a critical practice emerge.
Based on our own experiences and observations, common room understands conflicts of interest as something to be taken advantage of. Every actor involved in any given project has their own objectives. A client’s objectives are often multiple, frequently obscure—sometimes even to the client themselves—and take many forms: political or social, material or financial, short term or long term, or those related to perception, image, and identity. Objectives may also change over the course of a project and are contingent.
Conflicts of interest are not a question of right or wrong but a question of how to constructively translate multiple possible objectives. By actively engaging difference, conflict becomes inevitable and productive. While external pressures from current political and economic contexts will always press upon and influence the objectives of both the architect and the client, it is increasingly important that both parties are willing to accept the possibility of alternatives and create the potential for disruption.
Economic and political circumstances, as constituted by the forces of capitalism, globalization, and mass media, do not make room for alternatives. Neoliberalism instrumentalizes reason and presents the logic of the market as the only rational, and therefore incontestable, order. Space and the social relationships in it are neutralized and depoliticized to create conditions conducive to the continuous flow of capital. It is in this environment that the architect and the client are expected to act—and only those objectives that align with the forces of the market are considered, making it difficult for the architect and the client to engage in a discursive process. As Zygmunt Bauman writes, “How much the available means may bring is the only question one can ask about their alternative uses.”1
Contingent objectives necessitate a different way of working together. Typically, the architect is expected to supply an appropriate solution to a brief outlining a specific problem. The problem is formulated based only on objectives which are known and able to be communicated by the client, often assuming a certain type of solution at the exclusion of other possibilities. Acknowledging contingent objectives means accepting, as ifau and Jesko Fezer write in their “Twelve Working Theses,” that: the brief is always wrong.2 A design process that recognizes the instability and temporality of objectives, urges the designer to reexamine what is being asked for—positioning the brief as the starting point of an ongoing discursive process. Contingency requires a continuous reevaluation of base values. It demands action outside of normative routines; it addresses the complications of uncertainty and unpredictability; and it offers new readings and understandings of social and spatial relationships.
Conflict (understood as a disruption to the continuous flow of capital) is discouraged and eliminated whenever possible in favor of consensus (the definitive solution to a set problem). Consensus, as Andreas Rumpfhuber writes, “does not necessarily include a harmonious and consensual participatory design process, but can also denote that the resulting designerly object is consensual, looks good, functions well in all the thinkable ways it should function, etc.”3 Without the capacity for differing objectives, both client and architect are marked by a cultivated disinterest in the qualitative aspects of cultural production. It is easier to agree on what is known than what is unknown, therefore consensus will always favor the status quo. For architecture, this means that the design process loses its political potential and space becomes, at best, inert and at worst, complicit in reproducing the inadequacies of prevailing ideologies.
The various operations (planning, analysis, critique, imagination, play) that construct space or place are mutually dependent and should be continuously (re)defined. Acknowledging contingency allows for the possibility of alternatives. However, not all alternatives should be encouraged nor are they all acceptable. Spatial organizations that encourage the tendency toward privatization and individualization should be discouraged in favor of those that allow for the identification of common interests and the renewal of collective responsibility. Architecture is a political act and the role of the architect is not passive. Architects should negotiate different demands and define limitations.
Contingency requires that we acknowledge temporality. However, contemporary mass media limits time to the present moment—it values fragmentation over duration. In this more limited view of broader contexts, both past and future, the relationship between action and consequence is obscured. Architectural media acts as a mirror, reflecting and reproducing existing conditions. For architecture to reassert its political potential, clients and architects must be willing to formulate and articulate specific positions (although not always the same position).
The means of communication define the relationship between client and architect and determine the way a project manifests spatially. Too often, architects limit communication to the formal and aesthetic aspects of a project, which are easily conveyed yet abstract. Aspects that are contingent—spatial strategies that address social relationships and patterns of use—are often communicated in the autonomous, at times opaque, language of a discipline or profession. It is the architect’s responsibility to define methods of communication that go beyond the common codes of the discipline and enable open communication that is intelligible to different types of actors. Only by eroding autonomy can the design process be subjected to alternative interpretations and move beyond the simplicity of formal abstraction to the complexity of contingency.
When understood as a series of relations and negotiations between designer and client, architecture is an open-ended process of communication—one that acknowledges and engages in different positions and meanings. Communication is essential in reintroducing a discursive framework to the design process. Productive communication does not always end in agreement; but it allows differences to be acknowledged and brokered as a project is developed. The collaborative design process is not one of producing consensus but one of conducting conflict.
A fundamental objective in architecture is the user, but the user is regularly excluded from the design process. More often than not, the user’s objectives are assumed. These assumptions are diverse and are utilized to further the objectives of the client and architect rather than to account for the users themselves. Contingency provides an opportunity for the user to enter the design process and contribute to the resolution of the project.
Contingency frames the question of “who is in charge?” as a defining element of spatial practice open for contestation. A contingent design process manifests spatially in elements and organizations that don’t necessarily offer immediate resolution and instead require action from the user. In this way, the user is empowered to assert their own agency. In the end, it is the user and their objectives that determine the final outcome. As Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till write, “spatial agency sees the whole process as a continuity, motivated in the first instance by intent, and then open to adjustment, ‘acting otherwise,’ as it unfolds in time.”4 In an architecture that embraces contingent objectives, meaning is produced in the indeterminate. It is perpetually in-between—an open-ended process in which architecture is never quite finished and critical reflection is encouraged. The totality and social potentials of the spatial interventions are only understood as users react to and re-appropriate the architecture for their own needs.
Architecture is produced as the client, architect, and user adapt to given situations. Contingent objectives are unavoidable within the design process. It is not the objectives that direct the design process, but the contingencies—ultimately putting architecture itself in a position to negotiate difference.
The images accompanying this text are part of Concrete doesn’t burn, an ongoing project by photographer Bertrand Cavalier (bertrandcavalier.com). Concrete doesn’t burn is a visual research project about the influence of war and military technology on European cities. Considering the diverse use of concrete, the photographic work examines the legacy of armed conflict and its effects on the architecture, the infrastructure, and the inhabitants of cities. Photographed in Belfast, Berlin, Cologne, Mostar, and Sarajevo, the urban landscape shows an immutability to a generation unaffected and young, yet at the same time already burdened by the environment.
- 1. Zygmunt Bauman, Alone Again: Ethics after Certainty (London: Demos, 1994), 8; https://www.demos.co.uk/files/aloneagain.pdf. ^
- 2. ifau and Jesko Fezer, “Twelve Working Theses,” in Casco Issues XII: Generous Structures, eds. Binna Choi and Axel Wieder (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011), 85. ^
- 3. Andreas Rumpfhuber, “The Impossible Happening,” SCRIBE Working Paper: Scarcity and Creativity in the Built Environment, no. 9 (2011), 5. ^
- 4. Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till, “Beyond Discourse: Notes on Spatial Agency,” Footprint: Delft School of Design Journal 4 (Spring 2009): 99. http://www.footprintjournal.org/issues/show/agency-in-architecture-reframing-criticality-in-theory-and-practice/. ^
Common Room is an architectural practice with a publishing imprint, and an exhibition space. It is collaborative platform based in New York City and Brussels. common room is comprised of architects Lars Fischer, Maria Ibañez and Todd Rouhe; Rachel Himmelfarb; and graphic designer Geoff Han (common-room.net).