This evening I hopped on the bus to Marylebone Road to hear Pier Vittorio Aureli’s keynote lecture at Westminster University’s conference on Scarcity. The theme of the conference is, it goes without saying, timely. As PV pointed out, if the paradigm of the 20th century was growth, then its corollary in the 21st is scarcity. And yet it has only been patchily theorised. Having said that, PV’s approach to the topic was tangential and, I’m about to argue, provocative for the sake of it.
His talk was entitled, if I remember correctly, “Walter Benjamin and the Tabula Rasa”. It sounds on the face of it like the quintessential academic paper (oblique, commenting on the contemporary from the safety of history etc) and yet what intrigued me about it was that it was, in essence, a critique of activism. Activism, he noted, has become a “trend”. Even though I know this to be true, as someone who has been writing a book about activist architecture for some time and won’t see it come out until next year (such is the glacial pace of print publishing) it was depressing to hear it confirmed, if only because one hates to be seen to be behind the curve. Why behind the curve? Because activist architecture is still a fledgling methodology and yet it’s already mainstream enough to have become a flying target.
How, you may be wondering, did PV get from Benjamin to activism? Not so much through the author’s writings as through his own life. For Benjamin lived a precarious life, not just struggling to earn a living during the ordeal that was the Weimar Republic (avoiding comfortable professorships out of principle) but moving constantly (in a ten year period he moved 35 times) and enduring, among other things, the loss of his library. In short, PV argued, he was an ascetic, someone who renounced comfort for the life examined. In his asceticism, Benjamin echoed the life of his hero, Baudelaire, and more generally the ethos of early Christianity, born as it was out of ascetics living in the desert (in the tabula rasa, the place to start again). The ascetic par excellence, PV pointed out, was St Francis, who renounced possessions, and rejected the concept of “ownership” for one of temporary “use” – a true radical, there is no denying, who pre-empted Proudhon by six centuries or so.
It took me a while to twig where he was going with this, and then the critique of activism came like a thief in the night. I am paraphrasing now, and eliding nuance where there was no doubt nuance aplenty, but PV posited: The problem with activists is that they’re always eager to solve the problems of others but they forget that their own problems are also a project. For St Francis and Baudelaire and Benjamin, then, their renunciations and their uprootedness were the means to a kind of enlightenment, or at least to self-knowledge. From Simeon Stylites to Simone Weil, this is of course a well-worn Christian trope. And so it was a surprise to hear it raised in a conference dedicated primarily to the problems facing cities and the planetary ecosystem. Frequenters of such conferences are not used to religion providing the frame of reference.
PV was never clear on whom he was referring to by the term “activists” (I couldn’t help but imagine the generation of architects in Latin America that I’ve been writing about), but his critique of them was essentially that you have to transform your own life before you can transform the lives of others. I must say that I warmed to PV during his talk (and over a drink afterwards) since he is affable and presents his ideas without arrogance, but this was the most barefaced contrarianism I’ve encountered since Rem decided that the countryside was the hot topic of the age.
I have a problem with his thesis on multiple levels. Firstly, in the terms of his own argument, it presupposes that activism is an altruistic act as opposed to a social and ethical one (the activists I know don’t see themselves as do-gooders or charity workers; in tackling the problems of the informal city they are simply addressing a pressing global phenomenon that has been ignored for too long). Secondly, the idea that the problem with activism is that it ignores the self is a peculiarly self-defeating one. I would argue that one reason why activism has become a “trend” since the financial crash of 2008 is because of its dialectical relationship with the starchitecture that preceded it – this kills that etc. And if the activists ignore the self, then what about the starchitects, who were so solipsistic and self-obsessed? They thought about the self non-stop, without the asceticism or the altruism. Perhaps the problem with them was that they didn’t think about themselves enough. (I put this to him and he agreed that was the case.)
It does not seem to occur to PV that working as an activist architect actually does involve some renouncing of comfort, especially if you were one of those working in the favelas for decades before it was a “trend”. (Symptomatic of the problem, PV also contended that some of his students at the AA, who live in tiny rooms and take on huge debts to study in London, are also ascetics – the middle class being the true victims of austerity etc – but perhaps the less said about that dose of relativism the better.) However, my primary objection is that, by invoking St Francis of Assisi, he sets the bar so high that he precludes the possibility of even acting at all, let alone being an activist. If that is the benchmark, then let’s all give up now shall we? (To be fair, even PV seemed a little uncomfortable with this, especially since he was at pains to point out that his sympathies most often lie with activist architects.)
Of course one can take any intellectual position, just to see how well one can walk the tightrope. And I admire PV’s chutzpah in going after a phenomenon before it has become a cliché or a parody of itself. We need more critics like him. But the problem with this line of attack, for me, is that it perpetuates the cycle of dialectical boom and bust, fad follows fad, as though working in the slums were merely this decade’s postmodern pattern-making and not a perennially worthwhile way to practice architecture. It is the kind of intellectual posturing that yields bons mots like “we are condemned to optimism”, when, frankly, we could use a little optimism.
Anyway, obviously I asked him to write an essay for Strelka Press. Let’s see where that goes.