by Moritz Neumann

Currently there is apparently a renewed rapprochement between the political and the architectural. This is not surprising, because the feeling and also the actual perception of crisis and upheaval challenge us to deal with the effects of our own work. In order to emphasize their point of view, architects like to write a manifesto. This is perhaps in the nature of the profession, architects like to create something that stands still. Sometimes these manifestos are important contributions to current discourses, sometimes they may be a manifestation of the greatness of their respective authors. One could almost see the new fashion of the political in architecture as a cry for help from a loss of significance of one’s own profession. But nevertheless, and precisely for this reason, this approach is important. Two terms must first be separated from each other: First, the concept of attitude, and second, political positioning.
On the one hand, the concept of attitude in architecture is historically biased and was used, for example, during the National Socialist era as an expression of a form of cultural superiority, while on the other hand it is now often degenerated into a self-marketing strategy for architectural firms that use the highlighting of their obviously responsible attitude to strengthen their profile. Today, the websites of the world of architecture and real estate offer a wide range of euphemistic descriptions of an architectural attitude that apparently “puts people first” or is apparently “green” and thus tries to make itself unassailable. For example, the construction of Norman Foster’s new city “Masdar City” in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, sold as sustainable, can also find broader support and a high-rise building in Munich with a few trees and bushes placed on the balcony can be seen as a pioneer of green architecture, thus avoiding headwinds from some directions. Attitude suggests in part a dazzling claim to truth. The art historian and architectural theorist Dietrich Erben writes the following about the concept of attitude:
„In the language of architecture, “attitude” is on the one hand an essentialist word, which is intended to stand for a “holistic” design that can be understood in any way. On the other hand, the word asserts itself as an ideological battle term in the demand for professional autonomy. But exactly this dichotomy cannot be resolved: “Attitude” is instrumentalized in the architecture business in the service of market assertion through product differentiation and is at the same time treated as an inviolable value.“
So attitude is one term, the second term is political positioning. Even if it seems very similar to attitude at first glance, there is a not insignificant difference. What is meant is the positioning in public discourse. This includes a clear naming of what one positions oneself for and against. The Belgian political scientist Chantale Mouffe describes the so-called consensus of the middle as the end of politics and, at the same time, as the central cause of the crisis of representative democracies that we are currently experiencing worldwide:
„According to the prevailing view, public space is the terrain on which one seeks to build consensus. For the agonistic approach, on the other hand, the public space is the place where conflicting views meet without the slightest chance of reconciling them once and for all.“
While with the attitude thus rather the attempt is described to formulate a form of universality aiming at consensus, an attitude on which actually everyone can agree, the discourse-oriented positioning and above all the acceptance of the diversity of needs and desires stands in contrast to it. The problem of a consensus of the middle can also be found in architecture: as a counterpart, an activist architecture that seeks democratic dispute is needed.
Such an activist architecture is characterized by two essential strategies that can have a transformative power. It is a question of how to react to the innumerable conditions under which architecture is created – be they economic, social, cultural or legal:
1. a strategy in which these conditions are circumvented or used in an unconventional way and
2. a strategy that attempts to change or shape these conditions.
I would like to illustrate these two strategies with an example: the former House of Statistics at Alexanderplatz in Berlin, a large former administrative building from the GDR, has been empty for over 10 years, since the last users moved out in 2008. After a competition for the design of the area was concluded in 2010, the planning was actually clear: the building was to be demolished and the site sold. But instead, nothing happened and the building was left in disrepair. In 2015, a group of activists hung a large banner on the building, which gave the impression of an official notice board of the city administration and bore the inscription: “Here spaces for art, culture and social activities are created for Berlin”. This was the starting point for a discussion to fundamentally rethink the previous plans for the area. An initiative was founded, the so-called “Initiative of Statistics”, and together with residents, people from architecture, politics and other interested parties, a concept for the use and new development was developed within a workshop process. Instead of selling the land, it is now in public hands. Instead of handing over the planning of the area to a sole private developer, the administrations that will use part of the building and the cooperative that emerged from the “Initiative der Statistik” signed a cooperation agreement and declared their goal of a development oriented towards the common good.
Intermediate uses and actions that promoted public debate at this point thus circumvented the conditions under which previous plans had been made. Previously it was said that the building was no longer economically viable and out of date. The initiators of the protest were unimpressed by this and proposed a different form of neighbourhood development. This form of involvement, ranging from temporary uses to planning and social cooperatives, is now available in many cities. In addition, architects such as Arno Brandlhuber try to use legal framework conditions up to the pain threshold with their projects in order to create free space. So this is the first strategy of activist architecture – to circumvent the conditions and use them in an unconventional way.
But for all the euphoria about new forms of coming together, for all the glorification of the communal, as is often perceived in the current debate about the so-called commoning and commons, one should not lose sight of what actually makes these projects much more interesting. After all, the power of these projects is not to lead us into a world where we all live together in cooperatives, where we all harvest our vegetables in the Community Garden and decide in joint meetings in which colour the house will be painted. The diffuse notion of self-organization, an excessive bottom-up planning romanticism and the apparently resulting all-encompassing realization of common good interests, seems illusory. And it does not even seem desirable, because without denying the importance of those projects, one should not ignore the fact that some cooperative projects and neighbourhood initiatives are characterised by strong social homogeneity.
Instead, the power of these projects lies in the fact that – to finally arrive at the aforementioned second strategy of activist architecture – they change and shape the conditions under which architecture is created, even if sometimes only indirectly. A leftist perspective on the city does not and should not mean a withdrawal from the institutions, but the opposite: a confrontation with the institutions! In a representative democracy, institutions are the spaces in which we can make the conditions of our coexistence effective in the long term and beyond the duration of a single project or initiative. In other words: it is indeed nice when an initiative achieves the result in negotiations with the city administration that it can use the land by means of a leasehold and that it is not sold to a developer at the highest bid, but only when instruments of a social land policy are enshrined in law across the board will people outside this small circle of committed people benefit from the effects.
To return to the example of the House of Statistics: In 2016, this was laid down as a model project in the coalition agreement of the new red-red-green government, in which “new cooperation and broad participation of the urban society are ensured”. The principle of a model project seems a reasonable description of what such projects could be. An entire city may not be planned in this way and few people will probably have the time and inclination to devote themselves to the design of the neighbourhood.
However, methods and instruments can be worked out that serve as a basis for an institutional anchoring of a more social urban design.
The overall theme of this series is the “Right to the City”. Lefebre thus called for equal access to urban qualities. He saw a predominance of the exchange value over the utility value, in many areas of the city and resulting forms of exclusion. If one relates the principle of the right to the city to the idea of activist architecture, the strategy of institutional anchoring of freedoms that have been fought for seems particularly important, since it is precisely the access to the qualities of the city for those who have been disadvantaged or excluded up to now that is at stake. One is the exemplary and pioneering character of individual projects, but the aim must be to use these projects to counteract grievances outside the circles of the usual urban profiteers in the long term.
For the training of architects, this means that teaching must increasingly examine the forces in whose field of tension architecture is created, convey an understanding of how institutionalised urban policy and urban design function, and promote political positioning in relation to these various forces, beyond the attitude as a marketing strategy.
Activist architecture means to move out of the role of passivity towards the conditions of urban development, to undermine and shape them instead, wherever possible.