Matters of Observation: On Architecture in the Anthropocene
Territorial Agency is an independent organization that promotes innovative and sustainable territorial transformations. It is engaged in strengthening the capacity of local and international communities with regards to comprehensive spatial transformation management. Territorial Agency’s projects channel available spatial resources towards the development of their full potential, and work to establish instruments and methods for ensuring higher architectural and urban quality in contemporary territories. This work builds on wide stakeholder networks, combining analysis, advocacy and action. The activities of Territorial Agency are grounded in extensive territorial analysis, which focuses on complex representations of the transformations of physical structures in inhabited territories, and lead to comprehensive projects aimed at strengthening regional performance through seminars and public events as a process of building capacity to innovate.
During their visit in April 2013 to the SYNAPSE: International Curators’ Network workshop at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog gave our group of curators a tour of the Anthropocene Observatory, a project they developed (as Territorial Agency) with Armin Linke and Anselm Franke. Following this tour of the Observatory, I spoke with John and Ann-Sofi about their ambition for the project and its relation to the discipline of architecture in the era of the Anthropocene; part way through our conversation, we were joined by the curator, artist, and writer Nabil Ahmed, whose work is included later in this volume; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Etienne Turpin I am trying to understand why so much architecture today is ultimately afraid of the world. We can see this through reactionary commitments to the building-scale as the “proper” index of the discipline. I am interested in how the Anthropocene thesis might challenge this reactionary tendency. Without making any argument for an “expanded field” for architecture—many others have already done so, with greater or lesser degrees of imperialist ambition—do you think that the Anthropocene occasions a rethinking, or reconceptualization, of the field of architecture? How does Territorial Agency see the relation between the Anthropocene thesis and the discipline today?
John Palmesino I think it might be an issue of viewpoint and perspective. In the sense that there is a possibility of thinking that if architecture is setting up the perspective, then it can easily fall into the conceptual trap of conceptualizing itself as being on the outside, and as looking at an object; from this view, the object is the point of reference and it is what architecture tries to shape. Yet, in structuring a perspectival space, both the point of view and the object are established at the same time: there is no outside. So I don’t think there is a need for re-conceptualizing anything, but there is a need to be a little bit more clear about what we are talking about when we talk about architecture.
The conceptual misunderstanding that architecture is an “object”—that it is sitting within the perspective drawing, rather than creating the perspective drawing itself—I think this might be the problem you are referring to. At least since the fourteenth century, architecture has produced the possibility of understanding horizons, vanishing points, and of setting views and view heights. So it’s not necessary to re-conceptualize architecture. Architecture is not buildings; buildings are mainly stuff. Architecture is an active connection, a practice which activates a relation between material spaces and their inhabitation; and, it structures that relation, it structures what we call the relation between space and polity, as well as the construction of polities themselves.
This is a problem with many levels; it relates to sets that are in movement relative to one another, as well as to spaces being modified by shifting infrastructural procedures, political decisions, and social dynamics. Modifications of space and material configurations all eventually reshape (and possibly hinder) many of our spaces of cohabitation. Conceptually, I don’t think we need to do much more than that. The question is, then: from whose perspective does this occur? Whose point of view? What we are working on, as Territorial Agency, is a project that is both about the territory of agency and the agency of territories. We are trying to understand how to engage with this condition, or situation, which is apparently a conundrum of points of view, different territories, different agencies, etc. In this sense, the work that we are putting forward for discussion, evaluation, and possible testing is that of re-tracing different territories according to different polities, and trying to understand how those re-tracings, and the reorganization of points of view, can activate paths toward the re-appropriation of resources, the reorganization of action, and so on. The point for us is to start with a horizon and multiply that horizon; it is not about fields or about reconceptualization because I think, somehow, it is very important for us as architects and urbanists to insist that this project is not about making something more about architecture; this is architecture. There is no reconceptualization needed. The object of research and practice is architecture, and the means is architecture.
ET Does the Anthropocene thesis pressurize that claim, or perhaps give it more leverage? Does it allow us to insist on architecture as a practice more precisely? Like architecture, the Anthropocene can be read through everything, but it is not just anything, as you have said.
JP I really want to resist any pressure of urgency. We are really not interested in claiming that there is a new land that might allow us to go on and do new work and be more and more contemporary about it. That is exactly the paucity of the discipline; we have something happening outside the discipline, let’s go and conquer it! This reveals how precariously the practice is in its current conceptualization. It also outlines architecture’s condition of imperialism and with it the greed to occupy more and more space for the sake, I guess, of many academic careers. We must resist any conceptualization of a new land to be claimed. Contrary to geographical expansion, what we are actually seeing is a shift in intensity.
Ann-Sofi Rönnskog Through this approach, what we are trying to do with many of our current projects is to look at the management of projects themselves. In the last few decades, the architect has been the one who gets instructions at the end of a particular decision chain. The architect is told to address given parameters, meet certain requirements, etc. What we are trying to do is to look through the territory and determine where the architect can intervene earlier, before being given the object to design. Instead, we are considering how we can also work to design the overall perspective, that is to set up the instruction of design and briefs, to structure relations from the very outset of a project.
ET I would like to ask about the figure of Gilles Deleuze and the role of his philosophy in your practice. Much of Deleuze’s work was drawn into a very formal architectural language and ended in so many dead ends. Could you say more about the role of Deleuze’s philosophy in shaping your practice and what you try to develop through your engagement with his work?
JP It is happening on many levels. There is usually, as we know, a distinction between theory and practice. What we are interested in is how to see theory as a practice, and a very specific kind of practice in the sense that it does not outline the framework, the reference, or the margins within which you can operate and to which you have to refer in order to make sense; I think what it does, instead, is unhinge the reference points. Theory, as Irit Rogoff would say, undoes. What is a theorist? One who undoes.
I think that the possibility of thinking of architecture as a practice of the project has, on one hand, enabled it to claim a central position as the master of the arts, and of the organization of transformation; on the other, this has put it in a deadlock situation in the sense that architecture is never really the master. Such a position does not allow other practices to configure themselves in relation to architecture, even though it claims to be open to this negotiation. Architecture operates among other practices, and we are interested in this as a disorienting condition. Somehow we can take the discipline away from the central condition it imagines and have it negotiate with other practices. In that sense maybe, it is important to understand that a negotiation is a situation which ends up in a transformation.
ET Transformation on both sides...
JP In order to negotiate, you have to be able to give up something and you have to be willing to change what your claims are. It is not a game of who will win, a competition; rather, it’s a transformative relation. In that sense, for us, the role of making so many projects in collaboration with schools, or within schools, and with different schools, is not because we want to be teaching, but because we are learning.
You mentioned Gilles Deleuze, and I think our position is approximating the wild condition, the wild creation of concepts, the possibility of a feral condition for architecture that tries many ways to come to grips with the world; it is about trying to make a claim for a central position without having to occupy this central position in stability. To use an expression that we like a lot, it is to be inter-alia, among things, out there among radically different practices that all claim a certain form of centrality. Anthropology, sociology, politics—all of these claim centrality. Architecture, meanwhile, has had this enormous energy in recent years, all dedicated to defining the discipline, and not one of these definitions or demarcations actually looks at the other disciplines also claiming the same centrality. There is no real conceptualization of a multi-centred organization for the transformation of space, or a multi-centred transformation of the social. This is remarkable! It is a situation that is symptomatic, at least on one side, since it becomes the visible element of the underlying tension in the discipline; on the other side, it is interesting because I think it indicates a complete circularity and internalization of architecture. If there is no other possible way of organizing the discipline of architecture as architecture, why even bother to practice it? It starts to sound a lot like Don Quixote fighting against the windmills, or breaking through open doors. To understand what architecture does, we do not need to accept this stable definition of the discipline.
ET We often try to bring in people for our studio reviews who are outside of the discipline for precisely this reason—we don’t want to waste all the time in the review talking about “Architecture” and spoil the conversation. But it is still difficult to explain why there is just so much empty talk about the discipline in nearly every review in the United States and Europe.
JP Architecture has recently become more self-referential, and through this process has oriented itself toward a sectorial condition. It has become a sector, separated and inserted only in clearly outlined possibilities of knowledge production, diversion, mixture, departure, and even closure. It is mainly producing discourses of similarity and closure. It reasserts models of authority that quite clearly have a centralizing position; this is not something that interests us.
ET How was the Observatory conceptualized in relation to your practice and the project on the Anthropocene thesis at the HKW?
JP The Observatory is a collaborative project with the filmmaker and photographer Armin Linke and curator Anselm Franke. We are trying to make a project with someone who, by insisting so much on the production of images, might be mistaken as the observer. But, what we are interested in is exactly that thing—putting forward a little space, in the HKW—that observes the making, unfolding, and transformation of practices, including image-production and architecture, as they are variously charged by the thesis of the Anthropocene. It that sense, we conceptualize the observatory as part of the institution of the HKW. It is not just a project hosted by them; it is a part of the HKW, and it operates as both a sensor and a producer of background images. We are interested in the behind-the-scenes, in the procedures, complex machines, and “vast machinery,” to quote Paul Edwards, of this very beautiful and word: the Anthropocene. It is a word that puts so many people in an uneasy situation because it completely reconfigures the distinction between humans and nonhumans; it also calls into question the project of the humanities, which is also why so many people feel uncomfortable with it. How to conceptualize the distinction between the sciences and the humanities? Suddenly, this invitation by science offers a way of creating and taking apart boundaries, borders, fractures and an array of evidence. This is what we are trying to trace and chart with the Observatory. At the same time, we are trying to intervene in the making and unmaking of those boundaries.
ET This is really important. For you, it is not just a matter of reflecting on, but also a question of intervening into, this situation, in relation to these reflections.
JP For instance, we are interested in understanding what are the images that architecture can produce of the Anthropocene? What does it look like? Where is it? Is this building [the HKW] part of the Anthropocene, or is it just before the Anthropocene? Which part of the building? Perhaps the railing, because it was added after 1951? This year is now being considered as demarcating the Anthropocene.
ET Is the year 1951 related to the sought-after Golden Spike?
JP I am talking about the time. There is the possibility of the Golden Spike in a place; that discussion is about whether or not it will be in a lake in Ontario, Canada. That is just one example. The Observatory is in the early stages, but this is what we are aiming for. To somehow show that the relationship is not one of documentation, of things that are happening outside; instead, it is a relationship of interference. Margaret Mead, for example, in the first installment of the Observatory, epitomizes this figure of interference. You have to negotiate; you have to relate to other groups and people you are working with.
ET Do you see the relationship between the Anthropocene thesis and the discipline of architecture as productively undoing some of the reactionary aspects of the discipline?
JP On many levels I am afraid that it does not. I am afraid that the Anthropocene thesis, on the contrary, is reasserting certain conditions within architectural di course, as if we are the ones changing the surface of the earth—as if it is about architecture.
ET That architects read the Anthropocene as a valorization of architecture?
JP That suddenly it is a new time for architecture. It reminds me a lot of 1930s and 1940s discourses on the “manmade landscape.” The signs we are seeing within architecture discourse, with the exception of a very few cases, go in that direction. At the same time—and this is a very interesting thing—other explorations in architecture are wild, and are taking completely unexpected turns, completely unexpected conditions, and hypotheses with radical transformations that are rethinking what a practice can be and how to organize a practice. That is the interesting thing—you don’t have a middle ground—you either have a very conservative take that says this has always been the case and remains reactionary, or you have people who are very excited about the Anthropocene and producing new concepts and practices. But, there is very little gradient in between these two positions.
But another interesting element of the conservative understanding of the Anthropocene thesis for architecture is the question of scale. Scalarity, but especially multi-scalarity, is now what is at stake. I think the possibilities are very close, in that sense, to thinking multi-scalarity and the multiplication of relations to what the practices of organizational theory and management theory have been working on for the last ten or fifteen years with respect to “integrated approaches.” It is quite interesting that the integrated assessment report is the practice of large institutions like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The integration, the possibility of bringing everything together within one overarching system and ordering capacity, is what fascinates the most conservative people in architecture. Suddenly, through the Anthropocene, there is a framework which allows us to think at the largest scale possible, allowing us to think of levels of agency that go from one to the other and somehow trace the entire supply chain of possibilities and mediations.
ET But this tends to remain entirely representational.
JP It doesn’t work, that’s the problem, the entire take on architecture as representation; as opposed to interference, constructive practice, and making things up. It is quite interesting because it is reestablishing and locking in a lot of the recent discourse in a conservative way. Take, for instance, the entire problem of ecological architecture. On many levels, it asserts the claim: “Look, we told you so! You have to be green.” This is interesting as a completely circular take on what architecture can do. Again, environmentalism as conservatism.
ET This is also where we see so much work that is just aestheticizing data and creating fantasies of ecological infrastructure that become the “wish-images” of architecture’s agency. There are so many examples, which we know, but these projects do not interfere—they are architecture as a wish-image, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term.
Nabil Ahmed Except that some of these projects are also redrawing the lines of conflict; these are very real politics implicating states of war.
JP What is interesting in this claim of reshaping the chessboard of politics is that there is also a growing incapacity for negation, or of having something to negate. We have been a part of many of these kinds of projects that try to re-imagine how conflictual conditions are represented and made in the conflict. What we have seen is the difficulty, almost an incapacity, of acting. There is no consequence in that there is no moment when the consequences are immediately traceable. What is interesting, of course, is that at the same time as you start to see this incapacity to articulate consequences, there is a theorization of multi-causality. Somehow we hear the claims, “Look, this is it! We found the perfect solution. We will claim complete agency over the entire world, but without consequences for our actions because the world goes on by itself.” This is the strange dream of self-organization that Anselm Franke and Diedrich Diederichsen highlight in the in Whole Earth exhibition. We can think of self-organization as the ultimate vanishing point of contemporary architecture. It will organize itself, and we will be a part of that self-organization through our institutions, through our representations, through our architecture, through our political stances. It is really interesting, but I am bothered by this because I don’t think that one can keep the circle open without some kind of negation.
ET You have suggested that the paradox is now quite clear—at the moment where we can recognize the maximum human impact on the world, we also discover a minimum human agency that would be able to do anything about it.
JP This is Bruno Latour’s position on the Anthropocene: “Suddenly, agency and historicity are in the glacier!”
ET But, you also look at institutions, or the various relations between architecture and institutions. What is the impetus for this line of inquiry with respect to the Anthropocene thesis?
JP It is not so formalized. I think that the simultaneous positioning of the Observatory as a space where the telescope is turned both toward the intensified ground of the Anthropocene and toward the theatre of this experiment is important. One of the main aims of the project is to create a theatre of experimentation. From this perspective, it becomes really difficult to think of the Anthropocene, and of the architecture of the Anthropocene, as possibilities that are given. The institutions of the Anthropocene are not given; the publics and the audiences of the Anthropocene are in the making. They are being shaped, carved, and molded as the discourse is unfolding. We are interested in this process, in seeing how the background is reshaping the frame of polities. For instance, we were recently in a discussion about how to organize multi-lateral policies in relation to logistics in a large metropolitan area of Europe. Typically, the background, as conceived by architects, is both geological and institutional space; these spaces, for most architects, are just given. Mountains and institutions are given; these are what you cannot touch.
ET Architects only put the figure, as object, in front of this backformation?
JP Yes, exactly. In a way, following Le Corbusier and Modernism, you have the construction of the window that will build a new view. For architecture, this act of framing is the maximum engagement with the background. The construction of the history of the context indicates that it is a project; but architecture is not the only variable, while the context is merely a given. What I think is elucidated in the initial work on the Anthropocene is that institutions, like geology, are not given. They have agency—multiple and conflicting forms of agency. They create different territories, which can be mobilized and reconnected, but also blocked, as agencies. But not in the sense of Gaia as a self-regulating system; on the contrary, there is no clear object. We gave the first installation of the Anthropocene Observatory the title “Plan the Planet.” Today it is no longer possible to plan the planet; it was a dream, an aspiration that was meant to enable the mid-twentieth century. I don’t think we are in that situation any longer.
NA This period also witnessed the formulation of our planetary institutions as well, such as the United Nations.
ET It is also the time when architects still accepted the brief from the client without questioning the condition, instead assuming that it was given.
AS We understand that this is a new process, where architects accepting those givens form the dominant culture. Bruno Latour, in his Gifford lectures, says something that relates to scale for the architect quite nicely when he explains that we have been understanding the world as something that expands, out there for humans to go and colonize, but that now, in the Anthropocene, this has to do instead with intensities. It is a big challenge for architects to remove this extensive distance; it is a completely new configuration, and that is one of the interesting aspects of Anthropocene thesis.
JP It might be similar to an aesthetic shift like that of thinking of the world as a conservation of energy. Latour mentions in the Edinburgh lectures that we might be back in the sixteenth century; but we might be back in the late nineteenth century on this level as well, in the sense that thermodynamics was such a major shift. We are no longer in a situation where we can see things like Galileo, who could point at the slope and indicate that the two spheres were falling at the same rate of acceleration; the thermodynamic shift, from the point of view of aesthetics, means that there is nothing to point at, there is no object. Instead, it is about how you look at things. The Anthropocene is a similar situation in the sense that there is no object—there are only intensities. This is very difficult for architects to think because intensities cannot be measured against other things; you cannot measure temperature against external measurements; you can only measure temperature against a transition point of water, when it solidifies or when it melts, but this is not a measure of temperature, it is a measure of transformation. That is the interesting thing for us—intensity is a necessary concept of the Anthropocene because you can only understand it through transformation. That is a constructive practice, and it is something architecture is good at.
ET One curiosity I have about the role of the Observatory is that when we try to return to the question of politics, even a politics of intensity, we encounter the difficulty of negation, or the vanishing horizon of the negative as a requirement of politics, which, at least historically, requires some form of assertion through negation as one of its constitutive components. How does politics appear in this cartography of intensity, given that when we talk about climate modeling, the conflict is already included in the model and there is no way outside of it?
JP It is completely within the model itself. The Schmittian enemy is what stabilizes an ecological move; it is an engagement of information between irreconcilable conditions. This is an ecological model. But, for the politics of non-action, of not acting, we have a model for that as well. It has a name, which is neutrality—not to act, not to take a position, not to engage with conflicts, not to partake in territorial conditions and the reorganization of factions and parties. We hope that we are offering this space of the Observatory for looking on, inquiring into the making of the thing, but also hopefully holding back claims for the larger implications, actually allowing a discourse to take place, but in a neutral space. Similar to the space of the high seas, where the claims of sovereignty and territoriality are open. We hope the Anthropocene Observatory will give due respect to the Anthropocene thesis; it is only a small thing, really, but the point is that we have to take into consideration what it means to hold back on claims about the Whole Earth. When is it that we can claim the earth? Who can claim the whole earth as their perspective? Let’s build a space for the discussion about this. This is the difficult task of architecture today—where can this discussion happen? In which space? In which architecture? Who will be involved?
AS But let’s not try to rush it...
JP Yes, we cannot rush it. There is time, we have to give it time—geological time.
- Excerpted from the Territorial Agency mission statement, http://www.territorialagency.com/, accessed 1 May, 2013.
- Paul Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010).
- A “golden spike” refers to a specific, distinct marker—typically a consistent chemical, magnetic, climatic or fossil trace—that distinguishes a geological period globally; in this case, the golden spike would separate the geological period of the Holocene from the Anthropocene.
- Gordon W. Holtgrieve et. al., “A Coherent Signature of Anthropogenic Nitrogen Deposition to Remote Watersheds of the Northern Hemisphere,” Science 334, no. 6062 (16 December 2011): 1545–1548. For a poetic reading of the golden spike in relation to the Anthropocene, see Don Mackay, “Ediacaran and Anthropocene: Poetry as a Reader of Deep Time,” Prairie Fire 29, no. 4 (Winter 2008–9); see also Lisa Hirmer’s “Fortune Head Geologies” in this volume.
- The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside, curated by Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, 26 April – 1 July, 2013.
- John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog, “Plan the Planet,” in The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside (Second Edition), ed. Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), 82–90.
- Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature, 2013 Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/486.