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Architects Urged to Seize Power

May 16, 2007

By Charles Rosenblum

Globalization, militarization, and surveillance—these themes are much in evidence within political and academic circles at the moment, but how do they impact the built environment? “Evasions of Power,” a symposium held at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this spring, addressed the many manifestations of political and economic power affecting architecture and urbanism. Topics ranged from free trade zones to Hurricane Katrina, but Penn architecture chair Detlef Mertens cited their common interest as “architecture understood in a political register.”

The conference should perhaps have been named “Evasions by Power,” since most presenters agreed that the most powerful entities in the built environment—national governments and multinational corporations—intentionally conceal rather than emphasize the signs of their control. “Power is always an evasive project,” asserted Tom Keenan, director of the Human Rights Project and a professor at Bard College. “There are only deviations, maneuvers and re-routings of power.”

A prime example of this concept is King Abdullah Economic City, a $26 billion ex nuovo city of resorts, hotels, financial institutions, and universities in Saudi Arabia. Such a new city “intends to conceal rather than share its techniques for the distribution of oil wealth,” observed Keller Easterling, an associate professor at the Yale School of Architecture. “Global entities juggle their multiple powers with duplicity, deception.”

Yet despite the billions of dollars invested in such massive projects, power in the built environment is mainly a philosophical problem, said Sanjay Krishnan, who teaches at Penn. Practitioners, he suggested, must first address these problems in theoretical terms before they can conceive of effective practical solutions.

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Architect and urbanist Teddy Cruz sought to offer just that: practical advice. An associate professor at the University of California at San Diego, he studies affordable housing, environmental degradation, and the polarization of wealth. Cruz suggested that architects must create the political organizations and economic opportunities that make public housing and public space possible, rather than wait for governments to take the lead: in other words, architects must seize power rather than evade it. On this point, practitioners and theorists seemed to agree.

Evasions of Power was sponsored by The Slought Foundation, whose small gallery space near the Penn campus presents contemporary art as issues in critical theory; the University of Pennsylvania; and the Centre for Architecture Research at Goldsmith’s College, London.

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