On Observing the Hyper-Local and Making Planetary Policy, Finnish Cultural Institute of New York, Nov. 2, 2021.
Since the start of the pandemic in the United States, the NGO has been organizing a weekly video-conference discussion, dreaming of a different future. Our board members at the time were all based in New York City, living in quarantine, witnessing the daily failure of institutions meant to provide social support, offer a stable system of governance, protect the public interest, and manage crises. The pandemic accelerated and rendered even more transparent the failures we already knew to be absolutely systemic.
The then-president was a widely known fraud, a businessman and real estate developer who had long revealed the inherent dysfunction of public-private investment as a central means of producing social goods through his epic exploitation of tax incentives, using them to skim extraordinary amounts of money from the system for personal profit. We felt especially powerless as we listened to the screams of ambulances outside, as the bodies piled up in morgues and refrigerated trucks lined up outside of hospitals. 100,000 souls lost. 200,000. 300,000. 400,000. 500,000. The numbers abstracted experiences of terrible suffering, the elderly dying intubated on ventilators, alone and isolated from loved ones, infected with the virus due to poorly managed elderly care facilities. It was a tragedy due to failure of public policy.
Originally, Amplifier had been founded based on the theory that what we call “cultural capital” is misallocated in cosmopolitan centers like New York City and Los Angeles. If “cultural communities” naturally occur where cultural producers live and work, and if these communities have the effect of raising real estate values, leading to preservation of deteriorating buildings as well as rising cost of living for previous inhabitants, could you not produce projects that reorient cultural production toward places that are radically disinvested, lack resources, and are largely abandoned by the government, especially Black communities like Flint and Detroit?
We started this initiative in 2010, organizing the first pilot projects in 2011, founding Flint Public Art Project in 2012. We launched public art festivals in vacant industrial brownfields to reimagine them as public spaces, helping to establish a landscaped public park on the grounds of a mile-long former Chevrolet factory. We renovated an abandoned house as a residency for visiting artists to produce creative work throughout the city, attracting cultural producers and activity to a historic district in which the city’s heritage was being lost to decay, arson, and abandonment. The model worked. But where was the government? Where were the institutions that were supposed to prevent this collapse in the first place?
We wanted to dream of another future. Architects sometimes describe themselves as “world-builders” in that they literally design the world we inhabit. We started to employ the language of world-building on a planetary scale. We wanted to imagine a system in which a world-governing body—or bodies—would manage natural resources adequately and ensure the distribution of the goods and services that everyone has the right to—such as shelter, food and water, and health care. It would protect biodiversity, regulate industries to prevent climate collapse, and prepare for the potential displacement of hundreds of millions of people due to loss of arable land, rising temperatures, and the inability of people to survive in their native habitats.
In the 250 years since our institutions were formed, in the case of in the U.S. and Western Europe, what new principles, assumptions we take for granted, scientific knowledge, social research, cultural worldviews, technologies, and logistics capacities could be instrumental in conceiving another way of organizing ourselves? In some way, this discussion with Efe Ogbeide of FEMMA Planning suggests that a country like Finland already offers a model of another way of living, in which basic forms of social support are sustained by a functional government, and people are not left to the whims of profit-making and private capital.
In Amplifier’s framing of world-building, the work Ogbeide is doing to engage citizens integrally in planning through participant observation and personal discussions is precisely the process we imagine can lead to better outcomes. How can larger institutions like cities, states, and world-governing bodies better understand and gather information about hyper-local concerns, desires, ways of living, belief systems? How can we make use of that information to ensure that local resources are managed adequately and global regulations facilitate the greatest happiness, well-being, and sustainability for all creatures, both within the local ecosystem and on a planetary scale?
Image: Architect Nea Tuominen resided in NYC as an architect-in-residence in 2018. Tuominen received a special mention in a competition seeking an inspirational urban arcology concept, which sets in contemporary high-rise design in Hong Kong.
The Futures of Urban Planning: Interview with Efe Ogbeide from Helsinki-based urban planning office FEMMA Planning, Withstanding podcast, Finnish Cultural Institute of New York, Nov. 2, 2021.
"We begin the second season of Withstanding in the company of Efe Ogbeide from Helsinki-based urban planning office FEMMA Planning and NYC-based advocacy journalist and organizer Stephen Zacks. Ogbeide and Zacks discuss current questions related to participatory urban planning, as Ogbeide shares previous research conducted by FEMMA Planning in the suburbs of Helsinki. How to practice participatory urban planning that helps to create more livable, inclusive and equal city environments? How to implement hyperlocal strategies into a vaster planetary scale, as we are confronted with occurrences such as a pandemic or climate change.
"The episode features the sound piece focus.point.shoot (2021) by DeForrest Brown, Jr. The track is a stereomodernist rhythm and soul commissioned for the 30th anniversary of the legendary Berlin techno club and label Tresor. As Speaker Music, musician and theorist DeForrest Brown, Jr. transmits a Black militant geopolitical awakening taking place in his home in the Black Belt region of the American South, in which African American descendants of slave class laborers vastly outnumber the white voting population in the 21st century."
World-Making: Imagining a Well Cared for Planet, presentation, Infrastructures of Care, Hekler, Oct. 14, 2021.
What are the common principles, ideas, and visions that we take for granted are shared universally? What motivations other than self-interest and short-term profit can be encouraged, designed into a system, and used to produce better outcomes? In this workshop we will examine processes, principles, and visions for the planetary as an exercise of writing a constitution, in the effort to begin bringing about a legally binding global community that can preserve and protect life, not just of humanity, but of billions of other species with which we share space.
Image: Design Earth, The Planet After Geoengineering
Once Upon a Time in the Far Far West: Sears Mail-Order Homes in the U.S., L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, Sep. 2021.
The Theoretical Construction of African Cinema, Black Camera 12, no. 2, Spring 2021.
In his investigations into the possibility of an African philosophy, V. Y. Mudimbe interrogates the various intellectual movements that have influenced the development of Africanist discourse: Negritude, Sartrean existentialism, missionary writings, ethnophilosophy, anthropological structuralism, and Fanonian neo-Marxist nationalism. A thorough study along the lines which I am proposing for the investigation of ideological currents in African cinema and criticism should, ideally, address all of these influences. For now I intend to make a few generalizations in reviewing some of the recent critical works on African cinema, the publication of which has highlighted the need for a systematic study of the theoretical foundations of the discourse on African cinema.
The contentious operative question underlying Mudimbe's work concerns how African philosophy might be positioned so as to avoid being a priori confined by the Western discourses that were initially introduced into African culture through colonialism, and which originally defined philosophy as a field of knowledge and a disciplinary practice as such. It may be useful to recall how Hegel presented the problem in relation to the African tradition in his Philosophy of History:
The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas the category of Universality.
On the basis of this logic, and by force of the institutions generated in its tradition, it became impossible to conceptualize such a thing as African history except as a sub-category of that of Europe; African thought, insofar as it was acknowledged at all, would necessarily be articulated in terms that extended out of the Enlightenment.
It would be hard to avoid the implication that any African discourse making philosophical claims would have to be inherently a hybrid intellectual product, its very effort to link itself to the philosophical tradition having as a precondition some reconciliation with Western culture. Thus, unsurprisingly, given the political relationship that has obtained between Africa and the West, the question of what "African philosophy" might consist of has been characterized by a struggle to distill the pure, authentic, original, traditional, or indigenous characteristics from what have generally been considered perverse external influences. Mudimbe's historicizations lead us to suspect that, articulated in this form, such an activity may not be very useful, and that the concept of authenticity may itself be implicated in formulations of intellectual originality, cultural appropriation, and mimesis that elide the very historical and cultural specificity which it is supposed to animate:
The fact of the matter is that, up to now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems dependent on a Western epistemological order, and even in the most explicit "Afrocentric" descriptions, models of analysis, explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order. Does this mean that African Weltanschauungen and African traditional systems of thought are unthinkable and cannot be made explicit within the framework of their own rationality?
Licensure on the Line: After years of political attacks, the design professions are uniting to protect against threats to professional licensure, Landscape Architecture Magazine, Sep. 2021.
“Once we show them what we do, they usually back off,” Rob McGinnis says. “We believe that our defense of our licensure in Virginia is important not just to our licensure but to the entire licensure status of all landscape architects, because once you pull that one licensure out, it will be identified by another state—particularly nearby abutting states—as an example.”
Led by right-of-center advocacy organizations and often funded by private interests, state legislatures have increasingly been writing bills to restrict licensing requirements for professions and occupations. With legislative titles such as the “Right to Earn a Living Act” and “Consumer Choice Act,” the laws are put forward under the premise that professional licensing imposes an unfair barrier to entry into certain types of work, infringes on individual freedom, and increases the costs of services to the consumer.
Lawmakers have included landscape architecture in “right-to-work” bills reflexively, without clearly understanding the nature of the practice or its difference from other kinds of landscape work. Conservative and libertarian lobbying groups such as the Institute for Justice, the Goldwater Institute, and Americans for Prosperity—the latter funded by the libertarian Koch brothers, heirs to the commodities-production-and-trading conglomerate Koch Industries—began pushing these laws around 2016; by now, nearly every state has voted on some version of a law rolling back or limiting licensing requirements.
IPAL: A More Equitable Journey to Licensing, Oculus, Summer 2021.
Exhibit Columbus Opened This Week in Indiana, Architectural Record, Aug. 27, 2021.
As part of the third Exhibit Columbus, which opened on Saturday, a vanguard of thought-leading architects has created temporary small-to-medium-scale public installations in Columbus, Indiana to strengthen community connection and reinforce the value of the city’s modern landmarks. The installations are sited adjacent to historically significant buildings and contemplate big questions about sharing the planet with other species, environmental crisis, surveillance, representation, colonialism, and the importance of essential workers. In that way, they gesture toward a broader engagement with the rest of the world and anticipate the role of a small city in the Midwest in envisioning the planet’s future.
The projects include University at Buffalo professor Joyce Hwang’s To Middle Species, With Love, a series of houses for bats and other “non-charismatic species” installed in Mill Race Park, designed in 1993 by Stanley Saitowitz and Michael Van Valkenberg. Chicago-based Future Firm’s Midnight Palace lights up a streetscape outside of the 1971 Sears Building—designed by Cesar Pelli and Norma Merrick Sklarek of Gruen Associates—using an assemblage of light bulbs, conduit, and screens for films paying homage to essential workers and night owls. And Madrid-based Ecosistema Urbano’s Cloudroom is a 50-by-32-foot inflatable sun shelter with word-cloud graphics drawn from the 1992 Declaration at the United Nations Rio Earth Summit, situated on the lawn of Perkins & Will’s 2007 Central Middle School.
The extraordinary architectural legacy of Columbus is well known and widely embraced. As the story goes, in 1942, the First Christian Church of Columbus commissioned Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to build its expanded facility in the modern style. J. Irwin Miller, a descendant of a local department store owner-turned-banker-and-industrialist, had learned about modern design at Yale and convinced the church to build it. By the early 1950s, Miller had ascended to chair of the Cummins engine corporation. He commissioned Eero Saarinen to build his family home, then established a foundation to pay architect’s fees for public buildings that selected modern architects. Later, former Saarinen associate Kevin Roche designed several of Cummins’ headquarters and manufacturing buildings.
Other major figures drawn to Columbus by Miller’s largesse and influence included I.M. Pei (public library, 1969), Robert Venturi (fire station, 1968), James Polshek (mental health center, 1972), and SOM (Republic newspaper headquarters, 1971; Columbus City Hall, 1981). The program continues today, with Iwamoto Scott selected to build the campus of Ivy Tech community college and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol chosen to plan a campus for the city’s three technical colleges. All of this in a town of slightly less than 50,000.
In 2015, the Landmark Columbus Foundation was established to preserve and continue the city’s extraordinary design legacy, with Exhibit Columbus launched the following year as a biennial program activating the city’s modernist monuments through urban interventionist-style installations, symposia, and juried awards to emerging regional and international figures. New Middles, curated by Iker Gil and Mimi Zeiger, takes cues from the Midwest, middle America, middle or mid-size cities, mediation, and in-betweenness as themes. (Each is a two-year cycle, so they took place from 2016–2017, 2018–2019, and 2020–2021.) The exhibition includes a who’s who of the thinking curator’s designers, including Sam Jacobs, Olalekan Jeyifous (recently featured in MoMA’s Black Reconstructions), and Lola Sheppard and Mason White. Several of the architects are based in regional and small-to-medium size cities, among them Derek Hoeferlin (St. Louis), Jei Jeeyea Kim (Indianapolis), Ang Li (Chicago), Natalie Yates (Muncie, Indiana), Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller (El Paso, Texas), and Dream the Combine (Minneapolis).
As a small, ostensibly well-governed city in the middle of the United States, the project’s curators and directors argue, Columbus has a role to play to adapt to large-scale planetary crisis by initiating “small acts of future-making.” With half of the globe seemingly on fire, flooding, or experiencing famine and civil conflict due to the climate emergency, it’s crucial to mediate between the hyper-local interests of places like Columbus and the needs of all.
In small ways, through its ongoing willingness to indulge visitors in sincere, self-critical discussions about colonialism, its community of care for each other, and investment in public places, Columbus could be a model. Of course, we also want there to be well-governed national and globalinstitutions to support the rest of us—not have support contingent on non-profits hustling for corporate donations—and to enforce rule-making to protect human rights and biodiversity everywhere.