Beyond the Nostalgia of Political Spatial Practice

By Markus Miessen:

“In the face of permanent crisis, both the Left and the Right have celebrated participation as the saviour from all-evil, an unquestioned form of soft politics. But can we employ the idea of crisis to question our deepest assumptions? Should we rethink our values and devise new principles for action?”


Spatial planning is often considered as the management of spatial conflicts. The city – and, indeed, the progressive institution – exist as social and spatial conflict zones, renegotiating their limits through constant transformation. To deal with conflicts, critical decision-making must evolve. Such decision-making is often presupposed as a process whose ultimate goal is that of consensus. Opposing the politics of consensus, critical spatial practice shall foster micro-political participation in the production of space and ask the question of how one can contribute to alien fields of knowledge, professions or discourses from the point of view of “space”. Like the original meaning of the Latin word conflictus (fight), spatial conflicts represents a clash of interests in using space. Spatial planning is often considered as the management of spatial conflicts. But who should do what, when and how? The future spatial practitioner could arguably be understood as an outsider who – instead of trying to set up or sustain common denominators of consensus – enters existing situations or projects by deliberately instigating conflicts between often-delineated fields of knowledge.

To enquire the role of the architect and the role of the contemporary institution, existing models of participation may be in need of revision, both in terms of the culture of consensus and the ethos of compromise. We may detect a need for actors operating from outside existing networks of expertise, leaving behind circles of common proficiency attempting to overlap with other post- disciplinary realities. Instead of aiming for synchronization, such model could be based on participation through critical distance and the conscious implementation of zones of conflict. Within such zones, one could imagine the dismantling of existing situations for the benefit of being able to strategically isolate components that could be (mis)used to stir friction. Such practice would help to understand the effects of political, economic, and social design-components on space. Using the architect’s expertise of mapping out fields of conflict, we may generate an archipelago of questions that seek to uncover the relevance of spatial and architectural expertise and how, in the remit of institutions, they can generate an alternative knowledge production.

Rather than delivering a recipe, we may lay out a field of potential departures that might allow us to understand what and how an architect can contribute to the questions at hand, tracing some of the above elements in order to create a selective and operational view. What makes an architect’s approach to investigating a situation different from the default approaches of other fields of knowledge? What is the value of an Uninvited Outsider, a Crossbench Practitioner that is juxtaposed to a classical, market-driven consultancy methodology? Why the hell talk to architects in the first place?

Let us try to read the phenomenon of participation through a chain of variable spectacles, depending on the respective and diversified angles of observation. In regard to political science, the core relevant arguments of Chantal Mouffe and Antonio Gramsci may be put in the context of and into conflict with the UK’s New Labour model or indeed the even more consensus driven Dutch Polder model. Within the larger remit of late twentieth century philosophy, the writings of Jacques Rancière and Edward Said could be examined, most specifically Representations of the Intellectual. Concerning spatial practices, the practice of soft thinking in architecture could be read through Keller Easterling or Eyal Weizman. We can draw from texts by Marius Babias and Dieter Lesage to open up the field of critical discourse within contemporary artistic practices as well as thoughts about the notion of collaboration by Florian Schneider. German politician Joschka Fischer’s biography may hijacked in order to produce a case study to illustrate the intricacies of Gramsci’s slow march through the institutions.

Let us hope that this imaginary methodology will constitute evidence for the question at hand. The resulting material may constitute neither an historic survey nor a report from the front lines of activism, but – at best – a self-generated concoction of diversified support-structures to demystify romanticized participatory practices: a confined voice that allows us to differentiate the existing discourse further while stimulating an already heated debate. In fact, this may not even be a methodology but a nightmare; a nightmare with a productive end. It may neither be approved by academics nor possibly will it be read by commuters on the train. It will probably not enter the canon of history or be available in a public library. And precisely there may lay the transition-point of opportunity: to produce a condition of politics by considering things before they exist – to speculate with force.

The perhaps autocratic model of participation that I will put up for discussion should not be understood as a blueprint for practice, but a model of departure. It may start to create the necessary friction in order to both stir debate and move forward practice. If there was only a single objective of this experiment, it may be to develop a common understanding and starting point as to where we can start to disagree from: a theory of how to participate – without squinting at constituencies or voters, but instigating critical debate and – at best – change. There may be two arguments here, one polemical and the other conceptually constructive, both stirred by pragmatic optimism. At times, developed through concrete situations and projects, which Simon Critchley would call “situated universality”.

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Lecture – Marcus Miessen: The Nightmare of Participation (2011):





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