Recognizing Hungers That Are Already There: A Conversation with Designer Mitch McEwen

by    /  January 12, 2017  / No comments

The Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) hosts architect Mario Gooden.

LW: To some extent then I think it’s critical for architects to be aware and to be there in the room as these issues are discussed, so we can start to reframe some of these questions which could be crucial to the way we change practice for the better. This directly pertains to places like Pittsburgh and Detroit. In his 1993 project called “Erasing Detroit,” architect Dan Hoffman mapped all the areas of razed housing stock in the City, noting that, “Unbuilding (had) surpassed building as the City’s major architectural activity.” For architects, a building is the customary answer to most problems. The bias of the profession is always to add, and the usual repertoire of demolition is to replace. The other day, you spoke of the importance of incoherence, fragmentation, working with brokenness, and also how creative performance and subtraction play into your architecture practice. So, how does your work hope to deviate, disengage or disrupt the prototypical protocols of architecture and expand the notion of what it means to build today?

MM: We are always engaging new ideas of what it means to build. That’s what we do. Architectural theorist and writer Keller Easterling writes wonderfully and extensively about this in her book Subtraction. The point that Keller Easterling makes is that architects are highly trained in demolition and subtraction, we just don’t talk about it. The first thing we do on site plans is erase everything, and we don’t talk about that as an act of design. One of her ideas was that we could actually be more effective if we acknowledge that architects are trained in and actually use subtraction as a strategy that can explicate itself.

Detroit is not like any other place, but at the same time, it is like every other place. With this issue of subtraction, Detroit is demolishing itself, but every city is demolishing itself. The difference being that Detroit is not constructing itself at the same time. So, you see this active demolition through the City, whereas you do not have the same legibility in other cities.

We have had historic preservation as a discipline for about 50 years, and still it hasn’t caught up to poverty as an effective method of preservation.

Nothing preserves buildings like poverty.

If you don’t have the money to demolish or rebuild then it maintains the structure. You are missing the resources of maintenance, and that is another kind of subsidy from the poor to everybody else. The poor are the ones who have been subsidizing historic preservation.

LW: At your lecture yesterday, you mentioned that autonomy in architecture is something you like to call “white boy surrealism.” In dialogue with art and another—reaching out to other disciplines—A(n) Office seems to distinctly reject autonomy in architecture. How are you engaging autonomy in other disciplines?

MM: We have a way of talking about autonomy within architecture as being about drawings investigating their own rulesets, distinct from structural rationalism—of course Peter Eisenman is the predominant figure around this, and I worked for Bernard Tschumi Architects, whose early, transgressive work in architecture was influenced by the neo-avant-garde artists of the 1970s. Autonomy here means no relationship to society. I’m especially critical of how this becomes a white elitist form of producing a discipline. The discipline is already social. It simply doesn’t want to critique how it’s social, and autonomy is used as a scapegoat out of that.

When I was talking about autonomy in relationship with Robin Coste Lewis’ poetry, I wasn’t able to fully unpack all of the beautiful relationships she works with—around rulesets and legibility of operations—in the 15 minutes I was given to discuss. I’m extremely invested in this work, and I enjoy working with computer parametrics as a means of designing and producing architecture. This engagement with autonomy in poetry is such productive territory for me and my work in relationship to autonomy in architecture. Much of this work goes back to Modernism, and the question of how we are working on Modernism. This is not necessarily concerning the constant discussion in the field regarding form, what I’m talking about are the critical dimensions of Modernism.

LW: How can we then see Parametricism as attempting to extend the work of Modernism and the global architectural adoption of the International Style? Reliant on set algorithms and parameters that generate and mutate designs, Parametricism has been touted as another “style” infamously by Patrik Schumacher, who is presently being directly rebuked by much of the architectural community for his recent comments regarding social housing and privatization of public space. How has Parametricism extended the masculine aesthetics of Modernism—ideas of rationalism, control, paternalistic social aims?

MM: In regards to Patrik Schumacher, there’s something there that has happened before. This happened with Organicism and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s Broadacre City had an idea of Organicism that was tied to a federal utopia project. Patrik Schumacher is far worse than Frank Lloyd Wright, though he has an idea of an architectural style that is ultimately Organicism. Patrik Schumacher happens to use parametrics to achieve it, but it comes back to the same principle. It is a preoccupation with form that is steering a whole political economy. However, it’s not solely Broadacre City as it was with Frank Lloyd Wright, rather it is the whole planet. It is a neoliberal agenda. The idea of Parametricism—as he arranges it and turns it into an -ism—is that if we all agree on a formal strategy first and foremost—with the technical aspects coming afterwards—and how it aligns with a neoliberal agenda, then we can participate in globalization in a way that does not conflict with speculative capital and is working towards privatization. The question is who wants to sign up for that? Obviously, the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

LW: This is ultimately nothing new. How can a Black lesbian feminist subjectivity and sexuality be introduced and investigated through these architectural -isms? You suggested during the discussion the other day that you like to consider Blackness as a software, as a protocol. How are you investigating Black female subjectivity through parametric tools?

MM: In a field that was only meant for white men, to be working on Black subjectivity is not even a project, rather it is just not participating in the hegemonic project which is to ignore Black subjectivity. That’s not my project. To acknowledge that Black people exist in American cities, that’s not a project. That’s just me not participating in a bizarre, white supremacist project of erasure. That’s just what everybody should be doing.

LW: Having worked in architecture firms, we do witness the many potential clients coming into the office and proposing expensive kitchen renovations. So there’s this very apparent question and answer of who you work for. We as architects tend to work in exclusive ivory tower offices behind walls and closed doors, rather than in spaces where the client-service relationship could be made more apparent, situated in more public space. What would you recommend to young architects who are dissatisfied and looking to circumnavigate the at times mind-numbing, oppressive forces of the architecture profession and engage with social justice and an expanded notion of the architect as a creative spatial practitioner? Everyone seems to gravitate towards grad school, whether that promises connectivity to experimental practices or the backing of an institution. How about art and architecture residencies?

MM: I appreciate the individuals who are working on social justice, but I don’t talk so much about social justice so much in my work. I’m working on developing new clients. I’m working on reparations not so much because it’s idealist, but because in a very real way, my practice is still emerging. When we get our reparations, I want to be there as one of the architects at the table. There are going to be very big projects: a lot of infrastructure, a lot of housing, a lot of design work.

I would encourage us not to be shy about things like money and clients. Foundations in Detroit are supporting non-profits in the arts, and it’s been pivotal for me to be around artists. I spent a lot of my time in New York being around artists, and it’s a wonderful model for how you feed yourself and have a roof over your head. At least within the New York art world, artists manage to be very successful and fancy. They demand to be paid a good amount of money and are still working on very radical ideas. They are still re-imagining the status quo in this part of the world. So, for me, it’s been helpful to be around not architects but artists. It’s okay to demand that you have a hotel room while you work on something, and it’s okay to expect to be paid and compensated for your work, at the same time that you are developing and working with resistance.

Nietzsche was one of the first Western philosophers who recognized the significance of power and the ways in which philosophy was implicated in serving that power. So, of course, the techniques that we learn are coming from some place. They are coming from serving speculative capital, but it doesn’t mean that they have to stay in that context. I like to read Nietzsche with Foucault. There is going to be resistance somewhere, and it’s going to happen. It doesn’t mean that if you are gathering techniques within a context and within an institution, that you can’t do this work. There’s going to be resistance, so be ready and have the skills to work with and for that resistance. It’s key to be strategic.

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