What is this course about?

There is a major shift in the architectural culture of the past decade that has paralleled the drifts of global economy: From designing “Big” in the mid-1990s of economic boom, we have arrived at thinking “small” at this time of recession.

Visual manifestos of “small” architectures have proliferated in recent years. MOMA’s Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement (2010), United Nation’s Design with the Other 90% Cities, (2011), Center for Canadian Architecture’s Actions: What You Can Do With the City (2009) and Storefront for Architecture’s Strategies for Public Occupation (2011) featured spatial interventions, marking the mainstreaming of activism in architecture. From “guerrilla,” “tactical,” to “DIY” urbanisms, all celebrate the agency of the individual or small groups to make modest spatial changes without the need for extensive investments or infrastructure. Ironically, such calls are conveniently in line with the emphasis on the neo-liberal subject’s individual agency and capability. DIY-activism is celebrated and emulated within the designer community but tactics are often coopted by governments and corporations as strategies, undermining their effectiveness for change.

Ed Soja (Seeking Spatial Justice, 2011) and others (Fainstein, The Just City, 2010; Marcuse, et al., Searching for the Just City, 2009) are putting forth a challenge for architects to do more than thinking “small” but to contribute to “spatial justice.” Spatial justice links social justice to space. In the past decade or so, earlier pioneering works by Henri Lefebvre (1968) and David Harvey (1973) have been followed by a new generation of theoretical explorations in political science, geography, and planning, leading for instance to the recognition that space is not simply a container of politics or to the reconceptualization of citizenship in relationship not to the nation but to the city, and with an emphasis on its spatial dimension (Holsten and Appadurai, 1996; Isin, 2002). Both justice and injustice can be spatially produced or may become visible in space. Injustice, however, is usually invisible.

Can architects mobilize their environmental design knowledge to make visible the “urban invisibles”? How can new technologies help with collecting spatial data, and what are the effective mechanisms of visualizing and disseminating findings? In the first version of this course, offered in Fall 2012, we focused on mapping following a brief introduction to GIS. In this second and third (final) versions during Fall 2013 and Fall 2014, we focused on (identifying) architectural controversies and (disseminating them through) digital story telling. According to Bruno Latour, before the current era, there was a trickling down of authority from the government to the citizen via experts; now, authority is disputed; citizens are bombarded by multiple and contradictory information.  Using the technology of the web and graphic tools, developing platforms that render complex problems comprehensible, we can allow citizens find solutions that best suit them. Applying Latour’s idea of “technological democracy” to architecture, students in this course were expected to create short digital stories of situated architectural controversies that relate directly to their research/thesis projects.

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