The (im)possibility of cultural engagement

Bert Gellynck

29/11/2005, ArchiNed

The contemporary city is a succession of disparate enclaves, commercial centres and amusement parks. The public character of the public domain is deteriorating rapidly. The city as a place of emancipation and democratisation no longer exists…. A bleak urban scenario? Nostalgic whimpering from the wings? Or can a new revolutionary project for the post-ideological city be distilled from this perspective?

BAVO, the Jan van Eyck Academy, and the Academy of Fine Arts Maastricht organised a series of three lectures, as part of Super! 1st Triennale for Fine Arts, Fashion and Design, about the city as a platform for cultural engagement. BAVO, a collective that deals with architecture theory, claims that the cultural entrepreneur in the age of ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama) is cunningly blackmailed. Artists, theorists, and critics are expected to analyse social problems critically. But if they become too enthusiastic in devising alternatives that unbalance the established order, then the whistle is quickly blown and they are requested to help improve the existing structure of society, the seemingly inseparable tandem of democracy and capitalism. The underlying question in these debates is whether it is possible to avoid this blackmail trap. Is it really necessary that every critical engagement is immediately registered in perfecting of the existing order?

For the second debate on October 14 entitled ‘Cultural entrepreneurship: architecture and engagement’, BAVO invited a group of architects and critics that have defined their own particular position of engaging with public space in the post-ideological city. Architect and publicist Wim Cuyvers stresses that public space must be a realm of confrontation, a space of necessity, of Being (Heidegger), of ‘not having’. It’s a foregone conclusion, believes Cuyvers, that it’s impossible to make a public space within the prevailing political culture that espouses mediocrity. After all, public space is where all sorts of outcasts gather, and they are precisely the people so vehemently excluded from new urban districts. The only way out of this deadlock is to ‘be public’, to let your body dissolve in the public arena.

In response to the theories put forward by Cuyvers, architect Jasper Jägers (UCX Architects) claimed that public space can still be created. And to prove it he cited his RedlightPlatform, the much-discussed entry to the competition ‘Queens of the night’ in Rotterdam. After all, just like any other programme (prostitution on the street, behind glass, and in clubs), it can be quantified and organised, and the public space can be integrated perfectly inside the building. According to Jägers, we should deal with illegality in a positive and enthusiastic manner. The design for the RedlightPlatform is an extrapolation of the requirements of the brief and invites criticism.

Unlike Cuyvers and Jägers, architecture theorist Roemer van Toorn (Berlage Institute) didn’t take sides immediately but watched how the discussion developed. He divided the peloton of engaged cultural entrepreneurs into two camps: the critics (those who criticise society), and post-critics (those who hold a mirror up to society without passing judgement). While the main objective of the first group would seem to be to oppose how society functions, the second group declares itself an accessory and fully embraces the subject with an alternative proposal.

BAVO didn’t limit its role to that of neutral moderator. Matthias Pauwels began by sharply condemning the social and political illiteracy of many young designers. In contrast to Van Toorn he doesn’t believe that post-criticism offers a useful way out. The engaged designer has to act in a pedagogical way and make society more aware of its own image. To back up his point he cited the urban performance by Austrian media activist Cristoph Schlingensief, who in 2000 placed a number of containers in front of Vienna’s opera house and staged a Big Brother event for asylum seekers. This was his way of provoking the Austrian people on issues such as migration and globalisation.

In the discussion that followed, the various positions were tested within the context of current planning topics in the town of Maastricht. Because, noted moderator Gideon Boie provocatively, Maastricht is one of those typical cities still standing at the end of history, a city that determines its own tempo, where every private desire is acknowledged, where a reasonable and creative solution can be found for every problem: shoppers in the Entre Deux shopping arcade, art lovers in Céramique cultural centre, gays in the car parks along the A76 motorway, and drugs tourists on their very own Weed Boulevard? The discussion opened with a concrete question: ‘How would you deal with the design of the Weed Boulevard?’

Roemer Van Toorn dodged the question by predicting the positions of his discussion partners on the subject and placing them in the two categories he’d advanced earlier. In Wim Cuyvers he recognised a critic, while in Jasper Jägers he saw an ambassador of post-criticism. And he (Van Toorn) didn’t conceal his preference for the latter. Whether or not the UCX project for the RedlightPlatform really works as an adequate mirror and alternative was not addressed, unfortunately. Not availing of this opportunity to explain his views on prostitution in the public realm, Jasper Jägers limited himself to the official version of the UCX concept text for the project.

Wim Cuyvers returned to the issue of the Weed Boulevard and argued that this can in no way be interpreted as public space. When the ruling economic authorities speak of public space, its always in terms of solutions. The fact that drugs users are given their own zone in the city only proves that they are tolerated by the ruling political class. Those really deemed to be undesirable outcasts, heroin addicts, will also be shunned here.

Matthias Pauwels shared Cuyvers’s pessimistic vision but differed on one crucial point. To him it’s no reason to adopt a passive attitude like that reflected in Cuyvers’s strategy of ‘being public’. Quite the contrary, citing the work of Schlingensief, Pauwels argued that architects, as experts in spatial (in)justice, should draw attention to the fate of the undesirables in the global city by means of an activist way of working.

Categories: Architecture

Type: Article