THE SUBVERSIVE POTENTIAL OF ARCHITECTURE

TYPE: ACADEMIC

DATE: MAY 2014

PARTICIPATION: INDIVIDUAL WORK

ROLE: ETHNOGRAPHER AND DESIGNER

CONTACT: CLARE MELHUISHSAMIR PANDYA & SHAHED SALEEM

GRADE: DISTINCTION

This project, consisting of a 3500 word essay and “creative proposal”, was produced for a module entitled, ‘Representations of Diaspora, Cultural Identity and Difference’, part of my Master in Architecture (History and Theory). Led by a combined team of architects and anthropologists, this studio sought to better understand the nature of contemporary communities. Those no longer defined by simple ethnic or geographical boundaries but instead by a range of complex characteristics (know as “super diversity”), many of which are often enigmatic and inconsistent. Acting as an ethnographer, I was asked to select and study one such community, using “disruptive and non-conventional research methods”in order to understand their cultural identity and relationship with built space and form. I was then asked to formulate a “creative proposal” (of an unspecified format) that demonstrated the intellectual value of this knowledge for use within architecture and design.

At this point in time, I was very interested in the embodiment (and resistance) of power in architecture and therefore decided to select a community whose very existence (and identity) depended upon their subversive relationship with architecture; one whereby the nature of their “occupation”, in an “aikido-like” manoeuvre, avoided and redirected the symbolic and materialised power of society. This was the “squatting community.” And after many weeks spent at its fringes, I was finally granted access to a collective occupying (at the time of this research) a vacant sports centre in Camden, North London. Drawing from my rich and dynamic relationship with this community over the course of several weeks, I was able to generate, within a rigorous theoretical framework, a sensitive and self-conscious knowledge of their identity, cultural practices and use of space. Articulated within this, were a number of those “complex” and “inconsistent” characteristics, said to define such communities, including: a curious tension between the clear pragmatism of many of the group’s cultural practices (required, in some cases, to safeguard their tentative lifestyle) and the professed ideological motivations behind them; as well as a sharp contradistinction between the post industrial conditions of their formation (as per NSM theory) and the seemingly pre-industrial character of their society and interaction.

In forming my understanding of the community’s subversive relationship with architecture, I made an unanticipated connection between the unorthodoxy of the group’s cultural practices and the distinct nature of space that they occupied. Identifying, what I considered to be a third, previously unforeseen instance of subversion, the subversion of space. The community, occupying a space unrelated to the circumstance of their occupation (a domestic program), was able to subvert the inherent determinism of conventional domestic space on the nature of their domestic lifestyle. Resulting in a range of idiosyncratic practices, such as large cohabiting groups, eclectic performances and community “workshops”. This observation led me to speculate on the extent to which a reciprocal relationship (or “violence”, a la Bernard Tschumi) between a space and program, conditions the events that occur there. Something that I felt became particularly sensitive in respect of the home. A place considered, despite its hegemonic process of production - the speculative design of space around predetermined activities of its occupants, repeated on mass with little variation - to be one of relative autonomy and innocence. Yet, in reality, it is perhaps the greatest factor influencing the homogeneity and uniformity of domestic lifestyles.

In response to this, I created a series of activist themed flyers (my “creative proposal”), calling for the illegal occupation of non-domestic space across London, in order to subvert the conditions of homogenisation and explore, instead, the potential of contemporary domestic lifestyles. Each of these flyers incorporated a provocative photomontage, contrasting long-standing domestic scenes with unrelated spaces, in order to accentuate the determinism of conventional domestic space on the nature of domestic practices.