Reality Check

Triennales ask the darnedest questions. While brainstorming ideas for the call for entries for next year’s Oslo Triennale I fell down a rabbit-hole of disciplinary self-loathing. As of yesterday, after the third false start, I have abandoned trying to enter this competition. It happened like this.

First, the backgrounder: The theme of the 2016 Oslo Triennale is “After Belonging”. It asks entrants to respond to various ways our sense of belonging - how we belong, what we belong to, and what belongs to us - is changing as we humans are more and more in a state of transit, physically, psychologically, and virtually. 

The design portion of the call for entries gives five sites for interventions, and four of those sites are either implicitly or explicitly implicated in the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe. The sites are: A refugee asylum center in a suburb of Oslo; a mid-century modern housing project that is now mostly occupied by migrants and refugees in a suburb of Stockholm; a town on the Norwegian/Russian border in the Barents zone where Syrian and Afghan refugees have discovered a back door into Europe; and the zone of transfer - the border zone, so to speak- at the Oslo international airport. The fifth site (the one not implicated - for now - in Europe’s refugee crisis) is a hypothetical typical Air BnB apartment.

So, given that a major crisis is unfolding that impacts each of these sites how the hell does one propose an architectural intervention that is relevant? With facts on the ground changing daily - Paris terror; a real possibility of losing Schengen - many ideas that might seem worthy in 2015 might very well be moot, or just silly, in 2016. 

My latest -aborted- concept accepts the that the situation at the moment is beyond architecture, and that in order for design thinking to have a place in approaching quickly-evolving problems you need to go extra-disciplinary. I came up with an idea involving more of an event than a material solution, and made a list of people I knew whose work or life experiences give them far more direct access to the problems and people I was proposing to address. Then I started getting in touch. 

And…was stopped short by the first person I reached out to.  

This first contact was a journalist friend of a friend who had an extended, horrific, life-changing experience in Syria from which it is a miracle he returned alive. I won’t name him because he is rather famous and would probably not wish to be implicated in this. I sent him a draft of my concept - admittedly written as if I was proposing it to a bunch of architecture PhDs (read: obtuse and jargon laden). He answered quickly:   

My feeling is that you wouldn’t want to oblige—or even ask—any refugee from anywhere to [do this thing I was proposing]. I spent this morning pulling refugees from ocean here on island of Lesbos. The people are not exactly in the mood for [doing this thing I was proposing]. They need a million things. [This thing I was proposing] is not one of them. By giving them [this thing I was proposing], I think you’d look foolish.”

He closed by giving a less-than gentle jab at my architect-prose:  “Also, the “extra-disciplinary provocation”—I don’t know what that is but it doesn’t sound like anything I would wanna be involved in.”

Now, in all honesty, what I was proposing, was - in the larger ecology of speculative architectural proposals out there in the world -  actually fairly humble. Something in the spirit of this, except involving bicycles and a bit of a trip. I am not revealing it here because (a): I’m still too embarrassed, and (b): in the back of my mind, wherein lies my ego, I still think it is not a completely bad idea - given another population. Nonetheless, this experience led me think about the longstanding disconnect between architects and the world as lived. Here I was, caught in my own competing ambitions. On the one hand I wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on a tiny snippet of the refugee crisis, but that would also scratch the creative itch in such a way that would bring praise and notoriety from my field. In reaching out to someone outside of architecture, who has no knowledge of its direction and discourses, I was reminded of how we architects often appear to the rest of the world: out of touch and self-absorbed. 

This smarts. In part because in architecture there is an over-played schism between the social actors and the formal actors. It is the latest version of form vs. function, wherein the formalists criticize the trend in architecture to overvalue design for social change, and the formalists are criticized for folding architecture into itself and focusing only on novelty, parametricism, and affect. The formalist criticism of the social actors is run to ground perfectly in the situation I found myself facing with the Oslo Triennale: give it up, man, you have to step out of architecture to truly accomplish anything social. 

I don’t want to believe this, but time is up and I’ve run out of runway to launch a plane full of happy solutions to the worlds problems. Bon voyage to all my colleagues who will thread this needle to varying degrees of success; I can’t wait to see what awaits in Oslo.

The four situations entrants in the Oslo Trienalle will have to either embrace or politely step around: 

   Bicycle-born refugees in Kirkenes, Norway.

 Bicycle-born refugees in Kirkenes, Norway.

  Growing migrant and “Nativist” stress in Sweden.

Growing migrant and “Nativist” stress in Sweden.

   Overwhelmed asylum centers.

 Overwhelmed asylum centers.

  Over-burdened “Have and Have Not” (in this case - a passport), architectures of the Oslo International Airport.

Over-burdened “Have and Have Not” (in this case - a passport), architectures of the Oslo International Airport.