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ADS9: Institutional Forms and Urban Logics – New Subjectives

Beth Hughes and Alison Crawshaw

We envisage the unit as an on-going project based around the study of institutions. This research will be founded upon the question of institutions in relation to the urban, explored through a new lens each year. As our cities continue to grow at unprecedented rates, from fantastical branded enclaves to deregulated sprawl, their relentless proliferation outpaces our capacity to plan them. Institutions are our means to critique and intervene in this condition. In the context of the unfurling forces of planetary urbanisation, we will explore the operation and agency of institutions in relation to the urbe and will test the spatial consequences of this.

Brixton Pound
Brixton Pound
Last year the learning unit Ghost in the Machine grappled with understanding what institutions were and where they came from, exploring ideas of obsolescence and redundancy. Our analysis and reading of the city deliberately identified the traditional link between institutional organisation and architectural edifice, the recent slippage between these two, and the reading of the city through networks of architecture.

This year New Subjectivities will focus on institutions looking forward. Institutions are invented, consolidated and then instrumentalised as a positive or palliative solution to an ideological crisis – a way in which to preserve and propagate a collective ideology. We will explore the role of institutions in the production of new subjectivities emerging out of new movements, conditions and trends. Most critically we will explore the elusive relationship between architectural form and institutional imperative.

The ambition is that all of the collective work of the unit culminates in a publication/exhibition. The blog we currently have running serves as a sort of live draft of the potential content and becomes our collective resource for future students and a wider audience to understand what we have been working on. We also intend to place the study; that is to work, with an institution to test the relevance of our research and speculations.

Japanese Hikikomori, or Young People Who Retreat from Society
Japanese Hikikomori, or Young People Who Retreat from Society, Japanese Hikikomori, or Young People Who Retreat from Society

New Subjectivities

Through the ages, institutions have invented ingenious ways to engender subjectivity. Collective movements gain momentum and gravitas, take institutional form, and shape and shift our shared ideologies. These devices are able to navigate our heterogeneous natures and trace shared vibrations of accepted terms and conditions of society. The deterritoralising flow of liquid capital has created an unprecedented scale of subjectivity. The perpetual shrinking and collapsing of the world, the blurring and redefinition of its borders, brings into question the agency of our institutions. As crisis, revolutions and wars burn the institutions of today to the ground, new institutions rise from the ashes to consolidate and perpetuate new subjectivities. We ask how these institutions will take shape as architectural edifices in the city that engender and support the bio-politic of the urbe. In terms of their ideology, operation and form, how will these emerging institutions assert their relevance and recalibrate the world around them?

Institutions, social machines, construct our civilisation and are the very essence and nature of our being; they are so ubiquitous we do not even register their control. As the digital world expands and contracts, these machines collide in, as Guattari calls it – the wars of subjectivity. These collisions and groundswells, send ripples and reveal cracks, making fertile territory for a new vanguard of institutions that will usurp the old or fill the voids.

In the aftermath of the Second World War we saw the formation of trans-global intergovernmental bodies with their own treaties and laws. This ubiquitous collection of acronyms (WHO, ICC, IPCC, UNESCO) proffered a new idea of institution based on shared and open, democratic discourse. Burdened by bureaucracy to the point of stagnation and redundancy, their excessive scale, scope and size has weighed them down, thwarting progress and change, heavy in the face of new global concerns. Today we call for institutions that are organised around contemporary problems that cut across national boundaries and private concerns and that are unshackled from their own earnest intent. 

Conversely, the emergence of new nation states and secession movements reveals a retreat to national borders and local affairs. The false consistency of the cartography of the globe is redrawn, as cultures demand independence and sovereignty, carving out their autonomy in the world. How can we imagine institutions that can span the vast global divide? How can we celebrate a world of heterodoxy, a veritable array of institutions and social agreements, while simultaneously mediating across state lines?

And what of the great experiment in the dissolution of borders and collective statehood – the Europe Project – buckling in the face of adversity as evidenced by the ‘Greek Crisis’? The rhetoric shift from Troika to the Institutions, did little to appease or conceal the bullying of a small nation. It is the layers of institutions that precipitated this tragedy: the foreign banks that financed the excessive loans, the former government complicit in the deceit and financial excess, the weak and naïve replacement that took on more debt, the false hope of IMF and WMF liquidity and the European Union that forced Greece to swallow it – a veritable implosion of these most exalted institutions. Where is Europe’s solidarity in its darkest moments? The apparent rupture in the ideology, the deficit between good intentions and proactive response, is allowing chaos and disillusionment to fill the institutional void. 

Wikileaks Bunker
Wikileaks Bunker

The tidal shifts of culture and new demographics distort and stretch the social structures that surround us, constantly challenged by the determined campaigns of the articulate and marginalised. Their ambition to find voice and gain rights calls into question our acceptance of established institutions, destabilised by perpetual cultural revolution. The outmoded prohibition of same-sex marriage has finally collapsed, fuelling the polygamy debate and even a demand to marry animals and machines, as one and all argue for institutional recognition of whatever love means to them. While in Japan, harassed by the pressures of contemporary life, the youth denounce marriage and sex altogether. Advances in medicine and bioethics, extend life and fertility and the euthanasia debate rages on. The population ages and priorities shift as generations delay based on the assumption that they can. For those later in life, family and domesticity are possibilities but are not a given.

The sharing economy, typified by Uber and Airbnb, alters our understanding of commerce and exchange and loosens the grip of the neoliberal edict.  From virtual monies such as Bitcoin to one person hours and local bills such as the Brixton Pound, our definition of currency is tested as new mediums are invented that sidestep the monopolies of the central banks. As the precariat confront notions of job security and employment, our divided world, can global-time-banking redress the imbalanced valorisation of labour or do we turn to atonement instead? Faced with unfamiliar concerns and seemingly unlimited choice, the need emerges to remind ourselves of who we are. The hikikomori regress in Japan, executives escape on hallucinogenic retreats of Santo Daime (dai –me/ give me) and the cult of mindfulness sweeps the Western world.

New twenty-first century anxieties open up new terrain for new institutions. Of the infinite movements and groundswells that overlap and contradict each another, some will gain traction, their charisma giving legitimacy to their cause. In the face of fuzzy borders and fluid capital, the contemporary question arises: how do institutions become, operate, control and produce, on a scale that transcends that of the city bio-politics? We ask how institutions function in this context and from where will new ones emerge?

If buildings and the urban shape the spatial world we live in, our institutions define how we exist within that. The space of overlap is architecture, this is where architecture has agency and can effect social change – in the interface between the institutional imperative and everyday enactment. Mirroring the turmoil of the world we see architecture in an equally confused state. Torn between extravagant extroversion and impotence, architecture avoids it's true responsibility: to act as that interface determining how we engage with society and the world. As institutions evolve they find definition in architecture’s form, tangible and substantial in a world of flux. If we accept our changing creeds, the ambiguity of our futures, then what is the role of the institution and the architecture it inhabits? 

These questions are the point of departure for ADS9 and frame the conceptual ‘site’ of intervention. Interpretations on the definition of institution are deliberately wide ranging and form the lens through which to discuss the agency of architecture as a whole.

Taught by Beth Hughes and Alison Crawshaw