Ines Weizman is trained as an architect and since 2013 she has taught at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar where she is professor of architectural theory and director of the Bauhaus-Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur und der Planung. In 2014 she edited the book “Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence” (Routledge). Her articles have appeared in books, magazines and journals including AA Files, Architecture & Culture, ADD METAPHYSICS, ARCH+, BEYOND, Displayer, Harvard Design Magazine, JAE, Perspecta, Volume, Exhibiting Architecture, The Sage Handbook of Architectural Theory (Sage, 2012), StadtHeimaten (Jovis, 2012), Agency (Routledge, 2009), Urban Transformation (Ruby Press, 2008), Dictionary of War (Merve Verlag, 2008). In 2013 she curated (with Jurga Daubaraitė and Jonas Žukauskas) Architecture Fund lecture series “Dissidence Through Architecture” in Vilnius.
Eray Çayli: You convened the “Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence” conference in London in November 2012, which led to the publication of an edited volume under the same title in 2014. You also co-curated the lecture series “Dissidence through Architecture” in 2013 in Vilnius. But the subject indicated in the title of each of these events was one which you had already been working on for some years. Could you talk about the process behind these events and the book?
Ines Weizman: The research started in about 2000 with the observation that historians of so-called socialist era architecture focused either on the architecture of the immediate post-war period up until 1953, or on the architecture of 1960s. While the architecture of the Stalinist period could be described as fundamentally different to the “Western” style architecture, the 1960s fascinated historians for its similarities between the East and the West. However, the architecture that followed these periods in the 1970s and 1980s, whose typology has been dubbed “slab houses,” was dismissed as monotonous, ahistorical, boring, and not worthy of any form of research. It also became subject to physical assaults, in the form of the large-scale demolition of the buildings of that era. In my earlier research, I had looked at this historiographically neglected period in the context of East Germany,1 and noticed that the 1980s witnessed a very interesting form of dissidence—back then I did not talk about a “paradox.” My interest was in trying to read dissidence as a spectrum of possibilities for action that provided certain opportunities to think and act differently, in opposition to a regime. Thinking about this “spectrum” is not to provide a single definition for dissidence but to really read it as a field of possible creative gestures that mediate and act between politics and architecture. That is what the 1970s’ and 80s’ protagonists I had looked into were doing. They inserted certain values into their practical works and daily life, which were characterized by a courage to refuse and say “I’m not doing this!” or to draw certain plans in such a way to deliberately frustrate the authorities. These architects explored the possibilities of practice challenging the conventions and limits of both architecture and the dominant socio-political paradigm. And my interest in the concept of dissidence started when I noticed these ways of operating critically from within.
You begin your introduction to the book by referring to the ways in which other scholars have discussed dissidence.2 Among the references is Rancière, for whom “dissensus” means disagreement between different senses and the task of political work is to set the stage or scene where these different “senses” can be heard while also defining the particular way in which each of these senses will be heard.3 As you say, this idea of “setting the stage” immediately resonates with the architectural imagination. Now, something that I am curious about but remains somewhat latent in the book concerns the role of research and that of the researcher vis-à-vis this act of “setting the stage.” The majority of the contributions in the book are not about architecture in the strict sense of the word (i.e. projects, commissions, practical work). The first few chapters discuss architectural practices from the past, and except for these there is only one practitioner whose work is discussed—in fact, the only contemporary case presented in the book—Senan Abdelqader whom you interviewed together with Eyal Weizman, and this interview very tellingly does not belong in any of the book’s four sections.4 Therefore, much of the book is actually anticipating or setting the stage for future dissidence. Was this a deliberate editorial choice?
When I received the abstracts for the conference, I was surprised about how easy it was to find positions of architectural dissidence. Some were historical, some contemporary, but I would insist that they were all about practicing architects. They ‘struggled’ in various forms and in various political and cultural contexts, both in the former communist context, in Latin America and in the West. They were protagonists whose work had been either forgotten, or the courage of their gestures (that often had to be disguised at the time) was difficult to acknowledge or to decipher. For Senan Abdelqader, a practicing architect and urbanist in Palestine, it was even difficult to present his work as it meant for him to reveal a complex carefully constructed strategic field of actors and participants that engage in (dominantly Israeli) planning procedures. His own position in fighting for Palestinian interests through the framework of Israeli planning is heavily contested on both sides of the conflict. The interview format seemed appropriate to keep a rigid portrayal of the architect as a dissident, activist or perhaps even an accomplice flexible, and open for interpretation. A very important chapter was devoted to the role of education and the possibilities of an academic environment to take a critical stance to practices of architecture. Lastly, the chapter that presented more activist forms of architectural work that offered their expertise and courage to contest almost impossible scenarios of spatial reconstructions, such as the tracing of the path of an immigrants’ boat in the Mediterranean Sea, or the architectural critique of negotiation processes of climate summits and their political effects.
It’s possible to see this also in Anna-Maria Meister’s chapter where she discusses the Ulm School of Design, which was active between 1953 and 1968.5 This was a certain, institutional form of dissidence but ceased to exist just at the very year when the expression of political dissent had taken Europe by storm. The case indicates that there tends to be a sort of self-destructivism in dissident practices. So does Adrian Lahoud’s chapter: “the paradox of dissidence is that its success is secured by the annihilation of itself.”6 Is this something that might characterize dissidence, or at least distinguish it from the cases of architectural activism to which you referred earlier? Could we then say that the reason we don’t see contemporary practices of architecture in the strict sense in this book might have something to do with the difference between dissidence and activism?
Activism is always result oriented. The activist has clear aims, is ready to act and explicitly opposes the regime. On the other hand, the dissident practices within a longer-term perspective, accepting to some degree even potential complicities, in order to allow for a basic continuity of life and thought, while at the same time being reflective and alert about these complicities. As such dissidence is a radical practice, less an action. It lacks perhaps the overt gestures of attack in favour of strategies of subversion and resistance of a political regime. As the work with and against the regime has to be conducted in this long-term preparation, the dissident is formed through self-discipline, courage and a high degree of flexibility to work and adapt under changing conditions of time, space and subject matter. For dissidents was not only to critique the state, but also to generate a viable space for political change.
Many architects are actually against the idea of being called dissidents, as you write in your introduction to the book. Such a refusal, which also came up during the lecture series in Vilnius, marks some of the contributions in the edited volume, for instance, Simon and Haba’s article on the Hungarian architect Zalotay, who was involved in radical social housing projects in the late 1950s and early 1960s.7 His being called dissident ultimately served as something of a disempowering stigma, implying that what he produced was never viable anyway; it was unrealistic, over-utopian and destined to remain “paper architecture.”
That’s also how Stalin used the term “paper architects” as a derogative expression, to indicate uselessness. That’s why those who we call “paper architects” wouldn’t have liked that term because that’s how Stalin used to call the Constructivists. One also needs to take into account the fact that there are practitioners who are still alive and looking for commissions—who might hesitate to be named dissidents to not jeopardize their chances of getting new work. As such it’s not the most helpful title for a practitioner. But for me it was also important to take this term out of the communist context. If these people were dissidents insofar as they identified with the struggles against political oppression during the Soviet era then this sort of practice continues even beyond the collapse of the wall. Of course, those people back then might not have identified themselves as dissidents, but this does not mean that we should refrain from conceptualizing their practices and to acknowledge the courage and influence of their way of thinking and acting beyond its immediate historical context.
In fact, “context” is one of the themes I’d like to further discuss with you, also in the light of your practical work in Ordos, China. You were invited to co-design one of the 100 villas curated by Ai Weiwei and you chose to “copy” the house Adolf Loos had designed in 1928 for Josephine Baker (on whom the architect had a crush). This house was never built, and the copyright on its design expired in 2008—75 years after Loos’ death. You decided to use the opportunity of this project in China, not only to reveal the histories hidden behind Loos’ unrealized project but also to raise a set of questions at the interface of gender relations, intellectual property, cultures of the copy, different forms of capitalism, China’s reputation as an epicenter of copy architecture, and so on.8 To return to the book, Teresa Stoppani’s chapter about Antigone is also very much about the importance of context in dissidence.9 In burying her brother, Antigone’s act is technically not rebellious at all. If anything it’s a very conservative practice, something to which every citizen is supposed to be entitled to by convention. But, again, it’s the particular context in which she carries out that act that makes it an act of dissidence. In Ana María León’s chapter on the 1970s’ Brazilian architect Vilanova Artigas, the architect at first glance seems a dissident-turned-conservative-nationalist sort of figure, but he has his own mission in mind: to fight imperialism.10 If I were to read into what the Palestinian architect Senan Abdelqader says in your interview with him—as regards his expressing a certain hesitation about coming to London to present his work of helping villagers resist top-down masterplanning by the Israeli authorities—he seems to imply that to talk in London about his work is a bit of a strange idea for him, perhaps because he’s afraid that speaking in this kind of context will ruin his engagement with the context in which his practice is actually useful.11
His sensitivity is a very beautiful and representative gesture. Put yourself in his shoes: he has the very difficult position of both being involved in Israeli masterplanning but still trying to work out a good deal for Palestinian residents in the neighbourhood—of trying to play between the two sides but knowing that speaking about it might collapse the whole agreement. That’s probably something that an activist would just not bring up and not have the patience for. The idea of being in a different cultural context is also a call for responsibility.
Ordos was a challenge for me. I wanted to participate in this project of 100 young architects, and yet I was essentially against the whole masterplanning and the way foreign architects were commissioned to design for a settlement in the Gobi desert. I wanted to be part of it, as I did not like that anybody else takes my place.
It’s something of an Antigone move.
I never thought of it that way. You know how an idea comes, as an idea, and sometimes you have to deal with your idea. It’s not always perfectly safe. Obviously China is, according to what I see or hear from friends working there, associated with an incredible enthusiasm for architects: “You’re free to do things you cannot do anywhere else!” That kind of “freedom” of creativity and expression was very suspicious for me. I wanted instead to investigate and figure out what it is actually that we are doing—and especially if we are doing it in a place that we’re likely to never set foot in again. What that project did at the end was to return the outsider’s gaze back onto our own condition, and to use that commission in China to help reveal problems in our own cultural context.
Finally, I would like to talk about a stigma that’s often cast upon dissident practices, regarding how they tend to lack a certain linear trajectory and/or hierarchical organization. Yet, this is perhaps the very strength of dissident practices—as Nabil Ahmed also states in his contribution to the book through Derrida’s concept of pharmakon, which he speaks of as “a dissident political concept that refuses to part with the paradoxical,” one that perpetuates the paradox or the question.12 I’m wondering—and this question has come up frequently in the past few years in relation to the various protests across the world that use urban space to voice dissent, from Cairo and New York to Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro—whether there is indeed absolutely no way of imagining ways of systematically organizing dissidence or we could think of new forms of institutionalizing such practices.
That’s what we see in the example of the Ulm School of Design. Dissidence evades all possible forms of institutionalization. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. You cannot establish a party program that calls for dissidence, and so you cannot run a school with an essentially dissident pedagogy. It does not work! Dissidence has very much to do with awareness that you’re always already complicit in the existing paradigm, always already inscribed into a state system and ideology—in Althusser’s terms, the ideological state apparatus.13 Obviously there are still ways of undermining certain aspects of daily life, of your practice, of your commissions, to bring in irony, self-reflection, a ceaseless questioning. You practice in order to ask questions, to raise difficult questions, because they don’t come on their own, they come as you practice. The purpose of dissidence is not to create a new form of institutionalization or organization that is against those that exist, but to further look at and listen to what you draw on as an architect, who you involve in and through your work, and the meaning of your actions.
1. See, for example, Ines Weizman, Mobilizing Dissent. The possible architecture of the governed, in: Crysler, Greig, Stephen Cairns, and Hilde Heynen (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory. Sage Publications Ltd, 2012, pp.107-120, Re-searching (for) the public. Other means of design in former East German cities, in Urban Transformation (eds. Ilka & Andreas Ruby), Ruby Press, Berlin, 2008, pp. 156-163.
2. Ines Weizman, ‘Introduction: architecture and the paradox of dissidence’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, ed. Ines Weizman, London and New York: Routledge, 2014, pp. 1-15.
3. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics’, in ed. P. Bowman, Reading Rancière: Critical Dissensus. London: Continuum, 2011, pp. 1-17.
4. Ines and Eyal Weizman, ‘Interview with Senan Abdelqader’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, pp. 103-113.
5. Anna-Maria Meister, ‘Radical remoteness: the HfG Ulm as institution of dissidence’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, pp. 89-102.
6. Adrian Lahoud, ‘The third degree: interrogating the scale of climate conflict’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, pp. 206-218: 207.
7. Mariann Simon and Péter Haba, ‘A difficult person for socialism: Elemér Zalotay and his strip building’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, pp. 45-58.
8. For more on this project, see Ines Weizman, ‘Architecture and Copyright: Loos, Law, and the Culture of the Copy’, 101st ACSA Annual Meeting Proceedings: New Constellations, New Ecologies, 2013, pp. 829-835.
9. Teresa Stoppani, ‘Antigone’s dissident dustings: coatings, revolutions and the circularity of dust’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, pp. 117-127.
10. Ana María León, ‘Designing dissent: Vilanova Artigas and the São Paulo School of Architecture’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, pp. 74-88.
11. Ines and Eyal Weizman, ‘Interview with Senan Abdelqader’.
12. Nabil Ahmed, ‘Earthly poison: arsenic in the Bengal delta’, Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, pp. 194-205.
13. See for example the chapter entitled “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation)” in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, pp. 127-86.