May 22, 2016

What is Happening? | In search of missing pieces

The text below could've easily been written for the neoliberalism (aka latent fascism) of present day, especially in Albania. It so clearly articulates a few cloudy sentiments I've been carrying around these past few days. This growing sensitivity has been more of a persistent bad taste in the mouth, one that usually becomes unbearably pungent after scrolling through social media newsfeed and the many (nauseating) reactions it provokes. The more it consumes my time with emptiness and distractions, the more it discourages me about any positive change I'd like to think about or even be a part of. The chances of it happening seem slim and insignificant, at least from my discouraged perspective. It is not self-doubt or pity for the efforts done by many until now, myself included, it is just the cynic announcing herself - optimistically staring at the abyss, the very shallow grave we've dug up. The very same whole (inhabitable cave?) we call future.

We have been made out to be monsters of progress. Whose progress?! As if our insistence for critical thought and public discourse were the real culprit of 'their' failure. Their schemes have set up their own failures. The forces that be. Or maybe they were meant to fail, and all along our criticism has been used as a diversion 'noise', while they've continued to do whatever's necessary 'to progress.' Does that make us accomplices? Naive, yes. Sitting ducks, maybe. But not quite accomplices, or as I'd like to define it piggybacking onto their 'accomplishments'. No, we're not parasites. Our polemic continues to be expelled and displaced, which means there is a (mis)represented distance (Bergson would be all over it) that keeps shifting and changing the paradigm (enough rope, i guess) without knowing towards which direction we're moving (migrating) at which speeds (the significant distance (in time and territory) between exit and escape). Or, as John Coltrane is famous of saying: "I start in the middle.. and go both directions at once."

I guess what I'm trying to say is that no matter the cloudiness and discomfort I feel about the many things that are happening (esp. in Albania) - which in my opinion are eventful only in their chosen documentation methods of (aka aesthetic capture through) PR photography and tagged praises/likes/comments - there is a strong feeling (a ghostly voice/specter) that my critical (thought and effort) is not without value and meaning. It is driven by a willingness (even though cynic at times) and curiosity of wanting to understand and articulate - to make legible why so many (seemingly) well-intended schemes for improvement or 'progress' are stalling or have gone so 'tragically awry'. And more importantly, what part might I and others play to undo it, while unfortunately (maybe not completely) aware that their potential disentanglement might be an act of continued unravelment in and of consequences. 

Lastly, yes, my feelings might have become jaded lately as a result of mixed signals / messages /emoticons sent (or received) from the newsfeed and other online conversations, but the more I read 'experts' talk and write nonsense about the art, architecture, and urbanism in Albania, the more I want to scream: Who are you? What is happening? Where does your expertise come from and do you see/feel/get the reality you live in? I mean come on. Start with common sense and work your way up the chain of thought. I don't mean to be mean, but I have the right to voice my opinion. On what I know. On what I study. On what I teach. I have a right to be critical and question someone's expertise if I feel they don't know what they're talking about. When they have it completely wrong. I am not against them. I could care less about who they are as people, I care about what they tell others that don't understand this expertise. I care when they're ethics are as wishy-washy as the knowledge they claim to impart. How else can anyone be capable enough to critically and constructively participate in the design and use of their own built environment? At the moment, I would trust landscape architects (are they any landscape architects in Albania?), farmers and/or local artisans to have a better grasp of the Albanian build environment social and ecological health and consequences than artists or architects. Until the latter have their act together, and get off the political ride (aka malfeasance). Many are misunderstanding the statement "Everything is political." Think about it. 
As I've said it before about the Albanian State and its politicians: "Edi Rama is as much an artist as Sali Berisha is a doctor." The same goes for many others. Let's call upon all the 'experts' to think about it for a hot second too, while the rest of us is introduced to certain failed schemes below. Happy hunting reading!

Owen: What is happening?
Yolland: I'm not sure. But I’m concerned about my part in it. It’s an eviction of sorts.
Owen: We’re making a six-inch map of the country. Is there something sinister in that?
Yolland: Not in...
Owen: And we’re taking place names that are riddled with confusion and . . .
Yolland: Who’s confused? Are the people confused?
Owen: And we’re standardising those names as accurately and as sen­sitively as we can.
Yolland: Something is being eroded.
Brian Friel, Translations 2.1 (quoted in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

An excerpt from James C. Scott's Introduction of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed:
It is not so difficult, alas, to understand why so many human lives have been destroyed by mobilized violence between ethnic groups, religious sects, or linguistic communities. But it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I aim, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.
I shall argue that the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements. All four are necessary for a full-fledged disaster. The first element is the administrative ordering of nature and society—the transformative state simplifications described above. By themselves, they are the unremarkable tools of modern statecraft; they are as vital to the mainte­nance of our welfare and freedom as they are to the designs of a would-be modern despot. They undergird the concept of citizenship and the provision of social welfare just as they might undergird a policy of rounding up undesirable minorities.
The second element is what I call a high-modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.
High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term "ideology" implies, a faith that borrowed as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. The carriers of high modernism tended to see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rationally organized city, village, or farm was a city that looked regimented and orderly in a geometrical sense. The carriers of high modernism, once their plans miscarried or were thwarted, tended to retreat to what I call miniaturization ; the creation of a more easily controlled micro-order in model cities, model villages, and model farms.
High modernism was about "interests” as well as faith. Its carriers, even when they were capitalist entrepreneurs, required state action to realize their plans. In most cases, they were powerful officials and heads of state. They tended to prefer certain forms of planning and social organization (such as huge dams, centralized communication and transportation hubs, large factories and farms, and grid cities), because these forms fit snugly into a high-modernist view and also answered their political interests as state officials. There was, to put it mildly, an elective affinity between high modernism and the interests of many state officials.
Like any ideology, high modernism had a particular temporal and social context. The feats of national economic mobilization of the belligerents (especially Germany) in World War I seem to mark its high tide. Not surprisingly, its most fertile social soil was to be found among planners, engineers, architects, scientists, and technicians whose skills and status it celebrated as the designers of the new order. High-modernist faith was no respecter of traditional political boundaries; it could be found across the political spectrum from left to right but particularly among those who wanted to use state power to bring about huge, utopian changes in people's work habits, living patterns, moral conduct, and worldview. Nor was this utopian vision dangerous in and of itself. Where it animated plans in liberal parliamentary societies and where the planners therefore had to negotiate with organized citizens, it could spur reform. Only when these first two elements are joined to a third does the combination become potentially lethal. The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.
A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule, with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.
In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.
I have not yet explained, the reader will have noted, why such high-modernist plans, backed by authoritarian power, actually failed. Accounting for their failure is my second purpose here.
­Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functioning social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowance for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well. 

May 6, 2016

Quick Thoughts | In search of missing pieces

Overdesing (bad or good) kills public space. Form(ality) that doesn't take into account the behavior and psyche, instincts, habits, etc. of people - produces 'dead' zones. Skenderbeg square. Piramida steps. University district. Maybe planners and designers in #Albania ought to accept and further  study the growth and sustainability of informal neighborhoods. The intimacy of urban pockets, streetscapes, haphazard neighborhood hangouts, etc. Among other things, they have in common one thing: human scale. Monumentality of formal urban public space ought to not tread lightly on intent/scope. Is it for the people (stressing the public) or its immortality (stressing the monumental). Or we can accept or reject a design's worth (value/meaning) by purely subjective preferences, which would render all this conversation useless. It's like it never happened. All these years, all these proposals, all these public hearings, all these social media statements - they never happened. Uselessness makes things obsolete, most of the time that is - unless one knows what to do with it (recycle it somehow). But, I digress.
For all of you that have asked my opinion on the new 'privately-owned public projects' happening all over Albania, mainly in Tirana though - I say, there is no opinion (at the moment of this rant) because they never happened. I don't mean the project as a shell object, but its shelf-life. There is none because it was conceived as such. No backbone to hold it in place. No fundamentals to build up its complexity, its discourse, its polemic and... all the foundations. What are its consequences then? Well, spatially or humanisticly no more or less than the rest already built. The consequences to worry about right now are economic (with all that this entails). But just as the physical object, its financials are a shell, of a shell, of a shell, of a shell.... found along the beautiful sands in a remote island.  So, yes, this never happened. I wish these random thoughts could self destruct after reading too, but they will probably remain here, empty, until the next round of these discussions. They will be forgotten after being read by each one of you though, so in a way, they'll be destroyed over and over. An overkill for each overly-designed project and public conversation I guess.