Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Agenda: Mediating Platform

Here you go. The inroduction to hunch 10, an entire issue dedicated to "theorizing the practice of mediation". Sorry for the length, take ur time to read it. Enjoy!

by Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Dean of Berlage Institute
from hunch 10

Architects are famously unable to communicate, or even to explain themselves. We are, of course, not talking here of architecture as a mere service profession but as an activity that, beyond providing refuge from nature to human life and activity and organizing space, can also stage and structure social protocols, articulate tge public and the private domains, and represent institutions and power structures. The stereotype of the architect described in the media, but also subliminally promoted in schools, is a myopic, authoritarian and arrogant character, driven by a burning desire to implement his visions and obsessions. To become a relevant architect one has to nurture a certain dose of megalomania, look down on reality, and walk around in a state of permanent dissatisfaction. Architects are by default unequipped to listen to the public.

The reality for most of the profession has been much less ideal, and the amount of architecture that is allowed to be “critical” is actually very small. Most of the time, the roles of the architect is to implement the instructions of people with sufficient power to transform physical space to better suit their purpose. Developers, politicians and regulatory bodies hold real power to decide on the built environment, and practicing architects are mere accomplices on their ventures.

As the power to modify the built environment has become increasingly affordable and available to an increasing number of social agents, architects have become enablers rather than visionaries, subject to the decisions of others. In the developed and democratic world, construction, once an expensive and sophisticated technology, is now available to an ever-growing population of agents, and this has radically altered the traditional relationships between the commissioner and the architect. On the one hand, the architect has been removed from responsibilities that have been transferred to regulations or supervisory bodies. These bodies ensure that the deployment of construction technologies do not detract from the public good. And this does not stop at ensuring structural integrity, accessibility and environmental performance, but also the preservation of cultural heritage, and even the assessment of the “beauty” or “quality” of the architectural product.

Due to the progressive transfer of the public project initiatives to the private sector within most political and economic regimes, the capacity to implement architectural policies has been charged to market agents operating effectively within the existing legal frame but generally devoid of an architectural agenda. This mode of production has effectively removed the capacity of implementing architectural agendas both from the architects and the commissioners. The productive relationship between Michelangelo and Lorenzo de Medici, Nehru and Corbusier, or Niemeyer and Kubicek is now reduced to very small portions of the market as the construction of the environment is decided generally by faceless corporations and implemented by faceless consultants in a neural, risk-averse and heavily regulated legal frame.

However, as democratic governance, technological advances and market forces increasingly erase the possibility of a true architectural program, both from the architects and their commissioners, the opportunities to direct the built environment are re-emerging in a growing intermediate domain to which we are dedicating this issue of hunch. The rise of a new population of agents that we have called mediators is the phenomenon we have set out to elucidate here.

Mediators operate within the democratization of the decision-making processes in the built environment. As construction technology becomes affordable for increasing numbers of agents and sectors of the population, governmental bodies are forced to exponentially regulate construction activities, and also become interested in utilizing building for political goals. Within the pervasive democratic system, brokering the deals between political powers and the construction industry has reached increasing levels of complexity that require specialists to interface with a growing number of stakeholders in the process. Since architects have proved to be totally dysfunctional in playing this role, a new breed of operators has emerged in the industry as a specific and effective practice- a new domain where far-reaching effects can be achieved.

It is common for commissions today to include a composite of clients, often mixed public-private organizations, with no clear architectural program but full of architectural expectation. The mounting demand for change in contemporary cities has substantially reduced the strategic capacity of those empowered with commissioning capacity- be it elected politicians or the company CEO- and rendered architectural utopias as inadequate vehicles for effective transformation.

What is relevant about mediators is that, in the best cases, they cannot afford to be entirely subservient to either a status quo usually represented by the client, or to the utopian drive, usually represented by the architect. They must move between both. Mediators need to develop a certain program and count on stable architects- often involuntary creators of the mediator’s vision- capable tot implement it. At the same time, the mediator’s program needs to be understandable to those empowered to make decisions, and is therefore contaminated, bastardized, street-wise and definitely anti-utopian.

Mediators fill the missing link between an ever-growing architectural public and clientele and the architects’ hermetic collective. Mediators are often architects themselves, but have developed specialized listening skills, their antennae enabling them to interpret the needs of individuals, organizations, or entire populations, and to translate needs into guidelines for architects.
They often perform as matchmakers between a particular client or problem and a particular architect. Mediators help the public understand what architects can offer, how crucial architecture is and how it should be done. They operate as opinion-makers through a variety of means and media, and often with a greater influence than both politicians and architects. If mediators are well-informed, their opinion is hardly neutral. Their role requires them to be passionate about architecture and to often act as collectors of architects they coach and promote. Mediators have stables of architects they deploy when necessary or push forward in competitions. It’s usually better to have a mediator in charge than a bunch of bureaucrats going by the book with absolute neutrality and without an architectural program.

The mediators phenomenon has a global reach. And like other global processes, it too has evolved local varieties contingent on local cultures. The European climate has perhaps proven to be the most favorable site for the evolution of this species, probably owing to the strength of the public sector, an entrenched urban tradition, and possibly a historically enlightened public. European mediators are often grown from ranks of critics, journalists and academics. A proof of the remaining importance of ideology and public-ness in the European city is one of the most fertile milieus for mediators has been architectural magazines and cultural institutes. One could distinguish Jean-Louis Cohen during his period as a director of the IFA, Jose Luis Mateo as a director of Quaderns, Vittorio Magnano Lampugnani at the helm of Domus, Hans van Dijk in Archis or Ricky Burdett at the Architectural Foundation as characters who were able to develop a particular take on architecture and, in certain cases, assembles a consistent group of architects they coaches and promoted throughout their magazines, their roles as jurors and advisors to public administrations, and other commissioning bodies. Others have also emerged from the broadsheets, such as Luis Fernandez-Galiano and Dejan Sudjic, at El Pais and The Observer respectively, where they have been instrumental in creating broader public awareness and promoting certain approaches to architecture. In Europe, a slightly different breed of mediators, more directly engaged with governmental power, has emerged from public service. The cases of Jose Antonio Acebilio in Barcelona, Hans Stimmann in Berlin or Maarten Schmitt in Groningen are examples of non-elected technocrats who have succeed to implement incredibly ambitious programs of urban regeneration, previously reserved only for elected politicians or developers, and, most importantly, loaded with the strongest kind of architectural ideology rather than with neutral technocratic strategies.

In the US
, while the climate has been generally less fertile, there are a few figures who have managed to steer meager public fund into architecture and eventually hit it off with a major patron. In America, mediators are generally less public than in Europe, as the public dimension of architecture is still less developed and the intellectual and public debates are often disconnected from city governance and the construction industry. Mediation across these areas is a difficult task. Developers have lost their appetite for the visions that Portman or Hines had had in the past and are generally skeptical about architecture. Consequently, mediators in America are restricted to articulate the exchanges between public institutions with architectural ambitions and practices of a critical edge, operating more often as lobbies than as orchestrators. Their public profile is much less prominent than that of their European counterparts.

One of the first American mediators is obviously Phyllis Lambert, where, for biographical reasons, the client and the ideologue coincide in the same person. Phyllis Lambert started her career literally as a client in the construction of the Seagram Building and evolved into a philanthropist and institution-builder with the creation of the Canadian Center for Architecture. American mediators cannot afford to sustain an ideological stance like their European counterparts and usually ground their operation in a cultural or academic institution or in the press, as professional debate is very detached from the local construction industry decision-making processes.

The most powerful mediators in the US are by far those connected to the media, and the only mass media in America with an interest in architecture seems to be The New York Times. Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp have been important forces in lobbying for certain architects and certain commissions, but still much less effective than their European counterparts at producing political effects, possibly due to the lack of ideological consistency in their critique.

On a different order of influence, the most fertile ground for American mediators have been the curators of a few institutions. The Museum of Modern Art, The Wexner Center, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have been probably the most effective promoters of architectural public debate in the US, producing debate in the US, producing local mediators with an ideological program, but still very disengaged from the real powers that shape American cities.

Asia is currently the area where the disengagement between public architectural culture and the built environment is more acute, and where public awareness and debate on the city and architecture is less present. This is due to a strong local tradition that identifies the arhictect with the builder rather than considering architecture a theoretical discipline. In Asia, mediation happens through the materiality of the construction and generally the only agents entitled to discuss architecture publicly, and to advise politicians or industry captains, are those few well-recognized architects that, after establishing themselves as successful technicians, have been allowed to develop an attitude to confront politicians with wider issues.

While I must admit that, except for Japan and Korea, my knowledge of the ground is limited and I may be mussing important data, I am certain that the most advanced place in terms of mediation is Japan.
During the years of the “bubble economy,” a local specimen, locale called “producer” emerged generally from the private publishing or curatorial sectors. Producers were basically charged to administer excess. While everyday practical problems were solved efficiently by what is probably the most sophisticated construction industry in the world, progressive clients called in the “producers” to generate a controlled disruption in the hope of yielding innovation. Japanese mediators were not articulating relationship between political power, the public and construction programs, like in Europe, nor between institutional power and the professional debate like in the US. The most important skill of Japanese mediators was to communicate with outsider, rather than addressing the subject of the local built environment. Many “experimental” projects were given to foreign architects, as they were usually unaware of the sophistication of the systems developed by local contactors, and had a higher capacity to ignore local conventions. Mediators usually the only ones in the industry able to communicate with them, and to defend their work from the clients themselves by creating an area of impunity around the projects they managed. Shozo Baba, the former director of Schinkenchiku, and Fran Kitagawa, from the Art Front Gallery, are probably the best example of this breed in Japan. After the bubble economy, the “producers” seem to have lost ground as the public interest in architecture through public projects has paradoxically led to their demise, as experimentation is now driven by small and enlightened private owners with enough knowledge to give small projects to experimental architects but not enough cash or interest to pay for mediation.

Despite the growing importance and scale of the practice, architecture’s mediators have not yet been recognized as specific agents in the building industry. Nobody has offered them a tribune upon which to explain their opinions, programs, ambitions, and tribulations as a collective. This publication, primarily based on the lecture series with the same title held at The Berlage Institute in Rotterdam during Spring 2004/2005, is a first attempt to theorize this practice of mediation.


The role of mediator is definitely not a safety net to fall back on. Instead I see the act of mediation in line with re:Act's philosophy of advocating architecture for the "public good". I hope re:Act can gradually develop into a mediating platform for SouthEast Asia, actively promoting architecture through inter-disciplinary collaboration, governmental and public engagenment, debate and education (Xchange, Xecute, Xplore). This is exaclty why re:Act was set up in the beginning.

In any case, the platform cannot be neutral. Architecture for humanity cannot be the main agenda, for it is the ethical basis upon which the discipline is founded, preceding the existence of the discipline. The question is HOW can we do it.