Returning Duchamp's Urinal to the Bathroom
RETURNING DUCHAMP'S URINAL
TO THE BATHROOM
A few reflections on our research practice
One of the most important issues underlying our research has been to produce new conceptions and interpretations of the informal. We continue to be seduced with the ‘image’ of the informal, and we are not translating its operative dimension, its actual socio-economic and political procedures. Our research at the San Diego-Tijuana border has focused on the informal as a functional set of urban operations that allow the transgression of imposed political boundaries and top down economic models. The informal as the site from which to produce new interpretations of infrastructure, property and citizenship.
— We need to challenge our reductive and limited ways of working, by which we continue seeing the world as a tabula rasa on which to install the autonomy of architecture… we need to reorient our gaze towards the drama embedded in the reality of the every day and in so doing engage the shifting socio-political and economic domains that have been ungraspable by design. Or as artist Tania Bruguera said to me recently: It is time to restore Duchamp’s urinal back to the bathroom! We are in need of a more functional relationship between research, artistic intervention and the production of the city.
— At this moment when the economic power of the privileged sites of development has temporarily collapsed, it is time to suggest that it is in sites of scarcity – not of abundance – where the new urban paradigms will emerge, to construct new ideas about infrastructure, housing and density.
— At a time when the institutions of urban planning need to be re-defined, one particular topic that needs to be considered is the value of social capital (people’s participation) in urban development, enhancing the role of communities in producing housing. Housing configurations that enable the development and emergence of local economies and new forms of sociability, allowing neighborhoods to generate new markets ‘from the bottom up,’ within the community (i.e., social and economic entrepreneurial efforts that are usually off the radar of conventional top down economic recipes), as well as to promote new models of financing to allow unconventional mixed uses. Also, one pressing challenge in our time, primarily when the paradigm of private property has become unsustainable in conditions of poverty, is the need to re-think existing conditions of property, ownership. Re-defining affordability by amplifying the value of social participation: More than ‘owning’ units, dwellers, in collaboration with community based, non-profit agencies, can also co-own the economic and social infrastructure around them.
— The social capital and cultural economy embedded within these marginal communities and neighborhoods that have been the site of investigation for our practice is never included in the ‘official’ process of urbanization and economic development. Community engagement in the theater of city re-development in the United States is always reduced to a symbolic gesture that transforms social participation into a ‘multiple choice questionnaire’ for community revitalization, a process that is ultimately co-opted by the politics of identity – In what style should we build?. This is how ‘new urbanism’ developers hide the true problems of these communities – namely socio-economic inequalities – behind a multi-colored, fake façade of difference. Furthermore, when for-profit developers come to disenfranchised communities to develop housing, they usually partner with NGO’s only to maximize tax credit points and secure subsidies, resulting in symbolic partnerships that minimize the potential for communities to own their own housing stock. This, in turn, points at the need for a more meaningful interface with local non-profit organizations, to empower them to co-own the resources of development and become the long-term choreographers of social and cultural programming for housing.
— So, at the very base of this potential reorganization of the normative protocols of conventional re-development projects that in recent years have only benefited hyper-privatization is the need to produce counter tactics of economic and cultural development by amplifying the interface with the social and political actors within these migrant neighborhoods. In other words, fundamental to the rethinking of exclusionary political and economic frameworks is the translation of the social entrepreneurial intelligence embedded in those local actors’ every day practices, capturing the hidden value (social and economic) of their informal transactions across bottom up economies and densities.
— We need a critical re-contextualizing of our different approaches and procedures. Ultimately, it does not matter whether contemporary architecture wraps itself with the latest morphogenetic skin, pseudo, neo-classical prop or LEED-certified photovoltaic panels. If all of these approaches continue to camouflage the most pressing problems of urbanization today, without altering the exclusionary policies constructing the socio-economic and political ground of our society, our profession will continue to be subordinated to the visionless environments defined by the bottom-line urbanism of the developer’s spreadsheet and the neo-conservative politics and economics of a hyper-individualistic ownership society. No advances in urban planning can be made without redefining what we mean by infrastructure, density, mixed-use, and affordability. No meaningful advances in housing design can be made without advances in housing policy and economy. As architects, we can be responsible for imagining counter-spatial procedures, political, and economic structures that can produce new modes of sociability and public culture.