At the start of the twenty-first century, notions of society on a social, economic, and cultural level are undergoing massive changes. The need for collectivity has increased, as has the pressing need to create a sustainable world. Faith in capitalism and the pursuit of profit have been in decline for some time. Trust in politicians and large organizations like insurance companies and financial institutions have decreased dramatically. This, in turn, has made room for a range of collective, sustainable, and social processes that architects incorporate into their design practice. In The Netherlands, for example, this encompasses the foundation of collective energy companies, schemes to combine temporary collective housing with the reclamation of polluted soil, or crowdfunding of highway bridges. In repressive or corrupt societies (like Turkey and Bulgaria), architects are very vocal and strongly involved in the protest movement. Meanwhile, relatively quiet societies like Scotland or Norway see the emergence of architects as spokespeople for community living, transparency, sustainability, and equality in social projects. In Southern Europe, countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Slovenia struggle for mere financial survival. Here, too, architects are supporting communities and realizing temporary projects, often combined with artistic schemes. But no matter the country or governmental structure: In each of these cases, it is architects who try to bridge the gap between (bankrupt, receding, corrupt, searching, uncertain) governments and their citizens.

A10 asks:
What (else) could architecture do to influence or improve the relationship between a government and its citizens?

Magnus Nilsson answers:
Projects in the political realm are usually affected and characterized by three interlocking themes:

  • friction as a productive engine for shaping and establishing a consensus;
  • political discourse as a frictional forum;
  • physicality and the importance of tangible space that allows political processes to unfold.

Some architects and authors seem to have become suspicious of consensus and participatory models. According to such critics, consensus only generates a complacent culture of fake agreement. They, however, fail to recognize that consensus is never absolute or ideal. It is by default relative and relational. Participation is likewise never entirely smooth and straightforward, but convoluted and tainted by various degrees of ideological friction. It is this very friction, or indeed the inherent imperfection of consensus, that drives the productive engine of any participatory model.

Playing off these underlying ideological frictions, political discourse is deliberately frictional. On this obstacle-heavy stage, participants continuously need to renegotiate their physical and ideological positions. The frictional forum aims for proactive participation, supporting highly diversified engagement. Such multi-faceted participation drives an active consensus-building process, bringing all participants and ideological positions closer together through deliberate friction.

Your average government considers citizen involvement something that is detached and impersonal; something best tackled via web pages and leaflets. And while such abstract, intangible communications have a valid purpose, they do not constitute real dialogue. Actual and sustainable participation, especially in an era of increasing dematerialization, can only be achieved and upheld through tangible processes and a genuine two-way exchange. Ideally, any personal and communal identification with the political process thus takes place in the physical realm.

One of our recent projects, the Pop-up Parliament, explores this premise by moving some of the political process into local communities in the guise of a tangible physical space. Designed to serve as a frictional forum, it seeks to encourage citizens, politicians, and civil servants to meet and exchange ideas, thus anchoring the political process in the community. This negotiation-based process generates a stronger, entangled, and reciprocal relation between citizens and the political realm. The physical nature of the Pop-up Parliament allows residents to once again identify and engage with the political process and the community as a whole.

To this end, the Pop-up Parliament provides the blueprint for a frictional forum that places different uses and programs side-by-side on a single “stage”: town hall, skate park, theater, living room, music studios … Participation in the Pop-up Parliament is deliberately not meant to be smooth and expedient, but convoluted by design: It is something that needs to be navigated and negotiated. Attendees are continuously required to actively negotiate their physical and ideological positions, acting out their underlying ideological frictions, to arrive at a productive consensus: the very basis for any political process to unfold.

All photos, incl. the header image, by Nilsson Pflugfelder